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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Easy Free Piston Stirling Engine

Stirling engines are really cool machines, invented by Reverend Dr. Robert Stirling in 1816 to rival the steam engine, they are one of the most efficient engines ever conceived.  Building one is a very rewarding experience, but it has a certain level of difficulty. However, [Attila Blade]’s version of a free-piston type Stirling engine is simple enough to be built in a matter of minutes.

To build the engine you only need a test tube, steel wool, a latex glove, an O ring and some wire. The construction is straightforward as you can see in the video. The whole engine rocks on the wire frame which also makes it different to most other Stirling engines that you can watch on the net. The free piston is just one type of several possible configurations for a Stirling. The most common one, is the beta type, usually made with soda cans, but it is much more difficult to build than [Attila Blade]’s engine.

This is definitely a fun project that you may want to try, and is also a great way to learn  thermodynamics concepts. Even if you don’t build this particular version, there are many other possibilities using mainly household items, or you can also check the very interesting history behind the Stirling engine.