Technology

So Long Pistons

So Long Pistons! on a whole new frontier of the car In the modern age, technological development seems to race forward. In reality though, at least when it comes to machinery and all things mechanical, change happens slowly and for the most part, builds on prior assumptions and rules. But every now and then technology makes a huge leap forward, leaving the prior technology in its dust looking like a dinosaur in a museum.

I’m not telling anyone what they don’t already know here, but let’s review. The internal combustion engine (ICE) that moves your car from point A to point B is essentially a controlled bomb that explodes over and over again. The explosions displace pistons that turn a crankshaft, creating mechanical energy that eventually finds its way to your wheels. Sounds great, but there’s one big problem: It’s inefficient. Modern ICE’s are incredibly efficient compared to their older counterparts, but there’s still one major area of loss that cannot be gotten rid of without a complete redesign.

For every stroke, So Long Pistons piston has to change directions four times, which means constant acceleration and deceleration, which translates into efficiency losses. The way to eliminate this efficiency loss would be to keep all the mechanical energy in the same direction, which is how a turbine engine works. So why hasn’t anyone created a production car with a turbine engine? The answer is: they have. Chrysler began developing a sedan powered by a gas turbine engine in the early 1950s, and over the next few decades created multiple drivable prototypes until the program was killed in 1989. What a waste right? Well, not really, since the engine developed for use in these vehicles was later used to create what we now know as the M1 Abrams Tank.

But why did the program get nixed? To start, turbine engines have very high operating temperatures, requiring expensive alloys for manufacturing and putting out dangerously hot exhaust gases. They also turn at very high RPMs and consume large amounts of fuel even while idling. Turbines do not respond immediately to throttling like ICE’s do, but requires spool uptime. They can be very noisy. Turbine engines have fewer moving parts than piston engines and in general, need less maintenance, but when something does break they are much more expensive to fix because of the way they are designed and many times require complete replacement. So what if you could get something like a turbine to power your car, without all the drawbacks? Say hello to the Wave Disc Engine.

Created by Dr. Norbert Mueller, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s (MSU) college of engineering, the Wave Disc Engine does not have a transmission, pistons, or a crankshaft. It does not use any cooling liquids. A rotor feeds fuel into channels in the disc, mixing the fuel with oxygen as it spins. The spinning of the rotor creates a buildup in pressure within the channeling chamber, which creates a shock wave that ignites the fuel. It operates similarly to a turbine except instead of air coming in the front and exiting out the back, air comes up the middle and exits the perimeter of the disc.

Dr. Mueller currently has a working prototype engine but it is too small to power a car as of yet. He is working on scaling up the engine to power an actual vehicle. Based on his analysis and prototype, he projects that his Wave Disc Engine will use 60% of the available energy in the fuel to create usable power, whereas current ICE’s use about 20% with the rest being lost as heat. He expects the full-scale engine to be lighter than conventional ICE’s by 30%, which would cut the weight of average vehicles by up to 20%. He also projects the engine will reduce the total cost of cars by up to 30%, and reduce CO2 emissions by 90%.

For me, when it comes to technology seeing is believing, so I won’t be holding my breath. Until I see it in some average Joe’s pickup truck I will not be a believer. But without the box thinking like this, we may soon be able to escape the grasp of ICE’s and embark technology.

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