Micro Gas Turbines in the Aerospace Industry

Hello and welcome to the next entry in our series on micro gas turbines! If you’re new to this series, be sure to check out our earlier blog where we: introduce the concept of the micro gas turbine; look into the history of it; and discuss some advantages and disadvantages that come with this technology.

This time, we’ll be looking at micro gas turbines in the Aviation industry (if you couldn’t guess by the title). Believe it or not, the concept and configuration of a micro gas turbine has been present in this industry for decades. We’ll get into that in a minute.

Gas turbines are certainly no stranger to the aviation industry. As a matter of fact, when many of us hear the term “gas turbine” we immediately jump to the image of a jet engine powering a massive airliner carrying us to our next adventure.

Engine of airplane
The Mighty Turbofan Engine; Brought about with thanks to Sir Frank Whittle!

Yes, these mighty turbines are indeed a staple in the aerospace industry.  But did you know that micro gas turbines are also making a rise in this industry?

Although micro gas turbines first made an appearance as an alternative to traditional piston engines in the automotive industry, they have actually been present in the aviation industry for some time.

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The Life of Frank Whittle and His Massive Contribution to Turbomachinery

While we at SoftInWay are known for helpful articles about designing various machines and answering questions about the pros and cons of retrofitting your turbomachinery and powerplants, we believe it is important to also examine the lives of some of the men and women behind these great machines that do so much for the world.

Frank Whittle - Image Courtesy of The Telegraph
Frank Whittle – Image Courtesy of The Telegraph

The jet engine is one of the greatest inventions of the last 100 years. It has made transcontinental travel considerably shorter. A trip that might take days on a piston driven aircraft was cut down to hours thanks to the inception of the jet engine. To this day, millions of people rely on jet engines daily for everything from themselves for vacation travel to their packages for shipping goods overnight. These engines also give the U.S. military the ability to deploy to any part of the world within 18 hours.

But who invented the jet engine? This credit changes depending on who you ask.  Some might answer t was Hans von Ohain.  To- others, this credit belongs to Sir Frank Whittle, OM, KBE, CB, FRS, FRAeS, RAF.

Why the discrepancy? von Ohain is known for creating the world’s first operational jet engine, and Whittle is credited with developing the turbojet earlier. While von Ohain’s first engine was the first to fly operationally in 1939, Sir Frank Whittle had been working on his design since the 1920’s. Today, we’d like to look at the life of Sir Frank Whittle, and how he created this world-changing machine. Read More

Series on Micro Gas Turbines And How They Can Make the World Greener

If you’re familiar with turbomachinery, then you probably know the pivotal role they play in our lives. If you’re not, no biggie! Have a look at this blog where I discuss a world without turbomachinery. But where do microturbines fit in? I can’t speak for anyone else, but my mind immediately jumps to turbochargers in small-displacement car engines. There is, however, a whole slew of information, history, and applications for microturbines beyond being a component in your car.

The best place to start, is to establish just what a microturbine is and isn’t. Granted the prefix in the word is a dead giveaway, but just how small is a micro gas turbine?  In terms of power output, a micro gas turbine puts out between 25 and 500 kW. The size of these machines varies; some systems can be the size of a refrigerator, while others can fit on your desk. For reference, some of these machines are smaller than your average corgi!

Micro Gas Turbine and Corgi
Figure 1: A micro gas turbine with a pencil for scale (left) and your average corgi (right). Not very aerodynamic, but awfully cute. Source

In terms of components, microturbines typically consist of a compressor, combustor, turbine, alternator, generator, and in most machines, a recuperator. While incorporating a recuperator into a microturbine system comes with its own set of challenges, the benefits are often well worth it as efficiency when recuperated hovers around 25-30% (with a waste heat recovery/cogeneration system, efficiency levels can reach up to 85% though).

Figure 3: A commercial airliner's turbofan engine the common image that is conjured when one thinks of turbines in transportation
Figure 3: A commercial airliner’s turbofan engine; the common image that is conjured when one thinks of turbines in transportation.
History

When and how did the concept of micro gas turbines come about? After the advent of the jet engine in World War II and the prominence of turbochargers being used on piston-driven propeller planes during the war, companies started to see where else gas turbine technology could be utilized. Starting in the 1950’s automotive companies attempted to offer scaled down gas turbines for use in personal cars, and you can read our blog covering that more in-depth here. You can probably guess by the number of gas turbine-powered cars on the road today, that it wasn’t very successful.

Fast forward to the 1970s, companies started to take an interest in micro turbines for stationary power generation on a small, portable scale. Allison developed microturbine-powered generators for the military that showed substantially lower fuel consumption in initial testing. In the 80’s, GRI supported the AES program where they attempted to develop a 50kW turbine for aviation applications, using a heat recovery system to improve efficiency through a cogeneration system. More recently, companies like Capstone have worked with GRI on new projects to introduce microturbines to different industries where they could be useful, using the latest advancements in technology to ensure higher efficiencies and reliability of designs past. To discuss the current state of affairs for microturbines however, it might be good to list some of their present advantages and drawbacks, and then explore where in the world they could be most useful.

Micro Turbine Compressor
Figure 4: A micro turbine compressor model.

 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Microturbines

As with just about any other type of technology, microturbines have their own set of advantages and disadvantages as a result of their design that are seen in their different applications.

Advantages: 

  • – Lower emissions
  • – Lower noise level than comparable reciprocating engines
  • – Fewer moving parts with results in less maintenance needs
  • – Lower vibration levels
  • – Ligherweight, compact systems
  • – Diverse fuel selection (jet fuel, kerosene, diesel, natural gas)

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Disadvantages:

  • – Very low efficiency without recuperator/waste heat recovery system
  • – High work requires high speeds (30-120 krpm) for small diameters
  • – Poor throttle response
  • – Expensive materials required for manufacturing
  • – More sensitive to adverse operating conditions

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A Micro Gas Turbine
Figure 5: A Microturbine
Potential Transportation Industry Applications

There are a number of different industries which microturbines can be found both in and outside of the transportation. Throughout the upcoming months, we’ll be taking a closer look at:

  • – The Aviation Industry
  • – The Automotive Industry
  • – The Marine Industry
  • – The Rail Industry

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Each of these industries has at least one application where micro gas turbine technology has the potential to conserve fuel and lower emissions without compromising power. In the next entry, we’ll look at the current state of the aerospace industry and where/how micro gas turbines can improve upon existing technology.

If you want to learn more about designing a micro gas turbine, or about the tools our engineers and thousands of others around the world rely on for their turbomachinery designs, reach out to us at info@softinway.com

Oxygen Life Support Systems in a Spacecraft

Introduction

Looking into the very near future, tourists traveling into space no longer seems like some fantastic science fiction. The Blue Origin and the Mojave Aerospace Ventures companies are ready to operate their respective manned suborbital spacecrafts in the coming year[1]. While, The Boeing Company and the SpaceX are finishing the certification of their crewed spacecrafts to deliver people at the Low Earth Orbit. This is only the tip of the iceberg in the great competition.

The next ambitious goal of the space industry is to create space hotels (see Figure 1). For example, NASA already has announced opening the ISS for tourists. These objects are long term human habitations and as such have specific requirements for oxygen life support systems (OLSS). If these requirements are not met, people can die. Small variations in the chemical composition of a mixture of the gases all influenced by, pressure, temperature, a humidity and etc.[2]  can have disastrous effects. The work of some of these partial system can be analyzed and optimized using AxSTREAM NET™.

Figure 1 - The art image of the Aurora Space Hotel
Figure 1 – Art Image of the Aurora Space Hotel[3]
Types of life support system of a spacecrafts

The type and complexity of OLSS depends on the duration of the tourists staying in the artificial environment. For example, let’s consider the oxygen life support systems. A hypothetical manned spacecraft has an internal volume 15 m3 (530 ft3) and can carry six space tourists. The amount of the oxygen for the metabolism of one person is 0.830 kg/day[4] (Figure 2). The atmosphere should consists of 19.5 to 23.5 % of an oxygen[5]. Also, the amount of the reserve oxygen should be 0.035 kg (0.077 pounds) per human/hour. If our six space tourists start their journey with the environment gas in the craft at 23.5 % of the oxygen , it will take 3.5 hours to reach critical level. It’s enough time for a suborbital flight, and the oxygen life support system would only be needed as a reserve source. Read More

Thermal Management in Aerospace Electric Propulsion Systems

The growing interest towards electric propulsion system for various applications in aerospace industry is driven first by the ambitious carbon emissions and external noise reduction targets. An electric propulsion (EP) system not only helps reduce the carbon emissions and external noise, but also helps reduce operating cost, fuel consumption and increases safety levels, performance and efficiency of the overall propulsion system. However, the introduction of electric propulsion system leads engineers to account for certain key challenges such as electric energy storage capabilities, electric system weight, heat generated by the electric components, safety, and reliability, etc. The available electric power capacity on board may be one of the major limitations of EP, when compared with a conventional propulsion system. This may be the reason electric propulsion is not the default propulsion system. Now, let’s consider how electric propulsion is used in the aerospace industry. Following the hybridization or complete electrification strategy of the electric drive pursued on terrestrial vehicles, the aerospace industry is giving great attention to the application of electrical technology and power electronics for aircrafts.

Figure 1 Aircraft Electric Propulsion Architectures
Figure 1. Aircraft Electric Propulsion Architectures. SOURCE: [1]
Electric Propulsion in aircrafts may be able to reduce carbon emissions, but only if new technologies attain the specific power, weight, and reliability required for a successful flight. Six different aircraft electric propulsion architectures are shown in Figure 1, above, one is all-electric, three are hybrid electric, and two are turbo-electric.  These architectures, rely on different electric technologies (batteries, motors, generators, etc.).

Read More

An Introduction to Thermal Management in Electric Propulsion Systems

Reduction in CO2 emissions is driving the development of different electric, turbo-electric and hybrid electric propulsion systems for various applications and industries including space, aviation, automotive and marine. Electric propulsion (EP) is not a new concept, having been studied in parallel with chemical propulsion for many years. EP is a generic name encompassing all the ways of accelerating a propellant using electric power by different possible electric and/or magnetic means. The simplest way to achieve electric propulsion is to replace the heat generated by combustion in conventional chemical engines with electrical heating.

Electric propulsion systems offer several advantages compared to other conventional propulsion systems. It not only helps reduce the environmental emissions but also helps reduce fuel consumption and increases safety levels. Electric propulsion has become a cost effective and sound engineering solutions for many applications. Electric propulsion engines are also more efficient than others. It is proven to be one of the most energy saving technologies as we can use more renewable sources of energy (due to the versatility of electricity generation) instead of non-renewable sources of energy like gasoline. The major limitation of electric propulsion, when compared with conventional propulsion is limited by the available electric power capacity on board, this may be the reason, it is not the default propulsion system.

Electric Propulsion Architectures
Figure 1. Electric Propulsion Architectures. SOURCE: [4]
Generally, electric propulsion architectures vary depending on the application. Figure 1, above, shows the EP architectures for an aviation application. These architectures rely on different electric technologies (batteries, motors, generators, and so on). Typical aircrafts use gas turbine engines as the source of propulsion power, but all electric aircraft systems use batteries as the only source of propulsion power as shown in Figure 1 on the right. The hybrid systems use gas turbine engines for propulsion and to charge batteries which also provide energy for propulsion and accessories during one or more phases of flight as shown in Figure 1 on the left. Read More

Gas Turbine Lubrication Systems

Gas turbines have had a presence in many industries for more than a century. They are a unique technology for either producing an energy or propelling a vehicle and the efficiency of modern gas turbines is being improved continuously. One of them, a cooling system, has been described in earlier blogs. Another is the lubrication system of a gas turbine which we will cover in this blog. This  system, similar to that of a piston engine or a steam turbine, provides lubrication to decrease mechanical losses and prevent of wear on friction surfaces. Another function is the removal of heat released during friction by high rotational part and transmitted from the hot part of a turbine.  The basic units which need lubrication are the bearings supporting a shaft of a gas turbine 2.

Modern Dual Journal
Figure 1. The construction of modern dual journal4
Elements for lubrication

In a common case, gas turbine installation contains three main journal bearings used to support the gas turbine rotor 3. Additionally, thrust bearings are also maintained at the rotor-to-stator axial position 4. Click here for additional information about optimization of journal bearings. The bearing has important elements in its construction to prevent leakages from a lubrication system. The work, design and analysis of labyrinth seals is describe here.

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Preventing Choke and Surge in a Compressor

Turbo Compressors are used to increase the pressure of a gas, which are required in propulsion systems like a gas turbine, as well as many production processes in the energy sectors, and various other important industries such as the oil and gas, chemical industries, and many more.

Such compressors are highly specific to the working fluid used (gas) and the specific operating conditions of the processes for which they are designed. This makes them very expensive. Thus, such turbo compressors should be designed and operate with high level of care and accuracy to avoid any failure and to extract the best performance possible from the machine.

Axial Compressor and Centrifugal Compressor in AxSTREAM
Figure 1 (A) Axial Compressor (B) Centrifugal Compressor in AxSTREAM®

Turbo Compressor Characteristic Curves

The characteristic curves of any turbo compressor define the operating zone for the compressor at different speed lines and is limited by the two phenomenon called choke and surge. These two opposing constraints can be seen in Figure 2.

Choke conditions occurs when a compressor operates at the maximum mass flow rate. Maximum flow happens as the Mach number reaches to unity at some part of the compressor, i.e. as it reaches sonic velocity, the flow is said to be choked. In other words, the maximum volume flow rate in compressor passage is limited by limited size of the throat region.  Generally, this calculation is important for applications where high molecular weight fluids are involved in the compression process.

Surge is the characteristic behavior of a turbo compressor at low flow rate conditions where a complete breakdown of steady flow occurs. Due to a surge, the outlet pressure of the compressor is reduced drastically, and results in flow reversal from discharge to suction. It is an undesirable phenomenon that can create high vibrations, damage the rotor bearings, rotor seals, compressor driver and affect the entire cycle operation.

Compressor Performance Curve
Figure 2 Compressor Performance Curve

Preventing Choke and Surge Conditions

Both choke conditions and surge conditions are undesirable for optimal operation of a turbo compressor.  Each condition must be considered during design to ensure these conditions are prevented. Read More

The Role of Turbomachinery in Modern Hypersonic Cycles

In the coming age of hypersonics, a variety of engine types and cycles are being innovated and worked on. Yet turbomachinery remains unique in its ability to use a single airbreathing engine cycle to carry an aircraft from static conditions to high speeds. One of the largest limitations of turbomachinery at hypersonic speeds (Mach 5+) is the stagnation temperature, or the amount of heat in the air as it is brought to a standstill. While material improvements for turbomachinery are made over time which increases the effective range of temperatures steadily (Figure 1), this steady rate means that the ability of these materials to allow use at stagnation temperatures of more than 1600K remains unlikely any time soon.

Figure 1 Material Improvements Over Time
Figure 1 Material Improvements Over Time

This is the limiting point for traditional turbojet cycles, as Mach 5+ speeds result in temperatures far exceeding these limitations, even for the compressor. However, improvements in cryogenic storage of liquid hydrogen has allowed the concept of precooling, using the extremely low liquid temperature of hydrogen to cool the air enough to push this Mach number range, as well as improve compressor efficiency. To drive the turbine, the exhaust gas and combustion chamber can used, heating the hydrogen and reducing the nozzle temperature for given combustion properties. This has the added effect of separating the turbine inlet temperature from the combustion temperature, reducing limitations on combustion temperatures.  This type of cycle can reduce the inlet temperatures underneath material limits. Read More

Turbomachinery and Rockets – a Historical/Technical Evolution

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Introduction

Quite surprisingly, rockets in their primal form were invented before turbomachinery, even though turbines and pumps are both present in modern launcher engines. However, it is interesting to note that  both can be traced to the same ancestor. In this post we will discuss some of the history and technical evolution of rockets and turbomachinery – and this all starts with an old pigeon.

Figure 1. Steam Turbine and Rocket

Rockets

Circa 400BCE, a Greek philosopher and mathematician named Archytas designed a pigeon-like shape made out of wood that was suspended with wires and propelled along these guides using steam demonstrating the action-reaction principle long before Newton formalized it as a rule in Physics. As we know today, the faster and the more steam escapes the pigeon, the faster it goes. Turn this 90 degrees to have the bird face upward, and you have a very basic rocket concept. However, rockets are a lot more complex than this, and do not typically use steam (except in the case of liquid hydrogen + liquid oxygen propellants) as the propelling fluid.  Read More