25 Dec How A Prototype Car Symbolised The Future Of Natural Gas
Even before the development of the elaborate pipeline structures that make natural gas widely available to the vast majority of the population of the UK via the National Grid, gas infrastructure has been the backbone of businesses, with engineers being critical to keeping the country moving.
Whilst this was taken to describe how natural gas powers so many industrial processes, in the 2020s it is increasingly literal, as the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) is being considered as a critical part of the transport infrastructure, particularly for lorries and shipping.
Alongside biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells and increasingly high-capacity batteries, the future of transportation away from petrol and diesel will at least in the absence of an alternative also include natural gas.
However, the concept of fuelling a road vehicle with natural gas has been seen as early as 1963, when the American manufacturer Chrysler made the striking bronze Turbine Car, which was the culmination of three decades of research in itself.
Chrysler had launched a gas turbine engine programme as early as the 1930s, with the idea that turbine engines were simpler, more reliable and smoother than the conventional petrol engines of the era, as well as having the capacity to use more varied types of fuel than a standard piston engine.
They were not the only ones to try, with Rover and General Motors also building turbine cars that actually worked, but Chyslers managed to get the furthest with their design thanks to the use of a regenerative heat exchanger which helped to avoid some of the problems with heating that were found by fitting a turbine engine to a car.
As early as 1956, a Plymouth produced by the company would travel across the United States from New York to Los Angeles with no issues to the engine (although it did need two minor repairs unrelated to it).
After proving the principle, the key was to refine the concept and see how viable it could be made. Turbine engines of the era had a somewhat infamous lag in throttle input, meaning it could take as much as nine seconds for the car to respond to pushing or lifting up on the acceleration pedal.
This was reduced to just over a second, which whilst not ideal, would allow the cars to at least safely travel with other road users.
A barnstorming tour of the turbine cars that allowed them to be driven by 14,000 people became hugely popular in 1962, further committing Chrysler to release the Turbine Car the next year, with a total of 50 cars and five prototypes made as part of a user programme where they could be loaned to people for free.
Unfortunately, most of these cars would be destroyed after the trial programme ended, and in 1967 a damning report by the Department of Commerce claimed that turbine engines were “unsuited” for use in cars, and the programme was finally discontinued as part of a Loan Guarantee agreement in 1979.