In everything from lawnmowers and fighter jets to cruise ships and school buses, engines of all shapes, sizes, and designs provide power for a wide variety of applications.
Some, like diesel engines, have been around since the late 19th century.
Others, like jet engines, are relative newcomers.
Regardless of age, every class of engine is constantly being improved upon. In fact, some long-gone inventors would likely marvel at modern versions of their designs that are exponentially more powerful, reliable, and fuel efficient.
And they’re bigger too. Much bigger.
Of course, the engines of the future are already under development in secure corporate research and development facilities and top-secret military installations in countries all over the world.
But until they explode onto the scene, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with the following titans of power production.
Like massive engines with impressive specs?
Then behold the Finnish-made Wärtsilä RT-flex96C diesel – a turbocharged two-stroke behemoth that’s been a mainstay of the global shipping industry for more than a decade.
Though low-rev marine diesels like the Wärtsilä have traditionally had 12 cylinders, in recent years additional power was needed to cope with the weight of ever-growing container ships, so more were added.
The newest 14-cylinder version has been in service since mid-2006 when it made its debut on the Emma Mærsk – a 1,300-foot container-carrying leviathan with a gross weight of more than 170,000 tons.
The engine displaces more than 25,000 liters – or 1.5 million cubic inches – and cranks out 110,000 horsepower and 5.6 million pound/feet of torque at slightly over 100 rpm.
To put that into perspective, the diesel engines in tractor trailers typically displace 15 liters and make a comparatively meager 450 horsepower and 1,700 pound/feet of torque.
But as mind-boggling as its numbers are, the engine’s sheer bulk is equally impressive.
It stands nearly 45 feet tall, stretches almost 90 feet from end to end, and weighs more than 2,2000 tons, making it the world’s largest and most powerful reciprocating engine.
The crankshaft alone weighs 300 tons, or about twice as much as a locomotive.
But it’s not just mass and unbridled muscle that make the Wärtsilä such a standout.
It features a number of relatively new advancements like a common-rail fuel injection system that makes it surprisingly economical as well.
In common-rail diesels, the low-pressure pumps that traditionally pushed fuel to injectors have been replaced by high-pressure rails supplying solenoid valves.
When operating in its most efficient mode, the engine only uses about 1,600 gallons of heavy fuel oil per hour.
That makes it a mizer by big ship standards, which is a huge selling point for cost-conscious owners who spend major portions of their annual revenue on pricey fuel.
Sadly there’s no mention of cost anywhere, but as they say, if you have to ask…
General Electric GE9X
Like shipping companies, airlines are in constant need of more powerful engines, but without fuel efficiency to match they’re usually dead-on-arrival.
According to data from the US DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, domestic airlines spent between 2 and $5 billion dollars per month on fuel before the Coronavirus pandemic.
For most it equated to about 20% of total operating expenses.
So when manufacturers develop new engines that promise to deliver both of the aforementioned attributes, it’s music to their ears.
In recent years a number of competitors have unveiled powerful new jet engines, but it’s the General Electric GE9X that currently reigns as the world’s most powerful.
Featuring a 16-bladed composite fan with a diameter of more than 11 feet, it’s a monster destined for use on Boeing’s next-generation 777X wide-body aircraft.
The 777X will be used primarily on long-haul routes by global players like Emirates, British Airways and American Airlines.
However, some sources claim it won’t take its first commercial flight until at least 2022 due to Covid-19 related production delays and drawn-out FAA certification requirements that include thousands of hours of ground and flight testing.
Nonetheless, when it does hit the air with its GE9Xs, it’ll be the largest twin-engined aircraft ever built.
At full-tilt, each engine will produce nearly 135,000 pounds of thrust, 5% more than previous models without a significant increase in size.
GE claims the engine will be 10% more fuel efficient too, thanks largely to more weight-saving carbon fiber and ceramic components and innovative manufacturing processes like 3D printing, which will help when production is finally ramped up to cover a backlog of more than 700 orders.
Cost per unit?
About $40 million, depending on how many you buy of course.
The Space Shuttles
Though NASA’s space shuttles are officially retired, when operational they featured some of the world’s most powerful engines.
As semi-reusable low-earth orbiters, they served between the early ‘80s and 2011 as part of the agency’s Space Transportation System program.
Most of us equate the shuttles with the recognizable craft that resemble conventional airplanes, but they were just just one of many components including three main engines, an external solid fuel tank, and two rocket boosters
The boosters were responsible for lifting the shuttle off the pad and pushing it to 3,000 miles per hour, after which they were jettisoned to save weight.
From there orbit was attained under propulsion from the three main engines, each of which produced a whopping 400,000 pounds of thrust, or 3.5 times as much as the aforementioned GE9X.
Together they generated 1.2 million pounds of thrust – enough to push the 4.4 million pound craft to more than 17,000 miles per hour.
Ironically, the powered portion of the shuttle’s flight lasted less than 9 minutes, which was just about the time its liquid hydrogen fuel ran out.
Designers succeeded in producing a previously unattainable thrust-to-weight ratio by increasing the pressure under which fuel was pumped into the combustion chamber, but as you’d expect, consumption was unfathomably high.
The main engines were among the most complex ever built, but despite internal temperatures that often reached 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit they served faithfully for more than two decades.
In fact, engine issues never resulted in a delayed launch, and unlike their predecessors they could be reused multiple times.
From its inception in the early ‘70s, the program was billed as an epic leap forward in space exploration, and it was even suggested that flights would eventually occur as frequently as once a week, and at the mere cost of $20 million a pop.
But in reality they were much fewer and farther between – and much more expensive.
Total program cost came in at a staggering $220 billion, with per-flight costs pegged at $1.5 billion, or 75 times greater than the original projection.
The numbers prompted many detractors to ask if it was worth it, especially considering that of more than 130 flights, two ended in tragedy taking the lives of 14 astronauts.
Now the retired shuttles Atlantis, Discovery, Enterprise and Endeavor are spread far and wide from Florida to California, on display for all to see.
Not ones to rest on their laurels despite previously building a supercar capable of hitting nearly 280 miles per hour, premium Swedish auto manufacturer Koenigsegg recently set out to make an even faster car – the Jesko.
Though the Jesko’s engine doesn’t technically rank as one of the world’s most powerful based on raw might alone, compared to piston engines in other limited-production cars it’s a world beater.
Produced in a country more known for blondes, IKEAS and 6-hour work days than high-dollar speedsters, the Jesko’s state-of-the-art power plant propels the 3,100 pound wonder-car to such amazing speeds that it’s a member of an exclusive club of automobiles called “hypercars.”
Power comes from a 5.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8 that revs all the way up to 8,500 rpms, generating nearly 1,300 horsepower and 1,100 pound/feet of torque.
It also features a unique flex-fuel system that allows it to run on regular high-octane gasoline or E85 ethanol, the latter of which is a great option for those who need another 300 horsepower.
The engine also sports pistons with curved ceramic faces that increase compression, reduce weight, and prevent dangerous hotspots from forming when it’s running wide open.
To get all that muscle to the road, Koenigsegg engineers opted for an innovative 9-speed transmission featuring a multi-clutch design that shortens shift times down to fractions of a second.
The Jesko is available in a street-legal base model and a track-only version, both of which come with 4-wheel steering that improves cornering and steering feel.
But all that power and handling are worthless if the car can’t stay on the pavement at speed.
To make sure that it does, designers improved downforce significantly over previous models.
At 150 miles per hour it’s nearly equal to the car’s weight, which lucky drivers claim makes it corner like it’s on rails.
The car is capable of reaching 300 miles per hour and rocketing from 0-60 in just 2.5 seconds – only a few tenths of a second slower than a Formula One car.
Of course when talking about fast cars and powerful engines there’s never any shortage of controversy.
What constitutes a production car is debatable, as is what is street-legal, and where.
There’s also an interesting cross-Atlantic rivalry heating up that’s pitting American manufacturers against those in Sweden, Britain, Italy and Germany.
But regardless of where they’re made, hypercars are now reaching previously unimaginable speeds consistently, and some with electric and hybrid engines have even more horsepower than the Jesko’s V-8.
Not that it matters much to most of us.
With a production run of just 12, each Jesko will go for a cool $3 million, making them the exclusive playthings of the uber-wealthy.
The USS Gerald R. Ford’s A1B reactors
When it was officially commissioned a few years ago, the USS Gerald R. Ford ushered in a new class of aircraft carriers, that when finally green lighted will give the US Navy undreamed of capabilities.
Displacing 100,000 tons and powered by two Bechtel A1B nuclear reactors, the massive supercarrier slid into the water from its construction berth in Newport News, Virginia in 2017, ending the dominance of the Nimitz Class carriers that have served the Navy for nearly half a century.
The Ford was constructed from more than 4 million pounds of metal, is coated with hundreds of thousands of gallons of paint, and is crisscrossed with untold miles of wires, pipes, and fiber optic cables.
Central to the new ship’s potency and durability are its upgraded A1B reactors, which are smaller, more powerful, and more reliable than their predecessors.
If the projections are true, they’ll generate 125 megawatts of electricity and 350,000 shaft horsepower distributed equally between four propellers.
Each day the reactors will provide the power necessary to produce nearly half a million gallons of fresh water and 15,000 meals, but by some estimations it’ll take another 4 years and $750 million to get the $13 billion ship ready for active service, because like most megaprojects it was plagued by delays and cost overruns.
Many were directly attributable to its new systems, and lengthy sea trails are the only way to iron them out.
Though exact figures for power and performance remain classified, it’s thought that the combination of more powerful engines and improved hull design will allow the Ford to reach 30 knots, or about 35 miles per hour.
Since nuclear reactors don’t burn fossil fuel for propulsion, the Ford will theoretically be able to operate continually for nearly a quarter of a century before its tanks need to be topped off.
Other innovations include a redesigned flightdeck, a new system for catapult assisted take offs using induction motors instead of steam, improved surface to air missiles, and Mk-15 20mm cannons capable of spewing 4,500 rounds per minute at anti-ship missiles and aircraft that managed to slip through the carrier’s outer defenses.
The Ford will carry about 75 warplanes of all shapes and sizes, and more than 4,000 service members including sailors, pilots, officers and Marines.