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SPECIAL FEATURE: FLIGHT www.iop.org/journals/physed
Gas turbine technology Peter Spittle
Rolls-Royce plc, Ansty, Coventry CV7 9JR, UK E-mail: peter.spittle@rolls-royce.com
Abstract
Gas turbine engines power most commercial flights operating today. Yet many people are ignorant of the cutting-edge technologies used in the creation and operation of these engines. This article explains some of the principles involved with emphasis on the selection of materials for fan blades and turbine blades, which have to operate reliably in exceedingly hostile environments.
(Some figures in this article are in colour only in the electronic version)
Simple theory, outstanding performance
The number of commercial flights has escalated rapidly since the middle of the last century: currently it is believed that as many as three million people may be in the air at any given moment. Clearly flight is a technology that we have all embraced and are happy to exploit. The ease and efficiency of transport over large distances, combined with the unrivalled levels of safety within the industry when compared with any other mode of transport, give air travel a distinct advantage. On the safety front, recent US figures actually show that you are twice as likely to die as a result of an incident involving an animal- drawn carriage as opposed to an aircraft. These facts—and perhaps the exhilaration experienced during flight—mean that it has become common practice for us to climb aboard 100 tonnes of complex machinery and intricate electronics in an understandable effort to experience faraway destinations.
However, once seated in a cosy window or aisle seat, already wondering what delights will lie below the foil wrappings of the in-flight meal, it surprises me how little thought people generally give to the technology that they are relying on. There seems to be little attention given to the 30 000 components hanging together under the
wing that propel us upwards and onwards, and to the fact that a decent proportion of these components are operating above their melting point (I based this on personal experience of passengers I have sat next to and chatted with, and perhaps left slightly scared and bewildered).
When boarding the aeroplane the only part of the engine clearly visible is the fan set. I am sure most people climb aboard without a glance in the engine’s direction, yet the fan blades are not components that should be disregarded in blasé fashion. At full speed the 3 m diameter array rotates at 3300 rpm, and if a blade were released it would have enough kinetic energy to launch a small car over a seven-storey building. I have flown eight times within the last year and on each and every occasion I marvel at the performance of the engines and airframes. It is amazing to me that the sensation of acceleration we experience, as the 100 tonnes of aeroplane reaches almost 300 km h−1 in under 20 seconds, is generated by only two engines that are simply throwing hot air backwards at high speed.
During these moments at take-off I usually experience a strange mental confrontation: like many people there is always a small sense of unease and a heightened awareness of strange noises and cabin movement. However, it is about then that I remind myself of the sound
504 PHYSICS EDUCA TION 38(6) 0031-9120/03/060504+08$30.00 © 2003 IOP Publishing Ltd

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