How Flywheels Work

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In Internal Combustion Engines

  • Flywheels have many uses in modern machinery. Probably the most common is to store rotational energy to help drive internal combustion engines. The engine spins a flywheel mounted at the crankshaft, which then helps maintain forward momentum as the rotational energy stored in the flywheel is re-transferred back to the crankshaft to help the vehicle maintain speed and, especially, torque. Automobile torque, which is a measure of rotational force, is mainly dependent on the size, location and rotational speed of the flywheel. Cars also use their flywheels to connect the transmission to the engine through the clutch. The spinning of the flywheel helps to stabilize the engine's rotational speed while the car changes gears and the transmission is disengaged.

In Electric Motors

  • But flywheels aren't limited to internal combustion engines. Vehicles driven by electric motors, which aren't as powerful as internal combustion engines, frequently need to use flywheels to store rotational energy to boost their acceleration under taxing conditions. For example, certain electrically driven trains use their motors to spin a flywheel to high speed while cruising on level ground. Then, when it reaches a grade that would be otherwise difficult to surmount using just the electric motor, the spinning flywheel helps the train maintain velocity to the top.

As an Uninterruptible Power Source

  • Flywheels can also store energy to power systems relying on other forms of energy when those systems temporarily fail, providing an uninterruptible power supply. For example, if an electrically powered train runs across a gap in its third (electric) rail, the flywheel spinning can continue to drive it until it reaches the end of the gap. Flywheel energy storage systems have also been used for load-leveling at data centers, for which power outages can be disastrous.

Peak Load Stabilizer

  • Flywheels can be used not only for load leveling during power outages, they can also be used to level-load the electrical grid during power surges. One fun example of this principle is the Incredible Hulk roller coaster at Universal Studio's Islands of Adventure theme park. The ride features a rapidly accelerating uphill launch instead of the usual steady chain pull. To accomplish this, the ride uses high-energy traction motors that shoot the car up the track to the first drop. To achieve the momentarily extra high current required to accelerate the heavy coaster to full speed uphill, the park uses several extra motor generator sets with oversized flywheels to generate the brief energy peak required. Without these flywheels, the park would have had to build a new electrical substation and risk overtaxing the Orlando power grid each time the ride is launched.

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