The design of radial-inflow turbines usually relies on one-dimensional or mean-line methods. While these approaches have so far proven to be quite effective, they can not assist the designer in coping with some important issues, such as mechanical integrity and complex flow features. Turbo-expanders are in general characterized by fully three-dimensional flow fields, strongly influenced by viscous effects and passage curvature. In particular, for high pressure ratio applications, such as in organic Rankine cycles, supersonic flow conditions are likely to be reached, thus involving the formation of a shock pattern which governs the interaction between nozzle and wheel components. The nozzle shock waves are periodically chopped by the impeller leading edge, and the resulting unsteady interaction is of primary concern for both mechanical integrity and aerodynamic performance.
This work is focused on the aerodynamic issues and addresses some key aspects of the CFD modelling in the numerical analysis of turbo-expanders. Calculations were carried out by adopting models with increasing level of complexity, from the classical steady-state approach to the full-stage, time-accurate one. Results are compared in details and the impact of the computational model on the aerodynamic performance estimation is discussed.