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General Comparison between Centrifugal and Reciprocating Compressor

Reference: What's Correct for My Application - A Centrifugal or Reciprocating Compressor

By: Paul Gallick, Senior Applications Engineer, Elliott Company, Greg Phillipi and Benjamin F. Williams, Ariel Corporation

Parameter Centrifugal Compressor Reciprocating Compressor

Maximum Flow Capacity is limited by cylinder size, the number of throws
available, and the available driver speeds. A "throw" is a
They can be sized for an inlet flow of 680,000 actual m 3/h in a location on the crankcase where a compressor cylinder can be
single body. Actual means at given suction pressure and attached.
temperature. The maximum flow through a centrifugal
compressor is limited by the choke point, which is the point at
which the flow through some part of the compressor nears a
velocity of Mach 1.
Minimum Flow Similar to the maximum flow, the minimum flow in a
reciprocating compressor is limited by the cylinder size, stroke,
and speed. Reciprocating compressors of capacities of a few
It is recommended that for flow rates of actual 300 m 3/h and m3/h are available.
above , centrifugal compressors be critically evaluated for
suitability. Unlike a reciprocating compressor where flow is
solely a function of compressor geometry and speed, the
minimum flow for a centrifugal compressor is limited by an
aerodynamic condition known as surge, which is a function of
compressor geometry, speed, aerodynamic gas conditions, and
system resistance.
Minimum Suction (Inlet)Pressure Can be atmospheric or vacuum. Where suction conditions
This can be atmospheric or sub-atmospheric (vacuum). For sub- involve sub-atmospheric pressures, adequate measures must
atmospheric suction conditions, special seal and buffering be taken to prevent atmospheric air leaking into the cylinder
designs are employed to prevent atmospheric air from being through the piston rod packing.
drawn into the compressor.
Maximum Discharge (Outlet) For horizontally split compressors discharge pressures up to 100
Pressure barg are common. For radially split (barrel) compressors
discharge pressures could go as high as 1000 barg. Typical reciprocating compressors in the process industry are
used to generate discharge pressures as high as 800 barg.
Special compressors known as hypercompressors used in the
low density polyethylene manufacture will generate pressures
as high as 3500 barg.
Minimum Suction (Inlet) Standard Centrifugal compressor materials are typically suitable The common compressor cylinder materials, cast gray iron and
Temperature for -20 to -50 deg C. Refrigeration compressors in ethylene cast ductile iron are acceptable for use at temperatures as low
service typically have temperatures as low as -100 deg C which as -40 deg C which typically occur in refrigeration applications.
require special low temperature alloys. The lowest temperature The lowest suction temperatures required typically are in LNG
requirement for centrifugal compressors is typically found in boil-off applications with requirements as low as -170 deg C and
LNG boil-off gas applications. Minimum temperatures up to there are very limited manufacturers for this application.
-170 deg C are required to be accommodated for this service
and low temperature alloy steels are employed as materials.
Low temperature seals and O-Rings are also required.

Maximum Discharge (Outlet) Maximum discharge temperatures are typically 200 to 230 deg Discharge temperature limits will depend on the application
Temperature C. Centrifugal compressors with higher temperatures can be (gas compressed) and the seal element materials selected. In
manufactured but would require special designs such as center hydrogen-rich gas applications, API 618 (2007) limits discharge
supported diaphragms, less efficient seal materials, and high temperatures to 135 deg C. For natural gas service the
temperature O-rings and sealants. maximum discharge temperature limit is 175 deg C. However, a
more practical limit followed is 149 deg C. Air compressor
discharge temperature limits may be as high as 200 deg C.

Flow Range (turndown) Flow range of a centrifugal compressor is determined by the Reciprocating Compressors have the ability to change flow
surge and choke points. Typical turndown for a fixed speed, through speed control, the addition of fixed clearance to a
multi-stage centrifugal pump is approximately 20-30%. With cylinder (fixed or variable volume clearance pockets), cylinder
variable speed drive or adjustable inlet guide vanes the end deactivation, and gas recycle. Typical flow range might be
turndown can be increased to 40-50%. from 100%, down to 20%, or even lower. The application will
determine what type of capacity control method is required
and used. On low compression ratio applications (compression
ratio less than 1.6, such as pipeline transmission of natural gas)
adding fixed clearance will hardly change the flow. Such an
application may require speed control or cylinder end
deactivation. In other applications with higher compression
ratios, clearance pockets and cylinder end deactivation are
commonly used to regulate flow.

Compression Ratio For centrifugal compressors compression ratio is a function of The maximum compression ratio that a reciprocating
gas molecular weight, compressibility factor, stage geometry, compressor can handle in one stage is limited mostly by gas
speed, and the number of compressor stages. For a specific gas, discharge temperature. The piston rod load generated by the
the limits to compression ratio are the mechanical and compression ratio may also be a limit. Typical compression
rotordynamic limitations on speed and the number of stages ratios for one stage are 1.2 to 4.0.
that can be accommodated in a single body. High discharge
temperatures due to high compression ratios can usually be
controlled by inter-cooling between a compression stage.

Compressed Gas Molecular Compression ratio is highly depended on gas molecular weight. Reciprocating compressors are not limited by gas molecular
Weight Head is developed by increasing gas velocity to create kinetic weight. Both light and heavy gases are compressed very well.
energy and then converting the kinetic energy to pressure in Over the range of molecular weight different application
the diffuser. The amount of kinetic energy is a function of the configurations may be required. For example, very low
gas velocity and gas molecular weight. Centrifugal compressors molecular weight gases may present seal challenges and very
are used for a broad range of molecular weights including low high molecular weight gases may present challenges related to
molecular weight applications such as hydrogen recycle and compressor efficiency.
high molecular weight application using refrigerant gases with
molecular weights over 100.

Efficiency Polytropic efficiencies are used for centrifugal compressors Reciprocating compressors have a very characteristic adiabatic
rather than adiabatic efficiencies. In applications involving air efficiency curve. Refer the figure. As compression ratio drops,
compression adiabatic efficiencies are used. Typical polytropic adiabatic efficiency drops. Efficiency changes with molecular
efficiencies range from 70% to 85%. Efficiencies approaching weight too. Other factors also impact efficiency, most
90% are possible. Efficiencies are primarily affected by internal significantly the compressor cylinder's ratio of valve flow area
leakage and mechanical losses. to main bore diameter and piston speed.
Multiservice Capability Typically centrifugal compressors are not designed to handle a Reciprocating compressors are very adaptable to a multitude of
multitude of gases. Customized designs would be required gases and can handle different gases at either the same stage
which could handle different gases simultaneously. or at different stages in the same machine. The number of
different services on a given compressor crank case (frame) is
only limited by the throws available and the number of stages
required for each service. 8, 10, and even 12 frames are not

Materials of Construction Materials for major components such as casings, nozzles, shafts, Reciprocating compressors are made of very common materials
impellers etc. are primarily carbon steel, stainless steels and / such as gray iron, ductile iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, and
or alloy steels. Components may be cast, forged, or machined. alloy steel. This could be in cast, forging, or bar stock form.
Cast iron maybe used for some stationary components. Some compressor pistons and covers maybe made of
Material selection is primarily dependent on temperature, aluminum. For corrosive applications it is common to use
stress (pressure / torque), and gas composition (corrosive / stainless steel such as 17-4PH or 400 series for piston rods and
erosive). compressor valve seats and guards.

Cost - Capital and Operating The capital cost of a centrifugal compressor is typically higher Generally a reciprocating compressor will have a lower capital
than a reciprocating compressor operating at the same cost but a higher operating cost (excluding power
consumption). For the same operating conditions a
conditions. This is primarily due to the fact that centrifugal
reciprocating compressor will consume less power per unit
compressors require parts with more complex geometry such volume flow. The reason for higher operating cost is due to
as impellers and diaphragms. However, a centrifugal more wearable parts requiring frequent maintenance and
compressor has fewer wearing parts, resulting in lower leading to higher machine downtime. Compressor valves
happen to be one of the most wearable parts in a reciprocating
operating costs in terms of replacement parts, repairs and compressor.
For gas
pipeline compression service where large centrifugal
compressors (>7500 kW) are employed using gas turbine
drivers becomes economical compared to electrical motors
when doing a cost evaluation in terms of capital and operating
Reliability Reliability / availability of centrifugal compressors is typically 98 Reliability / availability of reciprocating compressors is typically
to 99%. 95 to 98%. Since reciprocating compressors have many more
parts and more rubbing seals (pressure packing, piston rings,
and rider rings) that wear and require more frequent
replacement, they are considered somewhat less reliable than
centrifugal compressors. Another reciprocating compressor
component are compressor valves (simple spring-loaded check
valves) which require frequent maintenance and replacement.

Typical Maintenance Intervals In clean gas service and without much variation in operating Maintenance requirements for reciprocating compressors vary
conditions a centrifugal compressor can operate continuously significantly with the application and follow maintenance
for 10 years or longer. Maintenance requirements are typically patterns very much based on what has been described in the
limited to replacing bearing pads and seal wearing parts. reliability section. Compressor valve and seal elements may
require to be maintained in durations as short as a few months
and as long as 3-5 years. Major machine overhaul including
bearing replacement may be required after 10 years of
operation or longer.

Installation Time and Complexity The installation time varies widely depending on the size of the Installation time for a reciprocating compressor varies
compressor. The number of main casing nozzle and the type of significantly with site and location, and whether or not the
compressor is packaged. Packaged compressors up to 3.4 MW
driver (electric motor / gas or steam turbine) also affect and of a high-speed short stroke design are common today.
installation time. Location can also be a factor. Remote or Installation time for these might vary from a few days to a
offshore locations can add to installation time. The compressor couple of weeks. Larger slow speed long stroke compressors
and driver are typically packaged on a base plate complete with assembled at site might require 3 to 4 weeks to install.
oil piping and wiring to junction boxes. Process equipment such
as scrubbers and coolers and process control valves are
typically installed at site. Auxiliary systems such as lube oil
consoles, control panels, and seal buffer systems may also be
installed separately. Piping and wiring from these auxiliary
systems and process equipment to the compressor train are
typically done at site.

Installation time for a typical motor / gear

driven compressor package is 2-3 weeks. For very large
compressor or a gas turbine driven compressor the installation
time could be as high as 6-8 weeks.
Lead Time Lead time for a centrifugal compressor train range from 35 to Lead time for a bare compressor will vary from 14 to 40 weeks
depending on size and manufacturer. Electrical motor driven
75 weeks. Often the lead time is governed by the driver reciprocating compressors may require longer lead times
specifically if large high horsepower motors are required. For
(electric motor / turbine) since these are generally made to reciprocating gas engine driven large compressors the lead
order. Special metallurgy and / or special design requirements times may be shorter.
of compressor components significantly adds to the lead time.

Prepared by: Ankur Srivastava

Chemical Engineer