Coming up on four years now the Michigan State University program led by Dr. Norbert Mueller has wound down as the ARPA-E funding of $3 million ran out back in May. What has been happening is still very much out of view.
What is known is that the MSU team and the Warsaw Institute of Technology are or were working at getting a fully commercial design ready.
Building a commercial prototype is not as simple as it might seem. The wave disk design poses some very difficult engineering issues. Perhaps foremost is the disk surface seals that keep the combustion gasses and shock wave contained in each wave cell on the disk would need sealed at the interior air entrance, exterior combustion gas exit and the sides of the cells. Those four surfaces would also require four corners to be sealed as well.
The seal surfaces are moving, the disk rotates within the case at speed which also raises some questions on the lubrication matter of the moving and sliding material making up a seal to keep from wearing away. The seals are also exposed to heat, the shock wave and repeated heating followed by cooling cycles.
One more matter needed addressed: the moving mechanical energy delivering disk would need a power transmission system compatible to the design and robust enough to last as well as function in a way to move the power without introducing mechanical stress back to the disk.
The seal matter has seen a similar effort by Japan’s Mazda when it chose to commercialize the Wankel engine design. The Wankel also had side seal end seal and corner seal matters to resolve, and Madza successfully managed to build commercial Wankel engines. The Mazda Wankel also managed to keep the outer seal that passed over the air ports of the intake and exhaust intact for reasonable lifetimes.
The Wankel does not have an interior port to seal and does have a power delivery system of the spinning rotor acting on a crankshaft to deliver the power. The rotor and crankshaft move in a parallel plane that doesn’t introduce a conflicting torque.
The Wankel became a beloved engine with very high power to weight ratio, fair fuel economy, and a smooth even power delivery that remains to this day a goal of reciprocating piston engines. Count your humble writer as an enthusiast who owned an RX4 and Cosmo. They were demons that would humiliate all but the very best muscle cars of the era.
But the physics of the spinning rotor turning the crankshaft limit the ability to produce torque. The length of the leverage on the crankshaft has to be small. The crankshaft leverage made the low speed torque low while high speed horsepower was very high. City driving was not fuel-efficient while highway driving was quite efficient. The Wankel engine is still used in high speed and high power demanding industrial applications.
The Wave Disk Engine might benefit from Wankel technology and experience. But the information is probably nearly entirely proprietary. Moreover some problems are not the same.
The Wave Disk intake is in the center of the donut shaped disk. The seal would be pulled from the mating surface by centrifugal force. The power transmission from a donut shape is also a problem. To operate efficiently no mechanical torque could act to bind or distort the disk inside the housing. As the drawings made available so far show, the power take off would need to be at the exterior diameter of the disk and some kind of counter load would need to balance the disk inside the housing.
The question then is could a professor and his team access the experience, technology and expertise plus incorporate the latest material science with a tiny budget of $3 million?
That doesn’t sound promising. Then there is the situation. Mueller broke the news out in 2009, a period when the U.S. auto industry was in dire straights with General Motors and Chrysler both on government bailout programs and Ford hunkered in for a long term tight belt approach for survival and resurgence. Adding a whole new engine program with a unconventional power delivery system would not get anywhere and even today would seem like an outlandish risk of precious capital.
The obvious source and the tiny source at work was a government program. But the political climate was more smoke and mirrors than hard science and basic research and development. Many firms and billion of dollars were lost to political contributors whose firms have since crashed and burned the taxpayer’s money. That same money could have been focused to research and development as it was in the very agency that does that very task on the nation’s behalf.
Today the Wave Disk Engine is a mystery. The progress to date and the future is unknown. The Wave Disk looks like a very good idea whose time has not come yet. For years the political winds have blown to lending big sums to production firms and not to fund technology research to build firms. It shows in the available news for writing posts. Years have been lost, good ideas have not seen support and innovation has been stifled.
The future for these kinds of development is limited for now. Business is risk adverse, the government is still trying to pick industrial winners instead of producing technology for the winners to run with. It’s an odd situation that will need a couple election cycles to straighten back up – and that may not get the job done.
Professor Mueller and his team need a lot more than some good luck.