[electronicsNmore] has uploaded a great teardown and tutorial video (YouTube link) about wax motors. Electric wax motors aren’t common in hobby electronics, but they are common in the appliance industry, which means the motors can be often be obtained cheaply or for free from discarded appliances. Non-electric wax motors have been used as automotive coolant thermostats for years. Who knows, this may be just what the doctor ordered for your next project.
As [electronicsNmore] explains, wax motors are rather simple devices. A small block of wax is sealed in a metal container with a movable piston. When heated, the wax expands and pushes the piston out. Once the wax cools, a spring helps to pull the piston back in.
The real trick is creating a motor which will heat up without cooking itself. This is done with a Positive Temperature Coefficient (PTC) thermistor. As the name implies, a PTC thermistor’s resistance increases as it heats up. This is the exact opposite of the Negative Temperature Coefficient (NTC) thermistors we often use as temperature sensors. PTC’s are often found in places like power supplies to limit in rush current, or small heating systems, as we have in our wax motor.
As the PTC heats up, its resistance increases until it stops heating. At the same time, the wax is being warmed, which drives out the piston. As you might expect, wax motors aren’t exactly efficient devices. The motor in [electronicsNmore’s] video runs on 120 volts AC. They do have some advantages over solenoid, though. Wax motors provide smooth, slow operation. Since they are resistive devices, they also don’t require flyback diodes, or create the RF noise that a solenoid would.