By on June 26, 2008

1963_chrysler_turbine.jpgForty or fifty years ago, every manufacturer built concept cars with alternative– and sometimes pretty outlandish– power plants (small nuclear reactor, anyone?). The gas turbine was a popular choice. GM, Ford and Chrysler were all deeply involved in gas turbine research, stretching back to the late '40s and early '50s. In 1963, Chrysler built a fleet of 50 distinctively-styled turbine-powered cars and gave them to consumers to generate real-world feedback. Turbine engines were the wave of the future– a technologically-advanced powerplant that could run on anything combustible that would flow through a pipe, from kerosene to perfume. Chrysler's test program racked-up over 1.1m miles. They continued turbine engine research until the mid 70s, when they actually planned to put a turbine into production. Then, suddenly, nothing. Chrysler's financial problems led to government loan guarantees that included stipulations that they abandon plans to produce turbines (too risky). GM and Ford had long-since been distracted by other shiny objects like rotary engines and winning LeMans. So turbine engine research halted. With all the emphasis now on alternative fuels, perhaps it's time to revive an engine that can run on hydrogen, biofuels, petroleum distillates or even coal dust. Combined with modern engine-control technology, it could be worth a second look. Or not.

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40 Comments on “Whatever Happened To… The Gas Turbine Engine...”


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    The two main problems back then were very high cost and lousy fuel economy. I suspect both of them are still issues today. I know that natural gas turbines for power generation operate at quite high efficiency levels, but at what cost?

  • avatar
    bunkie

    Turbines provide tremendous power-to-weight ratios. They are also expensive to manufacture due to the high-temperature materials, low tolerance for materials defects and exceptional rotational speeds. It really doesn’t make sense to hook one up to a transmission to drive wheels directly. However, they might make sense in a series hybrid due to their low weight.

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    I thought that the heat generated by a turbine made the Mazda rotary feel like an ice chest by comparison.

    Trivia stuff here: Allpar page on the Chrysler turbine

  • avatar
    Jonathan I. Locker

    Turbines have a long lag time between the opening of the throttle, and the spinning up of the turbine, which makes stop and go driving really hard and even dangerous.

    Plus turbines are more efficient at steady state, which don’t work well for cars either.

    But actually if you think about it, a turbine powered hybrid would be wonderful. You have a little turbine in the car, and when the battery power gets low, it just spools up the turbine to run the generator. A small turbine optimized for one speed and load would be very efficient indeed.

    So forget about the volt having a internal combustion engine. Perhaps it should have a turbine instead.

  • avatar
    priznat

    Lots of turbines currently being used to propel M1A2 tanks around in Iraq right now..

    I read an article by Jay Leno about that motorbike that was powered by a turbine taken off a helicopter. Sounded like it had an insane top end speed but it took a while to get there, since it had one really long gear or something along those lines.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    From Wikipedia: EV1 series hybrid

    EV1 series hybrid prototype at EVS-16 in Beijing, 1999The series hybrid prototype[37] had a gas turbine engine APU placed in the trunk. A single-stage, single-shaft, recuperated gas turbine unit with a high-speed permanent-magnet AC generator was provided by Williams International; it weighed 220 lb (99.8 kg), measured 20 inches (50.8 cm) in diameter by 22 inches (55.9 cm) long and was running between 100,000 and 140,000 rpm. The turbine could run on a number of high-octane[citation needed] alternative fuels, from octane-boosted gasoline to compressed natural gas. The APU started automatically when the battery charge dropped below 40% and delivered 40 kW of electrical power, enough to achieve speeds up to 80 mph (128.8 km/h) and to return the car’s 44 NiMH cells to a 50% charge level.

    A fuel tank capacity of 6.5 gallons (24.6 l) and fuel economy of 60 to 100 mpg (3.9 to 2.4 L/100 km) in hybrid mode, depending on the driving conditions, allowed for a highway range of more than 390 miles (627.6 km). The car accelerated to 0-60 mph (96.6 km/h) in 9 seconds.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Turbines are very fuel thirsty I thought – lots of power but uses lots of fuel.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    In the 1990s, Volvo had a turbine electric concept car that I thought was really interesting.

    Here’s a link to Greencar.com’s write-up of the 1993 Volvo ECC.

    http://www.greencar.com/perspective/perspective-volvo-hybrid/

  • avatar
    gcorley

    Rover developed a turbine car in the 60s, As well as the many problems already cited by other contributors, there was also the problem that a gas turbine which is very close to the ground level has a tendency to suck in all sorts of debris!

    Jonathan I. Locker: “So forget about the volt having a internal combustion engine. Perhaps it should have a turbine instead.”

    Volvo did actually show a hybrid concept called the ECC in 1992 with a gas turbine.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volvo_ECC

  • avatar
    menno

    Just picked up a Popular Science from 1961, at an antiques store (where the Mrs. snagged some really good first-day covers and stamps – each to our own, right?). In fact, she found the magazine for me.

    It had an article about the first gas turbine powered fire truck (San Francisco). It was not a regenerative turbine, so it had pretty poor fuel economy, and cost 1/3 more than a diesel gasoline reciprocating engine fire truck – but wow, what performance!

    Yes, a gas turbine has disadvantages when connected to a transmission and directly to the wheels, and yes, a microturbine on an electric car as a range extender/hybrid would be pretty ideal. Especially given the fact that a regenerative turbine (i.e. pre-heated intake while simultaneously cooling exhaust) is very economical at full throttle under load, and can use anything liquid that burns.

    Kerosene from coal. Check. E85. Check. Waste veggie oil. Check. Unleaded gasoline. Check.

    Not forgetting that Rover (of England) pretty well were FIRST with an automotive gas turbine and nearly, VERY nearly took the plunge to produce a regenerative gas turbine car early in the 1960′s, the car in fact, did enter production as the Rover 2000, later 3500.

    Also little known is that one of Toyota’s very first attempts at a hybrid car (as seen in one of my “Cars of the World” books I think dated 1973) was a Toyota Crown luxury car with gas turbine, batteries and electric motor-generators!

    Yeah, Toyota DO look at the long picture, don’t they? That was a full 24 years before the first Prius was introduced to the public, plus I imagine they’d been working on it for a few years prior, too.

    All of us being “car guys” (no matter what gender we are), mustn’t forget to mention the 1964 movie “The Lively Set” in which the Chrysler turbine car played a starring role.

    http://missedmovies.com/order/product_info.php?products_id=95&gclid=CP7YuOPEkpQCFRfAQAodiFYBtw

  • avatar
    miked

    Turbines are great for efficiency, but in addition to the throttle response issue mentioned earlier. They don’t idle well. They need to use almost as much fuel to idle as they do when running. They would be good in a serial hybrid that can start the turbine to charge the battery and then shut it down when it’s not needed. Once tuned and running at constant speed you’ll have a very hard time matching the efficiency of a turbine.

    Union Pacific retrofitted a bunch of their diesel electric locomotives for running out west because they could run on any crap fuel they came across, and they ran for super long distances without stopping. Eventually the maintenance costs put them out of service, but they were very fuel efficient for locomotives.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    Tesla is the perfect example of a Noble Failure. If you work hard enough on a difficult task, and achieve partial success, you may still have some backers, even if you exaggerate and stretch the truth along the way. Tucker is another example. A more funny example would be Steve Martin’s Bowfinger.

  • avatar
    uncle_dave

    Paul,

    Did you just cut and paste and entire reply from Wikipedia? You might want to check caranddriver.com for your next review.

  • avatar
    menno

    A regenerative cycle microturbine hybrid would either have the turbine running, or off. Could be done with a hydraulic hybrid, too, running a pump. Full throttle – on – or off. Cycling.

    It’d have to be muffled pretty well but this is not difficult on a microturbine.

    It’d take some getting used to, however, to have the engine cycling on and off, on and off.

    Just as I got used to the Prius engine going on and off periodically, after awhile, you don’t even notice.

    I’d love a microturbine hybrid. A hydraulic hybrid might then be more practical for automotive use, since the turbine is so small, it would not matter as much if the hydraulic system were larger than the batteries on an electric hybrid (which is why they are now limited to trucks).

    This also solves the problem of not being able to produce enough batteries.

    Hydraulic hybrids can also have regenerative braking to recapture kinetic energy. They’re real hybrids, too.

  • avatar
    KnightRT

    A turbine could be a drive engine if paired with a CVT, or some equivalent transmission that would decouple the vehicle’s speed from that of a turbine. In theory. In practice, noise and maintenance considerations would probably exclude it from use.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    As someone with familiarity with the Abrams tank, I always wondered why turbines weren’t more popular in applications where high torque / steady power were needed.

    I guess the whole turbine shebang isn’t cost effective yet. Diesel electrics locomotives cry out for turbines – but the tried and true piston engine still holds its own.

    KnightRT:
    In theory. In practice, noise and maintenance considerations would probably exclude it from use.

    The Abrams turbine is notably quiet.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    Wonder why Ford didnt allow Volvo to pull the turbine-hybrid from the parts bin. Or just trying to cut Volvo loose.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    Turbines are very fuel thirsty I thought – lots of power but uses lots of fuel.

    You thought right. One of the biggest logistical hurdles of the Gulf War was supplying fuel to U.S. tank units.

    As someone with familiarity with the Abrams tank, I always wondered why turbines weren’t more popular in applications where high torque / steady power were needed.

    Because diesel engines provide a better alternative without being succeptible to damage from dust and debris, using as much fuel, and worrying about where you’re aiming the exhaust stream.

  • avatar
    Rix

    The M1 Abrams tank uses a 1500hp turbine. It gets worse fuel economy than a diesel and is very susceptible to desert dust. The filters must be cleaned quite often. Admittedly, the turbine does motivate the equivalent of 20 suburbans quite well…

  • avatar
    Busbodger

    How noisy are these beasts? Every aircrasft I ever heard with a turbine engine was really loud!

  • avatar
    CarnotCycle

    I actually posted on a different thread here some time ago about the potential virtues of turbines, and their practical drawbacks. Interesting trivia about turbines, they are actually quieter than a piston motor of equivalent power, all other things being equal (no muffler on piston motor). This is apparent when you listen to a big WWII piston motor on a warbird fire up, with just straight pipes coming off the exhaust headers, those things are LOUD for making a couple megawatts or so. Anyone who’s ever heard an Abrams trundle by at high speed can tell you that the tracks and suspension of the beasties are actually louder than the engine noise, for about the same power as the WWII piston motor. We only think of turbines as loud because all the examples we think of tend to be the size of a house bolted on to airplanes the size of football fields. Imagine a piston motor that could turn a prop with about forty thousand shaft horsepower and no mufflers….that thing’s gonna be loud…REALLY loud.

    The series hybrid turbine is an interesting idea, and potentially solves a lot of the practical problems for turbines in cars like start-up speed. Conversely, if the turbine were turning a generator powering a battery in a hybrid that generator can also be a motor – you could use the generator both as a mechanical brake and accelerator to improve turbine response if it were so desired.

    While thinking of pie-in-the-sky stuff with turbines, another innovation on a hybrid series turbine would be a superconductive generator. While that sounds outlandish, given the resources and effort devoted to storing and using cryogenic hydrogen, cryogenic nitrogen by comparison is cake. Superconductors can sustain very high magnetic fields and currents for the weight of the actual superconducting material, especially in comparison to equivalent energy over copper conductors, and could be a serious weight advantage for a mobile widget like a car. By the time you count the parasitic weight of the refrigeration system, you could potentially get a turbine-superconductor setup that is not only more efficient, but actually has a higher power density per kilogram than an internal combustion motor alone, with no hybrid stuff even bolted on.

    It is an interesting technical question..but I’m just thinking out loud at this point. I wouldn’t be suprised though if whoever won the Auto-XPrize had a turbine in their scheme somewhere instead of a reciprocator.

  • avatar
    Mike66Chryslers

    I’ve never had the pleasure of hearing a Chrysler Turbine in operation, but they’re supposedly quite quiet by using baffles to muffle the air intake. The airbox goes across the entire front of the engine compartment.

    One incentive for turbine engine development was reducing maintenance / increasing engine service life. Into the 50′s, when auto manufacturers started looking at turbines, the buying public was still demanding more life from their cars. Turbines require no cooling system and have fewer moving parts, so should have a longer service life, than a comparable IC engine.

    For a brief time, Ford actually put a turbine-powered transport truck into production. However, one of their suppliers’ plants burned to the ground. As Ford was unable to find a second source for the required turbine parts, they cancelled production.

  • avatar
    Chui

    Would someone google:

    TESLA TURBINE

  • avatar
    RedStapler

    Turbines don’t really come into their own until they scale up to power plant size.

    Freightliner experimented with having a Turbine powered truck in mid 1960s. Even in the days of $.20/gal diesel the high fuel consumption made it a dud.

    Using the Turbine in the M1 Abrams was a much as a product of the pork barrel nature of US defense contracting as its technical merits.

    The turbine gets roughly 1/2 the fuel economy of comparable sized tanks with a diesel such the Leopard, Lecleric or Challanger 2.

    See “King of the Killing Zone” by Orr Kelly for a comprehensive history of the M1s development.

  • avatar
    limmin

    The M1 Abrams turbine tank is exceptionally quiet. I did my basic training at Fort Knox, lotsa tanks around. During my marches, tanks would drive by me all the time. I was amazed at how quiet they were.

    But thirsty? Oh, yes indeed. Soldiers wouldn’t use “mpg” when talking tanks. They’d use “gallons per mile”, which was usually 2-3 gallons per mile. Yikes!!!

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    A few questions: anyone know the emissions (not fuel economy, carbon, oxides of nitrogen or sulphur, soot) from a turbine?

    It’s be a nice touch for, say, Saab. It’d certainly mean I wouldn’t have to wince in embarrassment at the “Born from Jets” ads.

  • avatar

    Designline in NZ make a turbine hybrid bus. Uses a Capstone turbine I think.

  • avatar

    Gas turbines, particularly regenerative gas turbines, like the Chrysler turbines, have lower specific fuel consumption (fuel per output over time) than reciprocating gasoline or diesel engines. In applications where the engine is generally run at a constant RPM, turbines have superior fuel economy to piston engines, which is why they’re so common for aircraft use.

    The killer for automotive turbines, in fuel economy, is that auto engines spend so much of their time at part-throttle, where the turbine is less efficient, or idle, where the very high idle speed (among other things) makes it thirsty. Chrysler made a fair amount of progress with minimizing the acceleration lag, but when you have to accelerate the turbine from a 10,000-rpm idle to a 30,000+ peak speed, that’s going to take time. There were also problems with NOx emissions, a function of the high combustion temperatures.

    The other dilemma, which cropped up with Andy Granatelli’s STP racers of the late 60s, is that turbines are more difficult to modify than a piston engine. A given piston engine can be stretched a fair amount in displacement without major reengineering, and you can soup up or detune it in a variety of ways. With a turbine, your choices are more limited — if you’re already close to the material limits of your turbine blades and bearings, you’re left with fewer options that don’t require pricey modifications like redesigning the inlet.

    I think for plug-in hybrids where the engine operates primarily as a generator, small regenerative turbines have a lot of advantages, but as a main power source, I don’t see them being practical for cars.

  • avatar
    factotum

    They may not be practical for cars where they directly power a transmission or wheels, but powering a generator in a serial hybrid setup may be more practical. There is no idle speed requirement, waste heat can be utilized to make steam (a la BMW’s system) to power a separate generator or to spool up the turbine, and who doesn’t love the smell of jet exhaust!?

    BUT, what to do about possible blade ejection? Wouldn’t want to decapitate passers-by or… A kevlar blade containment system might be wee bit expensive.

  • avatar
    Nicodemus

    “Rover (of England) pretty well were FIRST with a automotive gas turbine”

    is probably more accurate. Rover’s contribution to manufacture and design early gas turbines is difficult to overstate. To this day Rolls Royce Gas Turbines engines have the ‘RB’ prefix, which is an abreviation of ‘Rover-Barnoldswick’ (although retrospectively Rolls-Barnoldswick)the name of the plant set up by Rover to manufacture the Whittle engine during WW2.

    The very first car to run with a car tubine was Rover’s aptly registered ‘JET 1′ in 1950.

  • avatar
    Nicodemus

    “BUT, what to do about possible blade ejection? Wouldn’t want to decapitate passers-by or… A kevlar blade containment system might be wee bit expensive.”

    Shouldn’t be any more of a danger than blown con-rod or turbocharger.

  • avatar
    menno

    Someone asked about emissions. Interestingly enough, just the other day, I was reading an article about the Rover 2S/150R (2 shaft, 150hp, regenerative) gas turbine which was very close to being the first automotive gas turbine in series production, and which provided the basis for Rover (UK) and Rotax (Canada and UK) APU’s and pump engines in the early 1960′s through the 1980′s.

    The emissions of this engine sorted out for automotive use (this was an article written in 1970) were able to meet 1975 auto emission standards (which I think were delayed to 1978 or so in real life) without modifications, and strangely enough, the Chrysler turbine (as seen in the car pictured above) was somewhat dirtier, but still far, far cleaner than any 1970 gasoline reciprocating engine.

    As for killing people with the engine self-destructing, I think people are confusing automotive gas turbines with huge jet engines. The rotating weight in an automotive gas turbine is significantly smaller than big jet engines, and if the turbine is damaged, it does not generally come out of the side of the engine – as could be seen in the STP turbine racers during the races in the mid-late 1960′s when the blades were damaged during the race due to FOD (foreign object damage) ingested due to no air filters (which was the case in order to keep the power up for the race, of course).

  • avatar
    montgomery burns

    Nicodemus :

    “Rover’s contribution to manufacture and design early gas turbines is difficult to overstate.”

    Indeed. They set back the Gloster Meteor program by at least a year. They spent so much time arguing with Whittle and trying to “improve” on his design that the first Meteor flew with Metrovick engines. Engineless Meteors were being stored at Gloster. Finally in a lunch deal Rolls swapped a tank engine plant for the gas turbine business of Rover and the rest is history.

  • avatar
    menno

    Time for some early gas turbine concerto, guys and gals….

    http://www.gasturbine.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/derwent.htm

    Go to the movie “Derwent 1″ for a nice start sequence, run to mid-idle (probably over 10,000 rpm, I’m guessing).

    Then, watch this guy as he takes his Rolls Royce Derwent (attached to the back of a little snub-nose pickup) for a “little ride”

    http://video.aol.com/video-detail/mitsibushi-rolls-royce-jet-truck/437655773

    Here, you’ll get to see & hear the Chrysler Turbine car running. Turn up your noise, or you’ll miss the fun. (There is also drag racing with loud reciprocating engines in the background so don’t be confused by that).

  • avatar
    menno

    OK I’ll try again.

    Want to see a real early gas turbine, a Rolls Royce Derwent, start & fast idle? Click here then go to “Derwent 1″ video

    http://www.gasturbine.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/derwent.htm

    Here’s some footage of the Chrysler Gas Turbine car actually running and driving. Don’t be confused by the drag racing and hot rods driving past – listen for the turbine sound, that’s the genuine sound of the Chrysler Turbine (and pretty much any other automotive gas turbine).

  • avatar
    Nicodemus

    “Indeed. They set back the Gloster Meteor program by at least a year. They spent so much time arguing with Whittle and trying to “improve” on his design that the first Meteor flew with Metrovick engines. Engineless Meteors were being stored at Gloster. Finally in a lunch deal Rolls swapped a tank engine plant for the gas turbine business of Rover and the rest is history.”

    With respect, I’m not sure where you get your info from, but a family friend who actually worked on the project at Rover, John Orgille is of the opinion that the W2B as designed by Whittle, was an utter dogs breakfast in terms of gas flow. The redesigned Rover version, the B26 (which became the Rolls Royce Derwent) was an Axial flow and provided the design basis for the modern aircraft jet engine as we know it.

    Whittle, for the record, was an irascible hot head, hopelessly addicted to amphetimines.

  • avatar
    montgomery burns

    “With respect, I’m not sure where you get your info from, but a family friend who actually worked on the project at Rover, John Orgille is of the opinion that the W2B as designed by Whittle, was an utter dogs breakfast in terms of gas flow. The redesigned Rover version, the B26 (which became the Rolls Royce Derwent) was an Axial flow and provided the design basis for the modern aircraft jet engine as we know it.

    Whittle, for the record, was an irascible hot head, hopelessly addicted to amphetimines.”

    From the Wiki entry:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Whittle
    “By late 1941 it was obvious that the arrangement between Power Jets and Rover was not working. Whittle was frustrated by Rover’s inability to deliver production-quality parts, as well as with their “we know better than you” attitude and became increasingly vocal. Rover was losing interest in the project after the delays and constant harassment from Power Jets.”

    That sums it up rather well. One of the things Sir Frank fought Rover on was curving the compressor guide vanes something Rover refused to do and which is now universally used on centrifugal compressors.

    The W2B/23 became the the RB23 (when Rolls took over) which became the Welland in the first Meteors and then developed into the Derwent. All with centrifugal flow compressors.

    As for Whittle being an irascible hothead, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least after putting over 10 years of work into jet engine design and manufacture with almost no help from the Air Ministry or anyone else. And then having his design handed off to Rover. He didn’t even have the money to renew his patent in (I think) 1935 when it expired.

    Sorry everybody for getting OT. I’ll just add that using gas turbines in a hybrid situation could be very useful unfortunately most research on turbines are aircraft related rather than “stationary” where (in civilian use) you’re using the turbine to drive a big fan and there is ram air effect and so on.

    A last word on the turbine powered locomotives I read somewhere that if moving slowly, because the exhaust was out the top, It would tend to melt/burn the roadway of bridges the the engine travelled under!

  • avatar

    I don’t have the in depth study on turbines, but was doing some search on the subject. In the 90s I’d read an article on the Volvo’s Gas-Electric turbine, and then it disappeared.

    I’m sure there are technical hurdles, engineering and cost effectiveness for commercial production, and perhaps others.

    But basically what I’ve understood so far:

    Get (make) a small axial flow turbine, to turn alternator to generate electricity, which can either charge batteries on idle, or be directed to the four electric motors turning the wheels.

    I’ve not done the mathematics, but including the losses in the turbine, and through the electricals, what would the MPG be comparatively.

    Could a test be done, by taking two identical cars, one as reference, and the other modified like said, and run them both identically (or as close) for a year.

    Has a test like this been done?

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    Gas turbines aren’t that efficient in small sizes. Around 60Kw is the practical cut off. That’s quite a bit of power, (and fuel consumption.) Enough to power about eight houses with air conditioning on a hot day.

    That’s about enough to supply most of the power (and space heating) of a 150,000 square foot municipal gym. A big part of the attraction of a micro-turbine is the valuable waste heat being produced by the turbine in useable quantities. The hypothetical gym might use the waste heat to heat the swimming pool. There isn’t a good heat sink on a car.

    Chrysler got its money’s worth out of the turbine program. The PR and the glow effect just seemed endless for them.

  • avatar
    The Manmaschine

    Sorry to awaken an old thread, but I just wanted to say something about the gas turbine, I think in principal it’s a good idea, and I also think that it could be the solution to electric cars, by using it not as a the main source of power directly to the wheels, but as the cars own electricity generator, why not use it to power electric motors? Since it will run on any combustible fuel, it should be possible to synthesise a fuel without the need for oil, I realise that a lot of waste heat is produced, but I’d have thought that could be used and regenerated so that it’s not all wasted, not to mention that it reduces the need for a huge cache of batteries on the vehicle, as I believe efficient, high capacity batteries are possibly a decade away, electricity is very difficult to store efficiently, and a gas turbine could probably increase the distance the vehicle could travel to the equivalent of a small diesel engine if not more, surely it’s an avenue that vehicle manufacturers should be investigating more seriously? The Chrysler gas turbine project was in the 60′s, and things have progressed exponentially since then.


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