The Evolution of the Stirling Engine
engines are simple, easily constructed engines that are able to run on
virtually any source of heat, even at relatively low levels. They are best
known for their potential to be more efficient than a gas or diesel engine or
even as an alternative source of clean fuel, but currently they have only been
used in very specific and specialized applications. Although today the Stirling
engine is most commonly used to power submarines, auxiliary power generators,
large scale solar power, or as small models and toys, they have the potential to be developed for use in
a much larger, successful market if the proper research is able to be applied.
The History of the Engine
The original Stirling engine was
invented and patented by Robert Stirling on September 27, 1816 and first used in 1818 as a
pumping device to push water into a quarry. Although it followed earlier
attempts to produce an air engine, it was the first to be put to practical use.
With help from his brother James, an engineer, the full patent for the
invention engine and the fuel economizer was applied for.
The device was not yet known as a Stirling Engine.
That name was coined nearly one hundred years later by Dutch engineer Rolf Meijer to describe all
types of closed cycle regenerative gas engines. The original Stirling engine is thought to have been
produced to provide a safer alternative to the
then-dangerous steam engine (sue to high pressure boiler explosions). While the Stirling engine was never successfully
employed for this purpose, by beginning of the twentieth century it was
being used as a safe and reliable source of low to medium power, mostly for pumping water
and as cooling fan.
During the early 1900s, the Stirling engine was widely replaced as a domestic motor by the
affordable electric motor, and soon after was largely unused for much besides
small toys. By the 1930s, the Stirling engine was all but
forgotten. However, around the same time, Phillip's, began exploring alternate
sources of energy in attempt to offer a quietly operating, cheap, and available
option of radio to parts of the world without easily accessible sources of
power or batteries. Although their attempts achieved only limited success, many
of Phillips models made their way onto university and college engineering
campus, ensuring years of future exploration.
Professor Ivo Kolin
Early in 1983, Professor Ivo Kolin of the University of Zagreb, Croatia, demonstrated the very first low temperature
differential Stirling engine to an amazed audience. This engine ran on a temperature difference of 100°C, which at the
time was an astonishingly low figure. The demonstrated engine ran for a long time as the temperature differential
lowered, eventually stopping when the difference dropped below 20°C.
This feat was all the more remarkable when you consider the engine was constructed entirely with hand tools. The
engine had no power piston and cylinder, instead relying on a rubber diaphragm to transmit the power from the square
main chamber. A feature of this engine was the 'slip-link', a device for imparting an intermittent motion to the displacer
inside the main chamber. At the low speed that this engine ran at, a dwell at each end of the displacer stroke was very
During the 1980's, Professor Kolin continued to refine his low temperature engines, still relying on a diaphragm but
simplifying the original complex displacer drive mechanisms.
Professor James Senft
During the late 1980's and the early 1990's Professor Senft of the University of Wisconsin took up the idea of low
temperature differential Stirling engines. The first models he produced were Ringbom engines, where there is no direct
connection between the flywheel and the displacer, the Ringbom engine is reliant on the changing pressure inside the
main chamber to move the displacer back and forth. Professor Senft, working closely with Professor Kolin, continued
working with stirling engines, working out many of the design solutions that are used today in low temperature
differential Stirling engines.
In 1992 Professor Senft was asked to design and build a low temperature differential engine for NASA. This engine,
called the N-92, was optimised for hand held operation, with a temperature difference as low as 6°C enough to power
it. Professor Senft continues to work with Stirling Engines, and has written several books detailing the history and
manufacture of Stirling engines.
Kontax Engineering Ltd
The KS range of low temperature differential Stirling engines was designed and developed in England in 2002. It was the
first off-the-shelf low temperature differential Stirling engines available and has been in continual production ever since.
Contemporary use of the Stirling engine up to now has
been relatively limited. Typically, they are used in the commercial industry for very
specialized products, such as the above-mentioned applicability for submarines
or auxiliary power generators to be used on yachts. Stirling engines have also
found limited use as refrigerators and have even be used to power a few prototype cars in the 1970s.
There are even a number of companies that have incorporated Stirling engines into central heating systems to
generate effectively free electricaty from waste heat.
In addition to their commercial use, Stirling engines are frequently used as toy model
kits, such as wide variety of models we currently have available. Small
Stirling engines, such as a toy model, are proven so efficient that they have
the ability to run on the surface of a warm hand or sunlit window.
The Possibility for Future Use
Perhaps the Stirling engine's greatest achievement is its
potential to produce a wide range of access to greener energy.
Because of its ability to run on any source of heat, Stirling engines being used
to harness alternative energy sources such as solar power, geothermal
power. In fact a number of companies now produce Stirling engins for waste
heat recovery energy with the promise that they have the capacity to captured
waste hear from industrial sites, commercial processes, or power generators and
turn in into clean and renewable energy.
In the 1800s Stirling engines were discarded because of the quick advancements of steam
engines. However the future for Stirling engines are looking very bright.
Links to some interesting firms
Cool Energy based in BOULDER, CO, USA have a generator with the waste heat going into a Stirling engine to recover energy. Hence highly efficient.
AzelioSwedish supplier of Stirling engine. Has invented a unique way to store solar energy that is then recovered by Stirling engines.
Swedish Stirling As the name suggests another Swedish supplier of Stirling engines. Key product is their "PWR BLOK" which is a container of 14 Stirling engines that delivers 400kw.
Sun Power 1974 and is based in Athens, Ohio. Has done various work with Stirlin engines but now focuses on Cyro Stirling engine products.
Saab Kockums are one of the few manufacturers of Stirling engines for submarines.
Twin bird manufacturer of portable low temperature freezer (Stirling engine).