Rotary Air Compressors: How Do They Work?

Ingersoll Rand Rotary Screw Compressor

One thing that is found in virtually every industrial environment is an air compressor. Some uses for the compressed air generated are: powering pneumatic tools, packaging, automation equipment, conveyors, control systems, and various others. Pneumatic tools are favored because they tend to be smaller and more lightweight than electric tools, offer infinitely variable speed and torque, and can be safer than the hazards associated with electrical devices. In order to power these devices, compressed air must be generated.

There are two main categories of air compressors: positive-displacement and dynamic. In a positive-displacement type, a given quantity of air is trapped in a compression chamber. The volume of which it occupies is mechanically reduced (squished), causing a corresponding rise in pressure. In a dynamic compressor, velocity energy is imparted to continuously flowing air by a means of impellers rotating at a very high speed. The velocity energy is then converted into pressure energy. We’ve discussed the different styles of air compressors here on the EXAIR Blog in the past. Today I’d like to highlight the rotary compressors, one of the positive-displacement types of compressors.

Positive-displacement compressors are broken into two categories: reciprocating and rotary. The rotary compressors are available in lubricant-injected or lubricant-free varieties. Both styles utilize two inter-meshing rotors that have an inlet port at one end and a discharge port at the other. Air flows through the inlet port and is trapped between the lobes and the stator. As the rotation continues, the point inter-meshing begins to move along the length of the rotors. This reduces the space that is occupied by the air, resulting in an increase in pressure.

In the lubricant-injected varieties, the compression chamber is lubricated between the inter-meshing rotors and bearings. This lubricant protects the inter-meshing rotors and associated bearings. It eliminates most of the heat caused by compression and acts as a seal between the meshing rotors and between the rotor and stator. Some advantages of the lubricant-injected rotary compressor include a compact size, relatively low initial cost, vibration free operation, and simple routine maintenance (replacing lubricant and filter changes). Some drawbacks to this style of compressor include lower efficiency when compared with water-cooled reciprocating compressors, lubricant carry over must be removed from the air supply with a coalescing filter, and varying efficiency depending on the control mode used.

In the lubricant-free varieties, the inter-meshing rotors have very tight tolerances and are not allowed to touch. Since there is no fluid to remove the heat of compression, they typically have two stages of compression with an inter-cooler between and an after cooler after the second stage. Lubricant-free compressors are beneficial as they supply clean, oil-free compressed air. They are, however, more expensive and less efficient to operate than the lubricant-injected variety.

Each of these compressors can deliver air to your Intelligent Compressed Air Products. If you’re looking to reduce your compressed air consumption and increase the safety of your processes contact an EXAIR Application Engineer today. We’ll be happy to discuss the options with you and make sure you’re getting the most out of your compressed air usage.

Tyler Daniel
Application Engineer
Twitter: @EXAIR_TD

Photo courtesy of Ingersoll Rand CC BY 3.0,

About Dual Acting Reciprocating Compressors

When it comes to generating compressed air there are many types of compressors to utilize within a facility.  One of those types is a dual acting reciprocating compressor.  This is a type of positive displacement compressor that takes advantage of a piston style action and actually compresses air on both directions of the stroke.  Below you can see a video from a company that showcases how a dual acting compressor works and gives a good representation of how it is compressing the air on both directions of travel.

Click on this image for video

The reciprocating type of air compressor uses a motor that turns a crank which pushes a piston inside a cylinder; like the engine in your car.  In a basic cycle, an intake valve opens to allow the ambient air into the cylinder, the gas gets trapped, and once it is compressed by the piston, the exhaust valve opens to discharge the compressed volume into a tank.  This method of compression happens for both the single and double acting reciprocating compressors.

With a single acting compressor, the air is compressed only on the up-stroke of the piston inside the cylinder.  The double acting compressor compresses the air on both the up-stroke and the down-stroke of the piston, doubling the capacity of a given cylinder size.  This “double” compression cycle is what makes this type of air compressor very efficient.  A single acting compressor will have an operating efficiency between 100 cfm / 23 kW of air while the double acting compressor has an operating efficiency between 100 cfm 15.5 kW .  Therefore, electricity cost is less with a double-acting reciprocating air compressor to make the same amount of compressed air.

These compressors are ruggedly designed to be driven 100% of the time and to essentially be a Clydesdale of compressors.  They are commonly used with applications or systems requiring higher pressures and come in lubricated or non-lubricated models.

If you would like to discuss air compressors or how to efficiently utilize the air that your system is producing so that you aren’t giving your compressor an artificial load that isn’t needed, contact us.

Brian Farno
Application Engineer


Intelligent Compressed Air: Double-Acting Reciprocating Compressor

Evaluating all of the different types of compressors and which is right for you can seem like a daunting task. Today, I’d like to take some time to talk about the Double-Acting Reciprocating type of air compressor.

double acting compressor
Cut-out of a double-acting reciprocating compressor

Double-Acting Reciprocating compressors are a subset of the larger family of positive displacement compressor types. In positive displacement compressors, air is drawn into a chamber where the volume is then mechanically reduced. The energy used to displace the air volume is converted to an increase in air pressure. Dynamic compressors operate a little differently. They utilize an increase in air velocity to create the change in pressure. Air is accelerated to a high velocity through an impeller. The kinetic energy of the air is converted to an increase in potential (pressure) energy.

The Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor is a close relative to the Single-Acting Reciprocating compressor. In these types of compressors, an “automotive-type” piston driven by a crankshaft provides the compression. In a Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor, air is compressed as the piston moves in each direction. Hence the name, “double-acting”. In a Single-Acting Reciprocating compressor, air is only compressed on each full revolution of the piston. This makes the Double-Acting Reciprocating compressor much more efficient than its brethren.

Double Acting Recip
Double Acting Reciprocating Air Compressor

Double-Acting Reciprocating compressors are also available in much larger sizes. While Single-Acting compressors can be found up to 150HP, generally they’re much less common any larger than 25HP. Whereas a Double-Acting compressor is available from 10HP-1,000HP, making it a better choice for larger plants that require a significantly greater volume of compressed air. While they’re a bit more expensive due to the added mechanisms to produce the double-action compression, this cost is quickly offset by the increase in efficiency. At a performance of 15-16 kW/100 cfm, they’re 32% more efficient than a single-acting reciprocating compressor.

If you’re in the market for a new compressor and are struggling to determine the most suitable compressor, talk with your local compressor sales representative. Once you’re up an running, EXAIR has a wide-range of products that’ll make sure you’re using your compressed air safely and efficiently!

Tyler Daniel
Application Engineer
Twitter: @EXAIR_TD
Image courtesy of Best Practices for Compressed Air Systems – second edition


About Single Acting Reciprocating Compressors

Whether you’re new to the field of compressed air, an experienced technician, or just in the market for a new compressor, you may find yourself coming into contact with various compressor types.  Within the world of compressed air supply there are two types of compressors: positive displacement and dynamic.  These two compressor types branch off into several different variations, as shown in the chart below.

Compressor types

Positive displacement compressors increase air pressure by reducing air volume within a confined space.  In a positive displacement compressor mechanical linkage is used to reduce the volume of air (the fluid), which results in a change to the air pressure.  To think of it another way, the energy which is used to displace the air volume is converted into an increase in air pressure.

Dynamic compressors, on the other hand, utilize an increase in air velocity to cause a change in air pressure.  For a dynamic compressor, the fluid (air) is accelerated to a high velocity through a rotor or impeller.  The kinetic energy of the air is then converted to an increased potential energy/static pressure by slowing the flow through a diffuser.  The air at the outlet of the diffuser is the compressed air which is used to perform work.

The internals of a single acting reciprocating compressor.

Within this vast field of compressed air generation, one of the most common types of compressors is the single acting reciprocating compressor.  The term “single acting” refers to manner in which the cylinder inside of the compressor motor interacts with the working fluid (the air).  When the fluid (air) acts only on one side of the piston, the motor is referred to as “single acting”.  This type of motor relies on the load of the motor, a flywheel, springs, other cylinders, or some other device/momentum to return the piston back to its original location.

Single acting compressors can be air-cooled or water cooled, lubricated or non-lubricated, and packaged to provide a wide range of pressure and flow capacities.  Because of this adaptability, single acting compressors are quite common and serve a variety of industrial needs.

No matter the type of compressor on the system’s supply side, having engineered products on the demand side improves overall system performance and efficiency.  If you’d like to discuss engineered solutions for your compressed air system, EXAIR Application Engineers are ready and waiting.

Lee Evans
Application Engineer


Compressor internals image courtesy of h080, Creative Commons License.