Intelligent Compressed Air: What You Need To Know About Rotary Scroll Compressors

Humans have been using compressed air for just about as long as we’ve been using fire. The discovery of fire’s usefulness likely only slightly predates the discovery that blowing air on those flames increases their size, temperature, and intensity. Technically, our respiratory systems are single-stage, diaphragm operated air compressors!

Over the ages, engineer-type humans came up with mechanical methods to perform this task, which was primarily used to stoke fires. This was critical to the development of metalworking, which was key to the Industrial Revolution, which brought on more needs for compressed air, which led to better-equipped engineer-type humans developing the modern methods by which we compress air.

One of the most recent inventions to do this is the rotary scroll compressor. Similar to other rotary type compressors, they use a rotating shaft to decrease the space occupied by a specific amount of gas. By decreasing the space occupied without letting any of that gas out, the pressure increases. The “tricky” part about rotary scroll compressors is the incredibly tight tolerances needed to make it function effectively. In fact, the first patent for one (issued in 1905) predates the machining technology needed to make one by about forty years. And it was the 1970’s before they started to be manufactured for commercial use. Here’s how they work:

Two spirals, or scrolls, are intermeshed. The rotating (black) one orbits eccentrically with the fixed one, continually decreasing the volume for the gas to flow through (from the outer left & right sides) as it is pushed to the center, where it is fully compressed according to the compressor’s rating.

Key advantages/benefits of this design are:

  • Oil free air – no metal to metal contact of the scrolls means no lubrication is needed in the airend.
  • Pulsation free delivery – since the flow from suction to discharge is one continuous motion, the outlet pressure is constant and even.
  • Quiet operation – the lack of metal to metal contact, and continuous motion eliminate the mechanical noise inherent in, for example, the reciprocating pistons and slamming check valves in a piston type compressor.
  • Low maintenance – as in most cases, less moving parts = less to maintain.
  • Wide range of duty cycle – their design makes them particularly conducive to single & two-stage units, and efficient operation with modulating variable speed drives, meaning they handle low loads just as effectively as high loads.

Some disadvantages/drawbacks are:

  • Higher price tag – the precision machine tools, and their skilled operators, are not cheap, and neither are rotary scroll compressors.
  • Size restrictions – larger rotating scrolls generate higher centrifugal force. Because the tolerances are so tight, those higher forces necessarily limit the mass of the rotary element, which limits the size, and hence, the air flow they can push out. As a result, they’re limited to the neighborhood of 100 SCFM capacity.

This combination of pros & cons makes rotary scroll compressors especially popular in the medical and laboratory settings. A supply of clean air at a constant pressure, with the ability to handle constantly changing loads matter a LOT in those settings. 100 SCFM is a LOT of air flow in most of their applications, and relatively speaking, the air compressor generally isn’t even close to the highest priced piece of equipment in such facilities.

At EXAIR Corporation, we’re committed to help you get the most out of your compressed air system. To do that, it’s important to have a better understanding of these systems, from generation to end use. If you’d like to find out more, give me a call.

Russ Bowman, CCASS

Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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Rotary Scroll GIF:  used from  Public Domain
Images Courtesy of  Compressor1 Creative Commons.