What’s a Piston Compressor?

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A piston compressor uses pistons enclosed in cylinders to compress gas, which can be used for air tools, machinery, or storage. It resembles an internal combustion engine without fuel and ignition systems and can have one or many cylinders with varying numbers of valves. It can use different gases and external power sources.

A piston compressor, often called a reciprocating compressor, is a gas compressing machine that works in much the same way as a piston internal combustion engine, but without the explosive ignition of the fuel. External power, often supplied by another motor, is used to drive the machine. A piston compressor uses pistons enclosed in cylinders, usually with at least two valves for inlet and outlet gases. The gas is fed into the cylinder, compressed from the cylinder and then expelled under pressure. These machines can be used for the compression of a number of different gases which can also be used in a variety of ways including, but not limited to, the operation of air tools, machinery or instrumentation systems, or for storage in pressurized tanks.

In basic design, a piston compressor resembles an internal combustion engine without the fuel supply and ignition systems. One or more pistons enclosed in cylinders are connected to a camshaft, which is driven by an external power source, usually a diesel engine, although electric motors or other types of power may also be used. As the camshaft turns, it drives the pistons back and forth within the cylinders, which are sealed except for the intake and exhaust valves. The camshaft is designed to move the pistons in a specific pattern to allow continuous expulsion of compressed gas, each piston making its compression stroke one after the other.

The operation of the individual cylinders is quite simple. As the piston is pulled out of the cylinder, an inlet valve opens, drawing gas into the cylinder. When the piston reaches its maximum stroke on the intake stroke, the intake valve closes and the piston begins its compression stroke. This serves to compress the gas contained within the cylinder, and when the piston has reached its maximum stroke on this stroke, the exhaust valve opens and the compressed gas is expelled into some type of closed and pressurized system for a further use or storage. At this point the drain valve closes and the cycle begins again.

Models for piston compressors can vary greatly from one another. They can be quite simple, with just one cylinder, or they can have many. The number of valves per cylinder can also vary, some having only one valve for both intake and exhaust. External systems provide for the diversion of intake and exhaust in machines of this type. A piston compressor can also have multiple valves per cylinder.

The applications for these machines are numerous. For example, the use of compressed air for pneumatic tools, instrumentation and other machinery is very common. Gases can include others besides air, such as nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, or gaseous hydrocarbons. They can be used directly from the compressor or stored in pressurized tanks for further use.

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