Turbo-compressor Technologies for Aviation Fuel Cell Systems: Operational Requirements and Development Trends

Introduction

Fuel cells are an important driver in the current energy system landscape with significant impact on the technology base and economic growth. Global fuel cell system shipments saw a 10% increase in 2020, totaling 1.3GW. The transport sector continues to lead with a growth of 25% on the number of units shipped globally.

The recent years have seen the launch of many projects aimed at the development of fuel cell systems for aviation powerplants. In this context, the effective integration of turbomachinery components is key in driving the overall performance and the economic viability of this technology. These aspects are the topic of this blog.

Fuel Cell Technology

Fuel cells are devices which convert the chemical energy of a fuel directly into electricity by electrochemical reactions. A fuel cell element has a matching pair of electrodes (anode and cathode) separated by an electrolyte. An appropriate flow of fuel (e.g. hydrogen) and oxidizer (frequently oxygen) is delivered to the electrodes: the resulting reaction produces electricity and water plus an amount of heat. The simplicity of this process is shown in Figure 1.

Fuel Cell Conceptual Scheme
Figure 1. Fuel Cell Conceptual Scheme (Source).

There are many advantages: efficiency, reliability, low noise, and compactness, all while implementing an environmentally progressive solution. The application potential is also very diversified, sometimes in very critical fields.

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An Introduction to Accurate HVAC System Modeling

HVAC (Heat, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) is all about comfort, and comfort is a subjective feeling associated with many parameters like air quality, air temperature, surrounding surface temperature, air flow and relative humidity. For example, while it is easy to understand how the temperature of the air in your living impacts how good you feel, the surfaces with which you are in contact also strongly affect your comfort. For example, last night I got out of bed to clean up after my dog who thought it would be a good idea to swallow (and give back) her chew toy. If I was wearing my slippers, it would have been much easier to go back to sleep between the warm bed sheets without the discomfort of waiting my cold feet warm up to normal temperature.

Speaking of sleep discomfort, many stem from HVAC imbalances.  If you wake up in the middle of the night quite thirsty, then you should probably check how dry your bedroom is. The recommended range is 40-60% relative humidity. A higher humidity puts you at risk for mold while lower humidity can lead to respiratory infections, asthma, etc.

Now that we know how HVAC contributes to our comfort, let’s look at the HVAC unit as a system and see its role, functioning and simulation at a high level. The following examples provided are for a house, but similar concepts apply to residential buildings, offices, and so on.

Controlling Temperature

The easiest parameter to control is the air temperature. It can be set by a thermostat and regulated according to a heating or cooling flow distributed from the HVAC unit to the different rooms through ducting. Without the introduction of thermally-different-than-ambient air, the house will heat or cool itself based on a combination of outside conditions and how well the building is insulated. Therefore, to keep a constant temperature a certain amount of energy must be used to provide heating (or cooling) at the same rate the house is losing (or gaining) heat.  This is a match of the house load and heating/cooling capacity. Figure 1 provides a graph of the energy needed.

Illustration of dependency of house load and heating capacity on outside temperature
Figure 1 Illustration of dependency of house load and heating capacity on outside temperature

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A Century of Chiller Technology

A convergence of technologies had to occur to make the modern, high-efficiency centrifugal chiller a reality. To appreciate the technology fully, we must go back in history and understand the origins of the air conditioning and refrigeration industry. Along the way, we will find an important diversion in aerospace and the critically important centrifugal compressor. Ultimately, we will find that the modern chiller is a testament to advanced technology that was developed in multiple fields.

Some of the first advances in and applications of modern industrial refrigeration were in the United States. In May 1922, Willis Carrier revealed the “Centrifugal Refrigeration Machine” – a very early incarnation of what we now call a chiller [1]. The first installation went to a Philadelphia candy manufacturer; it’s interesting to know that the birth of modern refrigeration and air conditioning started on a large scale. Back in those days, economy of scale enabled the technology to be developed. It was not until a decade later that the core technology began to be adopted into compact units that could be used in smaller businesses such as boutique shops. It took several more decades for smaller residential air conditioners to take off commercially.

Shown in the photograph below is Carrier’s first centrifugal chiller in his New Jersey factory [1].

First Centrifugal Chiller
Photo from [1]
The size of this machine is evident, as is the fact that its design, at the time, necessitated components be spread out in space for assembly and maintenance. By modern standards, the same footprint space could be used to accommodate a modern chiller with over 500 refrigeration tons in capacity. By comparison the original design has less than 100 refrigeration tons of capacity.

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Design of Waste Heat Recovery System based on ORC for a Locomotive Gas Turbine

This is an excerpt from a technical paper, presented at the Asian Congress on Gas Turbines (ACGT) and written by Abdul Nassar, Nishit Mehta, Oleksii Rudenko, Leonid Moroz, and Gaurav Giri. Follow the link at the end of the post to read the full study!

INTRODUCTION

Gas turbines find applications in aerospace, marine, power generation and many other fields. Recently there has been a renewed interest in gas turbines for locomotives. (Herbst et al., 2003) Though gas turbines were first used in locomotives in 1950 – 1960’s, the rising fuel cost made them uneconomical for commercial operation and almost all of them were taken out of service. The diesel locomotives gained popularity and presently locomotives are operated by diesel engines and electric motors. The emission levels in diesel locomotives have raised concerns among the environmentalists, leading to stringent emission norms in recent years. One of the solutions to reduce emission for these locomotives is to switch to LNG fuel which requires huge investment in upgrading the engines to operate with LNG. The other alternative is Gas Turbine based locomotives and this has gained renewed interest with RZD and Sinara Group of Russia successfully operating LNG based Gas Turbine-electric locomotives. Fig. 1 shows the GT1-001 freight GTEL from Russia, introduced in 2007. It runs on liquefied natural gas and has a maximum power output of 8,300 kW (11,100 hp). Presently, this locomotive holds the Guinness record for being the largest gas turbine electric locomotive (Source: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com). Though there have been a lot of improvements in gas turbines, the thermal efficiency is still not very high unless the exhaust heat is efficiently utilized by a bottoming cycle.

Fig. 1 Russian GT1_001 gas turbine locomotive

Converting the gas turbine into a combined cycle unit, with a bottoming steam cycle, is employed in case of several land-based and marine applications; however, such an option is not practical in a locomotive gas turbine due to the requirements of steam generators, steam turbines and other auxiliaries. The next best alternatives are to utilize either an organic Rankine cycle (ORC) or a supercritical carbon dioxide cycle (sCO2) to extract heat from the exhaust of the gas turbine and convert it into useable energy in the bottoming cycle (Rudenko et al., 2015; Moroz et al., 2015a; Moroz et al., 2015b; Nassar et al., 2014; Moroz et al., 2014). Supercritical carbon dioxide cycles, operating in a closed-loop Brayton cycle, are still in research phase. There is not much practical experience in deploying an sCO2 unit for propulsion gas turbines even though there is considerable research currently in progress. Hence, the obvious choice is to incorporate an ORC based system which is compact, modular and easy to operate. The same concept can also be implemented in any gas turbine application, be it a land-based, power generation, or marine application. Read More

Combined Power Cycles: What Are They and How Are They Pushing the Efficiency Envelope?

Combined cycle power plants have introduced a significant increase in efficiency compared to simple cycle power plants. But what is a combined cycle power plant and how does it work?

What is a Combined Cycle Power Plant?

In simple terms, a combined cycle power plant is a combination of more than one type of cycle to produce energy. A combined cycle plant consists of a topping and bottoming cycle with the objective to maximize the energy utilization of the fuel. The topping cycle normally is a Brayton cycle based gas turbine while the bottoming cycle is a Rankine cycle based steam turbine.

Gas turbines are used because this equipment can very efficiently convert gas fuels to electricity with the choice of using different fuels. Recently, the simple cycle efficiencies of gas turbines have improved considerably. As an example, standard fossil fired Rankine cycles with conventional boilers have an efficiency in the range 40–47% depending on whether they are based on supercritical or ultra-supercritical technology. By utilizing waste heat from the heat recovery of the steam generators to produce additional electricity, the combined efficiency of the example power plant would increase to 60% or more. Combined cycles are the first choice if the goal is to generate maximal energy for a unit amount of fuel that is burnt.

Why Don’t all Power Plants Use Combined Cycles

You might be wondering why not all plants are based on the combined cycle. The primary reason is fuel availability. Not all regions are blessed with the availability of gas that can be easily utilized in a gas turbine. Transporting gas from one location to another, or converting a fuel to gas specifically for operating a gas turbine, may not be the best economic decision. The technological expertise required in maintaining a gas turbine is another challenge faced by gas turbine operators. A typical combined cycle plant is presented in Figure 1.

Schematic of a combined cycle power plant created in AxCYCLE
Figure 1. Schematic of a Combined Cycle Power Plant Created in AxCYCLE

The key component of the combined cycle power plant apart from the turbines is heat recovery steam generator (HRSG). The major objective is to convert maximal heat from the exhaust gas of the gas turbine into steam for the steam turbine. The HRSG, unlike the conventional boiler, will operate at a lower temperature and is not subject to the same temperature as the boiler furnace. The exhaust gas from the gas turbine is directed through the tubes of the HRSG wherein water flowing through these tubes, observes heat and converts into steam. The temperature of the live steam is in the range of 420 to 580 C with exhaust gas temperatures from the gas turbine in the range of 450 to 650 C. A supplementary burner could be included in the HRSG, but adding a supplementary burner reduces the overall cycle efficiency. Read More

The Lovable Underdog of Turbomachinery

Everyone knows that APUs need love too…..

For Valentine’s Day, we want to look at an underdog of turbomachinery. A machine that is often overlooked, and not really in the limelight the way some of its larger cousins are, nor is it given the trendy position of being the “technology of the future” like its smaller cousins. Without this technology, airplanes would be entirely reliant on external power plants to maintain an electric power supply on the ground, and to start the main engines. So, what is this underappreciated machine?

APU plane
Okay one last hint – you can see its exhaust port.

If you haven’t been able to guess it, our Valentine this year is the aircraft auxiliary power unit, or APU for short. Although these are not present on all aircraft, they are typically used in larger airplanes such as commercial airliners. This allows aircraft to rely less on ground services when the main engines are not running. As a result, less equipment, manpower, and time are required to keep the plane in standby mode, and the aircraft can also service airports with less available resources in remote locations.

Where this Underdog Started

The aircraft auxiliary power unit can be traced back to the First World War, as they were used to provide electric power onboard airships and zeppelins. In the Second World War, American bombers and cargo aircraft had these systems as well. APUs were small piston engines, as the gas turbine had yet to be developed. These engines were typically V-twin or flat configuration engines, similar to what you might find on a motorcycle, and they were called putt-putts. These two-stroke engines usually put out less than 10-horsepower, but that was all that was required to provide DC power during low-level flight.

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Centrifugal Compressor Reverse Engineering and Digital Twin Development

Centrifugal Compressors are the turbomachines also known as turbo-compressors, and belong to the roto-dynamic class of compressors. In these compressors the required pressure rise takes place due to the continuous conversion of angular momentum imparted to the working fluid by a high-speed impeller into pressure. These compressors are used in small gas-turbines, turbochargers, chiller units, in the process and paper industries, oil & gas industries and others.

The design and manufacturing of such compressors are always challenging because of its 3-dimensional shapes, high rotational speeds that interact with different loss mechanisms, and stringent working environments. In many circumstances, it is necessary to analyze an existing compressor, with the end goal being to redesign it, enhance its performance, or to use it in completely different applications. In order to meet such requirements, reverse engineering is a viable option. With reverse engineering, one can review competitor’s design to remain in market competition.

Reverse Engineering

Reverse engineering allows us to collect incomplete or non-existing design data and manufacture an accurate recreation, safely, of the original product or component.

Sometimes, it is also referred to as back engineering, in which centrifugal compressors or any other product are deconstructed to extract design information from them. Oftentimes, reverse engineering involves deconstructing individual components like the impeller or diffuser of larger compressors. End-users often use this approach when purchasing a replacement impeller or any other compressor part from an OEM is not an option. In some cases, where older impellers that have not been manufactured for 20 years or more, the original 2D drawings are no longer available.  When this is the case, the only way to obtain the design of an original compressor is through reverse engineering.

Reverse engineering requires a series of steps to gather precise information on a product’s dimensions. Once collected, the data can be stored in digital archives. Figure 1 (left) shows the typical process of reverse engineering. In figure 1 (right), one can see the scanning process of the centrifugal impeller using a laser scanner.

Figure 1 (left) Reverse Engineering Process (right) Scanning of impeller
Figure 1 (left) Reverse Engineering Process (right) Scanning of Impeller. Source

To reverse engineer an impeller or any other part of compressor, an organization will typically acquire the component and take it apart to examine its internal mechanisms. This way, engineers can unveil information about the original design and construction of the product. One can start by analyzing the dimensions and attributes of the impeller and make measurements of the blade widths, diameters and angles, as these dimensions often relate to the compressor’s performance. Read More

Notable Military Jet Engines

As a special tribute this Veterans Day, we decided to have a look at some of the most notable engines that have been used to propel military vehicles throughout history.

PW F135

Kicking off our list is the Pratt & Whitney 135 turbofan engine. The pride and joy of Pratt & Whitney’s military engine lineup, the 135 powers the US Military’s F35 Lightning II. Presently, two variants of the F135 are used in several different variants of the F35, although it should be noted that the F135 was developed specifically for the F35. The 3 engine variants are known as the F135-PW-100, the F135-PW-600, and the F135-PW-400, each for a different application of the F35. The 100 variant is used in the conventional take off and landing F35A, the 600 is used in the F135B for short take off and vertical landing F35B, and the 400 uses salt corrosion-resistant materials for the Naval variant F35C.

A Lockheed Martin F35A in fight, and an F35C taking off from the USS Abraham Lincoln

The F135 is capable of 28,000 lbf of thrust with the afterburner capability pushing thrust all the way to a whopping 43,000 lbf of thrust, making the Lightning II a supersonic STOVL aircraft suited to a wide variety of applications, as seen in the above illustrations. At the heart of the Pratt F135 are 3 fan stages, 6 compressor stages, and 3 turbine stages. In the STOVL variant, the F135-600 uses the same core components, but is also coupled to a drive shaft which connects the engine to the lift fans which were originally developed by Rolls-Royce, and give the Lightning the ability to hover, perform short distance takeoffs, and vertical landings.

A Royal Air Force RAF F35B Lightning II performing a vertical landing on a Royal Navy carrier.
A Royal Air Force RAF F35B Lightning II performing a vertical landing on a Royal Navy carrier.

The F35 by Pratt & Whitney and in turn the F35 Lightning II by Lockheed Martin represent the cutting edge in military aviation, and are the centerpieces of Pratt and Lockheed respectively. The Lightning variants and this line of turbofan engines will be in service with several branches of the US military and its allies around the world for the foreseeable future, with more iterations of the F135 to come. Read More

The History of Turbochargers, Part 2

Hello! And welcome back for part 2 of our series on “A Brief History of the Turbocharger”. To read part 1, which compares superchargers and turbochargers, and explains the early history of turbochargers and forced induction from the turn of the century through to World War 1, click here. Having covered all of that, let’s pick up from where we left off!

Following World War 1, and the work of Dr. Sanford Alexander Moss, Alfred Büchi, who had created the first true turbocharger, had continued innovating following the failure of his first design. By 1925, he had a working turbocharger design that consistently and reliably worked (1).

Following this breakthrough, the turbocharger saw its first commercial application on ten-cylinder diesel engines. Since diesel engines are typically built to withstand the high-pressures required by their operating conditions, the pressures generated by using forced induction are easily accommodated. As a result of adding the turbochargers, the engines upped their horsepower ratings from 1750HP, all the way to a whopping 2,500HP. (1)

The Hansestadt Danzig, one of the German ships fitted with the 10 cylinder turbodiesel engine described above
The Hansestadt Danzig, one of the German ships fitted with the 10 cylinder turbodiesel engine described above. (shipspotting.com)

For Büchi, this was a great achievement, as it marked the first commercial application of a machine that he had first begun working with more than 20 years prior. For the turbocharger, however, this was just the beginning. Read More

Centrifugal Compressors for Fuel Cells

The development of fuel cell technologies and improvements in fuel cells power densities combine to make the use of fuel cells possible in different power sectors as primary or secondary power sources for commercial purpose, residential power requirements, and automobiles, etc. The fuel cell harnesses the chemical energy of a fuel along with an oxidizing agent by converting it into electrical energy through a pair of reactions. For example, in a hydrogen fuel cell, as shown in Figure 1, the hydrogen combines with oxygen from the air to produce electricity and releases water.

Fuel Cell System
Figure 1 Fuel Cell System [1]
The design of a fuel cell system is quite complex and depends on fuel cell types and their applications. With so many possible combinations of fuel cells, this article will not focus on different type of fuel cells, but on Air Management Systems which may significantly affect the overall performance of a fuel cell system.

Air Management Systems

Key sub-systems of any fuel cell system are the fuel processor, fuel cell stack, air management and power management systems. The air management system strongly affects the fuel cell stack efficiency and the power loss of the fuel cells. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a clean, reliable, cost-effective oil-free air system [2].

Major tasks in air management system are Air Supply, Air Cleaning, Pressurization and Humidification.
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