Over 40 years of turbomachinery research

The Early Years

The Whittle Laboratory was initially set-up with a grant from the Science Research Council of £300,000 (nearly £4.5M in today’s money) by Sir John Horlock who was to become the first director of the lab, and Sir William Hawthorne who was the head of the Cambridge University Engineering Department at the time.

Sir John Horlock FRS FREng was an early pioneer in the development of aeroengine and gas turbine research, and was prolific in the field of turbomachinery research publishing books and articles over seven decades. Sir William Hawthorne CBE FRS FREng was the head of Cambridge University Engineering Department at the time the Whittle Laboratory was established and became the second director of the laboratory. Years earlier Hawthorne had developed the combustion chambers in Frank Whittle’s jet engine used in the first British jet aircraft. The picture below was taken at the opening of the lab; Frank Whittle at the centre, John Horlock on the far left and William Hawthorne to the right of Whittle.


The development of Computational Methods

From 1980-1985 Dr Denis Whitehead took over the directorship followed by Professor John Denton FRS from 1984 – 1990 and again later from 1999 – 2005.

Professor John Denton was one of the first to develop numerical methods for flow calculation in turbomachines using time-marching methods. The numerical methods that he has developed are widely used around the world and he has received many international awards for his work. The advent of CFD was groundbreaking not only because for the first time researchers and designers could calculate the correct loss mechanisms within turbomachines (rather than relying on empirical correlations), but also because the numerical methods could also be used as design tools to improve component efficiencies.

Industry links

In 1990 Professor Nick Cumpsty, as the new director, oversaw the development of the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre at the Whitte Lab.

In the previous year (1989) Rolls-Royce funded a Professorship of Aerothermal Technology and two years later this relationship was formalised by creating a Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre at the Whittle Laboratory. Over the years the lab has worked closely with Rolls-Royce, Siemens, ALSTOM and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). More recently the lab has also been working with Dyson, who are collaborating with the CDT in Gas Turbine Aerodynamics along with MHI, Siemens and Rolls-Royce. In 2010 MHI invested in a major extension to the lab and also funded two research fellowships and one lecturer within the lab.

Combining experimental and computational work

In 2005 Prof. Howard Hodson took over the leadership of the lab from Prof. John Denton FRS following his retirement.

In the decade that followed, the lab grew both in size and in research capabilities. The use of fast-response surface sensor techniques and laser measurements led to new methods to understand unsteady flow mechanisms such as wake-induced transition. The experimental work and increased computational power, enabled by parallel computing, led to significant advances in our understanding of the physical mechanisms generating loss within turbomachinery.

Looking forward

In recent years, Prof. William (Bill) Dawes, himself a leader in turbomachinery CFD and meshing, oversaw the incorporation of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Gas Turbine Aerodynamics (TURBO-CDT). As part of a 5 year renewal in of the CDT, it was renamed in 2019 as the CDT in Future Propulsion and Power.

High fidelity computational simulations are being performed using massively parallel computing, and GPU enable high performance computing. Our experimental activities also continue to grow; we now have several multi-stage rotating machines, high-speed flow capabilities, and numerous small-scale rigs, wind-tunnels and cascades. As with the computational simulations, experiments incorporate more ‘engine-realistic’ geometries, including fully 3D geometries and hub and shroud leakage paths. Our manufacturing capabilities (including rapid-prototyping and multi-axis computer controlled machining) allow us to design, build and test complex geometries in-house. Such high fidelity matching of experiments and simulations to real engine conditions enables us to understand the true physical mechanisms affecting component efficiencies.

The current lab director, Prof. Rob Miller, is driving a large expansion of the Whittle Laboratory, with the development of the new National Centre for Propulsion and Power 

The future of turbomachinery research

Our research areas