High Temperature Ceramic Engines
Despite innovations galore over the past hundred and twenty years or so (depending on what ancestors you’re willing to count), the internal combustion gasoline engine is basically the same today as it was in 1885/1886, when Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz independently invented it. Probably the most notable improvement was electronic fuel injection (1966); fuel injection can improve the power output of similar-sized engines by roughly 40%, and make it impossible to impress your wife by cleaning the carburetor. But even that is just a slightly more efficient way to squirt gasoline into a cylinder and mix it with oxygen to produce an inflammable mixture that burns reasonably well.
The real problem with the classic internal combustion engine is much more basic: to really get full efficiency out of burning fuel, you have to burn it at really hot temperatures, upwards of 5000° Fahrenheit. But at that temperature, steel cylinders, pistons, and the engine block itself will melt like a nervous Republican in a warm filibuster.
Say hello to ceramics.
When you say “ceramics,” most people think of the cute, clay ashtrays that their children continually make in school for their nonsmoking parents. There are gobbledygook definitions of ceramics that chemists use; but for our purposes, we’re talking about non-metallic, non-organic substances usually made by forming a powder into some shape, then “sintering” or firing it (heating it just below the melting point). You get a smooth, glassy material that is incredibly resistant to heat… and can also be strong, lightweight, non-corroding, and almost eternal. You can study up on ceramics here; I’ll wait.
So what do these powdery, ashtray-thingies have to do with engines? The most important properties of ceramics for engine design is that they’re lightweight — and they don’t melt easily.
I don’t want to get too deep in the mathematical weeds (which look like little, green integral signs), but there’s an equation governing gas pressure called Gay-Lussac’s Law. To really boil it down, pressure P is equal to a constant k times temperature T: P = k • T.
Pressure, the pressure of the exploding gasoline-air mixture inside the cylinder, is what you want out of an internal combustion engine: the pressure pushes the piston up. The more pressure, the more horsepower you have. Gay-Lussac’s Law tells us that the way to get more pressure is to burn the gasoline at a hotter temperature.
The problem is that the cylinder, piston, and all the rest of the engine is made out of steel, except for those parts made out of plastic (say “thank you, Mr. Clinton!” for plastic engine parts). And steel, along with Clintonian plastic, melts. Thus, you simply can’t burn gasoline much hotter than we already do, about 1350°F. If you try it, your engine will end up looking like a Salvador Dali clock.
Enter the ceramic engine. Ceramics are very heat resistant, which is why even nonsmokers can stub out cigarettes in them. In an all-ceramic engine, you can burn gasoline much hotter, as much as 5000°F. Because that law above assumes everything is expressed in Kelvin, not Fahrenheit, this means you’re burning the gas at three times the temperature, which should produce about three times the pressure, hence three times the horsepower.
In fact, it’s even better. Much of the weight of your car’s engine is used for water and oil pumps, hoses, and the radiator, all to keep cooling the engine and reduce friction in the cylinders… none of which you need in a ceramic engine. So they weigh less but produce more power.
Finally, the hotter you burn gasoline, the more completely it burns. Air pollution is basically the unburned remnants of incomplete oxidation (a fancy word for “burning”); so a high-temperature ceramic engine will be extremely clean. Why Ed Begley jr. isn’t running around selling these things door-to-door, I’ll never know.
The drawback is that so far, we can’t make them well enough to keep them from developing microcracks. But this is simply an engineering problem that requires no staggering breakthrough. Similarly, it’s tough to mass-produce them; but we’ll have those techniques down pat relatively soon.
(Ceramics can also be used for superconducting, which means magnetic-levitation trains, and for rocket engines and turbojets for airplanes. They can be manufactured arbitrarily small, so they can also be used for nanotechnology tools. But that’s another story.)
There are, of course, other ways to make car engines much more efficient — momentum-storing gyroscopes, fuel-cell technology, electric battery cars, and cars driven by broadcast power. But each of these requires very significant conceptual breakthroughs to make them at all practical… and each but the first would require creating a whole new fuel-delivery infrastructure across the entire country: hydrogen filling stations, electrical car rechargers, or huge microwave broadcasters. I’m convinced that ceramic gasoline-burning engines can be perfected much more quickly than these other systems. And remember, I’m the guy who predicted the French would betray us, so you can trust me.
But how, you ask — those of you who haven’t nodded off from all the excitement — does any of this qualify as revolutionary? “What’s in it for me?” demand those of you who haven’t called Sally Struthers recently to inquire about careers in the exciting field of automotive repairs. I’ll explain it in three words: Oh Eye Ell.
Why the hell does anybody on the planet care about the non-Israeli part of the Middle East, including those who live there? Because the world runs on oil, and that’s where most of it is. We live and die by the price of crude, currently about $53 a barrel. For those of you who went to public school, hence learned nothing about evil capitalism, the price of anything is set by supply and demand — at least until the Democrats get back in charge. The supply of oil expands, but not as fast as demand, especially with China industrializing like mad. Therefore, the price rises: too many straws, not enough glasses.
But with ceramic engines, more power per gallon means many more miles per gallon, not only for cars but for jumbo jets and for trains. And that in turn means we would need significantly less gasoline than we need now. Less gasoline = reduced demand = drop in price… probably a fairly significant drop, possibly down to the $25 – $30 range for a barrel. That spells less money in the pockets of Mad Mullahs and Wacky Wahhabis. It also means less money for oil-producing states like Texas, Oklahoma, and California; but those would be balanced by lower prices for other goods and services: the Arab (and Persian) Middle East has almost no other economy than oil, and such a huge drop in demand would devastate it.
Devastate it, and also make the Middle East much less important to the rest of the world. It would end the unlimited flow of petrodollars into the Donna Karen purses of terrorists. Thus, it would make the job of democratizing the region much easier. As Wretchard wrote a while back, “if a normal army travels on its stomach, a terrorist insurgency travels on its wallet.” And today, that wallet is an oilfield in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Kuwait. So let’s all wish for a quick solution to the remaining engineering problems and a speedy introduction of high-temperature ceramic engines.
Today, ashtrays — tomorrow, the world!
And besides the world, tomorrow will also bring the third installment of the exciting Wishing Ring series of dry, pedantic lectures, the one you’ve all been on tenterhooks for: Foodless Food.