Gas compressor

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A small stationary high pressure breathing air compressor for filling scuba cylinders

A gas 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.

Compressors are similar to pumps: both increase the pressure on a fluid and both can transport the fluid through a pipe. As gases are compressible, the compressor also reduces the volume of a gas. Liquids are relatively incompressible; while some can be compressed, the main action of a pump is to pressurize and transport liquids.

Types of compressors[edit]

The main types of gas compressors are illustrated and discussed below:


Positive displacement[edit]

Reciprocating compressors[edit]

A motor-driven six-cylinder reciprocating compressor that can operate with two, four or six cylinders.

Reciprocating compressors use pistons driven by a crankshaft. They can be either stationary or portable, can be single or multi-staged, and can be driven by electric motors or internal combustion engines.[1][2][3] Small reciprocating compressors from 5 to 30 horsepower (hp) are commonly seen in automotive applications and are typically for intermittent duty. Larger reciprocating compressors well over 1,000 hp (750 kW) are commonly found in large industrial and petroleum applications. Discharge pressures can range from low pressure to very high pressure (>18000 psi or 180 MPa). In certain applications, such as air compression, multi-stage double-acting compressors are said to be the most efficient compressors available, and are typically larger, and more costly than comparable rotary units.[4] Another type of reciprocating compressor is the swash plate compressor, which uses pistons moved by a swash plate mounted on a shaft (see axial piston pump).

Household, home workshop, and smaller job site compressors are typically reciprocating compressors 1½ hp or less with an attached receiver tank.

Ionic liquid piston compressor[edit]

An ionic liquid piston compressor, ionic compressor or ionic liquid piston pump is a hydrogen compressor based on an ionic liquid piston instead of a metal piston as in a piston-metal diaphragm compressor.[5]

Rotary screw compressors[edit]

Diagram of a rotary screw compressor

Rotary screw compressors use two meshed rotating positive-displacement helical screws to force the gas into a smaller space.[1][6][7] These are usually used for continuous operation in commercial and industrial applications and may be either stationary or portable. Their application can be from 3 horsepower (2.2 kW) to over 1,200 horsepower (890 kW) and from low pressure to moderately high pressure (>1,200 psi or 8.3 MPa).

Rotary screw compressors are commercially produced in Oil Flooded, Water Flooded and Dry type. The efficiency of rotary compressors depends on the air drier,[clarification needed] and the selection of air drier is always 1.5 times volumetric delivery of the compressor.[citation needed]

Rotary vane compressors[edit]

Eccentric rotary-vane pump

Rotary vane compressors consist of a rotor with a number of blades inserted in radial slots in the rotor. The rotor is mounted offset in a larger housing that is either circular or a more complex shape. As the rotor turns, blades slide in and out of the slots keeping contact with the outer wall of the housing.[1] Thus, a series of increasing and decreasing volumes is created by the rotating blades. Rotary Vane compressors are, with piston compressors one of the oldest of compressor technologies.

With suitable port connections, the devices may be either a compressor or a vacuum pump. They can be either stationary or portable, can be single or multi-staged, and can be driven by electric motors or internal combustion engines. Dry vane machines are used at relatively low pressures (e.g., 2 bar or 200 kPa or 29 psi) for bulk material movement while oil-injected machines have the necessary volumetric efficiency to achieve pressures up to about 13 bar (1,300 kPa; 190 psi) in a single stage. A rotary vane compressor is well suited to electric motor drive and is significantly quieter in operation than the equivalent piston compressor.

Rotary vane compressors can have mechanical efficiencies of about 90%.[8]

Rolling piston[edit]

Rolling piston compressor

Rolling piston forces gas against a stationary vane.

Scroll compressors[edit]

Mechanism of a scroll pump

A scroll compressor, also known as scroll pump and scroll vacuum pump, uses two interleaved spiral-like vanes to pump or compress fluids such as liquids and gases. The vane geometry may be involute, archimedean spiral, or hybrid curves.[9][10][11] They operate more smoothly, quietly, and reliably than other types of compressors in the lower volume range.

Often, one of the scrolls is fixed, while the other orbits eccentrically without rotating, thereby trapping and pumping or compressing pockets of fluid between the scrolls.

Due to minimum clearance volume between the fixed scroll and the orbiting scroll, these compressors have a very high volumetric efficiency.

This type of compressor was used as the supercharger on Volkswagen G60 and G40 engines in the early 1990s.

Diaphragm compressors[edit]

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.[1]

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 used for hydrogen and compressed natural gas (CNG) as well as in a number of other applications.

A three-stage diaphragm compressor

The photograph on the right depicts a three-stage diaphragm compressor used to compress hydrogen gas to 6,000 psi (41 MPa) for use in a prototype compressed hydrogen and compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station built in downtown Phoenix, Arizona by the Arizona Public Service company (an electric utilities company). Reciprocating compressors were used to compress the natural gas. The reciprocating natural gas compressor was developed by Sertco.[12]

The prototype alternative fueling station was built in compliance with all of the prevailing safety, environmental and building codes in Phoenix to demonstrate that such fueling stations could be built in urban areas.


Dynamic compressors depend upon the inertia and momentum of a fluid.

Air bubble compressor[edit]

Also known as a trompe. A mixture of air and water generated through turbulence is allowed to fall into a subterranean chamber where the air separates from the water. The weight of falling water compresses the air in the top of the chamber. A submerged outlet from the chamber allows water to flow to the surface at a lower height than the intake. An outlet in the roof of the chamber supplies the compressed air to the surface. A facility on this principle was built on the Montreal River at Ragged Shutes near Cobalt, Ontario in 1910 and supplied 5,000 horsepower to nearby mines.[13]

Centrifugal compressors[edit]

A single stage centrifugal compressor

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.[1][14][15] Their application can be from 100 horsepower (75 kW) to thousands of horsepower. With multiple staging, they can achieve high output pressures greater than 10,000 psi (69 MPa).

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.

Diagonal or mixed-flow compressors[edit]

Diagonal or mixed-flow compressors are similar to centrifugal compressors, but have a radial and axial velocity component at the exit from the rotor. The diffuser is often used to turn diagonal flow to an axial rather than radial direction.[citation needed]

Axial-flow compressors[edit]

An animation of an axial compressor.

Axial-flow compressors are dynamic rotating compressors that use arrays of fan-like airfoils to progressively compress a fluid. They are used where high flow rates or a compact design are required.

The arrays of airfoils are set in rows, usually as pairs: one rotating and one stationary. The rotating airfoils, also known as blades or rotors, accelerate the fluid. The stationary airfoils, also known as stators or vanes, decelerate and redirect the flow direction of the fluid, preparing it for the rotor blades of the next stage.[1] Axial compressors are almost always multi-staged, with the cross-sectional area of the gas passage diminishing along the compressor to maintain an optimum axial Mach number. Beyond about 5 stages or a 4:1 design pressure ratio a compressor will not function unless fitted with features such as stationary vanes with variable angles (known as variable inlet guide vanes and variable stators), the ability to allow some air to escape part-way along the compressor (known as interstage bleed) and being split into more than one rotating assembly (known as twin spools, for example).

Axial compressors can have high efficiencies; around 90% polytropic at their design conditions. However, they are relatively expensive, requiring a large number of components, tight tolerances and high quality materials. Axial-flow compressors are used in medium to large gas turbine engines, natural gas pumping stations, and some chemical plants.

Hermetically sealed, open, or semi-hermetic[edit]

A small hermetically sealed compressor in a common consumer refrigerator or freezer typically has a rounded steel outer shell permanently welded shut, which seals operating gases inside the system. There is no route for gases to leak, such as around motor shaft seals. On this model, the plastic top section is part of an auto-defrost system that uses motor heat to evaporate the water.

Compressors used in refrigeration systems are often described as being either hermetic, open, or semi-hermetic, to describe how the compressor and motor drive are situated in relation to the gas or vapor being compressed. The industry name for a hermetic is hermetically sealed compressor, while a semi-hermetic is commonly called a semi-hermetic compressor.

In hermetic and most semi-hermetic compressors, the compressor and motor driving the compressor are integrated, and operate within the pressurized gas envelope of the system. The motor is designed to operate in, and be cooled by, the refrigerant gas being compressed.

The difference between the hermetic and semi-hermetic, is that the hermetic uses a one-piece welded steel casing that cannot be opened for repair; if the hermetic fails it is simply replaced with an entire new unit. A semi-hermetic uses a large cast metal shell with gasketed covers that can be opened to replace motor and pump components.

The primary advantage of a hermetic and semi-hermetic is that there is no route for the gas to leak out of the system. Open compressors rely on shaft seals to retain the internal pressure, and these seals require a lubricant such as oil to retain their sealing properties.

An open pressurized system such as an automobile air conditioner can be more susceptible to leak its operating gases. Open systems rely on lubricant in the system to splash on pump components and seals. If it is not operated frequently enough, the lubricant on the seals slowly evaporates, and then the seals begin to leak until the system is no longer functional and must be recharged. By comparison, a hermetic system can sit unused for years, and can usually be started up again at any time without requiring maintenance or experiencing any loss of system pressure.

The disadvantage of hermetic compressors is that the motor drive cannot be repaired or maintained, and the entire compressor must be replaced if a motor fails. A further disadvantage is that burnt-out windings can contaminate whole systems, thereby requiring the system to be entirely pumped down and the gas replaced. Typically, hermetic compressors are used in low-cost factory-assembled consumer goods where the cost of repair is high compared to the value of the device, and it would be more economical to just purchase a new device.

An advantage of open compressors is that they can be driven by non-electric power sources, such as an internal combustion engine or turbine. However, open compressors that drive refrigeration systems are generally not totally maintenance-free throughout the life of the system, since some gas leakage will occur over time.

Thermodynamics of Gas Compression[edit]

Isentropic Compressor[edit]

A compressor can be idealized as internally reversible and adiabatic, thus an isentropic steady state device, meaning the change in entropy is 0.[16] By defining the compression cycle as isentropic, an ideal efficiency for the process can be attained, and the ideal compressor performance can be compared to the actual performance of the machine. Isotropic Compression as used in ASME PTC 10 Code refers to a reversible, adiabatic compression process [17]

Isentropic efficiency of Compressors:

is the enthalpy at the initial state
is the enthalpy at the final state for the actual process
is the enthalpy at the final state for the isentropic process

Minimizing work required by a Compressor[edit]

Comparing Reversible to Irreversible Compressors[edit]

Comparison of the differential form of the energy balance for each device
Let be heat, be work, be kinetic energy and be potential energy.
Actual Compressor:

Reversible Compressor:

The right hand side of each compressor type is equivalent, thus:


By substituting the know equation into the last equation and dividing both terms by T:

Furthermore, and T is [absolute temperature] () which produces:


Therefore, work-consuming devices such as pumps and compressors (work is negative) require less work when they operate reversibly.[16]

Effect of Cooling During the Compression Process[edit]

P-v (Specific volume vs. Pressure) diagram comparing isentropic, polytropic, and isothermal processes between the same pressure limits.

isentropic process: involves no cooling,
polytropic process: involves some cooling
isothermal process: involves maximum cooling

By making the following assumptions the required work for the compressor to compress a gas from to is the following for each process:

All processes are internally reversible
The gas behaves like an ideal gas with constant specific heats

Isentropic (, where ):

Polytropic ():

Isothermal ( or ):

By comparing the three internally reversible processes compressing an ideal gas from to , the results show that isentropic compression () requires the most work in and the isothermal compression( or ) requires the least amount of work in. For the polytropic process () work in decreases as the exponent, n, decreases, by increasing the heat rejection during the compression process. One common way of cooling the gas during compression is to use cooling jackets around the casing of the compressor.[16]

Compressors in Ideal Thermodynamic Cycles[edit]

Ideal Rankine Cycle 1->2 Isentropic compression in a pump
Ideal Carnot Cycle 4->1 Isentropic compression
Ideal Otto Cycle 1->2 Isentropic compression
Ideal Diesel Cycle 1->2 Isentropic compression
Ideal Brayton Cycle 1->2 Isentropic compression in a compressor
Ideal Vapor-compression refrigeration Cycle 1->2 Isentropic compression in a compressor
NOTE: The isentropic assumptions are only applicable with ideal cycles. Real world cycles have inherent losses due to inefficient compressors and turbines. The real world system are not truly isentropic but are rather idealized as isentropic for calculation purposes.


Compression of a gas increases its temperature.





in which p is pressure, V is volume, n takes different values for different compression processes (see below), and 1 & 2 refer to initial and final states.

  • Adiabatic - This model assumes that no energy (heat) is transferred to or from the gas during the compression, and all supplied work is added to the internal energy of the gas, resulting in increases of temperature and pressure. Theoretical temperature rise is:[18]

with T1 and T2 in degrees Rankine or kelvins, p2 and p1 being absolute pressures and k = ratio of specific heats (approximately 1.4 for air). The rise in air and temperature ratio means compression does not follow a simple pressure to volume ratio. This is less efficient, but quick. Adiabatic compression or expansion more closely model real life when a compressor has good insulation, a large gas volume, or a short time scale (i.e., a high power level). In practice there will always be a certain amount of heat flow out of the compressed gas. Thus, making a perfect adiabatic compressor would require perfect heat insulation of all parts of the machine. For example, even a bicycle tire pump's metal tube becomes hot as you compress the air to fill a tire. The relation between temperature and compression ratio described above means that the value of n for an adiabatic process is k (the ratio of specific heats).

  • Isothermal - This model assumes that the compressed gas remains at a constant temperature throughout the compression or expansion process. In this cycle, internal energy is removed from the system as heat at the same rate that it is added by the mechanical work of compression. Isothermal compression or expansion more closely models real life when the compressor has a large heat exchanging surface, a small gas volume, or a long time scale (i.e., a small power level). Compressors that utilize inter-stage cooling between compression stages come closest to achieving perfect isothermal compression. However, with practical devices perfect isothermal compression is not attainable. For example, unless you have an infinite number of compression stages with corresponding intercoolers, you will never achieve perfect isothermal compression.

For an isothermal process, n is 1, so the value of the work integral for an isothermal process is:

When evaluated, the isothermal work is found to be lower than the adiabatic work.

  • Polytropic - This model takes into account both a rise in temperature in the gas as well as some loss of energy (heat) to the compressor's components. This assumes that heat may enter or leave the system, and that input shaft work can appear as both increased pressure (usually useful work) and increased temperature above adiabatic (usually losses due to cycle efficiency). Compression efficiency is then the ratio of temperature rise at theoretical 100 percent (adiabatic) vs. actual (polytropic). Polytropic compression will use a value of n between 0 (a constant-pressure process) and infinity (a constant volume process). For the typical case where an effort is made to cool the gas compressed by an approximately adiabatic process, the value of n will be between 1 and k.

Staged compression[edit]

In the case of centrifugal compressors, commercial designs currently do not exceed a compression ratio of more than a 3.5 to 1 in any one stage (for a typical gas). Since compression raises the temperature, the compressed gas is to be cooled between stages making the compression less adiabatic and more isothermal. The inter-stage coolers typically result in some partial condensation that is removed in vapor-liquid separators.

In the case of small reciprocating compressors, the compressor flywheel may drive a cooling fan that directs ambient air across the intercooler of a two or more stage compressor.

Because rotary screw compressors can make use of cooling lubricant to reduce the temperature rise from compression, they very often exceed a 9 to 1 compression ratio. For instance, in a typical diving compressor the air is compressed in three stages. If each stage has a compression ratio of 7 to 1, the compressor can output 343 times atmospheric pressure (7 × 7 × 7 = 343 atmospheres). (343 atm or 34.8 MPa or 5.04 ksi)

Drive motors[edit]

There are many options for the motor that powers the compressor:

  • Gas turbines power the axial and centrifugal flow compressors that are part of jet engines.
  • Steam turbines or water turbines are possible for large compressors.
  • Electric motors are cheap and quiet for static compressors. Small motors suitable for domestic electrical supplies use single-phase alternating current. Larger motors can only be used where an industrial electrical three phase alternating current supply is available.
  • Diesel engines or petrol engines are suitable for portable compressors and support compressors.
  • In automobiles and other types of vehicles (including piston-powered airplanes, boats, trucks, etc.), diesel or gasoline engines power output can be increased by compressing the intake air, so that more fuel can be burned per cycle. These engines can power compressors using their own crankshaft power (this setup known as a supercharger), or, use their exhaust gas to drive a turbine connected to the compressor (this setup known as a turbocharger).


Gas compressors are used in various applications where either higher pressures or lower volumes of gas are needed:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Perry, R.H. and Green, D.W. (Editors) (2007). Perry's Chemical Engineers' Handbook (8th ed.). McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-142294-3. 
  2. ^ Bloch, H.P. and Hoefner, J.J. (1996). Reciprocating Compressors, Operation and Maintenance. Gulf Professional Publishing. ISBN 0-88415-525-0. 
  3. ^ Reciprocating Compressor Basics Adam Davis, Noria Corporation, Machinery Lubrication, July 2005
  4. ^ Introduction to Industrial Compressed Air Systems
  5. ^ New developments in pumps and compressors using Ionic Liquids
  6. ^ Screw Compressor Describes how screw compressors work and include photographs.
  7. ^ Technical Centre Discusses oil-flooded screw compressors including a complete system flow diagram
  8. ^ Mattei Compressors
  9. ^ Tischer, J., Utter, R: “Scroll Machine Using Discharge Pressure For Axial Sealing,” U.S. Patent 4522575, 1985.
  10. ^ Caillat, J., Weatherston, R., Bush, J: “Scroll-Type Machine With Axially Compliant Mounting,” U.S. Patent 4767293, 1988.
  11. ^ Richardson, Jr., Hubert: “Scroll Compressor With Orbiting Scroll Member Biased By Oil Pressure,” U.S. Patent 4875838, 1989.
  12. ^ Eric Slack (Winter 2016). "Sertco". Energy and Mining International. Phoenix Media Corporation. Retrieved February 27, 2016. 
  13. ^ Maynard, Frank (November 1910). "Five thousand horsepower from air bubbles". Popular Mechanics: Page 633. 
  14. ^ Dixon S.L. (1978). Fluid Mechanics, Thermodynamics of Turbomachinery (Third ed.). Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-022722-8. 
  15. ^ Aungier, Ronald H. (2000). Centrifugal Compressors A Strategy for Aerodynamic design and Analysis. ASME Press. ISBN 0-7918-0093-8. 
  16. ^ a b c Cengel, Yunus A., and Michaeul A. Boles. Thermodynamics: An Engineering Approach. 7th Edition ed. New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 2012. Print.
  17. ^ PTC 10 Compressors and Exhausters.
  18. ^ Perry's Chemical Engineer's Handbook 8th edition Perry, Green, page 10-45 section 10-76
  19. ^ Millar IL, Mouldey PG (2008). "Compressed breathing air – the potential for evil from within.". Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine. South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society. 38: 145–51. Retrieved 2009-02-28. 
  20. ^ Harlow, V (2002). Oxygen Hacker's Companion. Airspeed Press. ISBN 0-9678873-2-1.