The Tesla turbine is a bladeless centripetal flow turbine patented by Nikola Tesla in 1913. It is referred to as a bladeless turbine because it uses the boundary layer effect and not a fluid impinging upon the blades as in a conventional turbine. The Tesla turbine is also known as the boundary layer turbine, cohesion-type turbine, and Prandtl layer turbine (after Ludwig Prandtl). Bioengineering researchers have referred to it as a multiple disk centrifugal pump.
The job of any engine is to convert energy from a fuel source into mechanical energy. Whether the natural source is air, moving water, coal or petroleum, the input energy is a fluid. And by fluid we mean something very specific -- it's any substance that flows under an applied stress. Both gases and liquids, therefore, are fluids, which can be exemplified by water. As far as an engineer is concerned, liquid water and gaseous water, or steam, function as a fluid. At the beginning of the 20th century, two types of engines were common: bladed turbines, driven by either moving water or steam generated from heated water, and piston engines, driven by gases produced during the combustion of gasoline. The former is a type of rotary engine, the latter a type of reciprocating engine. Both types of engines were complicated machines that were difficult and time-consuming to build. Consider a piston as an example. A piston is a cylindrical piece of metal that moves up and down, usually inside another cylinder. In addition to the pistons and cylinders themselves, other parts of the engine include valves, cams, bearings, gaskets and rings. Each one of these parts represents an opportunity for failure. And, collectively, they add to the weight and inefficiency of the engine as a whole. Bladed turbines had fewer moving parts, but they presented their own problems. Most were huge pieces of machinery with very narrow tolerances. If not built properly, blades could break or crack. Tesla's new engine was a bladeless turbine, which would still use a fluid as the vehicle of energy, but would be much more efficient in converting the fluid energy into motion.
Tesla had several machines built. Juilus C. Czito, the son of Tesla's long-time machinist, built several versions. The first, built in 1906, featured eight disks, each six inches (15.2 centimeters) in diameter. The machine weighed less than 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) and developed 30 horsepower. It also revealed a deficiency that would make ongoing development of the machine difficult. The rotor attained such high speeds -- 35,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) -- that the metal disks stretched considerably, hampering efficiency. In 1910, Czito and Tesla built a larger model with disks 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) in diameter. It rotated at 10,000 rpm and developed 100 horsepower. Then, in 1911, the pair built a model with disks 9.75 inches (24.8 centimeters) in diameter. This reduced the speed to 9,000 rpm but increased the power output to 110 horse
Bolstered by these successes on a small scale, Tesla built a larger double unit, which he planned to test with steam in the main powerhouse of the New York Edison Company. Each turbine had a rotor bearing disks 18 inches (45.7 centimeters) in diameter. The two turbines were placed in a line on a single base. During the test, Tesla was able to achieve 9,000 rpm and generate 200 horsepower. However, some engineers present at the test, loyal to Edison, claimed that the turbine was a failure based on a misunderstanding of how to measure torque in the new machine. This bad press, combined with the fact that the major electric companies had already invested heavily in bladed turbines, made it difficult for Tesla to attract investors. In Tesla's final attempt to...