A gas turbine is an advanced form of an internal combustion engine that has found use in various vehicles, namely aircraft. Being the most widely used propulsion system for commercial aircraft, the gas turbine is an important system to understand for anyone interested in aviation. In this blog, we will discuss the function, history, and applications of the gas turbine in aviation.
Like other internal combustion engines, gas turbines complete four distinct phases when generating propulsion: intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust. First, atmospheric air is taken into the engine through the air inlet in the front. Then this air enters the compressor, a chamber containing a device that increases the air pressure. Once compressed, the air enters the combustion chamber, at which point it is combined with fuel and ignited. As a byproduct of combustion, a high-temperature, high-pressure gas is created and subsequently funneled to the turbine section of the engine. In the turbine section, a portion of the gas is used to power the compressor and generator, while the rest is expelled as exhaust. Finally, the rear-facing exhaust develops thrust; thus, it allows an aircraft to be propelled forward.
The first semblance of a modern gas turbine was built in 1903 by a Norwegian inventor. His invention was exceedingly critical because, prior to it, every other attempt at creating such an engine yielded less power than what was used to run it. Engineers and inventors continue to toy with the idea of using gas turbines for jet propulsion, but it was not until the 1930s that a gas turbine successfully powered an aircraft. By the 1950s, gas turbines were used by nearly every combat aircraft in existence, while the commercial aviation industry was still warming up to the idea. At that time, gas turbines were still less efficient than piston engines; thus, it prevented their widespread commercial success. Finally, in the 1970s, the efficiency of the gas turbine surpassed its competitors with the advent of the high-bypass turbofan.
Today, all commercial aircraft, with the exception of small regional planes, use gas turbines as the sole propulsion source. This is due to the fact that no other type of engine can safely generate the power needed to propel larger aircraft at high speeds for hours. Gas turbines come in various configurations, with the four most common variants being turbojets, turbofans, turboprops, and turboshafts. All four operate on similar principles and have the same outcome, but vary in the distribution of their internal components.
Turbojets have the most simple design and are capable of producing very high speeds, but generally have the highest fuel consumption and perform poorly at slower speeds. On the other hand, turbofans are more fuel-efficient and quiet, but are much heavier and lose efficiency at higher altitudes. Next, the turboprop is very efficient within a narrow operating window, consisting of low speeds and flight at mid-range altitudes. As a result, these engines are commonly employed on military cargo aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules. Finally, in the unique turboshaft engine, most of the energy produced by combustion is used to power a generator or drive a turbine. As such, they are commonly found in the auxiliary power unit of an airplane or the transmission of a helicopter.
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