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Achieving Flight - The Gas Turbine Jet Engine

Devlin Garred 23 October 2012

Audience and Purpose


This account provides a description for new pilots in training of the cycle by which the gas turbine jet engines they will soon be operating keep the aircraft in the sky. Trainees should already possess a basic understanding of this type of aircraft propulsion system, but may not have a detailed knowledge of what occurs within the housing of the engine. It is essential for licensed pilots to fully comprehend this surprisingly simplistic system and maintain an awareness of all parts of the vehicle for the safety of everyone on board. A pilot having mastered the cycle of a gas turbine engine is better equipped to offer a solution if an engine fails during flight.

Why A Turbine Engine?


There are many different types of engines and ways to burn fuel to give motion to a stationary body. So why do we use turbine engines for aircrafts rather than reciprocating engines, like those used by cars? The Answer: The power-to-weight ratio of a turbine engine is much better than that of, say, a diesel engine. Turbine engines can be very small and lightweight compared to other engines and still achieve very high power output. When talking about flight, the collective weight of vehicle components is always a concern.

The Basics
In its most simplistic form, the turbine engine can be divided into five main regions:
TURBINE

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Air Intake Compression Combustion Chamber Turbine Exhaust and Propelling Nozzle

Figure 1: A cutaway of a gas turbine engine. The process occurs from left to right showing the five main processes that occur during operation: air intake, compression, combustion, turbine rotation, and nozzle exit through the exhaust.

This engine is represented in thermodynamic principles as the Brayton Cycle or Joule Cycle. In this cycle three processes take place to allow enough power to be generated for aircraft propulsion. First, air is sucked in through the intake and forced by the compressor into the small combustion chamber, drastically raising the pressure. Then, the high-pressure air comes in contact with the flame of a steady stream of constantly burning fuel causing combustion. This extremely hot mixture that forces itself through the turbine and out the nozzle is the engine exhaust. Massive velocity increase of the air through this process provides a forward thrust force for the aircraft due to momentum exchange between the air and the engine.

Food for Thought: The Brayton Cycle

Figure 2: Engineers model a turbine engine as a continuous process constantly reheating and cooling the same volume of air.

Figure 3: A temperature versus enthalpy plot relating the ideal Brayton Cycle to what actually occurs. As you can see, these plots are very similar.

The Brayton cycle is the way engineers simplify the functions of a turbine engine for design and analysis purposes. Without getting too technical, engineers assume the working fluid, air, remains inside the system permanently (i.e. no intake or exhaust). Also, we assume the compressor and turbine are ideal, or have maximum efficiency. This gives surprisingly accurate results of how much input, or fuel, is required to achieve a certain output, or thrust. The diagram above right shows how closely this simplification reflects the actual, observed results of a working turbine engine. If you have no idea what just happened or what those pictures mean, dont worry! If nothing else, the important thing we can see from an engine cycle is that we cannot have an output without an input.

Obtaining and Pressurizing the Working Fluid


In any thermodynamic system, a working fluid is needed to absorb and transmit energy. Turbine engines operate with air as the working fluid. The air intake is the opening at the front of the engine through which air is forced into the system by the spinning compressor blades. The diagram to the right shows the path the air follows into the combustion chamber. As you can see, there is less and less space for an equal volume of air, causing the pressure to rise, usually by eight to ten times!
Figure 4: A compressor is a series of fan blades that increasingly get smaller, pressurizing a continuous amount of air into the combustion chamber.

Heat Production
When the pressurized air reaches the combustion chamber it mixes with a steady stream of burning jet fuel and experiences a rapid increase in temperature. This sudden addition of heat causes the air to rapidly expand, and force its way out the other end of the chamber.

This process occurs continuously as the engine runs, as air is constantly being forced inside the chamber by the compressors.

Figure 5: The blue arrows represent air flow through the combustion chamber. Pressurized cold air flows in from the left, rapidly increases in temperature due to contact with burning fuel, expands, and exits to the right.

Not all Energy is used for Thrust


The high energy air coming out of the combustor forces itself into the turbine, causing it to rotate. This process is a way of stealing some of the energy produced by the air expansion and using it to keep the compressor spinning. Since the turbine is connected to the compressor via a shaft through the middle of the system, the compressor blades spin at the same speed as the turbine. The remaining energy depleted air continues past the turbine and into the nozzle.

Figure 6: High-temperature, high-pressure air pushes its way through the turbine blades, causing them to rotate. This, in turn, keeps the compressor rotating at the entrance of the engine via a connecting shaft through the middle.

Providing Forward Motion


The final and most important step for achieving lift-off is the exit of the remaining air through the exhaust nozzle. The increase in velocity of the air due to this process provides a momentum exchange between the air and the aircraft.

Figures 7 and 8: The nozzle provides thrust to the aircraft by turning pressurized, hot gas into lower pressure, high-velocity, colder gas. Nozzles converge to restrict air-flow, thus increasing the pressure within the engine.

Piecing it Together
How well a turbine engine works to produce motion is measured in two ways: Propulsive Efficiency The amount of energy of the jet that ends up in the vehicle body rather than being carried away as kinetic energy of the jet. Cycle Efficiency How efficiently the engine can accelerate the jet.

While propulsive efficiency varies based on the speed of the jet, cycle efficiency is a set value based on the design of the engine. Engineers attempt to design engines to achieve maximum cycle efficiency. The amount of acceleration you can achieve on the runway during take-off is directly related to the design of the engine and maximum efficiency output. Knowing the operation cycle and design criteria of your engine can help maximize quality of flight and safety for everyone on board.

Works Cited

"Jet Engine." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Oct. 2012. Web. 21 Oct. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jet_engine>. "Gas Turbine Propulsion." Gas Turbine Propulsion. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2012. <http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/k-12/airplane/turbine.html>. "ENGINEERING." : Introduction to Jet Engines. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. <http://engglearning.blogspot.com/2011/03/introduction-to-jet-engines-aircraft.html>. "Military." AL0993 Lesson # 1. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/army/accp/al0993/le1.htm>. "Turbine Engine Thermodynamic Cycle - Brayton Cycle." Turbine Engine Thermodynamic Cycle - Brayton Cycle. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. <http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/k-12/airplane/brayton.html>.