Segway Inventor Dean Kamen Thinks His New Stirling Engine Will Get You Off The Grid For Under $10K
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“We’ve turned his basement into an extension of our laboratory,” said Kamen. “It’s certainly not a machine made for the typical home, but he has a gigantic swimming pool and a huge house.”
With the Beacon 10, says Kamen, “you don’t have to feel guilty heating up the pool.” That’s because of the highly efficient nature of the Stirling engine.
So in 10 years will everyone have one?
“I’d say yes. Ten years from today the probability that you are depending on wires hanging on tree branches is as likely as that you’ll still be installing land lines for telephones. Close to zero.”
The machine — which can generate 10 kilowatts of continuous power, fed by Crane’s natural gas line — is a new iteration of an old creation, the Stirling engine. This version, called the Beacon 10, was created after a decade of engineering by famed inventor Dean Kamen.
The Stirling is quieter than an internal combustion engine, and it’s more efficient because the heat is retained inside the engine by to do more work rather than allowed to escape to the environment.
Though Stirlings are highly efficient, they haven’t caught on because it takes them a while to warm up and they can’t change power output quickly. That makes them unworkable for cars and trucks, but potentially ideal both for power generation and water heating. More than just a backup generator, these machines, depending on the price of natural gas, could also provide round-the-clock power to a home or business, more reliable than solar panels.
Kamen’s contribution has been in engineering his Stirling with the most high-performance materials. He started off using skilled welders to put together key parts of the engine made out of exotic alloys. More recently he’s figured out how make those pieces with even more precision using 3-D printing. Crane says a key element in Kamen design was the perfection of a little plastic membrane that looks like a condom. The Beacon, which weighs about 1,500 pounds and is the size of a washing machine, also includes a battery system, which can be integrated with other distributed generation systems like solar panels.
So what’s Kamen’s vision for the future of these things? Well the one in Crane’s basement is far too big for the average American home, generating 10 continuous kilowatts, while most of us only draw about 2 kw. “I love bulldozers, but I wouldn’t put one in my garage,” quips Kamen.
Kamen believes that aside from mansion owners, the Beacon 10 is just right for businesses like laundries or restaurants that use a lot of hot water. With commercialization partner NRG Energy, he’s so far deployed roughly 20 of the machines.