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Thursday, September 15, 2005

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Come Dream With Me: Stirling Engines (Part 1)

Category: Come Dream With Me

The "Come Dream With Me" series is intended to make light of new and promising technologies through works of fiction or direct dictations about where the future might lead. Whenever possible, links are given to support the technology behind the concepts presented in this series.

Mr. Jameson shook my hand with vigor as he greeted me to the Stirling Future Inc. test grounds. "So I understand that you're building the powerplant of the future?" I said.

"Indeed we are," he replied excitedly.

"We feel that we are on the cusp of making the internal combustion engine a thing of the past!"

A rather bold claim. The same one used by every crackpot and "free energy" nut in existence. I better be careful. "Well, I hope you have something to back that up with," I said with a friendly smile.

"Don't you worry," he replied with an equally friendly smile, "I think we can knock your socks off before we're through today. Let's start with our modified Cessna."

He then gestured to a plane sitting on the runway behind me, and motioned for us to start walking toward it. "Have you ever flown?" he queried.

"I've been up in a private plane a few times. I did a few articles on private aviation at one point."

"Then you know that the single most troublesome component in most prop planes is the powerplant. The difficulties in keeping the plane light enough to fly, yet powerful enough to maneuver means that the engines must be loud and run on extremely high octane fuels. It wasn't until recently that the airplane industry managed to cut back on lead usage in the fuels, and the change has had adverse effects on the economy of the fuel. Not to mention the price! Car buyers think they have it bad trying to purchase unleaded gasoline at over three dollars a gallon, but just imagine the prices we must pay for high octane fuels to keep our planes in the air! The petroleum prices have almost made it too expensive for the average aviation enthusiast to fly."

As we reached the small plane, Mr. Jameson reached out to pat the side of the cowl before turning back to look at me. "This baby, on the other hand, can burn anything. Regular gasoline, diesel, ethanol, propane, kerosine, anything. And it can do it more efficiently than the airplane fuels we use today. Not only that, but it can climb higher than any existing airplane thanks to the fact that its powerplant doesn't lose its efficiency at high altitudes as fast as its I.C.E. counterparts. Oh, and did I mention that it's quiet?"

"Quiet?", I asked. "You mean like less than 80 decibels? Quieter than most engines today?"

"No, I mean quiet as in less than a dozen decibels. The powerplant itself is so smooth that it's almost noiseless. Most of the sound produced by this craft is from the mechanical movement of air.

"Tell you what. How about we take her up for a quick flight, and I'll show you what I mean?"

If even half of what Mr. Jameson was telling me is true, then I would be foolhardy to pass up such an opportunity. This could be the chance to run a story on world changing technology! Still, I felt quite skeptical and wanted proof before I accepted his claims. So I nodded my head in an affirmative.

"Great! I'll get the plane pre-flighted, and we'll be ready to go in a few minutes!"

I stood back and watched as Mr. Jameson checked the fuel levels, the control surfaces, the landing gear, and other standard prep work done before any flight. I noticed that the plane was a standard two seater Cessna 150 or 152, with overhead wings for stability. The plane was probably 20 years old or so, but was difficult to tell thanks to excellent maintenance. Most likely Mr. Jameson simply dropped a new engine into a used plane for his tests.

Despite the fact that I was standing well clear of the prop, Mr. Jameson yelled "CLEAR!" before starting the plane. At first I thought that something was wrong, because the propeller did not immediately kick into action. Instead I noticed that it started moving slowly, then picking up speed. Within about a minute, the prop was spinning madly. Surprisingly, with almost no sound other than a mild hum!

"Didn't I tell you she was quiet?" he called out from the pilots seat.

"Hop in and put on your safety belt! There's a headset located next you there. We don't actually need them for muffling the sound, but it's always good to keep an ear on the air traffic.

"Now you see these pull levers down here? One of these is the throttle, which I currently have wide open. We'll need all the power we can muster for takeoff. Not to mention that the Stirling powerplant running this craft is very slow to respond to throttle changes. That's not good because we need all the power we can get for takeoffs and landings. Thus this second lever here.

"The second lever is a power bypass. It shunts power away from the propellor, and simply throws it away. Normally this would kill our fuel efficiency, but it turns out that it doesn't matter much since we only use it for takeoff and landing."

With that explanation, Mr. Jameson taxied the plane onto the runway and radioed the local airspace of his intent to takeoff. He let the engine idle for a few moments before adjusting the bypass lever. The prop leaped to full speed and sent us barreling down the runway. With plenty of runway left, Jameson pulled back on the wheel and took us off the ground. As we climbed, I was struck by the fact that the engine still made very little noise. In most airplanes the engine sounds like it's straining during a steep climb, but this "Stirling" engine of Jameson's seemed to be able to provide smooth power throughout the various maneuvers he performed. If anything, the engine seemed to be built for the air.

If the was one downside to the flight, it was the poor response of the throttle. Jameson left the engine at full throttle during the initial maneuvers when he was showing off. But once he cut back to a cruising throttle, it took a few seconds for the engine to ramp back up to the power levels he needed.

The landing was mostly uneventful, but quite smooth. Before Jameson took us in for a landing, he again throttled the engine to full power and used the bypass lever to adjust the prop speed. He then adjusted for the light wind with the control surfaces, and brought us in for a perfect landing.

"So what did you think?" he asked me.

"A very interesting ride! The engine was so quiet, I felt like we were in a glider! None of the teeth rattling vibrations that you normally feel, either. The one thing I did notice was that the engine response to throttle changes was a bit on the slow side. Is that a bug you're still trying to work out of the system?"

"No, I'm afraid not," replied Mr. Jameson. "The slow response is a side effect of the way that Stirling engines work. It takes time for the heat to transmit through the materials and produce a constant flow of power. As a result, a pilot in one of these planes must plan his maneuvers accordingly. However, we have fixed this problem in another one of our experiments. If you'll follow me, I think you'll find this very interesting."

With a smile he started off toward the garage attached to the Stirling Future building. Continued...

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