November 11, 2005
The Wishing Ring, part 2
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.
Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 11, 2005, at the time of 11:46 PM
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The following hissed in response by: Jay Tea
I'm showing my ignorance here, but my first thought is how safe and comfortable I'd be with a heat source of that magnitude within a couple feet of my body. You said that ceramics are incredibly heat-resistant, but to my thinking that simply means they are unaffected by high temperatures, not necessarily by containing them. Further, you also say they are excellent conductors of electricity; as I understand it, most materials that conduct electricity well also conduct heat well. Finally, although ceramics are incredibly strong, I'm going to be traveling in excess of 70MPH right behind one of those, and I'd be paranoid about it breaching in a crash and releasing that heat.
I know I'm probably showing myself as a major Luddite here, but those are the concerns that spring to mind immediately.
The above hissed in response by: Jay Tea at November 12, 2005 4:46 AM
The following hissed in response by: SDN
You may have underestimated the magnitude of this. After all, we have gas turbines for ships, we use oil, natural gas, and coal to generate electricity; all of these applications would presumably be enhanced by higher burning temps.
The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh
How comfortable are you with fifteen gallons of highly volatile incendiaries beneath your butt? In many serious crashes, gasoline spills all over the place, catches fire, and now you're surrounded by a lake of flames. In a ceramic-engine car, you would likely carry a lot less gasoline... which is actually safer, believe it or not, even with the hotter engine parts.
Ceramics can be very non-heat conducting: you can hold a Shuttle tile in one bare hand while blowtorching the other end, and you'll feel no heat through the tile.
Finally, you can make them highly electrically conductive, or you can make them not. You can make them strong, or you can make them brittle. It's all up to the manufacturing process you choose.
The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh at November 12, 2005 10:58 AM
The following hissed in response by: Jay Tea
I'm not too worried about the gasoline in my car; there are literally generations of safety testing and research since the days of the Ford Pinto.
Thanks for the reminder about the shuttle tiles; I guess between that and the inherent greater strength of ceramics vs. cast iron, I feel a smidgen safer.
BTW, I happen to be a fan of "Balance Of Power," and found it tremendously funny and entertaining -- even with the bit where Wesley gets up in the morning, argues with his roommate for a little bit, then goes to bed for the night. And even though I knew you'd have to reach for the Magic Reset Button, I also found "Fallen Heroes" very compelling.
The above hissed in response by: Jay Tea at November 12, 2005 11:36 AM
The following hissed in response by: cdquarles
Excellent article, Dafydd. People still need to remember that the US still has large oil, gas, and other reserves that have been made off limits politically, not economically. Hydrogen does not make sense thermodynamically unless we use nuclear power to generate it. Nuclear power is another energy source made difficult politically, not economically.
The above hissed in response by: cdquarles at November 12, 2005 4:20 PM
The following hissed in response by: Noocyte
Thanks to having read the term, "Mad Mullahs and Wacky Wahhabis," I will now spend the better part of the next hour trying to clean Coke Classic from my monitor. You're an evil, evil Lizard, Dafydd.
Still, I do not begrudge, as this was a very excellent post (thanks for linking back to it, as I had missed it entirely last year).
I still wonder why I don't hear more about the idea of a system whereby a car runs entirely on electric motors, whose battery is charged by a gasoline (or other chemical fuel) motor, the latter having no direct role in propulsion. Combine this with a high-efficiency ceramic engine, and sociologically sentimental types might be delighted to see significant returns to traditional Bedouin migration routes in the Negev...
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