[Tom Stanton] has been messing around with compressed air power for a few years now, and most of his work focused on piston engines. He likes using 2-liter soda bottles as lightweight tanks but their capacity is limited, so the nozzle can be a maximum of 1 mm in diameter if he wants to produce thrust for 30 seconds or longer using a turbine. Pelton turbines have been in use for a long time, especially for hydroelectric systems, and they use small diameter nozzles, so he decided to experiment with a pneumatic Pelton turbine. (Video, embedded below.)
Pelton wheels are water wheels with specially designed buckets to efficiently extract energy from a high-velocity jet of water. [Tom] 3D printed several geared Pelton turbines and started doing bench tests with a propeller and a load cell to gather empirical data. With the help of high-speed video of the tests, he quickly realized that the turbine efficiency is highly dependent on the load. If the load is too small or too large, the moving air will not come to a complete standstill, and energy will be wasted. [Tom] also suspected that some moving air was escaping from the bucket, so he created a version that enclosed the buckets with a ring on the outer perimeter, which increased the peak thrust output by 65%. Compared to his diaphragm air engine design, the peak thrust is higher, but the overall efficiency is less. [Tom] believes there is still room for improvement, so he plans to continue working on the Pelton turbine concept, with the hopes of building an air-powered model helicopter that can lift off.
One comment that came up a few times with his piston engine designs is whether venting the air straight out the nozzle, without a turbine or engine in the way, would be a better option. [Tom] tested this in the bench, and the straight-through nozzle was four times less efficient than the turbine. The reason for this was addressed in the comments on our article on diaphragm air engine and discussed on the Hackaday podcast. It’s an impedance matching problem, and an engine or turbine converts the small volume of high-velocity air into a large volume of low-velocity air.