IT's about to get a helluva lot better.
April 16, 2002 1:24 PM   Subscribe

IT's about to get a helluva lot better. Dean Kamen applies for several patents for design and production of his version of the Stirling engline, the holy grail of mechanical efficiency. Apparently DEKA has perfected technology enabling the engine to smoothly produce electricity and transfer it to anything, be it a power grid or a Segway, with less pollution than a gas stove. Kamen asserts that the engine can run on everything from cow dung to nuclear material. Could this be the cure for energy crises and dependance on big, foreign oil? (See also the MSNBC story.)
posted by sixfoot6 (32 comments total)
Sarcastic MeFi poster: "Some day, cities will be built around this"

But, see, this time it may be true.
posted by jragon at 1:50 PM on April 16, 2002

The site in the post's second link makes it sound like anyone can build these things, and that they do. If that's the case, what then could Kamen have done that would make such a difference? The other two links are a little short on those sorts of details.
posted by yhbc at 1:58 PM on April 16, 2002

Sounds too good to be true, while he may have the patent, I would not start hiring developers to build cities around it just yet.
posted by riffola at 1:59 PM on April 16, 2002

I cannot believe that we are still getting our panties in a wedge of Kamen and his friggin scooter. Unless you're 8 and have rich parents, who cares?
posted by UncleFes at 2:01 PM on April 16, 2002

posted by delmoi at 2:02 PM on April 16, 2002

Also from a previous discussion, here's how a Striling engine works.
posted by riffola at 2:03 PM on April 16, 2002

Thanks for that link, riffola.

UncleFes, we are not specifically talking about the Segway here, we're talking about improvements to an engine designed two hundred years ago that works well in theory but has never been successfully put to practical use on a mass scale. If anyone can pull it off, it's probably Kamen. While you're changing your panties, think about how the many ways in which the world could benefit from a zero-emissions engine that runs on all types of fuel. If DEKA has developed technology to make it possible for a Stirling to run a large vehicle cheaply and efficiently, think of all the money you could save on gasoline. You could use that extra money to go camping with your 8 year old someday.
posted by sixfoot6 at 2:37 PM on April 16, 2002

hey just saw this nytimes article on arstechnica today!
At least three Stirling engine patents have already been issued to one of Mr. Kamen's companies, New Power Concepts, which is based in Manchester, N.H. But the interesting thing about the most recent patent application (and it is only an application; the patent hasn't yet been granted), according to several people familiar with Stirling engines, is that it covers the manufacturing of the engine, not just the design.

"This patent was filed by a person who is going into production," said Brent H. Van Arsdell, president of American Stirling, an educational company that sells nonindustrial Stirling engines to physics professors and enthusiasts. "He's fairly confident of his design. This addresses the question of how can we build this economically and faster and reliably after we already have a prototype that costs us millions of dollars."
also gulfstream had a link to this testimonial too :)
posted by kliuless at 2:43 PM on April 16, 2002

Better that he get rich from this than Bill Gates. Or Most of other people I can think of....
posted by ParisParamus at 2:46 PM on April 16, 2002

Sorry 6'6. The article still talks about the scooter. But I hear a lot of bushwah from this pecker, and so far it's come to naught, your claims that that 'if anyone could do it, he can' notwithstanding.

This engine has been around for about a century - are you telling me that no one could find applications for it until now? I'm no engineer, but I understand innovation and efficiency. If someone could do it, why wouldn't they? Especially the big motor companies, to whom multiple fuels usage, high efficiency and low pollutants would be a moneymaker on the Microsoft model.

Sorry, it's hard to get excited over this. Magic bullets hardly ever hit the target.
posted by UncleFes at 2:52 PM on April 16, 2002

While you're changing your panties, think about how the many ways in which the world could benefit from a zero-emissions engine that runs on all types of fuel.

That would be amazing, but it's not a Stirling engine. If you burn hydrocarbons, you will generate carbon dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, regardless of how you convert the resulting hot air into motion.
posted by jaek at 2:55 PM on April 16, 2002

delmoi - how... insightful. Care to elaborate?

I think this would be awesome for areas with no trash pickup. Rural areas still burn their trash, all that can't be good for the air pollution levels. But if you could instead dump your trash in the stirling engine/generator next to your house that would rock.

Turn landfills into power plants.
posted by Nauip at 3:01 PM on April 16, 2002

Thanks, kliuless, that testimonial link is great.
posted by Awol at 3:11 PM on April 16, 2002

UncleFes, I'm going to spend some more time researching the history of Stirling engines, because (as jaek politely pointed out, for example) I don't know enough about what I'm talking about. It has generally been my understanding that the reason Stirlings are not already in widespread use is that no motor company or person has been able to perfect the engineering to make the engines practical for such things.

As for your "bushwah", I don't know what to say. This pecker Kamen invented the portable dialysis machine and a wheelchair that climbs stairs and stands up on two wheels. These inventions are changing people's lives. I think kliuless's link to the testimonial page illustrates that Kamen isn't just playing with kidstuff.

I know what you mean about magic bullets, but I still though the news of these patent applications deserved to be discussed rather than dissed. Hopefully the specifics of the new technology he's developed will be available in another article before long.
posted by sixfoot6 at 3:26 PM on April 16, 2002

Mr. Fusion...

Marty, it's your kids!

(I would be so happy to be able to run my computers on my coffee grounds, there sure are enough of them...)
posted by joemaller at 3:29 PM on April 16, 2002

Generally, Stirling engines are hand built, and this company seems to think Kamen's attention to Stirling engines is a great idea. They say, for example:
To the best of our knowledge, there is no one in the world currently delivering a small Stirling engine at a price that would be acceptable on a non-military budget.

The price for a tiny engine which produces a lot of power is pretty high. There is probably no production ready, industrial level, high output low cost model in existence (except for perhaps what Kamen claims).

No company has successfully produced a market ready engine, because external combustion probably takes a lot more design work than internal combustion. I don't see how energy companies (which control the energy production) would have any incentive to develop Stirling engines since it takes them out of the energy production process. It would have to be started by a new industry, and if there was no good working, marketable product, it would probably be too risky to garner enough starting capital. Kamen has spent years tinkering with the Stirling, and probably has a product ready to go on the market.

If everyone could produce their own power efficiently, it would reduce pollution (if the heat source is clean), lower costs, and prevent blackouts and power shortages. If it worked it would probably make Kamen the richest man on the planet, but that's a pretty big if.
posted by insomnyuk at 3:32 PM on April 16, 2002

I thought this was an interesting part of the NYTimes article:
The Kamen engine appears to be not terribly different from other Stirling engines. However, its heat exchanger — which has projecting "fins" that make it look like a riled porcupine ready to attack — has been designed so that it can be cast rather than welded, a key efficiency.
posted by smackfu at 3:42 PM on April 16, 2002

My motorcycle is air-cooled. It's got fins all over the place... cast, not welded.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:45 PM on April 16, 2002

Oh, and let's remember that Kamen warned us IT would not be 'earth shattering' as so many business, science and media hypsters claimed it would. The Segway was an interesting invention, but not as cool as the Megway. Unfortunately, it seemed disappointing due to all of the unwarranted hype. I liken it to the crushing disappointment of Star Wars Episode 1, which I thought was going to be the greatest thing I would have seen since I was a little kid watching the original three. I went in as a critical teenager with high expectations, and was inevitably disappointed.
posted by insomnyuk at 3:46 PM on April 16, 2002

Now, now, it's not because you were a critical teenager. Many full-grown, 30+ year-old adults with reasonable expectations were also equally disappointed.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:28 PM on April 16, 2002

This engine has been around for about a century

So were a few hydraulic pump designs by Tesla. We only perfected the manufacturing process in the 70's, which made them cheap, effective and amazingly cost-saving.

Babbages' "Difference Engine" is a reasonably straight-forward exercise today (chuckle, possible even with desktop machining controlled by, um, computers...), however at the time it was difficult to get the parts made with enough precision and quality.

Idea's are sometimes not possible to implement with todays' technology, yet are still good ideas. (Space elevator?)

So, perhaps some of the crazy quantum mechanic theories out there aren't implementable today, what about in a century? Should they be forgotten, just cause we can't do 'em now?
posted by jkaczor at 4:33 PM on April 16, 2002

there's an article in this month's vanity fair (doesn't look like it's online, unfortunately) about kamen. it dedicates a fair amount of space to the Stirling engine.
posted by sugarfish at 4:37 PM on April 16, 2002

But if you could instead dump your trash in the stirling engine/generator next to your house that would rock.

You'd still be burning garbage. It dosn't seem terribly efficient. While you might be able to be less polluting buring gasoline or someting, you'd create a lot more polution burning garbage in this thing then gasoline or oil in a regular engine.

Who knows, maybe I'm wrong. But I don't think this thing is going to work out the way mr Kamen belives it will.
posted by delmoi at 4:54 PM on April 16, 2002

A couple key points gleaned from the two articles:
  • The engine Kamen is working on produces about as much polution as a gas stove -- not zero
  • Stirling engines produce mechanical energy from heat differentials. Kamen is working one one which also converts mechanical to electrical energy
  • Stirlings require less maintenance because they're sealed
  • Stirlings run more efficiently/less pollutingly because they use a steady burner rather than an series of explosions (ala internal combustion)
  • The patents cover both new engine designs and production techniques
Taken together what we have is an attempt to attach these engines to infrastructure, create less pollution than regular cars, incur lower Maintenance produce the engines in question. Add a segway, and you get a refuelable, 'mileage unlimited' vehicle rather than the short hop + recharge beast you've got now.

All in all, good things, but certainly not the no-pollution crap the Straight Times are talking about.

When people say 'non-polluting engine', what they mean is that the engine itself doesn't pollute. Unfortunately, they tend to ignore that most external heat sources create polution.
posted by daver at 5:02 PM on April 16, 2002

I'd be surprised if this engine wasn't optimized for gasoline, and capable of burning propane and natural gas. That makes the most sense for a vehicle.

Of course, magnifying glasses and ants are also perfectly good fuel, but they depend on direct sunlight which is hard to find here in seattle. Maybe we could burn moss?
posted by daver at 5:26 PM on April 16, 2002

If I recall Kamen's speech that was posted way back when, the engine would be more for countries without a reliable, widespread electric system. You 'n' me, we'll plug it in at home and work. Them, they'll burn cow dung, natural gas, natural gas from cow dung, etc. Whatever they can find I guess.

As skeptical as I can be, I really want this whole segway thing to work out. But the real breakthrough will be in 3d transportation. Flying segways. We live in a 3 dimensional world and our transport system is 2 dimensional. Buildings build up, roads don't. Can't. Too expensive.

Then again, the thought cheap flying segways makes me nervous. All the more reason for me to move even farther from the city.
posted by Tacodog at 5:42 PM on April 16, 2002

Stirling engines are, in the right circumstances, potentially more efficient than internal combustion engines. They are also, depending upon design, longer lived and require less maintenance. The problem is that they require a very efficient (expensive) heat exchanger to achieve their overall improvement in efficiency. That, and the tight tolerences in manufacture required in a closed system, make them more expensive to mass-produce than some other engine designs.

They have not been used in quantity as a power source because a cost-benefit analysis hasn't favoured them. They may be marginally more efficient, but for most purposes, their increased cost of manufacture is not recovered over the engine's working lifetime by a net reduction in fuel cost.

This will change when the manufacturing techniques are developed to produce these engines cheaply. Perhaps that's what Mr Kamen is on to.
posted by normy at 5:50 PM on April 16, 2002

Jeez, you guys sure know how to put the "me" in "MeFi." Every time I've heard anything Kamen has said about the Stirling engine, he's mentioned it in the context of Third World economies. There's plenty of wood and manure around which will be burned for heat and cooking anyway, and the Stirling could power water purification systems, communication systems, and a whole lot else that's being run on noisy and messy two-stoke engines right now.

Give my boy K the benefit of the doubt, you nattering nabobs.

(or, upon review: right on, Tacodog)
posted by chino at 5:50 PM on April 16, 2002

I'd be surprised if this engine wasn't optimized for gasoline, and capable of burning propane and natural gas. That makes the most sense for a vehicle.

Or Hydrogen
posted by Nauip at 8:42 PM on April 16, 2002

I was wondering, would a fresnel lens and one of these engines, with the generator mentioned, be more or less efficient than a silicone solar panel in terms of energy produced per square inch of collection area?
posted by Nothing at 10:49 PM on April 16, 2002

This speech (realplayer format) Kamen gave on stuff, including the stirling engine, was inspiring to me. Originally linked from Mefi a few months ago. He gives it standing on a Segway, which is a wank, but it's worth watching if you have an hour to spare and a fast connection. He speaks at some length about the things that chino talks about above.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:35 AM on April 17, 2002

Nothing: Obviously none of us know the specifics about the design of Kamen's engine, but photovoltaic cells are really inefficient, about 80% of energy is lost at 100% efficiency and efficiency decreases with a rise in temperature of the panel or obstruction of the light source.

After some quick research (last line), people are claiming 30% solar-to-electric conversion with a Sterling. If they're taking in to account ALL solar energy this blows away PV cells, but often times people only factor in the "usuable" portion of the spectrum and then base their efficiency how much of that energy they collect. Check out this usenet thread for some more info on this subject.

However, I wouldn't imagine this has too much on a more conventional solar-mechanical-electric conversion process. Since all a Sterling engine does is change heat to mechanical energy, and any electricity produced is done via a standard generator. Not to mention all the other factors that come into play here like: how to capture heat, how the different collection methods work in sub-optimal lighting conditions, how ambient temperature effects the device, etc.
posted by betaray at 9:34 AM on April 17, 2002

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