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Gas Turbine Power Plants


Gas Turbine Working Principle

Gas turbine engines derive their power from burning fuel in a combustion chamber and using the fast flowing combustion gases to drive a turbine in much the same way as the high pressure steam drives a steam turbine.

Diagram of Gas Turbine

One major difference however is that the gas turbine has a second turbine acting as an air compressor mounted on the same shaft. The air turbine (compressor) draws in air, compresses it and feeds it at high pressure into the combustion chamber increasing the intensity of the burning flame.

It is a positive feedback mechanism. As the gas turbine speeds up, it also causes the compressor to speed up forcing more air through the combustion chamber which in turn increases the burn rate of the fuel sending more high pressure hot gases into the gas turbine increasing its speed even more. Uncontrolled runaway is prevented by controls on the fuel supply line which limit the amount of fuel fed to the turbine thus limiting its speed.


The thermodynamic process used by the gas turbine is known as the Brayton cycle. Analogous to the Carnot cycle in which the efficiency is maximised by increasing the temperature difference of the working fluid between the input and output of the machine, the Brayton cycle efficiency is maximised by increasing the pressure difference across the machine. The gas turbine is comprised of three main components: a compressor, a combustor, and a turbine. The working fluid, air, is compressed in the compressor (adiabatic compression - no heat gain or loss), then mixed with fuel and burned by the combustor under constant pressure conditions in the combustion chamber (constant pressure heat addition). The resulting hot gas expands through the turbine to perform work (adiabatic expansion). Much of the power produced in the turbine is used to run the compressor and the rest is available to run auxiliary equipment and do useful work. The system is an open system because the air is not reused so that the fourth step in the cycle, cooling the working fluid, is omitted.


Photo of Gas Turbine Aero Engine

Gas Turbine Aero Engine (Deutches Museum)


Gas turbines have a very high power to weight ratio and are lighter and smaller than internal combustion engines of the same power. Though they are mechanically simpler than reciprocating engines, their characteristics of high speed and high temperature operation require high precision components and exotic materials making them more expensive to manufacture.




Electrical Power Generation

In electricity generating applications the turbine is used to drive a synchronous generator which provides the electrical power output but because the turbine normally operates at very high rotational speeds of 12,000 r.p.m or more it must be connected to the generator through a high ratio reduction gear since the generators run at speeds of 1,000 or 1,200 r.p.m. depending on the AC frequency of the electricity grid.


Turbine Configurations

Gas turbine power generators are used in two basic configurations

  • Simple Systems consisting of the gas turbine driving an electrical power generator.

    Diagram of Gas Turbine Electricity Generation


  • Combined Cycle Systems which are designed for maximum efficiency in which the hot exhaust gases from the gas turbine are used to raise steam to power a steam turbine with both turbines being connected to electricity generators.

Diagram of Combined Cycle Gas Turbine System

Turbine Performance

  • Turbine Power Output
  • To minimise the size and weight of the turbine for a given output power, the output per pound of airflow should be maximised. This is obtained by maximising the air flow through the turbine which in turn depends on maximising the pressure ratio between the air inlet and exhaust outlet. The main factor governing this is the pressure ratio across the compressor which can be as high as 40:1 in modern gas turbines. In simple cycle applications, pressure ratio increases translate into efficiency gains at a given firing temperature, but there is a limit since increasing the pressure ratio means that more energy will be consumed by the compressor.


  • System Efficiency
  • Thermal efficiency is important because it directly affects the fuel consumption and operating costs.

    • Simple Cycle Turbines
    • A gas turbine consumes considerable amounts of power just to drive its compressor. As with all cyclic heat engines, a higher maximum working temperature in the machine means greater efficiency (Carnot's Law), but in a turbine it also means that more energy is lost as waste heat through the hot exhaust gases whose temperatures are typically well over 1,000°C . Consequently simple cycle turbine efficiencies are quite low. For heavy plant, design efficiencies range between 30% and 40%. (The efficiencies of aero engines are in the range 38% and 42% while low power microturbines (<100kW) achieve only 18% to 22%). Although increasing the firing temperature increases the output power at a given pressure ratio, there is also a sacrifice of efficiency due to the increase in losses due to the cooling air required to maintain the turbine components at reasonable working temperatures.


    • Combined Cycle Turbines
    • It is however possible to recover energy from the waste heat of simple cycle systems by using the exhaust gases in a hybrid system to raise steam to drive a steam turbine electricity generating set . In such cases the exhaust temperature may be reduced to as low as 140°C enabling efficiencies of up to 60% to be achieved in combined cycle systems.

      In combined-cycle applications, pressure ratio increases have a less pronounced effect on the efficiency since most of the improvement comes from increases in the Carnot thermal efficiency resulting from increases in the firing temperature.


      Thus simple cycle efficiency is achieved with high pressure ratios. Combined cycle efficiency is obtained with more modest pressure ratios and greater firing temperatures.


See also Heat Engines



One further advantage of gas turbines is their fuel flexibility. They can be adapted to use almost any flammable gas or light distillate petroleum products such as gasoline (petrol), diesel and kerosene (paraffin) which happen to be available locally, though natural gas is the most commonly used fuel. Crude and other heavy oils and can also be used to fuel gas turbines if they are first heated to reduce their viscosity to a level suitable for burning in the turbine combustion chambers.



Gas turbines can be used for large scale power generation. Examples are applications delivering 600 MW or more from a 400 MW gas turbine coupled to a 200 MW steam turbine in a co-generating installation. Such installations are not normally used for base load electricity generation, but for bringing power to remote sites such as oil and gas fields. They do however find use in the major electricity grids in peak shaving applications to provide emergency peak power.

Low power gas turbine generating sets with capacities up to 5 MW can be accommodated in transportation containers to provide mobile emergency electricity supplies which can delivered by truck to the point of need.


Environmental Issues

Almost all gas turbine installations use fossil fuels.


See also Steam Turbines and Generators

See also Pulse Jet Engine


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