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Francis turbine (courtesy Voith-Siemens)

The Francis turbine is a type of water turbine that was developed by James B. Francis. It is an inward flow reaction turbine that combines radial and axial flow concepts.

Francis turbines are the most common water turbine in use today. They operate in a head range of ten meters to several hundred meters and are primarily used for electrical power production.



Francis turbine parts
Francis Runner, Grand Coulee Dam

Water wheels have been used historically to power mills of all types, but they are inefficient. 19th century efficiency improvements of water turbines allowed them to compete with steam engines (wherever water was available).

In 1826 Benoit Fourneyron developed a high efficiency (80%) outward flow water turbine. Water was directed tangentially through the turbine runner causing it to spin. Jean-Victor Poncelet designed an inward-flow turbine in about 1820 that used the same principles. S. B. Howd obtained a U.S. patent in 1838 for a similar design.

In 1848 James B. Francis, while working as head engineer of the Locks and Canals company in the water-powered factory city of Lowell, Massachusetts, improved on these designs to create a turbine with 90% efficiency. He applied scientific principles and testing methods to produce a very efficient turbine design. More importantly, his mathematical and graphical calculation methods improved the state of the art of turbine design and engineering. His analytical methods allowed confident design of high efficiency turbines to exactly match a site's flow conditions.

Theory of operation

Three Gorges Dam Francis turbine runner

The Francis turbine is a reaction turbine, which means that the working fluid changes pressure as it moves through the turbine, giving up its energy. A casement is needed to contain the water flow. The turbine is located between the high pressure water source and the low pressure water exit, usually at the base of a dam.

The inlet is spiral shaped. Guide vanes direct the water tangentially to the turbine wheel, known as a runner. This radial flow acts on the runner's vanes, causing the runner to spin. The guide vanes (or wicket gate) may be adjustable to allow efficient turbine operation for a range of water flow conditions.

As the water moves through the runner its spinning radius decreases, further acting on the runner. For an analogy, imagine swinging a ball on a string around in a circle; if the string is pulled short, the ball spins faster due to the conservation of angular momentum. This property, in addition to the water's pressure, helps Francis and other inward-flow turbines harness water energy efficiently.

At the exit, water acts on cup shaped runner features, leaving with no swirl and very little kinetic or potential energy. The turbine's exit tube is shaped to help decelerate the water flow and recover the pressure.


Francis Inlet Scroll, Grand Coulee Dam
Small swiss-made Francis turbine

Francis turbines may be designed for a wide range of heads and flows. This, along with their high efficiency, has made them the most widely used turbine in the world. Francis type units cover a head range from 20 meters to 700 meters, and their output power varies from just a few kilowatts up to one gigawatt. Large Francis turbines are individually designed for each site to operate at the highest possible efficiency, typically over 90%.

In addition to electrical production, they may also be used for pumped storage; where a reservoir is filled by the turbine (acting as a pump) during low power demand, and then reversed and used to generate power during peak demand.

See also



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