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Thermodynamics at its Finest

Dan Aglione

March 17, 2011

English 202C

Section 032
This document addresses high school students and beginner science undergraduates who have an
interest in the aviation industry. More specifically, jet engines are an enormous engineering field
in both military and commercial research. An overview of an engine’s components and
functions should help students decide if aerospace is a favorable major selection. Because these
students do not have in depth engineering experience, this description will provide basic
background information with enough detail to instill engine principles and understanding. This
should be sufficient for students to get an overview of engine study and properly decide if they
wish to study it further.

Jet engines were an incredible invention of the 20th century. They truly revolutionized the skies
in numerous ways. Jet engines made air travel one of the fastest and safest forms of
transportation known today. The military advancements enabled jet fighters to reach altitudes
and speeds never before possible by preexisting propeller technology.

Although these engines are exceedingly intricate and have gone through thousands of
improvements over the years, their basic thermodynamic principles are rather straightforward. A
jet engine is a device that converts airflow into forward thrust. It is this thrust that allows the
aircraft to reach high enough speeds needed for flight. This is done via several processes inside
the engine that change the incoming air’s temperature, pressure, and velocity into useful kinetic
(or motion) energy.

Before the process of a jet engine can be examined, it is first essential to mention some common
variations of engines. The earliest engine produced was tagged the turbojet engine. This design
was defined for combusting all of the intake air, however, was later found to be fuel inefficient
and noisy. Turboprop engines then came about where a signature propeller was placed in front
of the air intake. Finally, a newer approach was developed called the turbofan engine. These
engines have an inlet fan that pulls some air into combustion, while the rest of the air bypasses
the engine core entirely. This design is the most common today and will be the type discussed in
detail in the following document.
A jet engine’s primary purpose is to generate thrust. Forward thrust is essentially the force
exhibited by an engine due to a high velocity jet of air being pushed backwards. In accordance
with Newton’s Third Law of Motion that states every action has an equal and opposite reaction,
the amount of thrust an engine creates is equal to the force of the exiting air stream.

The relationship between thrust and exit air speed is given by this equation:

T - thrust
dm/dt - mass flow rate of the air (mass of air entering the engine per time)
v - velocity of exiting jet of air relative to the atmospheric air speed

This relationship implies that in order to achieve a lot of thrust, both the mass of the air as well
as its exiting velocity are the key factors. With that being said, jet engine design revolves around
these two items. Engine components work together to capture large amounts of air and
accelerate it as fast as possible. How this happens is described in detail in the next section.


As mentioned before, the processes included in a jet engine all function to increase the exit speed
of a large mass of air. Turbofans contain huge intakes to capture as much air mass as possible at
the entrance. The interior of the engine focuses on inducing the vigorous exit speeds by varying
the air’s pressure, temperature, and volume along its path.

Although not all turbofan engines are exactly identical, they all work on the same principles and
share the same major parts. There are six (6) primary components inside of a turbofan engine,
all displayed in figure 1.

They are as follows:

1. Intake
2. Inlet Fan
3. Compressor
4. Combustion Chamber
5. Turbine
6. Exhaust Nozzle

Figure 1: Turbofan Schematic

1. Intake
The air intake is the first component that contacts the atmospheric air
during flight. The intake (illustrated in figure 2) is the front of the
engine housing that acts as a diffuser. A diffuser is simply a device
that has a gradually increasing cross-sectional area. The jet of air
experiences a higher pressure and a lower velocity as an effect of
this geometry due to basic conservation of energy principles. Once
the air passes through the intake, it is traveling slower than when it
entered and at a pressure higher than atmospheric.

Figure 2: Air Intake

2. Inlet Fan
Next, the air contacts an inlet fan placed directly behind the intake duct which rotates about a
central shaft connected to the turbine (see fig. 3). The spinning fan pulls in the incoming air
and accelerates it backwards. Some of this air continues on to the compressor (primary air
stream). The rest bypasses the compressor and escapes to the back of the engine (secondary
air stream). Figure 4 displays the difference between the two stream lines. Air captured in
red denotes the primary air going to the compressor whereas air captured in blue represents
the bypassing secondary stream line.
The amount of air going to each location specifies a bypass ratio. The bypass ratio relates
how much of the total inlet air is sent around the compressor as opposed to going through it.
Military aircraft have smaller ratios (about 2:1) which yield tremendous power. On the other
hand, commercial aircraft have a typical bypass ratio of 5:1 which is more fuel efficient and
reduces noise levels. For subsonic aircraft (flying below the speed of sound), it is both
uneconomical and impractical to compress 100% of the air.

Secondary Air Stream

(Bypassed Air)
Primary Air Stream
(To Compressor)

Figure 3: Inlet Fan

Figure 4: Primary/Secondary
Air Streams

3. Compressor

The compressor is responsible for greatly raising the pressure and temperature of the air
jet. The compressor contains many blades, called airfoils, which are connected to the
turbine shaft. Each airfoil is comprised of a pair of rotating blades (rotors) and non-
rotating blades (stators). The rotors accelerate the air into the stators, where the collisions
squeeze the air into gradually smaller and smaller spaces.

A compressor has many pairs of rotors and stators that, when compiled one after the
other, are effective at increasing the air’s pressure. Air can exit the compressor forty
times denser than when outside of the engine. At this stage, the velocity of the air is
almost negligible.

Figure 5 (shown on next page) features a compressor with labeled rotors and stators.
Notice the directions of the blades.


Figure 5: Axial Compressor

4. Combustion Chamber

The air enters a combustion chamber once it has been

sufficiently compressed. At this point, the air is very dense
and traveling at slow enough speeds to allow for
combustion. Inside the chamber, jet fuel pumped from the
wings is continuously sprayed to mix with the air. The
air/fuel mixture ignites via a flame (see fig. 6), thus
escalating the air’s temperature and pressure significantly.
The slow moving air prevents from blowing out the flame.

Some of the bypass air enters the chamber through tiny

Figure 6: Combustion
holes to both insulate and cool the reaction. Jet fuel burns
Chamber at very high temperatures, so the secondary air stream is
important to keep combustion in safe conditions. If the air
is allowed to get too hot, it can severely damage the
chamber and subsequent turbine blades.
5. Turbine

The high-energy combusted air rushes out of the chamber and into the turbine. The
turbine is a vital component in a jet engine. Its purpose is to supply the shaft power that
runs the inlet fan and compressor. A turbine is basically an axial compressor in reverse.
It is a series of blades that spin
around a central shaft as shown to
the right in figure 7. The difference
is that compressor blades move the
air, whereas turbine blades are
moved by the air.

The turbine uses the energy from

the combustion process to apply
work to the shaft. The hot, Figure 7: Turbine Blades
pressurized gas from the
combustion chamber enters the turbine and expands intensely. The air pushes itself
through the turbine blades in order to cool down and reduce its pressure. This forcing
action turns the turbine blades at an extremely high rate. The turbine then spins its
central axis shaft which simultaneously spins the compressor and fan blades.

Powering the compressor and fan is the only reason to have a turbine in the jet engine.
The air of course loses energy by contacting all of the blades, reducing its velocity in the
process, but currently this is the best known technology.

6. Exhaust Nozzle

Before exiting the engine and providing thrust, the air passes
through a nozzle. The exhaust nozzle acts similar to a
diffuser in that it does not provide any energy. Its
functionality rests only in the geometry. The nozzle has a
continuously decreasing cross-sectional area that accelerates
the fluid. This shape can be seen on the nozzles of an F-18
displayed in figure 8. Again, by conservation of energy
Figure 8: F-18 Hornet Exhaust Nozzles
principles, decreasing the area will automatically lower the pressure and increase the

Nozzles are an easy, inexpensive way of propelling the air without providing additional
energy. This concept holds true for any fluid and can be demonstrated using a garden
hose by plugging up some of the spout with your thumb. The water flow rate remains the
same but its spraying speed goes up.

Jet engines are undoubtedly an inspiring engineering marvel. Their fundamentals are simple yet
their applications are endless. It is clear that advanced feats can be accomplished with
elementary understanding of thermodynamics.

In a jet engine, immense thrust is generated by compressing, burning, and expanding airflow.
Incoming air is initially pressurized by the intake. Some of this air is accelerated to the
compressor via the inlet fan while the other air is blown around. The compressor squeezes the
air together, increasing its pressure and reducing its speed. Continuous combustion occurs in the
combustion chamber by mixing the pressurized airflow with jet fuel. This superheated air bursts
through the turbine blades and out the exhaust nozzle, thus producing a large forward thrust.
Figure 9 depicts a summarizing diagram below.

Like most processes, jet engines have interdependently linked components. The turbine, for
example, powers the inlet fan and compressor. The compressor slows the airflow to allow
successful combustion. As in all great design, the true ingenuity does not lie in mixing together
a whole bunch of parts, but in effectively relating each element in a synchronized, cohesive

Figure 9: Airflow Diagram

Works Cited

Brain, Marshall. "How Gas Turbine Engines Work." How Stuff Works. N.p., 1 Apr. 2000. Web.
12 Mar. 2011. <>.

Heppenheimer, T.A. "Jet Engines." US Centennial of Flight Commission. N.p., n.d. Web. 12
Mar. 2011.

"Jet Engine." Solar Navigator. N.p., 2006. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.


Journey Through a Jet Engine. Rolls Royce. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.


"Turbofan Engine." Ed. Tom Benson. NASA, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.