As the leading authority on turbomachinery design, redesign, analysis, and optimization, we work with a wide range of machines from small water pumps and blowers to massive steam turbines, jet engines, and liquid rocket engines. While all of these machines have a certain “cool factor” to them since, after all, we’ve proven they make the world go round; some machines take coolness to the next level. Today, we’re taking a look at 5 of the coolest specific turbomachinery inventions, according to us.
Number 5 – The Arabelle Turbines
Starting with number 5, we have a pair of steam turbines, each known as “Arabelle”. You may be asking yourself “So what, steam turbines are everywhere.” You would be right, but these two have a bit of a size advantage. In fact, they’re the largest steam turbines in the world.
Designed and built by General Electric in France, these turbines are, according to GE, “longer than an Airbus 380 and taller than the average man. A pair of them, each capable of producing 1770 megawatts, is now set to cross the English Channel to provide energy for generations” (1).
They’ll be installed in a new nuclear power plant known as Hinkley Point C in Somerset. Their 1.7 gigawatt output will be enough to power 6 million homes, which is 7% of the UK’s power consumption. (1) The output and sheer size of the turbines aren’t the only large number either, the project costs nearly 24 billion US dollars.
The sheer size and performance figures have earned GE a place on our list of top 5 cool turbomachines!
Number 4 – The Garrett 3571VA Variable Geometry Turbocharger
This is one only gearheads and diesel-fans may recognize, but even then, it’s an obscure one. This Garrett turbocharger was a game changer for diesel engines used in light and medium duty trucks, specifically the Navistar International VT365, also known as the Ford 6.0 Liter Powerstroke engine.
Now, this V8 monster of an engine is rather infamous for its lack of reliability. However, this problem was related to engine issues like cylinder head gasket failures, as well as overheating, and not a fault of Garrett’s turbocharger. This turbo allowed the engine to have significantly better acceleration from a standstill, as conventional turbodiesels often suffer from turbolag, which manifests in poor throttle response and low-end acceleration. This turbo offered better performance without compromising fuel economy or diesel emissions, both of which had ended production of the much-beloved Navistar T444E. Mr. Bill Hewitt, an expert mechanic who has built a career out of working on Ford and International diesel engines, breaks down the value and capabilities of the Garrett variable geometry turbo in this video, before diving into the common issues that would shorten the turbo’s lifespan as a result of being integrated into the VT365 engine system.
Although the International VT365 and Ford 6 liter Powerstroke engine had mechanical issues, the appeal of the engine was rooted in its versatile and modern turbocharger. The technology used in the 3571VA would be used in turbochargers going forward as a way to beat turbolag while also aiding fuel economy and lowering emissions, and should be regarded as a piece of cool turbomachinery.
Number 3 – The Pratt & Whitney JT3D
Coming in at Number 3 is one of the coolest jet engines to take to the skies. This workhouse debuted in the late 1950’s and is still flying to this day! It’s the Pratt & Whitney JT3D if you weren’t able to see the title.
This turbofan engine was derived from an earlier turbojet engine the P&W JT3C, and was one of the first of its kind following the Rolls-Royce Conway engine. This engine found usage in Boeing 707’s as well as Douglas DC8’s, and Boeing 720’s. A lot of these planes had first been powered by turbojet engines, which were louder and far less efficient (even if we agree that “turbojet” sounds cooler than “turbofan”, at least until you hear what the JT3D sounds like). As a result of the improved fuel efficiency and lower noise levels, airlines started buying into the new turbofan engine, and they entered service in early 1961.
While the Boeing 707, Douglas DC8, and other aircraft from almost 60 years ago have stopped flying, there’s one area where the JT3D is still performing day in and day out, and that’s with the US Air Force (2).
The B52H is the last variant of the B52 that is still in service with the US Air Force. The last one was built in 1962, and hundreds of them still fly for the US military today, with the expected retirement slated for 2040. The JT3D has been with them since 1960, and these engines will have been flying for almost 90 years by the time the Stratofortress reaches retirement. In the meantime however, the JT3D will keep spooling up and going into the wild blue yonder.
Number 2 – The Rocketdyne F1 Rocket Engine
Just missing the top spot at number 2 is the engine that put men on the moon – the Rocketdyne F1. The birthchild of the famed German scientist Werner von Braun, we feel that the F1 more than deserves a spot on our list. Originally conceived by Rocketdyne for a request by the US Air Force, the engine almost didn’t make it out of the design stages, as the Air Force abandoned its pursuit of a rocket engine. However, a young organization known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration thought the engine might be useful, and Rocketdyne pressed on with development.
The engines used a turbopump with a fuel combination of RP-1 (rocket-grade kerosene) and liquid oxygen which was injected in the combustion chamber via the turbopump. At nearly 20 feet long and more than 12 feet wide, this massive liquid rocket engine remains the most powerful single nozzle liquid engine built. As can be seen in the spec sheet above, the engine’s performance figures were simply staggering, but it took years of R&D for the engine to run safely.
The F1’s finest hour came when 5 of them were used on the Saturn V rocket that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969.In total, sixty five F1 engines would be used onboard 13 Saturn V rockets for a variety of missions including the Apollo missions and Skylab missions. Many of these engines now lie at the bottom of the ocean, since they would be jettisoned once they had burned out during their missions. However, a few have been recovered over the years thanks to the efforts of Jeff Bezos and others. Now engines that were used in missions can be seen in museums like the Museum of Flight in Seattle, with others hopefully making their way to the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
With the inception of the Space Shuttle, newer engines built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the RS-25, were used, and the Rocketdyne F1 was retired. To this day however, no liquid rocket engine has flown that was as powerful as the F1, and for that reason, it’s earned #2 on our list.
And at Number 1, Whatever Ends Up Propelling the SR72!
Now wait a second, I know what you may be thinking, “The F1 deserves the number 1 spot! Look at all that it has done for humanity, look at the power figures and engineering that went into it!” and you would be right!
Having said that, hear us out. The SR71 was for the longest time the reigning king of Mach 3 travel for military surveillance and observation, thanks to a collaboration between Lockheed Martin Skunkworks and Pratt & Whitney. Thanks to the Pratt & Whitney J58, as well as the inlet spikes, the engines ran most efficiently at around Mach 3.2 (!)
So where does this leave the SR72? Well Lockheed Martin faces a serious challenge – Skunk Works is tasked with developing an affordable hypersonic aircraft that is capable of Mach 6. News stories circulated in 2018 that the plane already exists, and that the engines being used to propel it are scramjets. Scramjets don’t really use turbomachinery, since turbomachinery usually operates best at subsonic or transonic speeds. However, thanks to collaboration efforts between Skunkworks and Aerojet Rocketdyne, an off-the-shelf turbine may be integrated into a ramjet air-breathing engine which would power the plane from standstill to Mach 6. The cycle is being called the “turbine based combined cycle”, or TBCC. This engine would be covering some of the widest operating conditions imaginable, from ambient temperatures and pressures found at sea level, to the insane surface temperatures and pressures that are found in hypersonic travel, all without being overly costly or inefficient.
In short, the TBCC, if proven to work, would be one of the biggest turbomachinery innovations of the 21st Century, bringing hypersonic travel another step closer to being a reality. Having worked on hypersonic projects ourselves, we understand the challenges that Skunk Works and their collaborators are facing, and we wish them the best of luck going forward. With that in mind, we think the SR72’s propulsion system has earned the top spot on our list of Coolest Turbomachines.
These are, of course, our opinions and you may think we missed a few. We only covered a few turbomachines in this list, and just looking at our AxSTREAM® platform for turbomachinery design and analysis will show you that there are lots of other machines and specific inventions that could compete for the top 5 slots, so don’t be afraid to tell us if you think we missed one, or should have an honorable mention.
Are you working on a cool turbomachinery project of your own, or perhaps you’re approaching the conceptual design stage for the next big turbomachine? We’re here to help, learn how SoftInWay’s engineers and the AxSTREAM® platform can bring your machine to life, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or requesting a trial here.