Gas Turbines

Learn about the history and development of the gas turbine


The gas turbine has become an important, widespread, and reliable device in the field of power generation, transportation and other applications. A gas turbine is an internal combustion engine, it can burn a variety of fuels (which contributes to it's great versatility).

Uses of gas turbines:

There are many forms of gas turbines from 1 to 10+ meters in length. Gas turbines come in a great variety of forms to fulfill a variety of power needs from driving tanks, jets and helicopters to power generation and industrial power uses.

In this webpage we discuss gas turbines used to make electric power.

Later on you can learn about the many other complex forms of the gas turbine listed on the wiki page.

1. How it Works
2. Brief History of Gas Turbines
3. Gas Turbine Development at General Electric, by Arne Loft

4. Gas Turbine Control Systems

1. How it Works:

The gas turbine is used to make mechanical energy from a combustible fuel. In the gas turbines used to make industrial/electrical power the mechanical energy comes in the form of a rotating shaft (as opposed to pressurized thrust of a gas turbine jet engine). This shaft has an enormous amount of power and torque.

Uses of a gas turbine with shaft:

The shaft can be connected to other machinery to do various types of work such as: turning a helicopter rotor, running a compressor (which "crushes" a gas to a condensed form for use in industrial applications) or generating electric power.

The gas turbine is useful to our modern world because it is relatively compact in size and makes a lot of power. Gas turbines are used in backup power systems in Manhattan for example, when the grid goes down due to natural disaster, gas turbines power up and can produce power for emergency uses.

Gas turbines are used on oil platforms to make power. The oil platform is like a small city, isolated out on the water, so it requires a lot of power and does not have a lot of space. Gas turbines are also used in oil refineries to make power for the cracking process.

Harnessing the power of an explosion: How the device works:

Original graphic above: General Electric.

The gas turbine burns fuel in a high pressure combustion chamber, the products of this are forced into a turbine. A turbine has specially engineered blades attached to a central shaft, and as the high pressure gasses flow through, the shaft rotates. The shaft spins with incredible force. The shaft is often connected to a generator which creates electric power. Sometimes the shaft is connected to a compressor. Compressors are used to compress gas or vapor for a myriad of industrial and commercial uses.

Watch the video below to learn details on how the gas turbine works:


2. Gas Turbine Brief History:

Gas turbines developed from two fields of technology: the steam turbine, and the internal combustion engine. Work on both of these fields helped lead to the "Modern Gas Turbine" of the post 1940's period.

1500 - 1870s: Leonardo da Vinci, Gionvanni Branca, John Barber, and others mention or design devices that use hot gas or steam to create motion. Simultaneously work by Samuel Brown, Sadi Carnot, Samuel Morel, William Barnett, and others develop the design of the internal combustion engine. Basic understanding and theory of how gases burn and behave in enclosed spaces is developed.

The Steam Turbine by GE, click on the image to see a larger photo

Steam and Gas Turbine Turbine work Combine:

Sir Charles Parsons built the first steam turbine used in a power station in Cambridge, England. Charles Curtis (US) develops a different design and sells the patent to E.W. Rice at General Electric. Rice gives Curtis all the manpower and resources he needs to develop the worlds most powerful steam turbines which are commercially sold across the continent. Dr. Sanford Moss develops a thesis on gas turbines in 1903, he joins GE in Massachusetts. Moss Develops the superturbocharger during World War 1. This device uses hot exhaust gases from an internal combustion engine to drive a turbine wheel which ran a centrifugal compressor. This device increased the power output of the engine. In 1918 GE begins a gas turbine division. This sets the stage for GE to lead the commercial gas turbine industry decades later. Dr. A. A. Griffith develops vital theories regarding gas flow past airfoils vs the previous method of using passages.

Jet engines use gas turbine technology. This application of gas turbines was developed first by Sir Frank Whittle, Hans von Ohian, Dr. Franz Anslem, and more from the 1930-42 period. Jet engine development is another topic best discussed in a separate page.

The first modern Gas Turbine:

BCC Brown Boveri & Cie (Switzerland) conducts development of gas turbines for utility power generation starting in the 1930s. Raul pateras de Pescara , Hans von Ohain, Max Hahn develop their own designs outside of BCC Brown Boveri. In 1936 BCC Brown Boveri built a supercharged velox boiler for a refinery in Pennsylvania which was used in the catalytic cracking process for oil. In 1939 a 4 Megawatt power generation gas turbine is installed in Neuchatel, Switzerland. You can now see this turbine on display at Birr, Switzerland. It ran from 1939-2002.

The first commercially sold gas turbine in the Western Hemisphere used for electric power generation was installed in 1949 at Belle Isle Station, Oklahoma, US. A core group of engineers from General Electric pioneered an efficient and power design that formed the basis for a multi-billion dollar industry. The design led to an explosion in sales of gas turbines worldwide. Gas turbines finally had established a firm place in reliable power generation after 1950.

Pioneers of the 1949 gas turbine at GE include: Bruce Buckland "Mr. Gas Turbine", Neal Starkey (GT Control Genius), Arne Loft*, Andy Smith, Bob Kramer, Bob Hendrickson*, Dick Noe, Tom McKone, Al Boiko, Bill Taylor, Goldy Goldsworth, Frank Yeaple, George Fusner, Eddie Ouimet, Andy Dargis, Roy Linn, John Bak, Phil Bell, Fred Cummings, Fernand Pomerleau.

*Video lectures are available of Arne Loft and Bob Hendrickson

Above: Rocket and gas turbine engineers at Malta Test Site

3. Engineering Forum:

Gas Turbine Development at General Electric
by Arne Loft

Bruce Buckland started with GE in August, 1923 and retired in 1966 after 42 years service. He was instrumental in designing many of the early gas turbines that established GE as one of the leading suppliers of gas turbines. The first half of his working career was in the steam turbine business and the second half in gas turbine design. The following information was extracted from a taped interview with Bruce in 1980:

About 1937 the GE Locomotive and Car Equipment Division in Erie, PA wanted the company to design and manufacture an engine for their locomotives rather than buy somebody’s diesel engine. A. R. Smith, who was then head of the Turbine Engineering Group responded by organizing a team of people in the Steam Turbine Engineering Section, including Kenny Salisbury, Alan Howard, Gene Huntsiger, Larry LaReque, to study the possibilities. Studies were interrupted in 1941 as a result of a meeting of Alex Stevenson and Glen Warren with Dr. Durand, head of the N.A.C.A. (Predecessor of NASA), at which time GE was told to lay aside their plans for a locomotive engine and turn their attention to aircraft engines. During this period Roy Schultz and Colonel Don Kern, who were in England investigating the Whittle jet engine, had made arrangements to send a sample Whittle engine to the supercharger group.

Dr. Sanford Moss had continued the supercharger research in Lynn, MA after World War I, consequently Lynn had a good supercharger department which supplies type B superchargers in almost all of the Bombers and other aircraft used in WWII. The Lynn Department was given instructions to develop a Whittle-type jet engine. The result was the I-16 with 1600 pounds of thrust and used to power the Bell XP-59. The I-40 was the next jet engine design with 4000 pounds of thrust. Both engine design activities were very secret in the early stages.

Meanwhile, Alan Howard and his group designed the TG-100, a prop-jet that developed 2000 horsepower driving the propeller and approximately 500 horsepower in the jet. First flight was in the XP-81 Orion aircraft which had a TG-100 in the nose driving a propeller and an I-40 jet in the tail. Removing the prop and doubling the size of the TG-100 produced an axial flow, pure jet engine design: the TG-180, with 4000 pounds of thrust. It was about this time in 1944 that Bruce was assigned to the project to test the TG-180, which was built in Schenectady. Later, the TG-180 powered the P-84, P-86, B-45 and B-47.

The locomotive engine design was restarted in mid-1946 and tested in Bldg. 49 the next year. This was followed by tests with the locomotive in Erie, during which several design problems were discovered, including fatigue failure of the second stage bucket within the first three hundred hours of operation. After completion of locomotive tests in Erie and some initial runs on the Nickel Plate and Pennsylvania Railroads, the locomotive unit was loaned to Union Pacific. Union Pacific ran it for about one year between Cheyenne and Los Angeles before ordering 20 units in February 1952, primarily for hauling freight. By that time GE had manufactured two Bangor, two Central Vermont, and one Central Maine locomotive. This was followed by shipping the first gas turbine for utility use to Texas Power and Light in late 1952, the MS3001. GE then sold 20 units of the new two-shaft version, pipeline gas. By December 1979, one of these units at the Pecos River Station completed 200,000 hours of service, prompting Howard Perry to celebrate the event by organizing a party in El Paso. Meanwhile, GE started to receive orders for many “gas pumpers”.

In the early 1950’s GE provided 10 gas turbine/compressor drives to Creole Petroleum to pressurize an oil formation a mile below the surface of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. This was the first time anybody had put such a station seven or eight miles from shore in a lake. It was very successful. The ten gas turbines and compressors were mounted on a platform approximately two football fields in size and supported by 364 reinforced concrete piles, about one meter square and 120 feet long, with the lower half to the mud and the upper half in the lake and over the surface.

During this same period, gas turbines had problems burning Bunker “C” fuel. At the end of a six-month test period GE developed a de-salting scheme using DeLaval centrifuging equipment to remove the sodium and add magnesium to inhibit the vanadium corrosion. This resulted in an ash that shucked itself off at shut-down and proved to be a satisfactory solution provided that the turbine was operated for intermittent service periods.

Meanwhile, Union Pacific was still looking for a bigger gas turbine to replace their 9000 HP diesels. Erie locomotive personnel theorized that the proper size for a locomotive prime mover was 4500 HP and, if more power was required, the turbines should be stacked in a row, similar to the diesels. However, Schenectady quoted an 8500 HP gas turbine in 1952/1953 and Union Pacific ordered 30 units. This was a courageous design in that it had a long span with only two support bearings. In addition there was an axial flow resonance and some of the machines “on test” shed buckets and suffered dynamic component failures, resulting in a great many problems. These were successfully cleaned up, including early wheel failures which were overcome by developing a method of hot-stretching and cold-proof testing the turbine wheels which is still used today.

However, the gas turbines were costing more than the market price and, in the early 60’s, two concepts were adopted in order to reduce the total cost: (1) Enclose the turbine in a packaged powerplant and (2) Advance order to achieve a six-month delivery cycle (like to competition) instead of one year. Fortunately for GE, the big blackout of 1965 in the New York area occurred at this time and one of the Long Island Light and Power Utility gas turbines picked up the system from a “black start”. This event, coupled with solving the technical problems with the Frame 5 design was the impetus needed to turn the business around and is considered the turning point in the gas turbine business.

Special thanks to Arne Loft for this section. Join the Edison Tech Center team as a volunteer and make your own piece of engineering history known.


4. Gas Turbine Control Systems:

Gas turbines are extremely sophisticated devices which require precise controls to operate. Control engineers at General Electric were the first to design a reliable control system. Neil Starkey designed a mechanical control which was reliable in the 1940s. A better system was needed using computers and electronics (which itself had just been developed at the time). This first electronic system was developed by Arne Loft, a mechanical/electrical engineer working at GE in Schenectady, New York. Below is his story of the development of the first Speedtronic Control System. (Later on Speedtronic became a large product line which controls more than just gas turbines, but steam turbines and other devices).

Video on the first Speedtronic Control System below:



The 7 F Gas Turbine by General Electric (video Youtube):



Related Topics:

Diesel Electric Locomotives

Steam Trains

Electric Cars

Trolleys and Light Rail

Steam Turbines

Dynamos and Generators

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-History of the Gas Turbine with Bob Hendrickson by Frank Hackert and the Edison Tech Center
-The Edison Presents: Interview with Arne Loft by the Edison Tech Center
-Wikipedia (Internal Combustion Engine, Gas Turbine entries) Inventors
-The General Electric Story by the Hall of History
- -Belle Isle Gas Turbine
- The ABB Group, History web page

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