Gas, steam, and water turbines have a casing around the blades that contains and controls the working fluid. Credit for invention of the steam turbine is given both to Anglo-Irish engineer Sir Charles Parsons (18541931) for invention of the reaction turbine, and to Swedish engineer Gustaf de Laval (18451913) for invention of the impulse turbine. Modern steam turbines frequently employ both reaction and impulse in the same unit, typically varying the degree of reaction and impulse from the blade root to its periphery.

A working fluid contains potential energy (pressure head) and kinetic energy (velocity head). The fluid may be compressible or incompressible. Several physical principles are employed by turbines to collect this energy:

Impulse turbines change the direction of flow of a high velocity fluid or gas jet. The resulting impulse spins the turbine and leaves the fluid flow with diminished kinetic energy. There is no pressure change of the fluid or gas in the turbine blades (the moving blades), as in the case of a steam or gas turbine, all the pressure drop takes place in the stationary blades (the nozzles). Before reaching the turbine, the fluid's pressure head is changed to velocity head by accelerating the fluid with a nozzle. Pelton wheels and de Laval turbines use this process exclusively. Impulse turbines do not require a pressure casement around the rotor since the fluid jet is created by the nozzle prior to reaching the blades on the rotor. Newton's second law describes the transfer of energy for impulse turbines. Impulse turbines are most efficient for use in cases where the flow is low and the inlet pressure is high.

In the case of steam turbines, such as would be used for marine applications or for land-based electricity generation, a Parsons-type reaction turbine would require approximately double the number of blade rows as a de Laval-type impulse turbine, for the same degree of thermal energy conversion. Whilst this makes the Parsons turbine much longer and heavier, the overall efficiency of a reaction turbine is slightly higher than the equivalent impulse turbine for the same thermal energy conversion.

Classical turbine design methods were developed in the mid 19th century. Vector analysis related the fluid flow with turbine shape and rotation. Graphical calculation methods were used at first. Formulae for the basic dimensions of turbine parts are well documented and a highly efficient machine can be reliably designed for any fluid flow condition. Some of the calculations are empirical or 'rule of thumb' formulae, and others are based on classical mechanics. As with most engineering calculations, simplifying assumptions were made.

The primary numerical classification of a turbine is its specific speed. This number describes the speed of the turbine at its maximum efficiency with respect to the power and flow rate. The specific speed is derived to be independent of turbine size. Given the fluid flow conditions and the desired shaft output speed, the specific speed can be calculated and an appropriate turbine design selected.

Turbines are often part of a larger machine. A gas turbine, for example, may refer to an internal combustion machine that contains a turbine, ducts, compressor, combustor, heat-exchanger, fan and (in the case of one designed to produce electricity) an alternator. Combustion turbines and steam turbines may be connected to machinery such as pumps and compressors, or may be used for propulsion of ships, usually through an intermediate gearbox to reduce rotary speed.

Turbines can have very high power density (i.e. the ratio of power to weight, or power to volume). This is because of their ability to operate at very high speeds. The Space Shuttle main engines used turbopumps (machines consisting of a pump driven by a turbine engine) to feed the propellants (liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen) into the engine's combustion chamber. The liquid hydrogen turbopump is slightly larger than an automobile engine (weighing approximately 700 lb) and produces nearly 70,000 hp (52.2 MW).

Military jet engines, as a branch of gas turbines, have recently been used as primary flight controller in post-stall flight using jet deflections that are also called thrust vectoring. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has also conducted a study about civilizing such thrust vectoring systems to recover jetliners from catastrophes.



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