Turbine Hybrids Spinning Up To Speed

Rex Roywriter

Turbine-powered cars have fascinated generations of car enthusiasts. It all started when the U.S.A.F. 's first deployed jet fighters in the Korean War. It didn't take long for the jet-based turbine engines to find their way into the imaginative minds of American enthusiasts.

The best-known early turbine cars are the wildly styled Firebird concept vehicles. General Motors displayed them in their Motorama shows of the 1950s. Chrysler built 50 Turbine Cars in 1963 to consumer-test the technology. GM's turbine program continued into the 1980s, with one of their last visible projects being a 1979 Cadillac Eldorado turbine car that ran on coal dust.

Throughout the decades, turbine engines continued to tempt engineers like some technical holy grail because of their compact size, simplicity, ability to consume virtually any carbon-based fuel, and potential efficiency. Problems such as too-hot operating temperatures, slow throttle response, and poor fuel economy at low speeds prevented turbine engines from powering mainstream, high-volume vehicles.

While the turbine engine has still not yet found an appropriate automotive application, its time may be near.

Engineers have long known that turbine engines run most efficiently at a steady state, making them excellent choices to generate electricity. Now that series electric hybrid vehicles are beginning to emerge in commercial applications (first seen in buses and soon in the Chevrolet Volt), the concept of an electrically-powered vehicle that uses an on-board turbine generator seems like a practical idea.

The people at Langford Performance Engineering in Wellingborough,
England, think so. The company recently showed its Whisper Eco-Logic. It's a
plug-in hybrid electric vehicle housed in a modified Ford S-Max crossover. The company's Capstone C30 MicroTurbine engine is the vehicle's technical focal point.

The C30 turbine is not unproven. Series hybrid busses running in New York and Baltimore already have the engine onboard, dutifully charging the bus's batteries. The engine is air cooled, so there is no need for a radiator or other cooling system parts. Like many turbines, the C30 can ingest diesel or bio diesel with equal ease, as well as natural gas and various grades of military fuel and kerosene. The Whisper Eco-Logic travels up to 40 miles on electric power stored by its lithium-ion battery pack. Top speed is claimed to be at least 80 mph.

Turbine engines, depending on their design, can have very few moving parts. The Capstone unit has one. This, of course, can make for simple maintenance provided the units are constructed to very tight tolerances and with high-grade materials.

Attesting to the compact size of the turbine engine, the team at Langford integrated their MicroTurbine and other necessary gear into the S-Max without pinching the vehicle's seating or cargo space. Weight did not increase compared to the conventionally-powered vehicle. This is both surprising and significant given the mass of the battery pack.

Time will tell when mainstream manufacturers think that it's time for turbine engines to really take to the highway. We wouldn't bet against seeing something before 2020.

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