A compressor is a mechanical device that increases the pressure of a gas by reducing its volume. An air compressor is a specific type of gas compressor.
Many compressors can be staged, that is, the fluid is compressed several times in steps or stages, to increase discharge pressure. Often, the second stage is physically smaller than the primary stage, to accommodate the already compressed gas. Each stage further compresses the gas and increases pressure. Those that are powered by an electric motor can also be controlled using a VFD or power inverter, however many (hermetic and semi-hermetic) compressors can only work at certain speeds, since they may include built-in oil pumps. The oil pumps are connected to the same shaft that drives the compressor and forces oil into the compressor and motor bearings. At low speeds, insufficient quantities or no oil is forced into the bearings, eventually leading to bearing failure, while at high speeds, excessive amounts of oil may be lost from the bearings and compressor and potentially into the discharge line due to splashing. Eventually the oil runs out and the bearings are left unlubricated, again leading to failure, and the oil may contaminate the refrigerant, air or other working gas.
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Centrifugal compressors use a rotating disk or impeller in a shaped housing to force the gas to the rim of the impeller, increasing the velocity of the gas. A diffuser (divergent duct) section converts the velocity energy to pressure energy. They are primarily used for continuous, stationary service in industries such as oil refineries, chemical and petrochemical plants and natural gas processing plants. Their application can be from 100 horsepower (75 kW) to thousands of horsepower. With multiple staging, they can achieve high output pressures greater than 1,000 psi (6.9 MPa).
This type of compressor, along with screw compressors, are extensively used in large refrigeration and air conditioning systems. Magnetic bearing (magnetically levitated) and air bearing centrifugal compressors exist.
Many large snowmaking operations (like ski resorts) use this type of compressor. They are also used in internal combustion engines as superchargers and turbochargers. Centrifugal compressors are used in small gas turbine engines or as the final compression stage of medium-sized gas turbines.
Centrifugal compressors are the largest available compressors, offer higher efficiencies under partial loads, may be oil-free when using air or magnetic bearings which increases the heat transfer coefficient in evaporators and condensers, weigh up to 90% less and occupy 50% less space than reciprocating compressors, are reliable and cost less to maintain since less components are exposed to wear, and only generate minimal vibration. But, their initial cost is higher, require highly precise CNC machining, the impeller needs to rotate at high speeds making small compressors impractical, and surging becomes more likely. Surging is gas flow reversal, meaning that the gas goes from the discharge to the suction side, which can cause serious damage, specially in the compressor bearings and its drive shaft. It is caused by a pressure on the discharge side that is higher than the output pressure of the compressor. This can cause gases to flow back and forth between the compressor and whatever is connected to its discharge line, causing oscillations.
A diaphragm compressor (also known as a membrane compressor) is a variant of the conventional reciprocating compressor. The compression of gas occurs by the movement of a flexible membrane, instead of an intake element. The back and forth movement of the membrane is driven by a rod and a crankshaft mechanism. Only the membrane and the compressor box come in contact with the gas being compressed.
The degree of flexing and the material constituting the diaphragm affects the maintenance life of the equipment. Generally stiff metal diaphragms may only displace a few cubic centimeters of volume because the metal can not endure large degrees of flexing without cracking, but the stiffness of a metal diaphragm allows it to pump at high pressures. Rubber or silicone diaphragms are capable of enduring deep pumping strokes of very high flexion, but their low strength limits their use to low-pressure applications, and they need to be replaced as plastic embrittlement occurs.
Diaphragm compressors are often used for hydrogen and compressed natural gas (CNG) as well as in a number of other applications.
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