Since the beginning of air travel, aircraft designers have looked to increase the efficiency and reliability of the engine system. An airplane's engine can be accurately described as its heart, as it needs to run regardless of the operating conditions, and the aircraft would not function for very long in the event of failure. The technology in engine systems has increased significantly over the years, but many of the basic principles of operation remain the same. This blog will discuss the five most common types of engine systems used in modern aircraft and their applications.
Turboprop engines have been used in many different aircraft since their inception in the 1940s. Like various other engine types, air is introduced into the engine, where it is compressed. Next, the compressed air will mix with fuel before being sent to the combustion chamber, in which the fuel-air mixture is ignited. From there, the ignited mixture is sent to the turbine area, where it is expanded in volume. As the gas turns the turbine blades, power is sent to the propeller, which generates thrust. Unlike other engine types, the propeller at the front of the engine is the primary energy producer. Turboprop engines are commonly found on smaller subsonic passenger or cargo aircraft and are also used in large military aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules.
The next type of engine, the most basic type of gas turbine, is the turbojet. While the general operating principles are very similar to other engine systems, some significant differences set turbojets apart. First, at the front of the engine is a tube that directs air into the compressor. No matter the speed of the plane, air passing through the intake tube will always be subsonic. Next, the compressor rotates at a very high speed and compresses the air to a higher pressure and temperature. Then fuel is mixed with this air before proceeding to the combustion chamber. Unlike combustion in other engine types, where the fuel-air pressure increases, the turbojet experiences a slight loss in pressure. The exhaust passes through and rotates the turbines, providing power to the compressor and other aircraft parts. Finally, the gas exits out the exhaust nozzle and is accelerated to a high speed. This expulsion of high accelerated air drives forward propulsion and can be bolstered by the addition of an afterburning system. Turbojets have been used for decades globally to power commercial and military aircraft.
The turbofan is an engine variant widely used because of its high thrust and superior fuel efficiency. Turbofans were invented to improve upon the design of the ubiquitous turbojet engine. The solution that engineers decided to implement in the turbofan engine is the ducted fan. This fan allows for some air to bypass the main engine, which creates a temperature cushion and a sound barrier that reduces the system's overall noise. Lastly, the air bypass brings about increased efficiency at lower altitudes. As a result, most modern commercial aircraft have phased out turbojets and have opted for the more modern turbofan engines.
Ramjets are specialized engines used primarily in missiles and experimental supersonic aircraft. These jets use a relatively simple design but cannot create thrust from rest. As such, aircraft featuring ramjets require an assisted take-off to bring it to an optimal speed where the ramjet can take over. Ramjets are most efficient at high velocity and can operate at speeds upwards of 4,600 miles per hour.
The last type of engine is found in many light aircraft and operates on the same principles as the engines found in cars. These are called reciprocating, or piston, engines and are excellent choices for light aircraft flying short missions. Conventional reciprocating engines convert pressure created by a series of piston-containing cylinders into rotational energy. The rotational energy produced is used to turn the propeller, which allows for forward thrust.
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