Could Chrysler sell a turbine now?

Monday, March 9th, 2009

From after World War II until its federal bailout in 1979, Chrysler researched gas-turbine power for automobiles. Could Chrysler sell a turbine now? Probably not, according to Barry Dressel, manager of the Walter P. Chrysler museum:

Chrysler Engineering began working on automotive applications for gas turbines because they were attracted by the multi-fuel capability, along with the reduced number of moving parts and the absence of vibration. The difficulties to overcome included the fact that turbines, even at the lowest end of their operating spectrum, turn at very high rpm and thus consume considerable amounts of fuel at idle, plus the fact that the application of throttle does not produce instantaneous response, but a lag while the turbine “spools-up.” This is basically the same characteristic as the “turbo lag” in turbocharged piston cars.

Turbines also have a high operating temperature, requiring use of special — and expensive — alloys, and the exhaust generates considerable BTUs and exits at a very high temperature.

Turbines are also very loud. Addressing the heat and noise requires considerable more sophistication than required by the piston engine exhaust system. And while our experience with turbine cars even today is that they are quite reliable and require little maintenance, when something does break, its makeup guarantees it will be expensive to replace.

For these reasons it’s easy to see why aircraft and naval applications are ideal for turbines. Today the US and the British navies use destroyers powered not by steam turbines — which require constant maintenance by a comparatively large and well trained crew — but gas turbines, which are “pod” installations requiring less crew to operate and are “overhauled by replacement” during refits. The noise of these units can be dealt with fairly easily, the rpm range required is narrow, and the heat produced can be scavenged for other purposes.

By 1962 Chrysler engineers ameliorated most drawbacks to using a turbine in a domestic automobile so that the renowned fleet of fifty experimental turbine cars with custom built Ghia bodies could sent to consumers for a two-year evaluation program. The verdict the consumer evaluators was favorable overall, although throttle lag remained an issue — especially noticeable in those days of big V-8s.

The big complaint from the consumers was poor fuel economy at idle and lower speeds. Unfortunately, this wasn’t something further refinement could alter very much, since high rpm is inherent in gas turbine operation. I suspect this was the main reason that the U.S. Government ended its support for Chrysler’s turbine research — the Goverment’s goal was to lower fuel consumption in vehicles, not increase it, never mind the fuel flexibility.

Parenthetically, based on our present day experience with our two operative turbine cars, high fuel consumption at idle does result in a lot of exhaust heat BTUs. This may not be a problem with one car, but the possibility of traffic jam including numbers of turbine vehicles, occurring, say, on a steamy summer morning in Atlanta, might have resulted in some interesting thermal pollution problems.

Ultimately the cost of producing turbine vehicles and the inherent drawbacks to their use in an automotive application would have produced very limited market acceptance. In talks about making cars cleaner and more fuel efficient with engineers here, I’ve asked whether a small turbine, turning at a constant rate, wouldn’t be an ideal way to power the generator of an electric motor-driven car. Alas, the noise, high rpm and heat are still expensive problems, and turbines small enough to serve such a purpose are prohibitively expensive compared to existing alternatives, such as small diesels. In a sense, that’s where Chrysler left off. In this context, the allure today of the fuel cell becomes clear.

I do know that both Volvo — the truck and bus company, not the car division now owned by Ford — and NASA have developed the sort of gas-turbo-electric hybrid I mentioned before, but the application has evidently not been feasible in an automobile — only in bigger machines, like buses.

All the types of automotive turbine uses seem to be targeted for larger vehicles — tanks, road equipment, busses, etc. The use of new ceramic materials in place of metal alloys seems to offer thermal efficiencies and economic efficiencies unheard of earlier, and the various researchers interested in gas turbines keep mentioning the future development of practical small automotive gas turbines, but no auto company I know of is currently experimenting with cars in the manner of Chrysler from the 1950s to the 1970s. In the future a small, efficient turbine may be developed that can replace the small diesels presently touted for hybrid cars.

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