Turning turbo design around

1 November 2011


The shape of a blade can make or break any turbo machine. UCL spin-out company Advanced Design Technology (ADT) has turned aerodynamic blade design on its head, improving performance, reducing costs and cutting emissions.

Blade

ADT began in 1998 as a joint venture between UCL and Japanese firm Ebara, when they decided to bring their innovative take on blade design to industry.

A striking number of industry sectors rely on aerodynamic turbo machinery, from aerospace and airway engines, to energy production and cooling – anything with a fan, pump, compressor or propeller. Blade design is crucial to the efficient functioning of these technologies.

Designing aerodynamic shapes

Conventional blade design involves starting from a representational geometrical shape, testing it, and then modifying it until you arrive at an improved performance.

This method has its drawbacks. According to Mehrdad Zangeneh, Professor of Thermofluids at UCL and founding member of ADT, “The empirical method relies on trial and error and the experience of the designer, and can be very time consuming.”

A new spin on design

Prof Zangeneh and his ADT team developed a new inverse design method. He said, “An inverse method allows you to specify the flow field that you want and then construct the blade geometry. So you’re not relying on trial and error. It’s a much more scientific approach, more systematic.”

Early inverse models, first developed in the 1940s, did not allow control over blade thickness, which is crucial to a machine’s structural integrity. ADT’s revolutionary computer aided design method works in 3D and allows for specification of blade thickness – giving full control over the blade’s structure.

Safety and savings

Better design means improved strength and safety. In 2000, the failure of one of Japan’s rockets was attributed to problems with the design of the turbo pump. JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) are now working with ADT to achieve a more durable design for the turbo pump in their LE-7 rocket engine.

ADT now works with a range of industrial clients, including the US navy on marine propellers, Cummins - a major turbocharger manufacturer and Avio - Italy’s leading aircraft engine manufacturer.

Prof Zangeneh said, “We’ve been able to provide major performance improvements, typically between 3 and 5 percent. One of the things I find most satisfying is knowing that we have significantly reduced CO2 emissions.”

The industry edge

Any new technology that demands significant changes in current practice – termed a disruptive technology – faces greater hurdles before it is adopted. Prof Zangeneh believes that ADT’s inverse design process would never have been put to use without support from industry.

“By setting up a spin-out and showing performance improvements in real-life applications we could actually get our technology used in the market place. Without the company, it wouldn’t have been adopted.”

Student gains

UCL students are benefiting hugely from the close business relationships too. Working with industry keeps researchers focused on real problems. Prof Zangeneh said, “We work closely with aerospace, marine and the automotive industry. By having contact with these people we get to know about the important research problems and that’s reflected in our research and teaching. Students gain real experience in areas they can take forward into their careers.”

ADT’s story shows that research and industry partnerships really can bring benefit all round.