Will gas turbines be the next generation of automotive propulsion?

Almost every car produced nowadays is propelled by a Reciprocating Internal Combustion Engine (RICE). Fueled by gasoline or diesel, these engines have pistons inside the cylinders which move up and down, compressing and expanding the mixture. They are connected to a crankshaft that converts the movements into a rotational motion to turn the wheels that move the car.

Big engine makers are constantly researching and developing to make engines lighter, more powerful, more fuel efficient, and more environmentally friendly. But isn’t there a better way to power the automobile Industry?

After WWII, the gas turbine (GT) engine (turbojet) was a trend for aircraft propulsion. A few companies did some research and explored the idea of using a GT to power a car. The GTs mentioned here are evidently not turbojets, but turboshafts where almost any power is used from exhaust. Instead there is a power turbine activated by the combustion gases that would be connected to a gearbox and consequently to the wheels.

Figure 1 - GM Firebird II
Figure 1 – GM Firebird II

The first company to ever build a GT car was Rover in 1950 with the JET 1. A few years later GM also built a number of futuristic prototypes called the Firebirds.

While some companies came up with GT cars, it was Chrysler that invested the most in this concept, spending a lot of time and money doing R&D for almost 20 years (from 1950 to 1970).

Figure 2 - Chrysler Gas Turbine, 1962
Figure 2 – Chrysler Gas Turbine, 1962

For the first time ever in 1963, more than just a prototype came out and fifty-five cars were built and given to people to try as a daily mode of transport. Although reviews were generally good, the project did not go any further.

Figure 3 - A 831 Gas Turbine
Figure 3 – A 831 Gas Turbine

The car used the A-831 GT, a dual spool, and free shaft engine with an output of 130 horse power, weighing 410 lbs. It comprised a single stage centrifugal compressor rotating at a maximum of 44,600 rpm (CR=4:1), the air, after leaving the compressor, would go through 2 regenerators working as heat exchangers using hot gases from the exhaust to increase temperature before the combustion to reduce fuel consumption. From the combustion chamber, the gases travelled by a single stage axial turbine that activated the compressor and the accessories and posteriorly through a variable geometry power turbine nozzle, to control the amount of gas that would go through, before the free single stage axial power turbine that was connected to a Torqueflit, 3 speed automatic transmission.

Chrysler ended up destroying all but nine of the cars.  Today they are in museums or in Jay Leno’s garage.

Why didn’t a car with a well-reviewed engine and a futuristic concept stick? Why are GTs present in so many industries but not in Automotive? They’re faster, simpler, have a better power-to-weight ratio and require less maintenance.

While they have advantages, however, they also have some disadvantages. Some of the Chrysler car users mentioned a lack of engine brake, lack of support when maintenance was needed and noise. This could easily be solved, and Chrysler did fix some of this issues. What ultimately killed the project was the low throttle response in comparison to RICE and fuel consumption. GTs are very fuel efficient for high speeds with constant throttle, but cars operate at relativity low speeds with a big vary of throttle. This has a big impact in the GT fuel efficiency. Although the company tried to resolve this issue, the 1970’s oil crisis made the scenario even worse.

Figure 4 - Jaguar C-X75 GT
Figure 4 – Jaguar C-X75 GT

It’s possible that soon electric hybrid vehicles will mean the GT finally becomes a viable power source for cars. Whether braking or accelerating, the micro gas turbine runs at a relatively constant rpm and generates electricity to be stored in batteries. Those batteries are connected to electric motors (4 in the Jaguar C-X75 case, one on each wheel) that run the car. Two known prototypes are the Jaguar C-X75 using two 70kW micro turbines produced by Bladon Jets, and the Capstone CMT 380 using a single 30 kW micro gas turbine