REVOLT: The Segway-maker’s next move

Never mind the new deal with GM. Dean Kamen reaches back to an 1800s combustion engine to fire up automotive’s electric future.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Entrepreneur Dean Kamen saw limited success with his stand-up two-wheeler. But his prototype hybrid-electric car, REVOLT, could help third-world villages generate power.

General Motors perpetually promises to deliver its Volt electric car. Tesla Motors has the wealthy and trendy anticipating its luxury electric sports car. The Chinese say they will mass produce electric cars to help clean up their choking cities.

But none of them is committed to do what Dean Kamen hopes his prototype REVOLT hybrid-electric car will do: Bring electricity to the 1.6 billion people who still live without it.

Mr. Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur perhaps best known for the two-wheel Segway Human Transporter, doesn’t want to get into the car business himself. He just wants to see the Stirling engine that helps power the REVOLT be mass produced for vehicles. That would drive down the price, he says, and allow it to be cost-effective in another role: as a miniature electric plant for villages in the developing world.

A Stirling can run on just about anything that creates heat, from gasoline, kerosene, and ethanol, to natural gas, propane, hydrogen, and, yes, the methane given off by animal manure.

In a recent test, two villages in Bangladesh ran Stirling engines to create electricity for 24 weeks – using only cow dung for fuel. “We’re pretty excited about that,” Kamen says.

“The little engine that could,” as Kamen calls the Stirling, was invented in 1816 by Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling. He found that alternately heating and cooling gases in a closed system could create power to do work, such as drive a piston. But steam engines soon became far superior in producing power for large applications, such as railway locomotives. Later, the diesel and gasoline internal combustion engines proved superior for mid-sized jobs, such as cars and trucks. And in the 20th century, the jet engine combined tremendous thrust and relatively light weight to rule the skies.

So the Stirling was mostly forgotten, even though its simple concept is “elegant, it’s brilliant,” Kamen says. But its time to shine might be now. All-electric cars still suffer from wimpy batteries that limit driving range and refuel slowly. “The energy you can carry around in a liter of gasoline is 100 times higher than you can carry in the same size and weight of a battery,” Kamen says. “And that’s going to be true for a long time.”

Today’s hybrid cars add a gasoline engine to both power the vehicle and recharge the battery. But the sooner cars can be weaned from fossil fuels, the better for US security and the environment.

Why not use a Stirling to charge the hybrid car’s batteries, Kamen asks. The Stirling’s waste heat could warm the car’s interior on cold days, saving even more battery power.

Outside the offices of DEKA Research & Development Corp., Kamen’s company located in a former mill along the banks of the Merrimack River in Manchester, N.H., Kamen shows off his prototype. The exterior and chassis are from a Think electric car, developed and abandoned by Ford years ago. It was shipped in a crate from a Norwegian company trying to revive the brand. Its pebbled plastic body is a little larger than the Smart ultracompact now on US roads.

Lithium-ion batteries, the current state of the art, sit under the REVOLT’s hood. Below a cover in the back is the cylindrical Stirling engine, a bit smaller than a golf bag. It’s not hooked up at the moment, Kamen says, because it’s about to be swapped out for an improved version. But the car does work. “I’ve had it up to 70” m.p.h., he says with a smile.

Does he have any automakers interested in buying his Stirling engine?

“A number of very large companies, very well recognized,” have engaged in “very serious conversations” about using his Stirling in their vehicles, he says.

In an interview in his office, the serial inventor explains why he’s involved in projects like the REVOLT and a science education project called FIRST, in which he reportedly has sunk millions of dollars of his own money. (He also has developed a robotic arm for amputees, a water purifier for the developing world, and a stair-climbing wheelchair called the iBOT.)

The office features a full-sized cutout of Darth Vader, photos of his helicopters and airplanes, a hard-backed chair painted with a likeness of Albert Einstein, and a wall plaque that reads: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. – Einstein.”

Two Segways and an iBOT sit in a corner. Outside in the brick-lined hallway hang a row of original 1950s comic book illustrations drawn by his father, Jack. Around the corner is a photo of Kamen meeting President George W. Bush in 2007. In the picture, Kamen, who holds 440 US and foreign patents, is wearing the same blue denim shirt and jeans that he wears every other day.

Kamen has become a multimillionaire doing his “day job” designing products for large companies. He can’t talk about that, he says, “because it’s confidential stuff.”

What he loves to talk about is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a student robotics competition he started nearly two decades ago. The initial competition was held in a high school gym in Manchester. This year’s finals, held April 16-18 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, attracted more than 10,000 student competitors from more than 25 countries. (A much larger number compete beforehand in regional qualifying tournaments.)

The theme this year is “Lunacy,” celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first humans to visit the moon. Student-built robots must collect balls (“moon rocks”) and deposit them in trailers hitched to opposing robots. The floor of the playing field is designed to be slippery, offering the robots only one-sixth the traction of a carpeted surface. That echoes the difference in the gravitational pull on the moon, which is one-sixth that on Earth.

The students work with mentors from companies like Boeing, Xerox, Johnson & Johnson, Motorola, and United Technologies.

“We’ve got to get all kids in this country prepared for the 21st century,” Kamen says. “There are a couple of million of technical jobs desperately waiting for people to fill them. There are a couple of dozen jobs [playing basketball] in the NBA. And yet, look how kids spend their time. Look at what they aspire to do.”

The American economy, he says, can roar back if the business community recommits to innovation.
Although there may be a fixed amount of natural resources on the planet, he says, “there’s not a fixed amount of ideas.”

“Innovation really happens in times of adversity,” he says. “Maybe there’s a silver lining to what’s going on in the world right now.” It has been easier to do financial engineering than real engineering. It has been easier to figure out how to move money around than to create it. “Maybe now we’ll get back to the basics,” he says.

Kamen himself is an example that an innovator never gives up. Great ideas can just be ahead of their time. His Segway, introduced in 2001, is more likely to be used for comic effect in a movie such as “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” than on American streets. Is that a disappointment? The jury is still out, he says.

His view was buttressed by an announcement in April that GM would team with Segway to make a two-wheeled electric vehicle based on the scooter.

“I don’t know if you’ll see lots of Segways or Segway-like things in 10 or 20 years,” he says. “But one thing I do know: There’s virtually no chance that 20 years from today the normal method of getting around a highly dense urban environment will be as stupid as it has been for the last 20 years. It’s unsustainable environmentally.

“Is a Segway an interesting option?” he asks. “If you’ve got a better one, let me know about it.”

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