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Lab develops engine for the future

The thermoacoustic Stirling engine is expected to have many future uses.   

June 17, 1999
Web posted at: 9:52 a.m. EDT (1352 GMT)


Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory hope that conventional fuel burning engines become an instrument of the past. The U.S. Department of Energy researchers have designed a remarkably simple, energy-efficient engine with no moving parts.

Rising pollution, global warming and shrinking fossil fuel reserves have focused world wide attention on how engines generate electrical and mechanical power. High efficiency engines help conserve fossil fuels and reduce emissions by consuming less fuel while generating an equivalent amount of power.

The concept behind the engine derives in part from a principle outlined by Robert Stirling in 19th century Scotland. The Stirling cycle describes a phenomenon where a confined volume of gas expands at high pressure and contracts at low pressure. In the conventional Stirling engine, a fixed amount of helium is compressed in a cool chamber and then transferred to a chamber heated by an external burner. As the gas expands it drives a piston that delivers energy. When it cools it returns to the colder chamber and the cycle begins again.

The thermoacoustic Stirling heat engines developed by the LANL scientists work by creating intense acoustic energy that can be used directly in acoustically powered refrigerators or to generate electricity. The power production process is environmentally friendly and up to 30 percent efficient while typical internal combustion engines are 25 to 40 percent efficient.

"The efficiency of conventional heat engines is limited both by the laws of thermodynamics and practical concerns over the cost of building and operating complex engines," says Los Alamos researcher Scott Backhaus. "Typically, the highest efficiencies can only be obtained from expensive engines like the large turbines used by electrical utilities. Our engine is neither mechanically complex nor expensive."

Because the thermoacoustic Stirling heat engine contains no moving parts and is constructed of common materials, it requires little or no maintenance, can be manufactured inexpensively, and is expected to have many future uses

"Small low-cost engines like this could be used in homes for cogeneration, for instance. That is, they could be used to generate electricity while at the same time producing heat to warm the home or for hot-water heating," said Los Alamos Researcher Greg Swift.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Department of Energy
Los Alamos National Laboratory
U.S. Council for Automotive Research
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