The basic design of the gas-powered internal combustion engine that we use in boats, cars and motorcycles hasn’t fundamentally changed in more than 100 years. Reciprocating pistons traveling up and down in cylinders attached to a crankshaft are the norm. The lone exception is the Wankel rotary engine found in most Mazda cars that creates a lot of power but doesn’t get particularly great mileage.
Can’t Stand the Heat
The inherent problem with internal-combustion designs is that most of the available energy from the gas they burn isn’t being used to propel the vehicle. Most of it is used to generate heat from the many internal explosions, but much of that heat is lost when it’s vented out of an exhaust pipe or is absorbed by the engine block. Other losses occur because of the mechanical inefficiency of making a lot of moving parts move. Less than 30 percent of the fuel’s available energy is used to propel your boat or your car.
So is there anything better out there? Maybe. New technologies have cropped up over the years that have promised vastly increased efficiency and lighter weight, but as of yet they haven’t made their way into large-scale production. As a kid, I watched the Jetsons and thought I was peering into the foreseeable future, but 50 years later I want to know: Where are my flying cars? Or at the very least, where are my sassy robots?
Massive Yet Tiny Solution
One design with potential is the MYT (Massive Yet Tiny) engine, a 14-inch-diameter, 150-pound engine with 26 moving parts that has the same displacement as an 850-cubic-inch, 3,000-pound diesel. Within a year or so, inventor Raphial Morgado of Angel Labs plans to unveil an 8-inch-diameter motor weighing 37 pounds that he claims will produce around 400 hp and could replace V-6 or V-8 engines. Imagine that on a boat!
The MYT has eight pistons that travel within a common circular chamber and always move in the same direction, so there is none of the back-and-forth reciprocating action seen in conventional engines. Two pistons fire at the same time as opposed to one at a time on a conventional V-8 engine. The engine is designed to be air cooled, although additional cooling can be obtained by adding an oil cooler.
Before you totally dismiss the MYT as an urban myth akin to the 100 mpg carburetor, consider that later this year a Russian company is going into production on a 67 mpg hybrid, called the Yo-Mobile, with an engine that bears a striking resemblance to Morgado’s (Google “Russian Rotary Vane engine”). It’s being partially financed and promoted by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and is running for president of Russia. Some industry insiders are saying the company basically ripped off Morgado’s design, but then again, Morgado’s engine resembles a design from the mid-1980s by renowned Spanish inventor Antonio Sanchez.
Six-Pack of Power
One of the ways to make an engine more efficient is to harness the massive amount of heat being lost and use it to generate more usable power. A modern version of a design that’s been kicking around since 1876 is the six-stroke engine that injects water into the combustion chamber after the gasoline explosion has heated things up. The process creates steam, which adds power and reduces heat enough that a radiator isn’t required. A modern four-stroke, or Otto-cycle engine as it was known when it was invented in 1876, has one power stroke for every four up-and-down movements of the piston, but with a six-stroke, two more movements create one more power stroke, for greater efficiency. Like instant brownies, just add water.
Currently there are at least three teams working to perfect the six-stroke for modern propulsion: Bajulaz S A Co. in Switzerland, designing the Bajulaz engine; the College of Engineering in Trivandrum, India, designing the Velozeta six-stroke; and Bruce Crower, maker of high-performance aftermarket automotive products, inventor of the Crower engine.
One Short of a Six-Pack
Ilmor, the company that currently builds MasterCraft ski-boat engines and has a rich racing heritage, is working to perfect a five-stroke engine, invented by Gerhard Schmitz. Using conventional components, the five-stroke features two small combustion pistons that perform the same way as those in a traditional four-stroke, but instead of wasting the exhaust by venting it out of the engine, it’s used to power a third, larger expansion piston. The result is a lighter gas engine that is purported to get the same or better fuel economy than a diesel, but is cheaper to build and produces fewer harmful emissions.
It’s clear we are long overdue for an engine breakthrough; after all, in 1903 the Model T got 20 mpg. But it’s still too early to tell which technology will be king of the 21st century.