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What is a Turbine?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 17, 2024
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A turbine is a type of engine that can extract energy from a fluid, such as water, steam, air, or combustion gases. It has a series of blades, typically made of steel but sometimes ceramic, that can withstand higher temperatures. The fluid goes in one end, pushing the blades and causing them to spin, then gets ejected out the other end. The fluid leaves the engine with less energy than it had going in — a portion of the difference is captured by the turbine.

Turbines are at the core of civilization, since practically every form of electric power is generated by them. When people say coal power, nuclear power, hydrothermal power, etc., they are referring to using some energy source to agitate a gas that then drives the blades and generates power. It is one of the most common types of engines, where an engine is defined simply as something that takes an input and generates an output. Along with heat engines and motors, turbines make up the vast majority of dynamic machinery.

Gas turbines are one of the most flexible type, and they are used to power a variety of mobile machines above a certain size, jets being the most famous application. Even the Space Shuttle uses one to combine fuel at tremendous rates. Because they can spin at extreme rates, gas turbines allow a huge amount of power to be packed in a relatively tiny space. A typical engine of this type operates between 3,000 and 10,000 rpm, and smaller variants can climb above 100,000 rpm. A recently constructed matchbox-sized one spins at 500,000 rpm and generates 100 watts. Scientists want to push them to operate at a million rpm or above, but making this possible without melting the assembly can be tricky.

To extract the greatest efficiency from turbines, they are often chained together. This can lead to efficiency levels of 60% or higher, quite amazing in the world of thermodynamics. Understanding the operation of these engines in detail is the province of mechanical engineers, though anyone who works with machines is probably familiar with the basics.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated About Mechanics contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon312326 — On Jan 06, 2013

What are the parameters that help in increasing the efficiency of a turbine?

By anon162654 — On Mar 24, 2011

How can the efficiency increase if we chain the turbines together? And what are the different kinds of turbines?

- weezy

By Em4ce — On Jun 14, 2010

Efficiency can be increased by "chaining" turbines together because it increases the rotational power, thus you can spin a larger generator and supply a larger load (which is really your resistance to rotation).

Of course, there are many other things involved such as the steam loses its power as it goes further on spinning the rows of turbine blades - so the blades have to get longer and eventually the steam needs to be "re-energized" and is sent back to a reheating source (boiler) before it goes on to the next turbine.

By Em4ce — On Jun 14, 2010

Different kinds of turbines are steam, gas (and jet engines), and wind and water. They are all similar and designed to best use their "fuel" medium.

To produce electrical power they must turn a generator (which is like a opposite of a motor). The rotating element must be a magnet, either permanent or electromagnet. The slower the medium spins the turbine the more magnets are needed.

Typical is a large steam turbine that turns at 3600 RPM, and the rotating electromagnetic has two poles (or a north and south magnet).

By Em4ce — On Jun 14, 2010

A generator can be used to spin a motor (electrically) which in turn could be shifted to replace the initial "prime mover," but due to natural loses it would shortly stop if no other outside additional power is applied, i.e., there is no perpetual motion machine.

Even if this were possible all you would get is a spinning machine and as soon as you tried to use the spinning to produce power to siphon off, you would be in the hole and it would stop.

By anon56202 — On Dec 13, 2009

can an electrical generator run another without a power source once it has been started up, therefore creating continuous power without a source?

By anon47394 — On Oct 04, 2009

there is a wind turbine but what does it exaclty do?

By vijaya — On Feb 22, 2008

How can the efficiency increase if we chain the turbines together?And what are the different kinds of turbines?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated About Mechanics contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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