Gas compressor

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A gas compressor is a mechanical device that increases the pressure of a gas by reducing its volume. Compression of a gas naturally increases its temperature.

Compressors are similar to pumps: both increase the pressure on a fluid and both can transport the fluid through a pipe. As gases are compressible, the compressor also reduces the volume of a gas. Liquids are relatively incompressible, so the main action of a pump is to transport liquids.

Types of compressors[change | edit source]

There are many different types of gas compressors. The two primary categories are:

  • Positive displacement compressors with two sub-categories:
    • Reciprocating
    • Rotary
  • Dynamic compressors also with two sub-categories:
    • Centrifugal
    • Axial

The more important types in each of the four sub-categories are discussed below.

Centrifugal compressors[change | edit source]

Figure 1: A single stage centrifugal compressor

Centrifugal compressors use a vaned rotating disk or impeller in a shaped housing to force the gas to the rim of the impeller, increasing the velocity of the gas. A diffuser (divergent duct) section converts the velocity energy to pressure energy. They are primarily used for continuous, stationary service in industries such as oil refineries, chemical and petrochemical plants and natural gas processing plants. Their application can be from 100 hp (75 kW) to thousands of horsepower. With multiple staging, they can achieve extremely high output pressures greater than 10,000 psi (69 MPa).

Many large snow-making operations (like a ski resort) use this type of compressor. They are also used in internal combustion engines as superchargers and turbochargers. Centrifugal compressors are used in small gas turbine engines or as the final compression stage of medium sized gas turbines.

Diagonal or mixed-flow compressors[change | edit source]

Diagonal or mixed-flow compressors are similar to centrifugal compressors, but have a radial and axial velocity component at the exit from the rotor. The diffuser is often used to turn diagonal flow to the axial direction. The diagonal compressor has a lower diameter diffuser than the equivalent centrifugal compressor.

Axial-flow compressors[change | edit source]

An animation of an axial compressor.

Axial-flow compressors use a series of fan-like rotating rotor blades to progressively compress the gasflow. Stationary stator vanes, located downstream of each rotor, redirect the flow onto the next set of rotor blades. The area of the gas passage diminishes through the compressor to maintain a roughly constant axial Mach number. Axial-flow compressors are normally used in high flow applications, such as medium to large gas turbine engines. They are almost always multi-staged. Beyond about 4:1 design pressure ratio, variable geometry is often used to improve operation.

Reciprocating compressors[change | edit source]

Reciprocating compressors use pistons driven by a crankshaft. They can be either stationary or portable, can be single or multi-staged, and can be driven by electric motors or internal combustion engines. Small reciprocating compressors from 5 to 30 horsepower (hp) are commonly seen in automotive applications and are typically for intermittent duty. Larger reciprocating compressors up to 1000 hp are still commonly found in large industrial applications, but their numbers are declining as they are replaced by various other types of compressors. Discharge pressures can range from low pressure to very high pressure (>5000 psi or 35 MPa). In certain applications, such as air compression, multi-stage double-acting compressors are said to be the most efficient compressors available, and are typically larger, noisier, and more costly than comparable rotary units.[1]

Rotary screw compressors[change | edit source]

Rotary screw compressors use two meshed rotating positive-displacement helical screws to force the gas into a smaller space. These are usually used for continuous operation in commercial and industrial applications and may be either stationary or portable. Their application can be from 3 hp (2.24 kW) to over 500 hp (375 kW) and from low pressure to very high pressure (>1200 psi or 8.3 MPa). They are commonly seen with roadside repair crews powering air-tools. This type is also used for many automobile engine superchargers because it is easily matched to the induction capacity of a piston engine.

Scroll compressors[change | edit source]

Mechanism of a scroll pump

A scroll compressor, also known as scroll pump and scroll vacuum pump, uses two interleaved spiral-like vanes to pump or compress fluids such as liquids and gases. The vane geometry may be involute, archimedean spiral, or hybrid curves. They operate more smoothly, quietly, and reliably than other types of compressors.

Often, one of the scrolls is fixed, while the other orbits eccentrically without rotating, thereby trapping and pumping or compressing pockets of fluid between the scrolls.

Diaphragm compressors[change | edit source]

A diaphragm compressor (also known as a membrane compressor) is a variant of the conventional reciprocating compressor. The compression of gas occurs by the movement of a flexible membrane, instead of an intake element. The back and forth movement of the membrane is driven by a rod and a crankshaft mechanism. Only the membrane and the compressor box come in touch with the gas being compressed.

Diaphragm compressors are used for hydrogen and compressed natural gas (CNG) as well as in a number of other applications.

Miscellany[change | edit source]

Air compressors sold to and used by the general public are often attached on top of a tank for holding the pressurized air. Oil-lubricated and oil-free compressors are available. Oil-free compressors are desirable because without a properly designed separator, oil can make its way into the air stream. For some purposes, for example as a diving air compressor, even a little oil in the air stream may be unacceptable.

Temperature[change | edit source]

Charles's law says "when a gas is compressed, temperature is raised". There are three possible relationships between temperature and pressure in a volume of gas undergoing compression:

  • Isothermal - gas remains at constant temperature throughout the process. In this cycle, internal energy is removed from the system as heat at the same rate that it is added by the mechanical work of compression. Isothermal compression or expansion is favored by a large heat exchanging surface, a small gas volume, or a long time scale (i.e., a small power level). With practical devices, isothermal compression is usually not attainable. For example, even a bicycle tire-pump gets hot during use.
  • Adiabatic - In this process there is no heat transfer to or from the system, and all supplied work is added to the internal energy of the gas, resulting in increases of temperature and pressure. Theoretical temperature rise is T2 = T1·Rc((k-1)/k)), with T1 and T2 in degrees Rankine or kelvins, and k = ratio of specific heats (approximately 1.4 for air). The rise in air and temperature ratio means compression does not follow a simple pressure to volume ratio. This is less efficient, but quick. Adiabatic compression or expansion is favored by good insulation, a large gas volume, or a short time scale (i.e., a high power level). In practice there will always be a certain amount of heat flow, as to make a perfect adiabatic system would require perfect heat insulation of all parts of a machine.
  • Polytropic - This assumes that heat may enter or leave the system, and that input shaft work can appear as both increased pressure (usually useful work) and increased temperature above adiabatic (usually losses due to cycle efficiency). Cycle efficiency is then the ratio of temperature rise at theoretical 100 percent (adiabatic) vs. actual (polytropic).

Staged compression[change | edit source]

Since compression generates heat, the compressed gas is to be cooled between stages making the compression less adiabatic and more isothermal. The inter-stage coolers cause condensation meaning water separators with drain valves are present. The compressor flywheel may drive a cooling fan.

For instance in a typical diving compressor, the air is compressed in three stages. If each stage has a compression ratio of 7 to 1, the compressor can output 343 times atmospheric pressure (7 x 7 x 7 = 343 Atmospheres).

Applications[change | edit source]

Gas compressors are used in various applications where either higher pressures or lower volumes of gas are needed:

References[change | edit source]

  1. Introduction to Industrial Compressed Air Systems