I'm not an aircraft expert and I just realized that there are two different terms - turbofan and turboprop. I always had them combined in my head as a term for a large jet engine (like you would see on a 747). Apparently this is not the case though. So what is the difference between them? Are there other types of "turbo" engines?

  • fooot's answer is excellent. Large modern commercial airliners use turbofan engines; you still see turboprops in use in smaller regional passenger planes. Most modern military aircraft are turbofan-driven, though types that prioritize endurance over speed will use turboprops. – Russell Borogove May 18 '14 at 22:06
  • Really good description of how turbine engines work. It might be worth mentioning that early turbine engines used centrifugal rather than axial compressors? – user2756 Jul 2 '14 at 4:20
  • @RANSARA009 These questions are not duplicated at all.... – David Grinberg Nov 8 '16 at 14:31
up vote 69 down vote accepted

Both engines use a turbine for power. This is where the "turbo" part of the name comes from. In a turbine engine, air is compressed and then fuel is ignited in this compressed air. The energy produced by the ignition turns the turbine. The turbine is then able to drive both the compressor at the front of the engine and also some useful load. In airplanes, it produces thrust.

The first jet engine was a turbojet. This is a simple turbine engine that produces all of its thrust from the exhaust from the turbine section. However, because all of the air is passing through the whole turbine, all of it must burn fuel. This means it is inefficient, and the solution is the turbofan.

Jet engine schematic

In a turbofan, the turbine primarily drives a fan at the front of the engine. Most engines drive the fan directly from the turbine. There are usually at least two separate shafts to allow the fan to spin slower than the inner core of the engine. The fan is surrounded by a cowl which guides the air to and from the fan. Part of the air enters the turbine section of the engine, and the rest is bypassed around the engine. In high-bypass engines, most of the air only goes through the fan and bypasses the rest of the engine and providing most of the thrust. Turbofan engine schematic

In a turboprop, the turbine primarily drives a propeller at the front of the engine. There is no cowl around the prop. Some air enters the turbine, the rest does not. The propeller is geared to allow it to spin slower than the turbine. Although this diagram shows only a single shaft, many turboprops have two, with a high pressure shaft driving the compressor and a low pressure shaft driving the propeller. Some engines such as the popular PT6 also reverse the flow direction multiple times.

Turboprop engine schematic

Turboprops are more efficient at lower speeds since the prop can move much more air with a smaller turbine than the fan on a turbofan engine. The cowl around the turbofan's large fan allows it to perform better than an open propeller at high speeds, but limits the practical size of the fan.

At supersonic speeds, turbojets have more of a performance benefit. They develop all of their thrust from the high velocity turbine exhaust, while turbofans supplement that with the lower velocity air from the fan. Since the air from the fan is also not compressed nearly as much as the core turbine flow, it is also harder to prevent the flow from going supersonic and causing losses.

The Concorde used turbojets because it was designed to cruise for long periods at supersonic speeds. Modern fighter jet engines are turbofans, which provide a compromise between efficiency and speed.

There are other benefits and drawbacks between turbojets, turbofans, and turboprops, but I think they are beyond the scope of this question.

Work has been done on creating a "propfan" engine, in an attempt to get the efficiency of a turboprop and the speed of a turbofan. They have yet to come up with a viable design.

Prop fan engine schematic

Elsewhere in aviation, turbine engines are used in

  • helicopters, as a turboshaft engine driving the rotors instead of a propeller, and with a freewheeling clutch to enable autorotations

  • APUs in jet aircraft and large turboprop aircraft

Turbines also find use outside of aviation in power plants (to generate electricity), and even vehicles (like the Abrams tank).

Turbocharged piston engines use a turbine much differently from the examples above. Instead of being the primary power source, the turbine only assists the piston engine. A turbocharger uses a turbine to compress air sent to the engine intake. The increased compression helps the engine generate more power. The turbine of a turbocharger is driven by engine exhaust gasses, and a supercharger is similar but is directly powered by the engine. See the Wikipedia page for more detail.

  • Great answer. Now, are turbojets better than turbofans for high altitude supersonic flight? I see most 1960s fighter jets and the Concorde used turbojet engines... – shortstheory May 19 '14 at 2:54
  • @fooot Great, informative answer. You may want to mention turbocharged piston engines. That was a confusion for me when I first began researching the different types of airplane engines. – Garrison Neely May 19 '14 at 19:21
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    Why is the exhaust air ducted down in the turbo prop example? Wouldn't it make sense to have it shoot straight through? – RoboKaren Jul 5 '14 at 16:27
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    @RoboKaren: Don't think of it as ducted down. Rather, think of it as being fed to an exhaust. Turboprops, like piston engines, are normally installed in front of the plane. Thus you need to deflect the exhaust somewhere to prevent it from blasting the cockpit and passenger compartment. If the aircraft doesn't have this restirction (twin engine mounted on the wings for example) then it would indeed make sense to just vent the jet straight through. Indeed some real-world designs do exactly this. – slebetman Jul 7 '14 at 3:52
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    @RoboKaren: The PT-6A (a common turboprop engine) is "backwards." Air enters at the back, works its way forwards and exits out exhausts on the the sides. The main turbine is on the front, tied to a gearbox, and then the propeller. The nature of turbojets and turbofans is that the exhaust gasses have significant velocity. With a turboprop, there's relatively little velocity in the exhaust. Most of the energy in the exhaust has been captured by the main turbine and turned into rotational power. – Meower68 Jul 22 '14 at 21:55

Further to above answer.., Check out this link to see inside of an engine http://animagraffs.com/inside-a-jet-engine/

Turbofan is the most efficient engine and most of the thrust is produced from the bypass air. The efficiency of the engine mainly depends on the engine bypass ratio. Turbojet is mainly used on the fighter or acrobatic aircraft. These aircraft’s thrust is further increased by the “after burner” installed at the nozzle of the engine.

Turbo propellers are efficient on the short overhaul operation and the a/c with turbo props requires only shorter runway to achieve the required lift compared to other types. Turbo shaft, is the engine mainly used on the helicopter and the energy comes out of the turbine is used by the rotor to achieve the required rpm.

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