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March 5, 2010

News & Features

Driving a jet: The first sports car powered by a microturbine has people talking

New York Times News Service

Capstone Turbine

The CMT-380 is powered by a microturbine rather than a gasoline engine. (Capstone Turbine Corp.)

LOS ANGELES -- It could be a Ferrari, but it's nearly silent. It could be a Tesla, but it's juiced by a jet engine. It could even be a GM Volt, but it has double the range and speed.

The CMT-380 is the world's first hybrid-electric sports car powered by a microturbine. Co-created by a video game designer, the wicked matte-black machine debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show in December.

"It's a jet engine on wheels," says Jim Crouse, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Capstone Turbine Corp., a partner in building the prototype.

More on microturbines
  • • The C30 microturbine, essentially a small jet engine, cranks out 30 kilowatts by spinning a small turbine at up to 96,000 rpms.
  • • Capstone officials say the limited-production turbine that now sells for $30,000 could be brought down to a tenth of the cost if it were mass-produced.
  • • Velozzi, a Los Angeles-based car designer and manufacturer, will become the first auto company to integrate Capstone's microturbines. An electric supercar is due out late this year, and a crossover vehicle is due out in 2011.

The 240-horsepower electric car can blast to 60 mph from a dead start in 3.9 seconds, only inches behind the new 561-horsepower Mercedes Benz AMG gull wing or the $375,000 Lexus LFA sports coupe.

It tops out at an electronically limited 150 mph. And because of the extended range made possible by its microturbine generator, it can cruise for 500 miles -- 80 of them on pure electrons. That's twice as far as a GM Volt, with its gasoline-engine generator.

And the ultra-low emissions from its Capstone C30 microturbine, fueled by diesel or biodiesel, can rival any hybrid car on the market.

The CMT-380 is sleek enough to beckon almost anyone into its carbon-fiber racing seats. "It's a great opportunity for showcasing our designs," says Capstone Turbine President and CEO Darren Jamison.

Capstone has no plans to build the car, but hopes instead to sell its technology to a willing automaker.

It was 21 years ago that the Southern California company, then called NoMac Energy Systems, was founded to build small gas turbines for use in hybrid electric vehicles. But the clean, efficient microturbine fizzled for lack of demand in a world of SUVs.

Since then, Capstone Turbines has shipped more than 5,000 microturbines around the world to power offices, hospitals and hybrid electric buses and for other industrial uses. But it still dreamed of supplying microturbines for the ballooning green-car market.

Enter Richard Hilleman, a former electrician at the federal government's Nevada Test Site and now chief creative director for video game firm Electronic Arts. As a hobby, the 48-year-old geek behind such games as "Ferrari Formula 1," "John Madden Football" and "Tiger Woods Golf" tinkered with electric cars.

Velozzi Supercar

Velozzi's electric supercar is due out late this year. (Velozzi)

After converting his vintage Porsche 550 Spyder into a 200-horsepower electric, he set out to build a hybrid sports car with legs. After five years, he completed the wundercar hours before its L.A. launch.

"I've been responsible for both scourges of the 20th century -- nuclear devices and video games," Hilleman says. "Now this."

"I'm trying to be on the right side of time here, one of those rare cases where I can be politically correct and cool at the same time."

Some, however, aren't convinced that microturbines make practical electric-car generators.

"Compared to a small gas engine, it'll cost more and be noisier for an automotive application," says Jake Fisher, senior engineer for Consumer Reports' auto test track, who looked at the CMT-380 at the L.A. Convention Center.

"Engines are cheap," Fisher says. "They're out there. They're proven. And they're efficient. It'll be hard to compete with them in the near term."

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