AskDefine | Define propeller

Dictionary Definition

propeller n : a mechanical device that rotates to push against air or water [syn: propellor]

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  1. A mechanical device, with shaped blades that turn on a shaft, to push against air or water, especially one used for propelling an aircraft or boat.

Related terms



  1. propeller

Extensive Definition

A propeller is essentially a type of fan which transmits power by converting rotational motion into thrust for propulsion of a vehicle such as an aircraft, ship, or submarine through a fluid such as water or air, by rotating two or more twisted blades about a central shaft, in a manner analogous to rotating a screw through a solid. The blades of a propeller act as rotating wings (the blades of a propeller are in fact wings or airfoils), and produce force through application of both Bernoulli's principle and Newton's third law, generating a difference in pressure between the forward and rear surfaces of the airfoil-shaped blades and by accelerating a mass of air rearward.


The principle employed in using a screw propeller is used in sculling. It is part of the skill of propelling a Venetian gondola but was used in a less refined way in other parts of Europe and probably elsewhere. For example, propelling a canoe with a single paddle using a "j-stroke" involves a related but not identical technique. In China, sculling, called "lu", was also used by the 3rd century AD .
In sculling, a single blade is moved through an arc, from side to side taking care to keep presenting the blade to the water at the effective angle. The innovation introduced with the screw propeller was the extension of that arc through more than 360° by attaching the blade to a rotating shaft. In practice, there has to be more than one blade so as to balance the forces involved. The exception is the Single-blade propeller system.
The origin of the actual screw propeller starts, in the West, with Archimedes, who used a screw to lift water for irrigation and bailing boats, so famously that it became known as the Archimedes screw. It was probably an application of spiral movement in space (spirals were a special study of Archimedes) to a hollow segmented water-wheel used for irrigation by Egyptians for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci adopted the principle to drive his theoretical helicopter, sketches of which involved a large canvas screw overhead.
In 1784, J. P. Paucton proposed a gyrocopter-like aircraft using similar screws for both lift and propulsion. At about the same time, James Watt proposed using screws to propel boats, although he did not use them for his steam engines. This was not his own invention, though; Toogood and Hays had patented it a century earlier, and it had become an uncommon use as a means of propelling boats since that time.
By 1827 Robert Welch had invented a screw propeller which had multiple blades fastened around a conical base; this new method of propulsion allowed steam ships to travel at much greater speeds without using sails thereby making ocean travel faster. Propellers remained extremely inefficient and little-utilized until 1835, when Francis Pettit Smith discovered a new way of building propellers. Up to that time, propellers were literally screws, of considerable length. But during the testing of a boat propelled by one, the screw snapped off, leaving a fragment shaped much like a modern boat propeller. The boat moved faster with the broken propeller.
At about the same time, Frédéric Sauvage and John Ericsson applied for patents on vaguely similar, although less efficient shortened screw propellers, leading to an apparently-permanent controversy as to who is the official inventor among those three men. Ericsson became widely famous when he built the “Monitor” an armoured battleship that in 1862 triumphed over the Confederate States’ Merrimac in an American Civil War sea battle.
The first screw propeller to be powered by a gasoline engine, fitted to a small boat (now known as a powerboat) was installed by Frederick Lanchester, also from Birmingham. This was tested in Oxford. The first 'real-world' use of a propeller was by David Bushnell, who used hand-powered screw propellors to motivate his submarine "Turtle" in 1776.
The twisted airfoil (aerofoil) shape of modern aircraft propellers was pioneered by the Wright brothers when they found that all existing knowledge on propellers (mostly naval) was determined by trial and error and that no one knew exactly how they worked. They found that a propeller is essentially the same as a wing and so were able to use data collated from their earlier wind tunnel experiments on wings. They also found that the relative angle of attack from the forward movement of the aircraft was different for all points along the length of the blade, thus it was necessary to introduce a twist along its length. Their original propeller blades are only about 5% less efficient than the modern equivalent, some 100 years later.
Alberto Santos Dumont was another early pioneer, having designed propellers before the Wright Brothers (albeit not as efficient) for his airships. He applied the knowledge he gained from experiences with airships to make a propeller with a steel shaft and aluminium blades for his 14 bis biplane. Some of his designs used a bent aluminium sheet for blades, thus creating an airfoil shape. These are heavily undercambered because of this and combined with the lack of a lengthwise twist made them less efficient than the Wright propellers. Even so, this was perhaps the first use of aluminium in the construction of an airscrew.


Aircraft propellers (airscrews)

A propeller's efficiency is determined by
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A well-designed propeller typically has an efficiency of around 80% when operating in the best regime. Changes to a propeller's efficiency are produced by a number of factors, notably adjustments to the helix angle(θ), the angle between the resultant relative velocity and the blade rotation direction, and to blade pitch (where θ = Φ + α) . Very small pitch and helix angles give a good performance against resistance but provide little thrust, while larger angles have the opposite effect. The best helix angle is when the blade is acting as a wing producing much more lift than drag.
Propellers are similar in aerofoil section to a low drag wing and as such are poor in operation when at other than their optimum angle of attack. Control systems are required to counter the need for accurate matching of pitch to flight speed and engine speed. The purpose of varying pitch angle with a variable pitch propeller is to maintain an optimal angle of attack (maximum lift to drag ratio) on the propeller blades as aircraft speed varies. Early pitch control settings were pilot operated, either two-position or manually variable. Later, automatic propellers were developed to maintain an optimum angle of attack. They did this by balancing the centripetal twisting moment on the blades and a set of counterweights against a spring and the aerodynamic forces on the blade. Automatic props had the advantage of being simple and requiring no external control, but a particular propeller's performance was difficult to match with that of the aircraft's powerplant. An improvement on the automatic type was the constant-speed propeller. Constant speed propellers allow the pilot to select a rotational speed for maximum engine power or maximum efficiency, and a propeller governor acts as a closed-loop controller to vary propeller pitch angle as required to maintain the RPM commanded by the pilot. In most aircraft this system is hydraulic, with engine oil serving as the hydraulic fluid. However, electrically controlled propellers were developed during World War II and saw extensive use on military aircraft.
On some variable-pitch propellers, the blades can be rotated parallel to the airflow to reduce drag and increase gliding distance in case of an engine failure. This is called feathering. Feathering propellers were developed for military fighter aircraft prior to World War II, as a fighter is more likely to experience an engine failure due to the inherent danger of combat. Feathering propellers are used on multi-engine aircraft and are meant to reduce drag on a failed engine. When used on powered gliders and single-engine turbine powered aircraft they increase the gliding distance. Most feathering systems for reciprocating engines sense a drop in oil pressure and move the blades toward the feather position, and require the pilot to pull the prop control back to disengage the high-pitch stop pins before the engine reaches idle RPM. Turbopropeller control systems usually utilize a negative torque sensor in the reduction gearbox which moves the blades toward feather when the engine is no longer providing power to the propeller. Depending on design, the pilot may have to push a button to override the high-pitch stops and complete the feathering process, or the feathering process may be totally automatic.
In some aircraft (e.g., the C-130 Hercules), the pilot can manually override the constant speed mechanism to reverse the blade pitch angle, and thus the thrust of the engine. This is used to help slow the plane down after landing in order to save wear on the brakes and tires, but in some cases also allows the aircraft to back up on its own.
A further consideration is the number and the shape of the blades used. Increasing the aspect ratio of the blades reduces drag but the amount of thrust produced depends on blade area, so using high aspect blades can lead to the need for a propeller diameter which is unusable. A further balance is that using a smaller number of blades reduces interference effects between the blades, but to have sufficient blade area to transmit the available power within a set diameter means a compromise is needed. Increasing the number of blades also decreases the amount of work each blade is required to perform, limiting the local Mach number - a significant performance limit on propellers.
James Watt of Scotland is generally credited with applying the first screw propeller to an engine, an early steam engine, beginning the use of an hydrodynamic screw for propulsion.
Mechanical ship propulsion began with the steam ship. The first successful ship of this type is a matter of debate; candidate inventors of the 18th century include William Symington, the Marquis de Jouffroy, John Fitch and Robert Fulton, however William Symington's ship the Charlotte Dundas is regarded as the world's "first practical steamboat". Paddlewheels as the main motive source became standard on these early vessels (see Paddle steamer). Robert Fulton had tested, and rejected, the screw propeller.
The screw (as opposed to paddlewheels) was introduced in the latter half of the 18th century. David Bushnell's invention of the submarine (Turtle) in 1775 used hand-powered screws for vertical and horizontal propulsion. The Bohemian engineer Josef Ressel designed and patented the first practicable screw propeller in 1827. Francis Pettit Smith tested a similar one in 1836. In 1839, John Ericsson introduced the screw propeller design onto a ship which then sailed over the Atlantic Ocean in 40 days. Mixed paddle and propeller designs were still being used at this time (vide the 1858 SS Great Eastern).
In 1848 the British Admiralty held a tug of war contest between a propeller driven ship, Rattler, and a paddle wheel ship, Alecto. Rattler won, towing Alecto astern at 2.8 knots (5 km/h), but it was not until the early 20th century paddle propelled vessels were entirely superseded. The screw propeller replaced the paddles owing to its greater efficiency, compactness, less complex power transmission system, and reduced susceptibility to damage (especially in battle)
Initial designs owed much to the ordinary screw from which their name derived - early propellers consisted of only two blades and matched in profile the length of a single screw rotation. This design was common, but inventors endlessly experimented with different profiles and greater numbers of blades. The propeller screw design stabilized by the 1880s.
In the early days of steam power for ships, when both paddle wheels and screws were in use, ships were often characterized by their type of propellers, leading to terms like screw steamer or screw sloop.
Propellers are referred to as "lift" devices, while paddles are "drag" devices.
Cavitation can occur if an attempt is made to transmit too much power through the screw. At high rotating speeds or under heavy load (high blade lift coefficient), the pressure on the inlet side of the blade can drop below the vapour pressure of the water, resulting in the formation of a pocket of vapour, which can no longer effectively transfer force to the water (stretching the analogy to a screw, you might say the water thread 'strips'). This effect wastes energy, makes the propeller "noisy" as the vapour bubbles collapse, and most seriously, erodes the screw's surface due to localized shock waves against the blade surface. Cavitation can, however, be used as an advantage in design of very high performance propellers, in form of the supercavitating propeller. (See also fluid dynamics). A similar, but quite separate issue, is ventilation, which occurs when a propeller operating near the surface draws air into the blades, causing a similar loss of power and shaft vibration, but without the related potential blade surface damage caused by cavitation. Both effects can be mitigated by increasing the submerged depth of the propeller: cavitation is reduced because the hydrostatic pressure increases the margin to the vapor pressure, and ventilation because it is further from surface waves and other air pockets that might be drawn into the slipstream.

Skewback propeller

An advanced type of propeller used on German Type 212 submarines is called a skewback propeller. As in the scimitar blades used on some aircraft, the blade tips of a skewback propeller are swept back against the direction of rotation. In addition, the blades are tilted rearward along the longitudinal axis, giving the propeller an overall cup-shaped appearance. This design preserves thrust efficiency while reducing cavitation, and thus makes for a quiet, stealthy design.

See also

Propeller phenomena

propeller in Catalan: Hèlix
propeller in Czech: Vrtule
propeller in Danish: Propel
propeller in German: Propeller
propeller in Estonian: Propeller
propeller in Spanish: Hélice (dispositivo)
propeller in Esperanto: Helico
propeller in French: Hélice
propeller in Croatian: Propeler
propeller in Italian: Elica
propeller in Hungarian: Légcsavar
propeller in Dutch: Propeller
propeller in Japanese: プロペラ
propeller in Norwegian: Propell
propeller in Occitan (post 1500): eliç
propeller in Polish: Śmigło
propeller in Portuguese: Hélice
propeller in Russian: Гребной винт
propeller in Simple English: Propeller
propeller in Slovak: Vrtuľa
propeller in Finnish: Potkuri
propeller in Swedish: Propeller
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