Nikola Tesla's Electric Car

Although Tesla never tested his turbine in a car, he did, by some accounts, develop an electric car in 1931. The car was a Pierce-Arrow, which had been configured with an 80-horsepower, 1,800-rpm electric motor instead of a gas-powered engine. According to the story, Tesla assembled a mysterious black box containing vacuum tubes, wires and resistors. Two rods stuck out of the box. When the rods were pushed into the box, the car received power. Tesla drove the car for a week -- up to speeds of 90 miles per hour (145 kilometers per hour). Unfortunately, many believed he had tapped into some unknown and dangerous force of nature. Others called him crazy. In a rage, he removed the box from the car, took it back to his lab, and it was never seen again. To this day, the fundamental working principles of Tesla's electric car remain a mystery.

The Future of the Tesla Turbine

Tesla always was a visionary. He did not see his bladeless turbine as an end itself, but as a means to an end. His ultimate goal was to replace the piston combustion engine with a much more efficient, more reliable engine based on his technology. The most efficient piston combustion engines did not get above 27 to 28 percent efficiency in their conversion of fuel to work. Even at efficiency rates of 40 percent, Tesla saw his turbine as an improvement. He even designed, on paper, a turbine motorcar, which he claimed would be so efficient that it could drive across the United States on a single tank of gasoline.

Tesla never saw the car produced, but he might be gratified today to see that his revolutionary turbine is finally being incorporated into a new generation of cleaner, more efficient vehicles. One company making serious progress is Phoenix Navigation and Guidance Inc. (PNGinc), located in Munising, Michigan. PNGinc has combined disk turbine technology with a pulse detonation combustor in an engine the company says delivers unprecedented efficiencies. There are 29 active disks, each 10 inches (25.4 centimeters) in diameter, sandwiched between two tapered end disks. The engine generates 18,000 rpm and 130 horsepower. To overcome the extreme centrifugal forces inherent to the turbine, PNGinc uses a variety of advanced materials, such as carbon-fiber, titanium-impregnated plastic and Kevlar-reinforced disks.

Clearly, these stronger, more durable materials are critical if the Tesla turbine is going to enjoy any commercial success. Had materials such as Kevlar been available in Tesla's lifetime, it's quite likely that the turbine would have seen greater use. But as was often the case with the inventor's work, the Tesla turbine was a machine far ahead of its time.

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