Jet Engine Design: Turbine Cooling

As I described in a previous post, the efficiency of the gas turbine cycle increases as the turbine entry temperature (TET) is increased. Therefore the hotter the combustion gases that enter the first turbine stage the more specific power the jet engine can produce. Of course the TET is bounded by the metallurgical limits of the blade materials, specifically the blade root stress, the creep strain and the melting point of the blade material. The centrifugal stresses at the root increase linearly with the density of the blade material, and linearly with both the square of the rotational speed and the square of the ratio of root-to-tip radius. Creep is the continual and gradual extension of a material under constant load over time. Apart from distorting the physical dimensions and thereby reducing performance of the engine, the induced creep stresses exacerbate the centrifugal operating stresses and will therefore lead to premature failure of the material. A rule of thumb is that the blade life is halved (for a specific blade material and cooling technology) for each 10°C rise in temperature of the metal [1]. The TET has risen from about 1050K in 1944 to about 1750 in the 1994 Rolls-Royce Trent engine. This is partially due to the use of better materials such as Inconel and single-crystal metals with better creep and fatigue properties. However there is a bound to this solution since these nickel-based alloys are typically quite heavy, leading to an increase in centrifugal stresses at the root. Therefore more important in this development has been the technology of channelling  of cold compressor air to cool the turbine blades. Using these advanced cooling techniques has allowed engineers to increase the TET beyond the melting point of the blade materials.


In a modern engine around 20% of the compressed air is bled off for cooling and sealing purposes for nozzle guide vanes and turbine blades [1]. This internal air system illustrated in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2. is also used to prevent the any hot mainstream gases from flowing over the heavily stressed blade-attachment discs and control tip clearances between turbine blades and casing. The stators and outer wall of the turbine flow passage use cooling air traveling from the compressor between the combustor and outer engine casing. The turbine rotor blades, disks and inner walls of the turbine flow passage use air bled from the compressor through inner passageways. Since the stators (or nozzle guide vanes) appear before the the first row of rotating blades, the first stage of stators are exposed to the highest temperatures, including local hot-spots from the combustor close by. The temperature at the first rotor stage is then somewhat decreased by dilution of the gases with cooling air, relative velocity effects and power extraction (by gas expansion causing a drop in temperature) from the turbine. In this manner the temperature reduces through each blade row.


Fig. 1. Internal duct system for turbine cooling (2)

Fig. 2. Detailed turbine cooling paths for stator and rotor stages (3)


The laws of thermodynamics require that due to combustion inefficiencies there be a pressure loss within the combustor. This means that the mainstream pressure at the first row of stators in the turbine directly after the combustor be lower than at the exit of the final stage of the compressor. It is this pressure difference that we use to drive the cooling air through the internal passageways and into the stators and blades. In this respect improvements in combustor design over the last years has been both an advantage and a disadvantage for cooling engineers. Improvements in combustor design has led to lower pressure losses within the compressor such that more force is available to drive the bled air to the hotter aft parts of the engine. On the other hand, with increasing compression ratios the air within the compressor naturally reaches higher exit temperatures (today around 900K !!! prior to combustion [1]) reducing the effect that the cooling air has on the turbine blades. Furthermore, the cooling air is expensive from an efficiency point of view since work has been done on the compressed fluid and we would ideally like to “waste” as little as possible for secondary cooling purposes. As in most case a compromise has to be struck between power output and turbine life.


Fig. 3. Evolution of turbine blade cooling technology (4)


Fig. 3. illustrates the evolution of turbine blade cooling over the last decades. In the early days of the jet era convection cooling was extensively used where the rotating blade acts as a single-pass cross-flow heat exchanger. This means that the bled compressed air flows radially through cooling passages in one-direction from root to tip, driven by the pressure differences and centrifugal forces, thereby removing heat convected to the blade from mainstream gases from axially. Improvements in modern manufacturing technology means that it is now possible to create a serpentine labyrinth of cooling passages within the blade turning the system into a multi-pass heat exchanger with higher cooling capabilities. Typically these passageways also have internal ribs and fins to increase the internal whetted area available for cooling. Furthermore, the cooling air is also vented through tiny holes onto the blade aerofoil surface, especially near the leading edge. In the ideal case the cooling air emerges at low velocity, forming a protective cooling film around the blade, hence the name film cooling.


Fig. 4. Turbine blade film cooling holes (5)

The general cooling principles outlined above can be extended and combined to different cooling techniques some of which are shown in Fig. 5. below. Some research has been conducted on exotic techniques for turbine discs as using pre-swirl nozzles to swirl the cooling air in the direction of the rotating discs. The increase in kinetic energy reduces the effective temperature of the air when it enters the cooling ducts in the blades. However the flow and heat structures that arise in these systems give rise to complex centripetal and Coriolis accelerations leading to accelerations in excess of 10,000g ! [1] with cyclonic and anti-cyclonic currents that are very difficult to model accurately.


Fig. 5. Some film cooling techniques (6)



(1) Rolls-Royce (1996). The Jet Engine. Rolls Royce Technical Publications; 5th ed. edition