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As the name suggests, a turbopump comprises basically two main components: a pump and a driving turbine, both mounted on the same shaft.

A turbopump can refer to either of two types of pumps.

  • Turbomolecular pumps are also called turbopumps and are used to obtain high vacuum.
  • Another type of turbopump is a centrifugal or axial pump.


Early development

Turbopumps were originally developed for fire fighting for pumping water at high rates and pressures. The initial breakthrough for turbopumps used in rocket motors occurred under Dr. Walter Thiel, during the development of the V2 in Germany. Prior to Dr. Thiel's work, pressurized tanks had been used. The early rocket turbopumps were slightly modified turbopumps originally intended for pumping water. Using turbopumps in rockets was a breakthrough; the power of the rocket motors was increased by an order of magnitude, making the lifting of heavy loads practical.

Development from 1947 to 1949

The principal engineer for turbopump development at Aerojet was George Bosco. During the second half of 1947, Bosco and his group learned about the pump work of others and made preliminary design studies. Aerojet representatives visited Ohio State University where Florant was working on hydrogen pumps, and consulted Dietrich Singelmann, a German pump expert at Wright Field. [51] Bosco subsequently used Singelmann's data in designing Aerojet's first hydrogen pump.

By mid-1948, Aerojet had selected centrifugal pumps for both liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. They obtained some German radial-vane pumps from the Navy and tested them during the second half of the year.

By the end of 1948, Aerojet had designed, built, and tested a liquid hydrogen pump (15 cm diameter). Initially, it used ball bearings that were run clean and dry, because the low temperature made conventional lubrication impractical. The pump was first operated at low speeds to allow its parts to cool down to operating temperature. When temperature gauges showed that liquid hydrogen had reached the pump, an attempt was made to accelerate from 5000 to 35 000 revolutions per minute. The pump failed and examination of the pieces pointed to a failure of the bearing, as well as the impeller. After some testing, super-precision bearings, lubricated by oil that was atomized and directed by a stream of gaseous nitrogen, were used. On the next run, the bearings worked satisfactorily but the stresses were too great for the brazed impeller and it flew apart. A new one was made by milling from a solid block of aluminum. Time was running out, as the contract had less than six months to go. The next two runs with the new pump were a great disappointment; the instruments showed no significant flow or pressure rise. The problem was traced to the exit diffuser of the pump, which was too small and insufficiently cooled during the cool-down cycle so that it limited the flow. This was corrected by adding vent holes in the pump housing; the vents were opened during cool down and closed when the pump was cold. With this fix, two additional runs were made in March 1949 and both were successful. Flow rate and pressure were found to be in approximate agreement with theoretical predictions. The maximum pressure was 26 atmospheres and the flow was 0.25 kilogram per second.

Today the Space Shuttle Main Engine's turbopumps spin at over 30,000 rpm, delivering 150 lb of liquid hydrogen and 896 lb of liquid oxygen to the engine per second.[1]

Centrifugal and Axial turbopumps


Most turbopumps are centrifugal - the fluid enters the pump near the axis and the rotor accelerates the fluid circumferentially and compresses it against the rim, generating high pressures (hundreds of bar is not uncommon), and if the outlet backpressure is not too high, high flow rates.

Axial turbopumps also exist - in this case the axle has essentially propellers attached to the shaft and the fluid is forced by these parallel with the main axis of the pump. Generally, axial pumps tend to give much lower pressures than centrifugal pumps, a few bar is not uncommon. However they are still useful - axial pumps are commonly used as 'inducers' for centrifugal pumps; these raise the inlet pressure enough to prevent excessive cavitation from occurring within the centrifugal portion of the pump.

Complexities of centrifugal turbopumps

Turbopumps have a reputation for being extremely hard to design to get optimum performance. Whereas a well engineered and debugged pump can manage 70-90% efficiency, figures less than half that are not uncommon. Low efficiency may be acceptable in some applications, but in rocketry this is a severe problem. Turbopumps in rockets are important and problematic enough that launch vehicles using one have been caustically described as a 'turbopump with a rocket attached'- up to 50% of the total cost has been ascribed to this area.

Common issues include:

  1. excessive flow from the high pressure rim back to the low pressure inlet along the gap between the casing of the pump and the rotor
  2. excessive recirculation of the fluid at inlet
  3. excessive vortexing of the fluid as it leaves the casing of the pump

In addition, the precise shape of the rotor itself is critical.

Driving Turbopumps

Steam turbine powered turbopumps do exist and are employed when there is a source of steam, e.g. the boilers of steam ships. Nowadays gas turbines are usually used when electricity or steam is not available and place or weight restrictions permit the use of more efficient sources of mechanical energy.

One of such cases are rocket engines which need to pump fuel and oxidizer into their combustion chamber. This is necessary for large liquid rockets, since forcing the fluids or gases to flow by simple pressurizing of the tanks is often not feasible: The high pressure needed for the required flow rates would need strong and heavy tanks.

Ramjet motors are also usually fitted with turbopumps, the turbine being driven either directly by external freestream ram air or internally by airflow diverted from combustor entry. In both cases the turbine exhaust stream is dumped overboard.

See also


  1. ^ Hill, P & Peterson, C.(1992) Mechanics and Thermodynamics of Propulsion. New York: Addison-Wesley ISBN 0-201-14659-2
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Turbopump". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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