Overcoming the Use of ICEs in Hybrid Electric Vehicles with Turbomachinery – Micro-Turbine Range Extenders

The concept of turbine-powered automotive vehicles is not necessarily an unfamiliar idea or a technology that has yet to be explored.  In fact, several prominent automakers explored this concept as early as the 1950s and 60s – with real, functional prototypes.  Notably, Rover-BRM in the UK as well as Chrysler and General Motors in the US employed turbine engine programs to test the viability of such engines in the commercial market.  The Chrysler turbine engine program began its research back in the late 1930s and eventually ran a public user program from September 1964 to January 1966 where a total of 55 cars were built.   General Motors had tested gas turbine-powered cars with its many iterations of the Firebird in the 50s and 60s.  Rover and British Racing Motors developed several prototypes of their Rover-BRM concept that actually participated in the Le Mans race three years in a row, from 1963 through 1965.  However, even Chrysler, which was considered the leader of gas turbine research in automobiles, had to eventually abandon their program in 1979 after seven iterations of the turbine engine.  Many of the initial issues with heat control and acceleration-lag were improved during the program’s lifetime, but the program had never paid off in the retail automotive sector, and its continued development was deemed too risky for Chrysler at the time.

Chrysler Turbine Car
Figure 1- Chrysler Turbine Car – Now at Display in the Walter P. Chrysler Museum

Several decades later, we are seeing a resurgence of turbine motors in automobiles, but now serving as a range extender generator for electric vehicles instead.  As with many upcoming technologies, learning from past research and failed historical attempts can bring light to the most elegant and innovative solutions for today’s modern challenges.  This revolution of an old concept shares many of the qualities that made turbine engines attractive back in its initial development phase.  Such advantages include the ability to run on any flammable liquid and the high power density that results in a significantly lower weight and size contribution than its piston engine counterpart.

With the advent and general offensive to ensure electric vehicles take over the market, many pioneers and beneficiaries of internal combustion engine technology have expressed a widespread disregard to the increasing efficacy of EVs.  While future advancements on the ICE must continue within the next few years, a more progressive and efficient approach towards reducing our carbon footprint relies on improving the current challenges of EV’s and finding effective hybrid strategies to combat the initial shortcomings of EV’s in consumer use.  The two most noted disadvantages regarding electric vehicles today are their limited range and the restricted availability of charging stations.  Solutions to charging station availability have been (and continue to be) aggressively tackled by some of the EV giants such as BYD, Tesla, Toyota, and BMW as well as different government funding initiatives, which have all encouraged persistent investments into expanding charging networks across the world.

Tesla Supercharging
Figure 2 – Tesla Supercharging Across North America – September 2017

Together with solving electric station availability across the world, engineers must tackle the most provoking issue with the limited range in electric batteries. While overall capacity in commercial batteries have seen a slow and steady increase, this process has proved expensive for consumers and manufacturers, and the lack of range of these higher-end battery packs still hold many consumers back from committing to electric. A promising solution to combat range anxiety in electric vehicles comes with the use of a micro-turbine range extender. These generator systems have the potential to significantly increase the range of electric vehicle batteries while at the same time utilizing varying fuel types that significantly reduce the emissions over a conventional ICE hybrid. Without a doubt, the main challenge in the transition from conventional to electric is to ensure that this transition is not only smooth and seamless, but also efficient. Until battery packs achieve a level where range anxiety is no longer an issue, we must look to find the most optimal hybrid strategies to ensure a sophisticated conversion into electric. The internal combustion engine poses several deficiencies and limitations that impact its relative contribution to the future of hybrid technology. Even with advanced computing strategies, the ICE remains one of the most complicated engineering technologies out there, and the most “optimal” of these arrangements will still have carbon emissions that are much higher than that of a turbine engine. It is time to start also investing in a technology that has a serious potential for growth and profitability in the hybrid industry, the turbine engine.

In next week’s blog, we will investigate the micro-turbine range extender in depth and show how several companies across the US, UK, and China are starting to utilize this technology.  We will also investigate the challenges regarding increasing the efficiency of these micro gas turbine units.

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