Retrotechtacular: The Free Piston Engine

We all know how a conventional internal combustion engine works, with a piston and a crankshaft. But that’s by no means the only way to make an engine, and one of the slightly more unusual alternatives comes to us courtesy of a vintage Shell Film Unit film, The Free Piston Engine, which we’ve placed below the break. It’s a beautiful period piece of mid-century animation and jazz, but it’s also¬† an introduction to these fascinating machines.

We’re introduced to the traditional two-stroke diesel engine as thermally efficient but not smooth-running, and then the gas turbine as smooth but much more inefficient. The free piston engine, a design with opposed pistons working against compressed air springs and combining both compression and firing strokes in a single axis, doesn’t turn anything¬† in itself, but instead works as a continuous supplier of high pressure combustion gasses. The clever part of this arrangement is that these gasses can then turn the power turbine from a gas turbine engine, achieving a smooth engine without compromising efficiency.

This sounds like a promising design for an engine, and we’re introduced to a rosy picture of railway locomotives, ships, factories, and power stations all driven by free piston engines. Why then, here in 2024 do we not see them everywhere? A quick Google search reveals an inordinately high number of scientific review papers about them but not so many real-world examples. In that they’re not alone, for alternative engine designs are one of those technologies for which if we had a dollar for every one we’d seen that didn’t make it, as the saying goes, we’d be rich.

It seems that the problem with these engines is that they don’t offer the control over their timing that we’re used to from more conventional designs, and thus the speed of their operation also can’t be controlled. The British firm Libertine claim to have solved this with their line of linear electrical generators, but perhaps understandably for commercial reasons they are a little coy about the details. Their focus is on free piston engines as power sources for hybrid electric vehicles, something which due to their small size they seem ideally suited for.

Perhaps the free piston engine has faced its biggest problem not in the matter of technology but in inertia. There’s an old saying in the computer industry: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM“, meaning that the conventional conservative choice always wins, and it’s fair to guess that the same applies anywhere a large engine has been needed. A conventional diesel engine may be a complex device with many moving parts, but it’s a well-understood machine that whoever wields the cheque book feels comfortable with. That’s a huge obstacle for any new technology to climb. Meanwhile though it offers obvious benefits in terms of efficiency, at the moment its time could have come due to environmental concerns, any internal combustion engine has fallen out of fashion. It’s possible that it could find a life as an engine running on an alternative fuel such as hydrogen or ammonia, but we’re not so sure. If new free piston engines do take off though, we’ll be more pleased than anyone to eat our words.

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Hackaday Links: December 3, 2023

Sure, it does less than originally promised, but hey — at least it’s more expensive. That about sums up Tesla fans’ feelings after the long-awaited Cybertruck reveal at the Texas Gigafactory on Thursday, where Elon Musk himself handed over the keys — or their Cyber equivalent — to a few new owners. These are expensive machines — $61,000 for the two-motor model, and just shy of $100,000 for the three-motor all-wheel-drive model with all the bells and whistles. That’s considerably more than they were expected to cost back in 2019, a fact which may be at least partially behind the drop in Tesla shares after the launch.

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Machining A Reciprocating Solenoid Engine

The reciprocating engine has been all the rage for at least three centuries. The first widely adopted engine of this type was the steam engine with a piston translating linear motion into rotational motion, but the much more common version today is found in the internal combustion engine. Heat engines aren’t the only ways of performing this translation, though. While there are few practical reasons for building them, solenoid engines can still do this job as well and, like this design from [Maciej Nowak Projects], are worth building just for the aesthetics alone.

The solenoid engine is built almost completely from metal stock shaped in a machine shop, including the solenoids themselves. The build starts by making them out of aluminum rod and then winding them with the help of a drill. The next step is making the frame to hold the solenoids and the bearings for the crankshaft. To handle engine timing a custom brass shutter mechanism was made to allow a set of infrared emitter/detector pairs to send signals that control each of the solenoids. With this in place on the crankshaft and the connecting rods attached the engine is ready to run.

Even though this solenoid engine is more of a project made for its own sake, solenoid engines are quite capable of doing useful work like this engine fitted into a small car. We’ve seen some other impressive solenoid engine builds as well like this V8 from [Emiel] that was the final iteration of a series of builds from him that progressively added more solenoid pistons to an original design.

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That’s Not A Junker… That’s My Generator

If you live somewhere prone to power outages, you might have thought about buying a generator. The problem is that small generators are cheap but — well — small. Big generators are expensive. [Jake von Slatt] had an idea. He has a “yard car” which we thought might be a junk car but, instead, it is an old car he uses to drive around his yard doing tasks. It has a winch and a welder. Now it has a big generator, too. You can follow the project in the three videos found below.

The project started with a scrap generator with a blown motor. Of course, the car has a motor so — in theory — pretty simple. Remove the generator from the motor and graft it to the car’s motor. But the details are what will kill you.

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3D Printed Engine Gets Carburetor

3D printed materials have come a long way in the last decade or so as printers have become more and more mainstream. Printers can use all kinds of different plastics with varying physical characteristics, and there are even printers now for other materials like concrete and metal. But even staying within the realm of the plastic printer can do a lot of jobs you might not expect. [Camden Bowen] recently 3D printed a single-piston engine which nearly worked, and is back with some improvements to it thanks to a small carburetor.

The carburetor itself isn’t 3D printed (although not from lack of trying) — it’s on loan from a weed eater, and is helping to solve a problem with the fuel-air mixture of his original design. Switching from butane to a liquid fuel also solved some problems as well, and using starter fluid also helped to kick off the ignition. Although it ran for a short period of time over several starts, the valve train suffered some damage with the exhaust valves melting in place to the head. This is actually a problem common to any internal combustion engine like this, especially if the fuel-air mixture is too lean, there’s incomplete combustion, the valves aren’t adjusted properly, or any number of other problems. In this case it seems to have been caused by improper engine timing.

It’s actually noteworthy though that the intake valves weren’t burned, meaning that if the engine can be tuned to allow for complete combustion before the exhaust gasses leave the combustion chamber, the plastic 3D printed head and valve train will likely survive much longer operational periods. We’ll certainly look forward to the next iteration of this engine build to see if that’s the case. If 3D printed piston engines aren’t your speed, though, take a look at this jet engine which uses a 3D printed compressor.

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A Chess AI In Only 4K Of Memory

The first computer to ever beat a reigning chess world champion didn’t do so until 1996 when a supercomputer built by IBM beat Garry Kasparov. But anyone who wasn’t a chess Grandmaster could have been getting beaten by chess programs as early as 1979 when Atari released one of the first ever commercially-available chess video games for the Atari 2600. The game was called Video Chess and despite some quirky gameplay it is quite impressive that it was able to run on the limited Atari hardware at all as [Oscar] demonstrates.

The first steps of getting under the hood of this program involved looking into the mapping of the pieces and the board positions in memory. After analyzing some more of the gameplay, [Oscar] discovered that the game does not use trees and nodes to make decisions, likely due to the memory limitations, but rather simulates the entire game and then analyzes it to determine the next step. When the game detects that there are not many pieces left on the board it can actually increase the amount of analysis it does in order to corner the opposing king, and has some unique algorithms in place to handle things like castling, finishing the game, and determining valid movements.

Originally it was thought that this engine couldn’t fit in the 4K of ROM or work within the 128 bytes of system memory, and that it was optimized for the system after first developing a game with some expanded capabilities. The game also has a reputation for making illegal moves in the higher difficulty settings although [Oscar] couldn’t reproduce these bugs. He also didn’t get into any of the tricks the game employed just to display all of the pieces on the screen. The AI in the Atari game was a feat for its time, but in the modern world the Stockfish open-source chess engine allows for a much more expanded gameplay experience.

It’s Opposite Day For This Novel Wankel Engine

The Wankel engine seems to pop up in surprising places every so often, only to disappear into the ether before someone ultimately resurrects it for a new application and swears to get it right this time. Ultimately they come across the same problems that other Wankels suffered from, namely poor fuel efficiency and issues with reliability. They do have a surprising power-to-weight ratio and a low parts count, though, which is why people keep returning to this well, although this time it seems like most of the problems might have been solved simply by turning the entire design inside out.

A traditional Wankel engine has a triangular-shaped rotor that rotates around a central shaft inside an oval-shaped housing. This creates three chambers which continually revolve around inside the engine as the rotor spins. The seals that separate the chambers are notoriously difficult to lubricate and maintain. Instead of using a rotor inside of a chamber, this design called the X-Engine essentially uses a chamber inside of a rotor, meaning that the combustion chamber and the seals stay in fixed locations instead of spinning around. This allows for much better lubrication of the engine and also much higher efficiency. By flipping the design on its head it is able to maintain a low moving parts count, high compression ratio, and small power-to-weight ratio all while improving reliability and performance and adding the ability to directly inject fuel rather than rely on carburetion or other less-ideal methods of fuel delivery that other Wankels require.

Astute internal combustion aficionados will note that this engine is still of a two-stroke design, and thus not likely to fully eliminate the emissions problems with Wankels in a way that is satisfactory to regulators of passenger vehicles. Instead, the company is focusing on military, commercial, and aerospace applications where weight is a key driver of design. We’ve seen time and time again how the Wankel fails to live up to its promises though, and we hope that finally someone has cracked the code on one that solves its key issues.