Clean Tech

Gas-turbine powered trucks

M Ramesh | Updated on April 18, 2021

An IIT-Madras innovation promises a lightweight means to power heavy-duty trucks

A few companies have taken a bet backing electric heavy-duty trucks. Infraprime Logistics Pvt Ltd says it is the only company in the world that runs a fleet of battery-powered trucks. The company swears it the trucks are economical. Jewlery exporter, Rajesh Exports Ltd, has created a subsidiary to produce trucks as well as batteries to power them, and is a footfall before finalizing a home for the factories.

However, there are some who say electric trucks are several technological milestones away, not in the least because the batteries that power them are devilishly heavy—about 7 tons—reducing the trucks’ carrying capacity. All the technological options to overcome this problem are taking one pathway—packing more energy into the battery, so that its size and weight can come down. The hot favorite is, of course, Lithium-ion, with a variety of chemistries (such as manganese, titanium oxide, phosphate) but others like sodium, iron and zinc ion batteries are also peeking over the horizon. Further down in the list are the metal-air batteries that are said to be significantly more energy-holding.

You could bring in fuel cells to produce on board electricity to drive the motors, but these contrivances are knock-you-cold expensive.

Thus, electric trucks, according to these people, are not a Monday-morning option.

Let’s pause this for a moment.

Gas turbines produce electricity; power aircraft. Then, how come they are not used for powering cars, buses and trucks? The obvious answer is, they are oversized giants. If you could make them small enough to be fitted onboard a truck, you have yourself a new technology weapon in your arsenal.

However, it has not been easy for technologists to produce such micro gas turbines for a variety of technical reasons. Besides, with these turbines, you would have a completely new architecture for powering vehicles. Investors frown at unknowns.

And now, some technologists in IIT Madras have come together to find a solution. They have devised a drivetrain that involves a diesel or gas fired turbine, to produce power and put it in a battery that’s meant to act as a buffer. Electricity flows through the battery to the motors to drive the truck.

A prototype is almost ready and will be tested soon. The group, headed by Prof Satya Chakravarthy of Aerospace Engineering department, claims to have solved the problem of producing a vehicle-compatible micro gas turbine.

If this reaches success, it could be a game changer, for the turbine plus battery combo will weigh significantly lesser. Diesel if for now—when other fuels such as hydrogen or DME come into play, you can kick diesel out and opt for such clean fuels. No other change needed.

Published on April 18, 2021

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