Beyond Piston Engines: Gas Turbine Cars

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Photo: Car Culture/Corbis

Gas turbine engines have numerous advantages over the piston engines that drive most of our cars. Their high power to weight ratio makes them better suited for large jobs, and they operate well at high altitudes. They are not dependent on petroleum fuels, but can run on natural gas, kerosene, jet fuel and biofuels.

They have their downsides as well. The fact that they run at high speeds and have high operating temperatures makes them more expensive to produce and maintain. They are inefficient when idling or accelerating. So it makes sense that they are most often used to power large machinery such as commercial jets, helicopters, tanks and small power plants.

In their basic form, gas turbine engines are mechanically simpler than piston engines (though engines used to power 747s inevitably become more complicated). How Stuff Works explains the basics:

In a gas turbine, a pressurized gas spins the turbine. In all modern gas turbine engines, the engine produces its own pressurized gas, and it does this by burning something like propane, natural gas, kerosene or jet fuel. The heat that comes from burning the fuel expands air, and the high-speed rush of this hot air spins the turbine.
The Heinkel He 178. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The gas turbine engine was first patented in 1791 by John Barber, but it wasn’t until 1939 that one was actually put into commercial use. That year saw the first industrial gas turbine engine in Switzerland as well as the first successful use of the design in an airplane: the Heinkel He 178, the first aircraft to fly using only turbojet power.

Over the past few decades, numerous automakers tried to take advantage of the engine’s power and flexible use of fuel, but none succeeded in overcoming its disadvantages to bring a gas turbine powered car to market. Aspiring race car driver Casey Putsch did build a street-legal Batmobile with a turbine engine, but this isn’t the kind of mass market ride most car companies have in mind.

As hybrid electric cars like the Toyota Prius take a larger share of the market, gas turbine engines could be used to extend their range. The key is making them small and inexpensive enough to make sense for personal vehicles.

So far, Jaguar Land Rover is ahead of the game. Working with SR Drives and Bladon Jets, it received a grant from the British Technology Strategy Board in January 2010 to develop a micro gas turbine for use in a powerful but low emissions car.

The Jaguar C-X75. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Jaguar C-X75, the concept that debuted at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, is an electric hybrid that uses two small gas-powered turbines to generate electricity when the battery is low.  Looking at the stats, it’s an impressive ride: an estimated fuel economy of 41.1 mpg, 778 horsepower,  0 to 62mph in 3.4 seconds, and a top speed of 205 mph.

If Jaguar can bring it to market, there’s little doubt that more automakers will follow suit, and that gas turbine engines will play a larger role in making the common car faster and cleaner.

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