Turboprop engines are a type of aircraft powerplant that use a gas turbine to drive a propeller. The gas turbine is designed specifically for this application, with almost all of its output being used to drive the propeller. The engine’s exhaust gases contain little energy compared to a jet engine and play a minor role in the propulsion of the aircraft.
The propeller is coupled to the turbine through a reduction gear that converts the high RPM, low torque output to low RPM, high torque. The propeller itself is normally a constant speed (variable pitch) type similar to that used with larger reciprocating aircraft engines.
Turboprop engines are generally used on small subsonic aircraft, but some aircraft outfitted with turboprops have cruising speeds in excess of 500 kt (926 km/h, 575 mph). Large military and civil aircraft, such as the Lockheed L-188 Electra and the Tupolev Tu-95, have also used turboprop power. The Airbus A400M is powered by four Europrop TP400 engines, which are the third most powerful turboprop engines ever produced, after the Kuznetsov NK-12 and Progress D-27.
In its simplest form a turboprop consists of an intake, compressor, combustor, turbine, and a propelling nozzle. Air is drawn into the intake and compressed by the compressor. Fuel is then added to the compressed air in the combustor, where the fuel-air mixture then combusts. The hot combustion gases expand through the turbine. Some of the power generated by the turbine is used to drive the compressor. The rest is transmitted through the reduction gearing to the propeller. Further expansion of the gases occurs in the propelling nozzle, where the gases exhaust to atmospheric pressure. The propelling nozzle provides a relatively small proportion of the thrust generated by a turboprop.
Turboprops are very efficient at flight speeds (below 450 mph) because the jet velocity of the propeller (and exhaust) is relatively low. Due to the high price
of turboprop engines, they are mostly used where high-performance short-takeoff and landing (STOL) capability and efficiency at modest flight speeds are required. The most common application of turboprop engines in civilian aviation is in small commuter aircraft, where their greater reliability than reciprocating engines offsets their higher initial cost. Turboprop airliners now operate at near the same speed as small turbofan powered aircraft and burn two thirds of the fuel per passenger. Turboprop powered aircraft have become popular for bush airplanes such as the Cessna Caravan and Quest Kodiak as jet fuel is easier to obtain in remote areas than is aviation grade gasoline (avgas).
Flow past a turboprop engine in operation
Much of the jet thrust in a turboprop is sacrificed in favor of shaft power, which is obtained by extracting additional power (up to that necessary to drive the compressor) from turbine expansion. While the power turbine may be integral with the gas generator section, many turboprops today feature a free power turbine on a separate coaxial shaft. This enables the propeller to rotate freely, independent of compressor speed. Owing to the additional expansion in the turbine system, the residual energy in the exhaust jet is low. Consequently, the exhaust jet produces (typically) less than 10% of the total thrust.
Propellers are not efficient when the tips reach or exceed supersonic speeds.