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What is a Centrifugal Compressor's Surge?

As found in Norm Lieberman's book, "A Working Guide to Process Equipment", Chapter 35 Centrifugal Compressors and Surge. McGraw-Hill Books (Recommendation: BUY THIS BOOK!)

Have you ever heard a 12,000 hp, 9,000 rpm, multistage, centrifugal compressor go into
surge? The periodic, deep throated roar emitted by the surging compressor is just plain
scary. Machines, quite obviously, are not intended to make such sounds. But what
causes surge?
Another question: What happens to the amperage load on a motor-driven centrifugal
compressor when the molecular weight of the gas increases? I ask this question in the
following context:

The compressor is a fixed-speed machine, as shown in Figure 1;

The suction pressure P1 is constant;
The discharge pressure P2 is constant;
The number of moles of gas compressed or the standard cubic feet per hour (Scfh)
is constant;
The suction temperature is constant.

Figure 1 - A typical motor-driven, fi xed-speed, centrifugal compressor installation.

We ought to be able to answer this question with Robert Mayers equation - also called
the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that motor amperage (or electrical
work) is proportional to:
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N = number of moles, a constant;
T1 = suction temperature, a constant;
P2 = discharge pressure, a constant;
P1 = suction pressure, a constant;
K = ratio of the specific heats, CP/CV
We will assume that over the ranges of molecular weights we are working with that the
ratio of the specific heats K is constant. This is not quite true, but this approximation will
not invalidate the following statement:
According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as the molecular weight of the
gas compressed increases, the amperage (amp) load on the motor should remain
The only problem with this statement is that it contradicts reality. When we actually
increase the molecular weight of a gas, the amp load on the centrifugal wet gas
compressor shown in Figure1 does increase. This seems to contradict the Second Law of
Thermodynamics. But the Second Law has never been shown to be wrong. So we have
a conflict. Our experience tells us that the amp load on the motor must increase as the
molecular weight of the gas increases. But the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us
that the amp load on the motor must remain the same as the molecular weight of the gas
The resolution of this conflict between theory and practice, and the question What
causes surge? will require the rest of this chapter to answer.

Mechanically, What Is Surge?

What is actually happening inside a compressor when it begins to make that surging
sound? Let us refer to Figure 2. When a compressor starts to surge, the gas flows
backward through the rotating assembly (i.e., the rotor). This reversal of flow pushes the
rotor backward. The rotor slides backward along its radial bearings. The radial bearings
support the weight of the rotor.
The end of the rotors shaft now slams into the thrust bearing. The thrust bearing
constrains the axial (i.e., horizontal) movement of the rotor. Each time you hear the
compressor surge, the rotor is making one round trip across its radial bearings. Each time
the rotor surges, the force of the end of the shaft impacting the thrust bearing causes the
thrust bearing to deform. As the thrust bearing deforms, the axial movement of the rotor
increases. The spinning wheels of the rotor come closer and closer to the stationary
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elements (called the labyrinth seals) of the compressor, which are fixed inside the
compressor case.
When a spinning wheel (with a wheel tip velocity of perhaps 600 miles an hour) touches
a stationary element, the compressor internals are wrecked. Pieces of the wheel have
been known to tear through the compressor case and kill operators. Older (1960s), lower
speed compressors seem to withstand the destructive forces of surge better than do newer,
higher-speed models.

How Do Centrifugal Compressors Work?

Centrifugal compressors and centrifugal pumps work on the same principle. If you have
neglected to read Chap. 29, Centrifugal Pumps: Fundamentals of Operation, this would
be a good time to read it. Both centrifugal compressors and centrifugal pumps are
dynamic machines, meaning that they convert velocity into feet of head.

FIGURE 2 Rotating assembly for a centrifugal compressor.

The gas enters the compressors rotor through the large wheel shown in Figure 2. The
purpose of this wheel is to increase the velocity or kinetic energy of the gas. After the
high-velocity gas escapes from the vanes in the wheel, the gas enters the stationary
elements fixed to the inner wall of the compressor case. This is called the stator. Inside
the stator, the velocity or kinetic energy of the gas is converted to polytropic feet of head,
or potential energy.
Brave reader, do not be afraid of the term polytropic feet of head. It really has the same
simple meaning as explained before, except that the term polytropic feet of head means
feet of head for a compressible fluid that is changing temperature.
To convert from polytropic feet of head to P, which is really what process people are
interested in, we use the following very rough approximation:

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P = discharge pressure minus the suction pressure;
DV = density of the vapor at the suction of the compressor;
HP = polytropic feet of head.
Centrifugal compressors operates on a performance curve, just like centrifugal pumps. A
typical performance curve is shown in Figure 3. The horizontal axis is actual cubic feet
per minute (Acfm). This is analogous to Gpm, used on the horizontal (x) axis of
centrifugal pump performance curves. The vertical axis is Hp (polytropic feet of head).
This is analogous to the feet of head used on the vertical ( y) axis of the centrifugal pump
performance curve.
The centrifugal compressor, unless it is dirty or mechanically defective, has to operate on
its performance curve. (this is factual because the curve was developed empirically)
As the compressor discharge pressure increases, then Hp, the feet of polytropic head
required, must also increase. Also, as can be seen from the compressor performance
curve, the volume of gas compressed (Acfm) must decrease. When the volume of gas
drops below a critical flow, the compressor will be backed up to its Surge Point.

FIGURE 3 - The Surge Point shown on a centrifugal compressor operating curve.

Aerodynamic Stall
In my younger days, I used to try to meet good-looking women on airplanes. Finding
myself seated next to an interesting lady, I would ask, Have you ever wondered what
makes this plane fly? With this opening gambit, I would then explain:
This sketch (Figure 3) is a cross section of the wing. Because of the shape of the
wing, the air has to travel a longer distance across the top of the wing than
underneath the wing. This means that the velocity of the air as it travels across the
top of the wing is greater than the velocity of the air as it travels underneath the
wing. The energy to increase the velocity, or kinetic energy of the air as it flows
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across the top of the wing, does not come from the planes engine. This energy to
accelerate the air comes from the air itself; that is, the increase in the kinetic energy
of the air flowing across the top of the wing comes from the barometric pressure of
the air.
It follows, then, that the pressure on top of the wing (shown in Figure 4) is less
than the pressure underneath the wing. This difference in pressure, multiplied by
area of the wing, is called lift. As the planes air speed is reduced, its ability to
maintain a lift equal to its weight is reduced. At some reduced speed, the planes
lift then becomes insufficient to keep it flying. The aircraft undergoes
aerodynamic stall. The plane falls out of the sky, crashes, and all the passengers
are killed.

FIGURE 4 How Aerodynamic lift works.

At this point, the young lady whom I was trying to impress would typically pick up a
magazine and thoroughly ignore me for the rest of the journey.
Surge is quite similar to aerodynamic stall. Of course, when a compressor surges, its
rotor does not stop spinning. The rotor is spun by the motor. But when the flow of gas
through the rotor falls below a certain rate, the forward velocity of the gas stops. With no
flow, there is no velocity to convert to feet of head. Then the P developed by the
compressor falls to zero.
The discharge pressure of the compressor shown in Figure 1 is 100 psig and its suction
pressure is 10 psig. The gas flow, when the compressor surges, travels backward. The
reverse gas flow pushes the rotor backward and slams it up against its thrust bearing. The
suction pressure of the compressor increases and its discharge pressure decreases.
Temporarily, the P required to push the gas from the wet-gas drum and into the absorber
shown in Figure 1 is reduced. The polytropic head requirement is thus also temporarily
reduced. The compressor may then run out on its performance curve, as it moves a
greater Acfm volume, and move away from surge. But in so doing, the compressor
lowers its own suction pressure, raises its own discharge pressure, and creates the
conditions for the next destructive surge.

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Required P
Movement of the gas from the wet-gas drum into the absorber requires a certain P.
According to the previous equation:
P (vapor density) (polytropic head)
We see that we can increase P by either of the following options:
raise the density of the vapor; or,
raise the feet of polytropic head, developed by the compressor.
To raise the density of the gas, we could:
Raise the compressors suction pressure;
Increase the molecular weight of the gas; or,
Decrease the temperature of the gas
We cannot change the density of the gas by altering the mechanical characteristics of the
To raise Hp, the feet of polytropic head, we could
Increase the number of wheels on the rotor shown in Figure 2;
Increase the diameter of the wheels;
Increase the speed of the rotor.
We cannot change the feet of head developed by the compressor by altering the physical
properties of the gas compressed.
Vapor density and feet of head are not related. But if the product of the two numbers
does not result in sufficient P to push the gas from the drum into the absorber, then the
gas flow will stop. It will stop and then reverse its direction of flow. And that is surge.

Too Much Polytropic Head

You might conclude from my description of surge that the engineer needs to be cautious
when designing a new compressor so that it will not surge. For example, lets assume
that Jane has to issue the specifications for a new wet-gas centrifugal compressor. She
checks with John, the unit engineer, for the proper molecular weight of the gas. John tells
Jane that the molecular weight of the gas is normally 30, but it can be as low as 24 - that
is, the density of the gas can, on occasion, be 20 percent lower than normal.

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Jane concludes that the lower-density gas will require more feet of polytropic head to
develop the required P. To avoid the possibility of surge, she decides to increase the
number of wheels on the compressor from five to six. While Jane has used good
engineering judgment, she has made a serious error. It turns out that John should not
have been trusted. The actual molecular weight of the gas turns out not to be 24 or 30,
but 36. The gas is 50 percent more dense than Janes design specifications.
Poor Jane! The compressors motor driver now trips off on high amps! In her efforts to
avoid surge, she has run afoul of the real-world fact: that the motor amps required to
drive a centrifugal compressor are approximately proportional to the molecular weight of
the gas - in apparent contradiction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I hope that
you can now see the intimate relationship between surge in a centrifugal compressor and
the amperage load on the motor used to drive the compressor. Lets see if I can prove
that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is in harmony with our practical experience.

Effect of Molecular Weight on P

Let us refer again to Figure 1. Suddenly, there is an increase in the molecular weight of
the wet gas. This causes the density of the gas to increase. This results in an increase of
the compressor P. As the compressor P increases, the compressors suction pressure
decreases. Why? If the discharge pressure is kept constant by the absorber backpressure
control valve, then a bigger P must drag down the suction pressure. The reduced
suction pressure increases the suction volume (Acfm) of gas flowing to the compressor.
Why? Because a lower-pressure gas occupies a larger volume. As the Acfm increases,
we run out to the right on the compressor performance curve, shown in Figure 3. As we
move away from the surge point, the polytropic feet of head decreases. As the polytropic
feet of head is reduced, the compressor P comes partially back down to its initial value,
until a new equilibrium is established. But because the initial disturbance of the
equilibrium - the increased molecular weight - moved us away from surge, the new
equilibrium will be established farther away from surge than the initial equilibrium. Not
only will the new equilibrium be established farther away from surge, but the pressure in
the wet-gas drum will wind up lower than the initial pressure in the drum.
Lets now assume that there is a sudden decrease in the molecular weight of the wet gas.
This results in a decrease in the gas density. The P developed by the compressor goes
down. As a consequence, the compressors suction pressure rises. This reduces the Acfm
volume of gas flowing into the compressor. As the Acfm decreases, we back up on the
compressor curve toward the surge point. As we move closer to surge, the polytropic feet
of head developed increases. The compressor P comes partly back up to its initial
value, until a new equilibrium is established. But because the initial disturbance - the
decreased molecular weight - moved us toward surge, the new equilibrium will be
established closer to surge than the initial equilibrium. Also, the pressure in the wet-gas
drum will wind up higher than the initial equilibrium pressure in that drum.

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