Bleed air in gas turbine engines is compressed air taken from within the engine, after the compressor stage(s) and before the fuel is injected in the burners. While in theory bleed air could be drawn in any gas turbine engine, its usage is generally restricted to engines used in aircraft. Bleed air is valuable in an aircraft for two properties: high temperature and high pressure (typical values are 200–250°C and 275 kPa (40 PSI), for regulated bleed air exiting the engine pylon for use throughout the aircraft). This compressed air can be used within the aircraft in many different ways, from de-icing, to pressurizing the cabin, to pneumatic actuators. However, bleed air is quite hot and when being used in the cabin or other low temperature areas, it must first be cooled or even refrigerated by the aircraft's environmental control system (ECS). Since most gas turbine engines use multiple compressor stages, some engines have the bleed air inlet between compressor stages to reduce the temperature of the compressed air. Indeed, some newer aircraft such as the Boeing 787 do not use bleed air at all, but instead generate compressed air using separate, electrically-driven compressors. The electricity still comes from the engines, but using separate compressors gives greater control of the auxiliary air pressure & temperature, and also reduces the risk of contamination from engine fluids (into the ECS for example), since the auxiliary air does not pass through the engine.
In civil aircraft, bleed air's primary use is to provide pressure for the aircraft cabin by supplying air to the environmental control system. Additionally, bleed air is used to keep critical parts of the aircraft (such as the wing leading edges) ice-free.
Bleed air is used on many aircraft systems because it is easily available, reliable, and a potent source of power. For example, air turbine starters used to start large jet engines are much smaller and lighter than an electric motor of equivalent power output. Bleed air for starting is provided by an on board auxiliary power unit (APU) or an external huffer if the APU is inoperative. Once a single engine is started, its bleed air can be used to drive the starter on the remaining engines. Lavatory water storage tanks are pressurized by bleed air that is fed through a pressure regulator. Even the outside air probe on some aircraft utilize bleed air to drive a venturi pump to draw outside air into a temperature sensor chamber. Early jet aircraft even used bleed air to drive the gyroscopes in their cockpit artificial horizons.
When used for cabin pressurization, the bleed air from the engine must first be cooled (as it exits the compressor stage at temperatures as high as 300 °C) by passing it through an air-to-air heat exchanger cooled by cold outside air. It is then fed to an air cycle machine unit which regulates the temperature and flow of air into the cabin, keeping the environment comfortable.
Bleed air is also used to heat the engine intakes. A small amount of bleed air is taken from the engine and piped to the engine pod shroud, where it heats the back side of the fan case. This prevents ice from accumulating, breaking loose, and being ingested by the engine, possibly damaging it.
A similar system is used for wing de-icing by the 'hot-wing' method. In icing conditions, water droplets condensing on a wing's leading edge can freeze. This build-up of ice adds weight and changes the shape of the wing, causing a degradation in performance, and possibly a critical loss of control or lift. To prevent this, warm bleed air is pumped through the inside of the wing's leading edge. This heats up the metal, preventing the formation of ice. The air then exits through small holes in the wing edge. Alternatively, bleed air may be used to inflate a rubber boot on the leading edge, breaking the ice loose.
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Bleed air systems have been in use for several decades in passenger jets. Boeing announced that its new aircraft, the 787 would operate without use of bleed air (and the two engines proposed for the aircraft, the General Electric GEnx and the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000, are designed with this in mind). This represents a departure from traditional aircraft design, and proponents state that eliminating bleed air improves engine efficiency, as there is no loss of mass airflow and therefore energy from the engine, leading to lower fuel consumption.
In a bleed air system, air is compressed to several atmospheres by the engines, only to then be cooled and expanded (energy "lost") to a narrow pressure and temperature margin (requires complex systems to regulate temperature and pressure) to be piped around the plane, only then to be cooled or expanded again (energy "lost") to roughly one atmosphere of pressure. Additionally, eliminating bleed air reduces the aircraft's mass by removing a whole series of ducts, valves, heat exchangers and other heavy, maintenance intensive equipment.
The APU (auxiliary power unit) no longer needs to supply bleed air when the main engines are not operating. Aerodynamics are improved due to the lack of bleed air vent holes on the wings. To pressurize the cabin, electric air compressors are used. By driving cabin air supply compressors at the minimum required speed, no energy wasting modulating valves are required. High temperature, high-pressure air cycle machine (ACM) packs can be replaced with low temperature, low pressure packs to increase efficiency. At cruise altitude, where most aircraft spend the majority of their time, and burn the majority of their fuel, and where the outside air is typically very cold, the ACM packs can be bypassed entirely, saving even more energy. Since no bleed air is taken from the engines for the cabin,the potential of engine oil contamination of the cabin air supply is eliminated.
Lastly, advocates of the design say it improves safety as heated air is confined to the engine pod, as opposed to being pumped through pipes and heat exchangers in the wing and near the cabin, where a leak could damage surrounding systems.
Because the aircraft has no bleed air powered engine starters, and no requirement for bleed air for cabin pressurization during flight, there is no need to have the APU drive a load compressor to supply bleed air to the aircraft during a period of engine loss, or on the ground at the start of each flight. This simplifies aircraft design, eliminates another maintenance requirement and saves weight.
On the other hand, eliminating bleed air creates a requirement for another source of energy for cabin pressurization, anti-ice/de-ice systems, and other functions previously covered by bleed air. The other source is electricity from large generators fitted to the main engines and APU. Therefore, from a systems point of view, this approach may potentially be less efficient. Rather than high pressure air from the engine (pneumatic energy) being used directly to pressurize the cabin, the pneumatic energy is converted to mechanical energy by the engine itself, and this shaft horsepower (mechanical energy) is taken from the engine to drive a generator (electrical energy) that is then used to drive a motor (mechanical energy) that is used to drive a compressor (pneumatic energy). Energy is lost at each conversion step, but despite all of these conversions, Boeing still expects a net energy savings. In the 787, the compressor motor is driven by the same power converters that are used to drive the electric engine starters for major weight savings.
While the 787 is considered a "bleedless" aircraft, a minor amount of bleed air is still used for engine pod intake de-ice. The amount of bleed air requirement for engine pod de-ice is so small, and since engine pod de-ice is not used for the entire flight, the engines are designed as if there were basically no typical bleed air requirements.
Airbus does not currently (as of November 2007) have any plans to eliminate bleed air from its 787 competitor, the A350, and is improving its technology by improving the quality of cabin air and reducing the amount of needed bleed air and therefore increasing efficiency. The use of improved bleed air technology improves air quality in an aircraft pressure cabin at the same time. Airbus has received many patents in the last two decades for improving the efficiency of bleed air and improving the quality and security of cabin air.
Occasionally, bleed air used for air conditioning and pressurization is contaminated by chemicals such as oil or hydraulic fluid. This is known as a fume event. Chemicals such as these are irritating, but have not been established to cause long term harm.
Certain neurological and respiratory ill health effects have been linked anecdotally to exposure to contaminated bleed air on commercial and military aircraft. This alleged long-term illness is referred to as aerotoxic syndrome. One potential contaminant is tricresyl phosphate. Academic research is ongoing, such as that by University of New South Wales, Cranfield University, University of British Columbia, University of Washington, University College London (Sarah Mackenzie Ross), but no causal relationship has been established yet by researchers.
A number of lobbying groups have been set up to advocate for research into this potential hazard. These groups include the Aviation Organophosphate Information Site (AOPIS) (2001), the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (2006) and the UK-based Aerotoxic Association (2007). In March 2010, in a court in Australia, a former flight attendant won a case against her former employer for chronic respiratory problems after she was exposed to oil fumes on a flight in March 1992.
- Discussion paper on the cabin air environment, COT, 2006
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- Turner v Eastwest Airlines Limited (2009) at Dust Diseases Tribunal of New South Wales