Difference between Piston and Turbine Engines

Aircraft engines come in 3 different types: piston or reciprocating engines, and two Turbine Engines: turboprops and turbo fans. These engines provide efficient flight for various aircraft duties and must be considered when analyzing specific altitude and speed needs. Reciprocating engines are used for smaller aircraft, training aircraft and older transport category aircraft where higher altitudes and speeds are unnecessary. Gas turbine engines, however, are built for speed and higher flight paths. The major difference between the two are: piston engines convert pressure into rotating motion using pistons, while a gas turbine engine, or combustion turbine, uses the pressure from the exploding fuel to turn a turbine and produce thrust.

To explain in more detail a Reciprocating engine uses cylinders with spark plugs that have a piston inside of them and a crankshaft connected to the pistons. Air is drawn into the cylinder as the piston goes down and as the piston returns back up the cylinder, the air is compressed.  A spark is ignited with the fuel and air mixture provided by the carburetor or fuel injection and the piston pushes back down turning the crankshaft and thus turning the propeller. Exhaust air is then forced out as the piston returns to the top and the cycle is repeated.

Turbine engines on the other hand use a compressor, a combustion chamber and turbines either turning a fan or a gearbox connected to a propeller. When air is sucked into the compressor, the air is compressed and then passed into the combustion chamber where Jet fuel is vaporized and ignited. The hot gases expand out of the combustion chamber and turn the turbines which turn the compressor and the fan or propeller (if connected).


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