David Appleyard, Chief Editor
A notable anniversary is upon us, for it is 100 years since the Austrian scientist Viktor Kaplan developed his eponymous turbine, having been granted Austrian patent no. 74244 for his design in 1913.
Featuring an adjustable rotor blade angle and wicket gates to regulate water ingress — an approach that allows efficient operation over a wide range of flow rates and heads — Kaplan’s century old breakthrough is now a familiar sight in many hydropower installations. Indeed, the design was so successful that it is possibly the single most common turbine type found in hydropower plants today, particularly given its suitability for lower head applications.
Kaplan developed his ideas while an academic at the German Technical College in Brno, in the Czech Republic, and the first machine to be built according to Kaplan’s design was manufactured at the city’s Ignaz Storek steelworks. It was subsequently installed and began operating at the braid and yarn factory of Börtel und Strickgarnfabrik M. Hofbauers Wwe in Velm near Gramatneusiedl, Austria, in 1919. Kaplan’s first commercial turbine apparently achieved a verified efficiency of 84% with a head of less than 3 meters.
Naturally enough, it wasn’t long before the design caught on, and as early as 1922 Voith introduced an 1,100 horsepower (about 800 kW) Kaplan turbine unit, following this up with an 8 MW installation commissioned at Lilla Edet in Sweden in 1924.
Of course, this all seems like a terribly long time ago — it is the 100th anniversary after all — but there is a little bit more to this story.
One of the first hydropower plants Voith fully equipped with Kaplans was the 120 MW Ryburg-Schwörstadt station on the Rhine below Stein-Säckingen, which still supplies both the German and Swiss power grids. In this case, the four 30 MW turbines were manufactured in 1928. It’s almost unbelievable that, while in the 1980s and 1990s the runners and generators at this plant were replaced, many of the major components are still in place and in service from the original installation.
Even the very first commercially available Kaplan machine at the Velm works operated until 1958, almost 40 years. In any context, this is a remarkable achievement for a groundbreaking technology.
Moreover, these early machines were designed using little more than a keen mind, a slide rule and a pencil. Advances in areas such as computational fluid dynamics and numerical modelling, advanced materials science and so on suggest that the machines being designed and installed today will be optimized for an environmentally friendly and efficient performance beyond the wildest dreams of Kaplan, visionary though he perhaps was.
A few years after it was finally decommissioned, in 1960 Kaplan’s first commercial machine was installed in front of the Technisches Museum Wien (Vienna Technical Museum), and it is there to this day, a testament to a brilliant scientist. But it is also a testament to both the longevity of hydropower and this industry’s long-term commitment to technical innovation. That’s something worth celebrating.