Bleed air produced by gas turbine engines is compressed air that is taken from the compressor stage of those engines, which is upstream of the fuel-burning sections. In modern airliner engines, two regulator valves (high stage and low stage) turn on and off automatically and are controlled by at least "...two air supply and cabin pressure controllers (ASCPCs) which open and close appropriate valves. Engine bleed air comes from the high stage or low stage engine compressor section. Low stage air is used during high power setting operation, and high stage air is used during descent and other low power setting operations." Bleed air from that system can be utilized for internal cooling of the engine, cross-starting another engine, engine and airframe anti-icing, cabin pressurization, pneumatic actuators, air-driven motors, pressurizing the hydraulic reservoir, and waste and water storage tanks. Some engine maintenance manuals refer to such systems as "customer bleed air". Bleed air is valuable in an aircraft for two properties: high temperature and high pressure (typical values are 200–250 °C and 275 kPa (40 PSI), for regulated bleed air exiting the engine pylon for use throughout the aircraft).
In civil aircraft, bleed air's primary use is to provide pressure for the aircraft cabin by supplying air to the environmental control system. Additionally, bleed air is used to keep critical parts of the plane (such as the wing leading edges) ice-free.
Bleed air is used on many aircraft systems because it is easily available, reliable, and a potent source of power. For example, bleed air from an airplane engine is used to start the remaining engines. Lavatory water storage tanks are pressurized by bleed air that is fed through a pressure regulator.
When used for cabin pressurization, the bleed air from the engine must first be cooled (as it exits the compressor stage at temperatures as high as 250 °C) by passing it through an air-to-air heat exchanger cooled by cold outside air. It is then fed to an air cycle machine unit that regulates the temperature and flow of air into the cabin, keeping the environment comfortable.
On aircraft powered by jet engines, a similar system is used for wing anti-icing by the 'hot-wing' method. In icing conditions, water droplets condensing on a wing's leading edge can freeze. If that happens, the ice build-up adds weight and changes the shape of the wing, causing a degradation in performance, and possibly a critical loss of control or lift. To prevent this, hot bleed air is pumped through the inside of the wing's leading edge, heating it to a temperature above freezing, which prevents the formation of ice. The air then exits through small holes in the wing edge.
Bleed air from the high-pressure compressor of the engine is used to supply reaction control valves as used for part of the flight control system in the Harrier jump jet family of military aircraft.
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On rare occasions, bleed air used for air-conditioning, and pressurization can be contaminated by chemicals such as oil or hydraulic fluid. This is known as a fume event. While those chemicals can be irritating, such rare events have not been established to cause long term harm.
Certain neurological and respiratory ill health effects have been linked anecdotally to exposure to bleed air that has been alleged to have been contaminated with toxic levels on commercial and military aircraft. This alleged long-term illness is referred to as Aerotoxic Syndrome by agenda groups, but it is not a medically recognized syndrome. One alleged potential contaminant is tricresyl phosphate.
Many lobbying groups have been set up to advocate for research into this alleged hazard. The groups include the Aviation Organophosphate Information Site (AOPIS) (2001), the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (2006) and the UK-based Aerotoxic Association (2007). Cabin Environment Research is one of many functions of the ACER Group, but their researchers have not yet established any causal relationship.
Although a study made for the EU in 2014 confirmed that contamination of cabin air could be a problem, that study also stated:
While no scientific evidence to date has found that airliner cabin air has been contaminated to toxic levels (exceeding known safe levels, in ppm, of any dangerous chemical), a court in Australia in March 2010, found in favor of a former airline flight attendant who claimed she suffered chronic respiratory problems after being exposed to oil fumes on a trip in March 1992.
Bleed air systems have been in use for several decades in passenger jets. Recent improvements in solid-state electronics have enabled pneumatic power systems to be replaced by electric power systems. In a bleedless aircraft such as the Boeing 787, each engine has two variable-frequency electrical generators to compensate for not providing compressed air to external systems. Eliminating bleed air and replacing it with extra electric generation is believed to provide a net improvement in engine efficiency, lower weight, and ease of maintenance.
A bleedless aircraft achieves fuel efficiency by eliminating the process of compressing and decompressing air, and by reducing the aircraft's mass due to the removal of ducts, valves, heat exchangers, and other heavy equipment.
The APU (auxiliary power unit) does not need to supply bleed air when the main engines are not operating. Aerodynamics are improved due to the lack of bleed air vent holes on the wings. By driving cabin air supply compressors at the minimum required speed, no energy wasting modulating valves are required. High-temperature, high-pressure air cycle machine (ACM) packs can be replaced with low temperature, low-pressure packs to increase efficiency. At cruise altitude, where most aircraft spend the majority of their time and burn the majority of their fuel, the ACM packs can be bypassed entirely, saving even more energy. Since no bleed air is taken from the engines for the cabin, the potential of engine oil contamination of the cabin air supply is eliminated.
Lastly, advocates of the design say it improves safety as heated air is confined to the engine pod, as opposed to being pumped through pipes and heat exchangers in the wing and near the cabin, where a leak could damage surrounding systems.
In the 787, cabin air enters from under the fuselage and is compressed as required. De-icing is achieved by electro-thermal heating elements embedded in the wing's leading edge. Hydraulic pumps for flaps, slats, speed brakes and other control surfaces are also powered electrically.
Eliminating bleed air increases the electric load, as cabin pressurization, anti-ice/de-ice systems, and other functions need to be powered electrically instead. This necessitates an increased size of electrical generators as well as higher-power power distribution boards and more sophisticated backup and control systems.