Patterico's Pontifications


The Wishing Ring, part 2

Filed under: Environment,Space — Dafydd @ 4:02 am

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.

23 Responses to “The Wishing Ring, part 2”

  1. Great article! I remember reading about ceramic engines in the “Ask Smokey” column of Popular Science back in the 70’s. Smokey Yunick was some kind of thermodynamic genius (supposedly) who predicted that ceramic engines would be the way to go–if anyone could ever figure out how to make them, and how to get all that heat out of the engine compartment.

    It’s interesting to think about, anyway, and it’s the last think I expected to see discussed at length at Patterico’s!


    Steve Bragg (559302)

  2. Dafydd, allow me to present the denBeste Award for Excellence in Explanation and Ramification.

    lyle (d8d402)

  3. Not to be too nit-picky, but pressure pushes pistons down, not up. Pistons create pressure when they push back up.

    Wouldn’t ceramics be way too brittle for all the violence in a modern internal combustion engine? After all, if you’re tripling the heat and power output, then your compression ratio is going to rise exponentially. Not only would this (I think) blow apart your ceramic parts, but would also wreck havoc on your seals and fasteners.

    And speaking of seals, there would still be parts of the engine that could not be made with ceramics. These parts would include the seals, the spark plugs and any wiring that were necessary. Your typical top fuel dragster runs at 7000 degrees and the spark plugs are completly burnt out not long after they start the motors. I don’t think most people would want to change their spark plugs every time they shut off their car.

    Lubrication would be another problem. I don’t think your typical engine oil would stand up to the type of heat that you’re talking about for very long, and even ceramic parts would need to be lubricated.

    Drew (a73d6e)

  4. Running the engine hotter for better efficiency makes perfect sense but I think that you hit too gently on the lubrication issue. Even a ceramic engine, if its a reciprocating piston type engine, has many moving parts that will be hard to lubricate at 5000F. Ceramic is not totaly temperature stable and has expansion when starting from 70F and going to 5000F, Yikes, think of the valve clatter at startup 😉 Perhaps a rotary design like a wankel could avoid that problem. Jet turbines get lubed somehow even at high temp and RPM. (I’m not a jet mechanic so I’m totally ignorant of how this is down).

    But your political point is spot on. We definitely need to use and research those technologies that we already know about to conserve oil in a mostly-market based manner. Let Chavez and the ME oil producers drink that fossile fuel!

    Go nuke!


    toby928 (99ba2b)

  5. “…the Arab (and Persian) Middle East has almost no other economy than oil, and such a huge drop in demand would devastate it.”

    I don’t think your point about the price drop in oil devastating the ME oil producers is on target. They weren’t devastated a few years ago when oil was under $20 a barrel, were they?

    The Unalienable Right (6ce40c)

  6. Cool article.

    One point about oil supply, however– making vehicles more fuel efficient only delays the problem of exhaustion, it does not solve it.

    Why? Make an engine twice as efficient, and I can now afford two engines.

    Given how that’s been the economic trendline for most of the past two hundred years– make things more efficient, so they become cheaper, so I can buy more of them– I don’t forsee it changing whether we make internal combustion engines out of ceramics, swiss cheese, or Betamax tapes of Ed Begley’s classic Transylvania 6-5000.

    And, of course, exhaustion isn’t the problem– *perception* of exhaustion is. The moment all known, or more likely, anticipated oil reserves are discovered, the price will start heading up, because there’s now an end to the tunnel, no matter how far off that end may be.

    Dave at Garfield Ridge

    Dave at Garfield Ridge (b188e7)

  7. Henry Ford I and II are in current laughter-rollover mode.

    Ceramic Engines will mean: Every car collision equals two dead motors.

    Let’s call it the breaking china syndrome.

    Nanuk (a95fca)

  8. I have to disagree with the idea that the irrelevance of oil would let us disengage from the Middle East or that it would crash their economies (and the idea that that would be a good thing). I spell out my thoughts on my blog here.

    The oil sheikhs spread out their money decades ago and they’re more heavily invested in the Western economy than their own. They have made oodles and oodles of money, more than they could count or spend and they were literally giving it away for years and years. They got financial investors to relieve them of some of the excess and the result is that they could easily weather a loss of oil and come out filthy rich in the end.

    The regular Arabs, of course, would lose the jobs that come with oil production, but a lot of that comes from Egyptians, Filipinos, Moroccans, etc. that come to the Gulf states for jobs and leave a few years later. So it would really hurt regular Arabs but overall the richest ones would be okay. During this time they were smart and invested in education in their countries, the result being that a lot of the Gulf states – SA, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, etc. could run information/service/financial-sector economies entirely independent of oil.

    Of course, until terrorism stops or subsides we’ll have to pay attention to them anyway. If anything the loss of oil revenue would force us into further involvement, as disaffected, unemployed, re-impoverished Muslims turned to greater extremism and violence.

    neo-libertarian (0c5a60)

  9. Although ceramics look neat there are problems. first, ceramics are brittle and can easily crack, making the design of the cylinder difficult because of the need to control the moving parts to great accuracy. Second, although the high working tempature limits the amount of CO2, it does create more Nitrogen oxides, a problem common to the other high tempature engine, the gas turbine.

    Phil (17d901)

  10. Just a quick response. In fact, current thinking is that ceramic cylinders do not need either seals or lubrication. Because of uniform expansion, the gap between the piston and the cylinder would be on the order of 2-3 microns. We’re talking smoother than a Cajun on four Mint Julips.

    Second, of course the biggest problem is making ceramics that would not be brittle enough to crack or shatter due to wear or collision. But that is an engineering detail, as is developing more robust ways to ignite the compressed gasoline vapor… it does not require the massive restructuring of our entire transportation infrastructure, as do the alternatives.

    We don’t have it today. We won’t have it by next Thursday. But we will have it eventually, just as we eventually had supersonic (now hypersonic) jets, stable fission power generation, and “high-temperature” (100K) superconductors.


    Dafydd (df2f54)

  11. We will never run out of hydrocarbons as long as this planet supports life. This planet is awash with them. Essentially every life form on the planet produces them, and they do so because of the smaller energy requirements needed to produce them enzymatically.

    With respect to high temperature combustion, the diesel process would be better, since no spark plug is required. Diesel engines need glow plugs to start in cold weather, and these could be made out of ceramics. The ceramics we are talking about are not that brittle because of the relative purity of the starting materials, but the trouble is that the sintering process cannot guarantee microcrack free production.

    Jets get some lubrication from the kerosene it burns plus the effects of the high air flow rate. I believe that ceramic turbine cores are common now in jet engines.

    Charles D. Quarles (593219)

  12. mr unaliable right first of all they are unaliable and god given so unless the supreme court is god they cant take them away no matter what my age and secondly i might be wrong but i thing many countries are spending money like mad and the value of the dollar has changed alot to so i thing it would devistate it

    zack simmons (0e1172)

  13. wouldnt you need to use really high octane gas to prevvent pre-ignition at that high of compression and if so could we pour in enough of that lead stuff to get us enough octane

    zack simmons (0e1172)

  14. You dont have to worry about finding an oil to lubricate a ceramic engine because ceramic engines dont need any lubriction!

    TONY (bc05ce)

  15. OK, say you do build a ceramic engine and it needs no cooling system. And say your engine does reach 5000 degrees. what will stop the gasoline from exploding pre-maturely in the cylinder? Or even in the process on the way to the cylinder? You would have to keep the gas under its burning temp. until its IN the cylinder. And say you manage that somehow, would you have to inject the gas on what should be the power stroke so it would be correct? If so you just created a 3-stroke engine because you are eliminating the intake stroke and are left with compression, injection/power, and exhaust.

    All in all, I still think there are some kinks to be worked out in this idea…

    Jordan G (a971fe)

  16. I think ceramics are the way to go… just add a powerful computer and full electronic control.

    Need is the mother of invention and the Middle East will recover. They will think of something else I think that oil is just holding the region back.

    But when we stop needing oil it will cause another great depression. So unless you are inventing a super addictive ultrahigh tech drug to replace our addiction to oil don’t move away from it. Last time the price suffered the sleeper awoke don’t mess with them for they will retaliate they have strong social structure religion and once their wealth is gone they will have unity. They have come along very fast in a very short amount of time since Islam came to the region, course mad mullah and wacky Whaibis are hindering their progress.

    Loose the mechanic, gas station worker, maintenance personnel, new car sales, etc don’t you know about the multiplier effect.

    Solar cars have been around when solar cells had less then 5% efficiency now we have more then 20% efficiency commercially available but we shouldn’t go there because it will destroy us.

    How about ceramic engine with a cooling stroke induced individually in a piston only when it gets too hot course alongside that you need electronic control of intake/exhaust valves and fuel injection.

    Of course you need a supercharger intercooler and waste gate to have effective cooling stroke. Also when you don’t need torque i.e. the engine is idling the rpm can be kept up without wasting fuel and generating useless heat is by programming the computer to not inject fuel i.e. let them run empty and leave both valves open eliminating problems with engine/turbo/supercharger/waste gate lag. This would need fast and reliable computer systems which we now have.

    With spark plugs throw them out completely because with an engine running at 3000 Kelvin it will ignite as it is sprayed and you can use heavier fuels like diesel. Also we can get rid of the starting motor and solenoid etc. with some heater plugs and the computer control of everything we could have it start with ignition in one cylinder moving the engine into motion more weight savings with smaller battery and lighter starting components.

    We are talking about an over 500kg engine being reduced to less then 100kilos cars could fly they are powerful enough to fly already.

    And if somebody wants more details on my ideas and concepts wants to pay me to build or develop this feel happy to contact me. Also I have some concepts on current cars and motor bikes to allow flight. Especially motorbikes as the combined weight of motorbike+ rider are already less than 200kg on most new Japanese bike.

    wajahat (90cc55)

  17. Energy access is a solution to many of the worlds problems connecting people of need with the market of demand enabling trade for those needs. Making engines out of plastic cheaply molding them rather than machining them is the most cost effective solution. Affordable is an access term. So add more high temperature ceramics to the plastic to increase their use in engines. It’s a simple solution.

    This problem does not seam that hard to solve, but creates new ones intern.

    Creating a plastoceramic engine at 7000 degrees seams impossible, but it has been done in drag racing metal engines, and may create a carbon free engine. Adding more ceramic to existing thermoplastics by use of other forms of energy like microwave will make a super cheep molded engine. However, not a super temperature engine at 7000 degrees. Creating a double mold may just do that. At some point the plastic mix will become more ceramic than plastic and more powder then malleable form. Only the surface needs to be able to withstand the super high temperature of 7000 degrees. So, micro cracks in it may not matter. Solution mold slugs then cast more and more power ceramic on the out side using heat or even another energy source like UV light to kiln the surface to pure ceramic. The same idea could be used to imbed other materials into the component like metals, carbon fibers or even foam.

    Would we really want super cheep cars for everyone that can run up to 270 miles per hour though? We would half to design an automated auto bon in the US and make it out of super thick concrete or bendable plasto-create.

    Attached links and commentary below:
    I think plastic will solve the cracking, and LED lasers or microwave ignition systems may solve the spark plug problem of high temperature emission free engines. If the material could sustain 7000.
    Microwave Ignition.
    Microwave welding.
    Plastic molding process
    Microwave kiln of high temperature ceramics is already well established. Another class of materials could come from this alone super high temperature ceramics blow molded in plastic burned off by microwave leaving a pure high temperature ceramic containers.
    This fits in with carbon fiber as well if its sandwiched into the mold.

    Sorry for so many links but they were needed.

    cas castigleone (2dc724)

  18. Running the engine at a higher temperature WOULD NOT make it more efficient or enable it to make more power.

    At one time, I worked for an engine manufacturer. The company made both air cooled and water cooled engines. In comparing 2 engines that were identical except that one was air cooled and one was water cooled, the water cooled engine ALWAYS produced more power and was slightly more efficient. Obviously the air cooled engines ran hotter than the water cooled engines.

    The reason is that with the air cooled engines, the fuel mixture was heated during the intake stroke to a higher temperature than was the case with the water cooled engines, simply because the air cooled engines ran hotter. Thus, the mixture became less dense and, of course, caused the air cooled engine to develop less power. Typically, a water cooled engine will develop about 10% more power than a comparable air cooled engine.

    If a ceramic engine can be made, it will, other things being equal, produce LESS power than a comparable metal engine simply because it will run much hotter, UNLESS it has a cooling temperature to make it run at a temperature similar to that of a metal engine.

    Frank Eggers (d5b535)

  19. I am looking for a light powerful engine to power My New Re-Designed BackPack Blower.
    I an looking for a engine that is comparable to a 80cc(4.0 hp)2 stroke or 4 stroke that weighs 10 lbs or less.

    clifford Peters (0dce3f)

  20. I am looking for a light powerful engine to power My New Re-Designed BackPack Blower.
    I an looking for a engine that is comparable to a 80cc(4.0 hp)2 stroke or 4 stroke that weighs 10 lbs or less.

    clifford Peters (0dce3f)

  21. I am looking for a light powerful engine to power My New Re-Designed BackPack Blower.
    I am looking for a engine that is comparable to a 65cc-80cc(4.0 hp – 4.5 hp)2 stroke or 4 stroke that weighs 10 lbs or less and runns @ speeds between 6500-7500 rpm’s.
    I like the thoughts of the lightness of ceramic if it can hold up to the rigors of a Backpack application.
    I have tried to find a engine supplier to no avail the Blower companys keep shooting me down and wont sell their engines alone.
    any suggestions or leads would be greatly appreciated.
    Sincere Thanks in Advance and God Bless
    TwindStorm Blowers
    Cliff Peters

    clifford Peters (0dce3f)

  22. Bruce Crower in Chula Vista, CA developed a 5 stroke engine design that would work with a ceramic engine and allow it to run cool enough to prevent detonation. And it would stabilize the ceramic matl to prevent cracking. Check it out.

    Dave Wise (cec2fb)

  23. just added Air Jordans 6 Rings to their site.

    kofdirect (1193f5)

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