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How Turbine Engines Work
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How Turbine Engines Work

Converting Potential Energy

Humans have been inventing engines, or machines designed to convert potential energy into useful mechanical energy, for thousands of years. The invention of the oar, one of the earliest known forms of the lever, dates back to the Neolithic period. As innovations in science and technology improved over the millennia, sophistication of engines improved as well.

In the 13th century, the rocket motor was invented in China, and though it was not able to supply sustained power, it used gunpowder (invented by the Chinese in the ninth century) to propel projectiles for weaponry and fireworks. Nearly a millennium later, the industrial revolution of the 18th century led to the increased use of steam power.

The atmospheric engine (or Newcomen engine) was invented in the early 18th century by Thomas Newcomen and was the first machine to practically harness the power of steam to generate mechanical work. Over the years, many different people made improvements on Newcomen's work and eventually the steam turbine was developed.

The Turbine

A turbine is a machine that utilizes a wheel or rotor to produce continuous sustainable power, generated by the motion of water, steam, gas, air, or any other fluid. The flow of a gas or liquid is strategically placed to drive rotating parts of the turbine to generate power. A turbine will always incorporate at least one moving part known as a rotor assembly, which is a long shaft with attached blades.

The flow of fluids over these blades is designed to rotate the turbine, thus generating power. Turbines have evolved much over history from their origins in early windmills and waterwheels. There are many different types of turbines, but the most common turbines are wind, water, steam, and gas.

Types of Turbine Engines

Wind Turbines


Above: Wind turbine.

Wind turbines are a bit different in that they utilize kinetic energy of wind to generate electricity, as opposed to steam or the combustion of fossil fuels. Obviously, there are inherent limitations to the power available, which are completely dependent on the natural forces and weather of the area. Thus, wind turbines are strategically located in places known to experience large amounts of consistent wind.

The benefits of wind turbines are that wind is a renewable resource and has no attached inherent cost. Like all sources of power, wind turbines do have limitations on their potential efficiency. Due to conservation of mass principles, Beltz' law shows the maximum efficiency of a wind turbine to be 59%.

Water Turbines

Water turbines date as far back as the early Roman Empire, but were significantly developed in the 1800s and supplied industrial power before electrical grids became prevalent. They commonly utilize some form of water barrier such as an embankment dam to limit a large flow of water through a narrowed channel. This routed flow of water is then engineered to rotate a turbine to generate electricity.


Above: Water turbine.

Modern water turbines are known to operate at greater than 90% mechanical efficiencies, but are still limited by the flow and volume of water available in terms of maximum potential power output. One of the main advantages of water turbines is that water is considered to be a completely renewable resource. Unlike steam turbines, which heat water to create steam, the water used in a water turbine is largely unaltered, and more importantly, unheated. Steam turbine engineers face the dilemma of properly disposing of large amounts of very hot water.

The downside of water turbines is the potential for negatively affecting the bodies of water they depend on. Water turbines rely heavily on the construction of dams, which can disrupt the natural ecology of the water supply, negatively affecting both wildlife and the livelihood of industries and people who may depend on it. Even so, water turbines still produce a significant amount of electricity consumed in the world today.

Steam Turbine Engines

Steam engines employ the thermal energy from steam under pressure to mechanically drive its rotating shaft. Hero of Alexandria described the earliest device resembling a steam engine in the first century in Roman Egypt. Sir Charles Parsons invented the first modern steam turbine resembling steam turbines of today in 1884, and revolutionized the world by providing affordable and plentiful electricity.

In fact, most of the electricity generated in the United States today is still produced by some form of steam turbine. Today, steam turbines use coal, natural gas, oil, or nuclear fission to create steam. The steam is then routed through carefully designed turbine parts that drive a power plant's generator.



Coal Powered Steam Turbine

Gas Turbine Engines

Gas turbine engines utilize an internal combustion to generate the force needed to rotate the turbine. The most well known example of a gas turbine engine is the jet engine. Jet engines use accelerated exhaust to provide thrust by jet propulsion, following Isaac Newton's laws of motion. Obviously, jet engines are now used commonly in both commercial and military airplanes to provide the thrust required to fly.

The most significant leap in gas turbine engines was made in 1941, when Frank Whittle, British Royal Air Force engineer, singlehandedly invented the jet engine. General Electric, who had been a leading force in the steam turbine industry, arranged for a license to use Whittle's engine. Expanding from their proprietary GE turbine parts and knowledge, they were able to quickly produce and improve upon Whittle's work.

By 1944, they had created the I-40 engine, which would be used in military aircraft like the P-80 Shooting Star. It wouldn't be long before this technology would expand from military to civilian applications. To this day, General Electric turbines still provide the jet thrust needed to fly many of the aircraft in the world today.


Jet Engine With Turbine

The Role Turbines Play in the Modern World

It is easy to see just how large of a role turbines play in the modern world. Turbines have been developed for thousands of years, and are one of humankind's most wonderful innovations. It is fascinating to think about how many people throughout history contributed to the design of turbines as we know them today. Each generation has helped evolve the design to the state-of-the-art turbines in use today across the world.

Perhaps it is even more fascinating to think about where today's leading engineers will take this technology as we attempt to meet the ever-increasing energy needs of the modern world.

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5 comments on article "How Turbine Engines Work"

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