Intelligent Compressed Air: What is an Air Compressor?

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Example of the supply side of a compressed air system

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, controls 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.

types of compressors

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.

Of the positive-displacement variety they are broken down further into two more categories: reciprocating and rotary. A reciprocating compressor works like a bicycle pump. A piston reduces the volume occupied by the air or gas, compressing it into a higher pressure. There are two types of reciprocating compressors, single or double-acting. Single-acting compressors are the most common and are available up to 30HP at 200 psig. Their small size and weight allow them to be installed near the point of use and avoid lengthy piping runs. These are the types of compressors that would be commonly found in your garage. The double-acting reciprocating compressor is much like its single-acting brethren, only it uses both sides of the piston and cylinder for air compression. This doubles the capacity of the compressor for a given cylinder size. They are much more efficient than single-acting compressors, but are more expensive and do require a more specialized installation and maintenance.

Rotary compressors are available in lubricant-injected or lubicrant-free varieties. These types of compressors use 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 intermeshing 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 compressors, the compression chamber is lubricated between the intermeshing rotors and bearings. This takes away the heat of compression and also acts as a seal. In the lubricant-free varieties, the intermeshing 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 intercooler 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.

On the other side of the coin, we have the dynamic compressors. These are comprised of two main categories: axial and centrifugal. These types of compressors raise the pressure of air or gas by imparting velocity energy and converting it to pressure energy. In a centrifugal air compressor, air continuously flows and is accelerated by an impeller. This impeller can rotate at speeds that exceed 50,000 rpm. Centrifugal air compressors are generally much larger and can accommodate flow ranges of 500-100,000 CFM. They also provide lubricant-free air.

Axial compressors are used for situations that require lower pressure but high flow rates. They do not change the direction of the gas, it enters and exits the compressor in an axial direction. It is accelerated and then diffused which creates the increase in pressure. A common application that would be served by this type of compressor is to compress the air intake of gas turbines. They have a relatively high peak efficiency, however their large overall size and weight as well as the high starting power requirements pose some disadvantages.

Just as you can find a wide variety of makes and models of automobiles, the same can be said for air compressors. The size, type, and features will be dictated by the types of applications that you’ll be needing the compressed air for in your facility. A quick chat with your local air compressor supplier will help you to determine which type is most suitable for you.

Of course, any of these types of compressors can be used to supply air to your engineered Intelligent Compressed Air Products. If you have an application in your facility that could benefit from an engineered solution, give us a call. An Application Engineer would be happy to discuss your options with you and see to it that you’re getting the most out of your compressed air!

Tyler Daniel
Application Engineer
E-mail: TylerDaniel@exair.com
Twitter: @EXAIR_TD

 

Images Courtesy of  the Compressed Air Challenge and thomasjackson1345 Creative Commons.

About Rotary Screw Air Compressors

Recently, EXAIR Application Engineers have written blogs about reciprocating type air compressors: Single Acting (by Lee Evans) and Dual Acting (by John Ball.) Today, I would like to introduce you, dear EXAIR blog reader, to another type: the Rotary Screw Air Compressor.

Like a reciprocating compressor, a rotary screw design uses a motor to turn a drive shaft. Where the reciprocating models use cams to move pistons back & forth to draw in air, compress it, and push it out under pressure, a rotary screw compressor’s drive shaft turns a screw (that looks an awful lot like a great big drill bit) whose threads are intermeshed with another counter-rotating screw. It draws air in at one end of the screw, and as it is forced through the decreasing spaces formed by the meshing threads, it’s compressed until it exits into the compressed air system.

Rotary Screw Air Compressor…how it works.

So…what are the pros & cons of rotary screw compressors?

Pros:

*Efficiency.  With no “down-stroke,” all the energy of the shaft rotation is used to compress air.

*Quiet operation.  Obviously, a simple shaft rotating makes a lot less noise than pistons going up & down inside cylinders.

*Higher volume, lower energy cost.  Again, with no “down-stroke,” the moving parts are always compressing air instead of spending half their time returning to the position where they’re ready to compress more air

*Suitable for continuous operation.  The process of compression is one smooth, continuous motion.

*Availability of most efficient control of output via a variable frequency drive motor.

*They operate on the exact same principle as a supercharger on a high performance sports car (not a “pro” strictly speaking from an operation sense, but pretty cool nonetheless.)

Cons:

*Purchase cost.  They tend to run a little more expensive than a similarly rated reciprocating compressor.  Or more than a little, depending on options that can lower operating costs.  Actually, this is only a “con” if you ignore the fact that, if you shop right, you do indeed get what you pay for.

*Not ideal for intermittent loads.  Stopping & starting a rotary screw compressor might be about the worst thing you can do to it.  Except for slacking on maintenance.  And speaking of which:

*Degree of maintenance.  Most maintenance on a reciprocating compressor is fairly straightforward (think “put the new part in the same way the old one came out.”)  Working on a rotary screw compressor often involves reassembly & alignment of internal parts to precision tolerances…something better suited to the professionals, and they don’t work cheap.

Like anything else, there are important factors to take under consideration when deciding which type of air compressor is most suitable for your needs.  At EXAIR, we always recommend consulting a reputable air compressor dealer in your area, helping them fully understand your needs, and selecting the one that fits your operation and budget.

Russ Bowman
Application Engineer
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