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Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed

I'm fully aware, of course, that the above headline will probably mean nothing to anyone under the age of 40, but to those of us who grew up with Adam West and Burt Ward as the caped crusaders, it will be immediately recognisable as the dialogue between Batman and Robin as they prepped the Batmobile for launch from the bat cave.

Now, I'll freely admit to being more Marvel than DC, but there was something about that Batman TV incarnation that held me. Perhaps it was the very fact that it had strayed so far from the original comic vision of the Dark Knight, perhaps it was the endless gadgetry of the bat cave that appealed to the budding engineer in me. Certainly the idea of a car driven by a jet engine, spitting fire as it flew by, held an enduring fascination.

This aspect, at least, was not pure fiction. In 1950 Rover road tested a car powered by a gas turbine engine. With the turbine running at speeds up to 50,000 revs per minute, the car could achieve top speeds of 90 miles per hour, and a 0-60 time of 14 seconds. Development continued and in 1961, two years before the world saw a conventional petrol-driven Rover P6, the same basic body formed the shell of the turbine-driven T4.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Chrysler had its own plans for gas turbine-driven cars, and in 1963 launched the Chrysler Turbine Car, containing a fourth generation turbine engine running at up to 44,500 revs. Chrysler built 55 vehicles - five for internal testing and 50 for the general public, who accumulated more than a million test miles with an operational downtime that stood at only 4%.

There are, though, as was realised, disadvantages to turbine powered cars, not least the fact that back then they tended to sound like over-powered vacuum cleaners. And if you're not trying to beat the land speed record, it can be difficult to tame all of that power. Add to that a lengthy start-up time, an interminable lag in throttle response and problems in handling all the heat, and you can begin to see why they didn't catch on.

But now we are living in very different times, where hybrid electric vehicles are where it's at and where the piston engine has become a physical and environmental weak link. Funny how a subtle rewriting of a bit of 1960s comic dialogue could have proven prophetic: turbines to power, atomic batteries to speed. We have batteries driving the wheels, why not a gas turbine to charge the batteries? In the UK, Bladon Jets has pioneered a gas turbine engine that can sit in the palm of your hand, and, among other markets, has identified serial hybrid vehicles as being a prime candidate for the technology.

The micro gas turbine would be used to drive a high speed generator, creating electricity when the vehicle's batteries are running low. The gas turbines are only activated when required, running continuously at their most efficient operating speed. Small, clean and efficient, they would reduce vehicle complexity, simplify package requirements and reduce weight.

And in case you're wondering, the atomic battery may not be far behind, as researchers work on nuclear-powered, water-based batteries that offer longer life and greater efficiency than conventional technologies.

And there you were thinking that Batman was just a bit of comic fun.

Mark Simms, 20 March 2015

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