Capstone, the auto-turbine and the case for liquid fuels

The historical, gee-whiz notion of the auto-turbine might include the afterburner equipped Batmobile, or the Thrust SSC, the Rolls Royce Spey powered car that set the land speed record.  While the turbine considered here has less sex appeal, it does present a new way forward in auto fuel-efficiency.

In their Press Release last week Capstone Turbine discussed a micro-turbine powered hybrid electric vehicle that was engineered by Langford Performance Engineering in the UK.  Claims made in the associated copy were impressive, including an 80 mpg fuel efficiency.  This number is an at least 50% improvement in fuel efficiency compared to current well-known hybrids.   While it is not our intention to dig into  exact numbers, the magnitude of  the improvement suggests a paradigm shift and not an incremental decrease in body weight, for example.

As indicated in the Release and a Langford patent application (WO2009/050456) the micro-turbine is part of the electricity generating system and is not part of the traditional power-train.  All drive power is provided by an electric motor.  With this approach the turbine only runs as needed and can be operated to optimize efficiency, not worrying about the power requirements of the instant driving conditions.  While this configuration is central to the efficiency increase the micro-turbine’s improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions are also factors.  Finally, the turbine is claimed to be only 50% of the weight of a traditional internal combustion engine.

Developments like this one advance the case for the continued role of liquid fuels in transportation.  Whether it be Iogen’s cellulosic ethanol, which was coincidentally made available at an Ottawa gas station last week, or Dynamotive’s bio-diesel, emerging bio-fuels become even more attractive when decoupled from the internal combustion engine.  Advances in bio-mass-based fuels that do not source food crops and auto-engines could reduce the carbon footprint of cars while mitigating the need for new electricity infrastructure.