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.


6 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on September 4, 2013 7:01 AM

    The people at Angel Labs have been showing their prototyped small super efficient engine for several years now. It seems like they are farther along with an actual product – but have fewer political connections.

  2. Shona on September 7, 2013 7:36 PM

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on power
    units. Regards

  3. Juan Mesa on November 16, 2013 10:30 AM

    I have designed and have applied for a patent on a new engine concept that has the potential to completely replace the 100 year old, very inefficient piston engine. It works similar to an electric motor. The electric motor has a stator and a rotor. The rotor receives magnetic impulses from the stationary stator that makes the rotor rotate. My engine (Axial Combustion Engine “ACE”) has a stationary casing and a rotating rotor also. The rotor houses an air compressor and an engine mounted on the same shaft. The engine consists of cavities. These cavities receive compressed air from the compressor. They also receive fuel from the fuel injectors and when this fuel is ignited, the combustion creates the impulses that make the rotor rotate. The electric motor does not need lubricating oils other that the sealed lubricant on the two shaft bearings. The same is true on my “ACE” Axial Combustion Engine. The electric motor is cooled by air from the cooling fan. The “ACE” Axial Combustion Engine, is cooled by the continuous circulating air of the compressor. No cooling liquid is required. The electric motor has only one moving part, the rotor. This is also true on the “ACE”. The electric motors are close to 80% efficient I am estimating that “ACE’ will come close to that. The electric motor runs on electricity. “ACE” runs an all fuels an also runs on combination dual fuels, and a combination of fuel and water (steam). “ACE” is predicted to be the cleanest engine to date (less pollutant).Electric motor has a small air gap between the stator and the rotor without touching (close tolerance). “ACE” also runs with very close tolerance without touching. This is also true with jet engines. “ACE” is very flexible and easy to configure and manufacture according to the Hp needs. “ACE” can be mounted in any position. “ACE”, with a smaller foot print, has a lot less weight to Hp ratio than conventional engines.
    I have designed five different engine models. My next step is to produce a prototype. For this I will need help. Anyone interested in getting involved, please contact me.
    Juan Mesa

    “ACE” Dual Engine Specification
    Engine Length 20.25 in
    Shaft Length 33.25 in
    Width 15.75 in
    Height 21.75 in
    Weight 240 lb
    Displacement 676 Cu in
    Output 640 Hp @ 5,000 RPM
    Output 1280 Hp @ 10,000 RPM
    Efficiency (Estimated Max) 60% to 80%
    PTO (Power Take Off) 2EA 1.25” shafts

    “ACE” Single Engine Specification
    Engine Length 20.25 in
    Shaft Length 33.25 in
    Width 15.75 in
    Height 21.75 in
    Weight 178 lb
    Displacement 338.28 Cu in
    Output 320 Hp @ 5,000 RPM
    Output 640 Hp @ 10,000 RPM
    Efficiency (Estimated Max) 60% to 80%
    PTO (Power Take Off) 2EA 1.25” shafts
    This link from LinkedIn has more details

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  5. Dolly on February 3, 2014 10:05 AM

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  6. Peter Truitt on April 8, 2014 9:48 PM

    I appreciate hearing about this. I wish I could offer more than “Good Luck!”

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