A very good idea
December 27, 2003 7:25 AM   Subscribe

The Whispering Wheel Ever see a brilliant invention and you wish you had thought of it? Simply genius. Might change the world for the better.
posted by kablam (35 comments total)
Wow. I wonder how far that can be scaled down. If the engine that acts as a generator can be small, why did they stick with diesel fuel?
posted by machaus at 7:34 AM on December 27, 2003

isn't this how (diesel electric) trains work?
posted by andrew cooke at 8:05 AM on December 27, 2003

Wow that's a superb concept!

machaus, I guess one of the reasons they use diesel is so that bus can be filled up at any bus depot, since all buses use diesel. In most countries, the government subsidises the cost of diesel, if it's already not cheaper than petrol. Also diesel is said to be more efficient of the two fuels. I don't know why but Diesel engines are also built stronger. You get a lot more low end torque from a diesel engine, and once you add turbo to it, you also get the same amount of high end power as a petrol engine.
posted by riffola at 8:08 AM on December 27, 2003

How diesel engines work.

Diesel engines are quite efficient, very powerful and there is a lot of research being put into how to make them more so, with fewer pollutants.

Here is one idea, the PLASMATRON! (cool name.)

"Under development for the last six years, the plasmatron is an onboard "oil reformer" that converts a variety of fuels into high-quality, hydrogen-rich gas. Adding a relatively modest amount of such gas to the gasoline powering a car or to a diesel vehicle's exhaust is known to have benefits for cutting the emissions of pollutants...."

Even the seemingly little improvements matter.
posted by kablam at 8:16 AM on December 27, 2003

Would it be more efficient to run the electricity to the bus on overhead wires?
posted by stbalbach at 8:24 AM on December 27, 2003

The idea of a fixed axel with a rotating motor isn't exactly new; one can find examples dating back to the Sopwith Camel. This has been suggested before for automobiles and my understanding of the problem with this design is that it's possible for the motors in each wheel to lose synchronization. That is, one wheel may spin faster or slower than its mates, which would reduce handling. The linked article doesn't appear to address this.
posted by SPrintF at 9:30 AM on December 27, 2003

That is, one wheel may spin faster or slower than its mates, which would reduce handling.

Wouldn't simple traction control sensors eliminate this? I mean, even the $15K Scion Xb has traction control now.
posted by machaus at 9:38 AM on December 27, 2003

This is called regenerative braking (google: 23 600 hits). It's common on electric only vehicle. The unique feature of the dutch project is an in-wheel system, rather than an on-board engine , which neatly solves the suspension-coupling problem (do you suspend the engine for the vehicle or the wheel from the engine) and is thus more efficient than regular electric engines.

They're using a hybrid, because nobody has worked out an economical way to do a fully electric vehicle yet. Batteries have limited number of charge cycles and only work in warm climates.

On preview: the relationship between applied current and rotational speed is easy to work out. You don't need a mechanical differential, just a current limiter.
posted by bonehead at 9:38 AM on December 27, 2003

stbalbach -- A web of overhead wires is not my idea of a great urban improvement (though I'll grant better than clouds of exhaust). So for one, assuming any in-vehicle electric/low-emission solution was feasible, it would be in that way superior from an aesthetic point of view. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, putting up a set of cables is kind of an all-or-nothing investment for a community. If we develop models of buses and cars which more seamlessly replace the ones already going, it's much easier for cities to test them and adopt them on whatever scale is appropriate. (Or so I'd guess, having absolutely no expertise in either economics or urban planning. But that's what makes sense to me).
posted by BT at 9:39 AM on December 27, 2003

Overhead wires also don't work well in bad weather. Any place that gets regular snow or worse, freezing rain, has huge problems with supplied-power vehicles.
posted by bonehead at 9:41 AM on December 27, 2003

... and you're stuck with the routes you've electrified — for a long time. No construction detours, no easy expansion lines.
posted by silusGROK at 10:00 AM on December 27, 2003

but will it sound like a clogged toilet when I rev it up at stop lights?
posted by mcsweetie at 10:03 AM on December 27, 2003

cool thanks for the link kablam. the world really needs smart inventions/inventors like this right now.
posted by specialk420 at 10:13 AM on December 27, 2003

Oh my God...........

* whacks self repeatedly in head with cartoonishly big hammer *

Great post, Kablam. "Hypercar"? - meet the "Whispering Wheel"! Ha ha Amory Lovins! You're not the smartest person in the world after all! Ha!

Just goes to show, there are still some great, simple inventions out there waiting for conception and implementation.

I have a relative who invents things in his head, like : Fulleresque-construction giant (house sized) spherical containers made from waste plastic : first, they'll be filled with trash and recycling, then floated down conveniently placed rivers and canals to the sea, to central processing plants. The empty containers can then be linked together to form mammoth floating platforms for ocean-going CITIES! And - even better - they'll have such a low weight - to - volume ration that they'll damn near float in the air, so with a little help - fill 'em up with helium, say, they'll function as balloons. These "balloons" can be linked together into a giant floating composite airship (are you still with me?) which will be used to - ready - collect electricity from lightning, via floating power leads running down to the ground!

And so - in one swell foop, both our garbage problems and our need for energy have been solved by this practical and elegant solution!
How about that?
posted by troutfishing at 10:13 AM on December 27, 2003

The specific genetic legacy which helped to generate this ahead-of-it's time idea.....I share it too. Thus, I repress my urge for invention.
posted by troutfishing at 10:16 AM on December 27, 2003

My understanding was that the main problem with diesels and air pollution came from particulate matter, which would be like soot. Big black chunks of burnt stuff as exhaust are more than a slight problem, as gases as pollutants can disperse over a wider area, theoretically reducing the localization of air pollution, but those particulates are never going to leave the immediate area where they were created(too heavy to be dispersed). Hence, sooty cities, as opposed to smog which can lift depending on weather conditions. Barriers to weather dispersion of gases exacerbate the problems of places like L.A. and Mexico City.

Experts, is that close?

Also, am I correct that diesels are more durable and long-lived as engines due to the fact that they must be built to withstand the 20+ to 1 compression ratios needed for compression ignition? That the engineering demands placed upon them just to run and not self-destruct in the first place result in a longer engine service life?
posted by dglynn at 10:25 AM on December 27, 2003

Diesel-cycle engines are more durable than gas ones mostly because they are much simpler. Fuel and air mix in the cylinder, so no carbeuration or pre-mixing is needed. Combustion happens because of compression alone; there is no spark-plug to foul.

Particulates are a problem from diesels, but not one the development community worries about too much. It's a combustion problem that is solvable with some clever tricks (water in fuel, engine cooling, oxegenate additives). Sulphur emissions are another concern largely eliminated by low-sulphur fuels.

The biggest problem with diesels are NOX gases. Nitrogen oxides are odourless and colourless and one of the main smog health hazards. NO, for example, can cause nerve damage. Eliminating NOX gas production from oxygen-rich Diesel-cycle engines is very hard.

One really neat possibility (to fuel geeks, at least) is the possibility of using a "diesel"-fuel (fo #2) turbine rather than a piston engine for hybrid vehicules. Turbines can be more efficient than IC engines, over 50% efficient compared with about 30%, with a better emissions profile. The engineering is harder though.
posted by bonehead at 11:05 AM on December 27, 2003

The empty containers can then be linked together to form mammoth floating platforms for ocean-going CITIES!

troutfishing, you're starting to sound more and more like Zippy...
posted by namespan at 11:34 AM on December 27, 2003

Or possibly Robert McElwaine.

posted by webmutant at 12:45 PM on December 27, 2003

Westport Innovations in partnership with Cummins, is well on the way to having the heavy-duty-engine pollution problem worked out: they've invented/developed natural gas, plg, and hydrogen replacements

Toss them on the bus as a generator and run electric wheels. Wowsa.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:03 PM on December 27, 2003

Yes and no. They seem to be designed for conventional propulsion, rather than electrical generation. Optimally, you want a generation-only engine that could generate the profile of an electrically-powered bus's consumption curve. This may limit current choices to gas and diesel.

Personally, I would like it if it could be fuel cell based, but again, I just don't think a fuel cell can crank it out fast enough to make up for your energy drain.

Bonus: a neat article I stumbled upon: Suck Amps!
posted by kablam at 2:07 PM on December 27, 2003

The hub motor is interesting but I can see problems - it increases the unsprung weight of the car and it also puts the motor in direct contact with the road. It does have advantages though - no gearing/drivetrain is needed, which reduces the driveline friction which is a significant factor in city driving.

The great innovation here is the fact that the bus is a series hybrid. This allows the diesel generator to spin at its optimal speed, and uses the efficiency, flat torque curve, and low noise levels of the electric motor to its greatest advantage.

If they beefed up the battery pack and put a plug on it, they could make it a plug-in hybrid - this would allow them to charge it overnight with clean electric power rather than diesel fuel, which would offset a significant amount of diesel fuel usage. (And to folks who say that this is just "moving the pollution emissions elsewhere": our electricity supply gives us many more options for obtaining power, including wind and solar.)
posted by fishbrando at 2:17 PM on December 27, 2003

They're using a hybrid, because nobody has worked out an economical way to do a fully electric vehicle yet. Batteries have limited number of charge cycles and only work in warm climates.

bonehead, meet the Toyota RAV4 EV. There are RAV4 EVs out there that have gone 100K miles and are still going strong. And thanks to their NiMH batteries, they work even better in cold environments. Too bad Toyota discontinued this model.
posted by fishbrando at 2:26 PM on December 27, 2003

There are hybrid electric buses in Auckland, NZ. They are not the same systme, but they are here...

I think they are dangerous - they are so very quiet they can easily sneak up on you. Little buggers. I like my buses to be noisy as hell.
posted by sycophant at 12:45 AM on December 28, 2003

I don't see whats so wrong with running a smaller diesel engine to power the batteries. Obviously, they can't schedule these things for a lengthy charge up after x amount of hours.

Diesel engines are about 10% or so more efficient than gas engines. IC engines produce heat so driving an electric in the winter won't be such a painful process or require some other fossil fuel to burn.

The battery life just isn't here and this is a very smart compromise as they already are using a diesel infrastructure.

Even more promising technology is the compressed air powered car.
posted by skallas at 1:06 AM on December 28, 2003

skallas - that's really cool - a postsworthy on it's own. Minicats. Heh.

I wonder if you could run them on overheated, bellicose deceptive political rhetoric?
posted by troutfishing at 4:12 AM on December 28, 2003

I'm sure the Exxon/Mobils of the world will find a way to quash this technology if it starts to look like it hass serious potential... these companies are good at protecting their markets, as every good corporation is.

That's assuming Detroit doesn't take the initiative on its own, of course.
posted by drywall at 7:20 AM on December 28, 2003

I'm sure the Exxon/Mobils of the world will find a way to quash this technology if it starts to look like it hass serious potential

Sort of like they've already quashed the hybrid technology developed by Toyota and Honda, eh?
posted by kindall at 9:37 AM on December 28, 2003

From the MDI site: "[the MiniCat] has three seats and the boot of a saloon....What more could you need?"

OK, I can guess tha the company must be using a British variety of English and therefore "boot" means trunk, but WTF have saloons got to do with it? The only boots in a saloon are on the cowboys who go in to have a drink...

Someone, quick, steal "boot of a saloon" for a band name.
posted by kindall at 9:42 AM on December 28, 2003

Potentially good idea, but get the government involved and they'll manage to mess everything up and make it more expensive.

How about a passenger-powered treadmill in every bus?
posted by hama7 at 10:49 AM on December 28, 2003

kindall - I vaguely remember 'saloon' as real auto term, from my days of flailing about with antique autos.

hama7 - There's a compelling case for that. The poor - as a class - in the US are the heaviest users of public transportation. They also tend to be more obese than Americans of any other economic strata. Further, they tend to be recipients of government subsidized health care (at varying levels and quality).

So it stands to logic that the most rational form of government assistance to the poor - a program which would also actually pay for itself many times over through reduced government health care expenditures (at the very least) - would be the purchase of pedal powered public transit fleets. This would be a humane program, of course. Public transit users with disabilities would get exemption cards permitting them to occupy pedal-free bus sections.

The improved health of the public transit riders would serve to uplift whole urban communities freed from the shackles of obesity-degraded health, from it's many consequent ramifications - diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer.........
posted by troutfishing at 11:24 AM on December 28, 2003

For those decrying the diesel engine, I think hybrids like this because whatever engine being used can easily be swapped-out by better technology as it becomes available. The batteries don't care if they're getting charged by an internal combustion engines, fuel cells, ultra-efficient solar cells, or Mr. Fusion. Retrofits will be cheap and easy!
posted by Eamon at 2:38 PM on December 28, 2003

A smart point.
posted by troutfishing at 8:14 PM on December 28, 2003

I wonder if there is an engine vs. mass comparison chart out there? That is, up to 200 or so pounds, the body is the best engine (as in bicycle power); but when you increase the weight from there, first gasoline become most efficient, then diesel, and on the high end, nuclear.
Once could even plot their power curves against weight.

The purpose of the exercise would be to figure out where unconventional energy sources could fit in, along with the big four components: resistors, capacitors, inductors and batteries/generators.

The reason components other than batteries/generators should be mentioned is because there has been a great jump in their technology in the last decade or so. Powerful capacitors(*) that would have taken a railroad flatcar to xport 15 years ago are now the size of a briefcase, as example. When these technologies are reduced in size and cost, they will strongly effect the engines of the future.

(*) 5-10 MJoules worth, for military use.
posted by kablam at 9:01 PM on December 28, 2003

I've seen more than one overview of this technology before, and every other write-up has focused on the real apparent Achilles' heel--road damage. Putting the motor assembly inside the wheel itself removes every cushioning mechanism (shocks, leaves, etc.) except the tire itself.

I'm sure there are pristine streets--with no potholes--available in some small number of European cities, but I don't think these wheels would last more than a day or two in good ol' NYC, Boston or Chicago. (Maybe a week in other urban areas, but no US municipality has the money any more to win the battle against potholes.)
posted by LairBob at 9:24 AM on December 29, 2003

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