Fail of the Week: Leaf Blowers Can’t Fly

Leaf blowers, the main instrument of the suburban Saturday symphony, are one of the most useful nuisances. It doesn’t take much work with a rake to convince even the most noise-averse homeowner to head to the Big Box Store to pick one up to speed lawn chores. Once you do buy one, and feel the thrust produced by these handheld banshees, you might wonder, If I let go of this thing, would it fly? 

[Peter Sripol] had that very thought and set about building a couple of leaf blower powered planes to answer the question. It’s probably not a spoiler alert to report that the answer is no, but the video below is a fun watch anyway. The surprising thing is just how close both planes came to succeeding. The first plane was a stripped-down Ryobi two-stroke leaf blower suspended from a giant wing and tail section that very nearly got off the ground. Version 1.1 gained a retractable electric boost propeller – strictly for take-offs – and lost a lot of excess weight. That plane practically leaped into the air, but alas, servo problems prevented [Peter] from shutting down the electric and flying on Ryobi alone. Even a servo fix couldn’t save the next flight, which cratered right after takeoff. A version 2.0, this time using a brutally modified electric leaf blower, was slightly more airworthy but augured in several times before becoming unflyable.

What can we learn from all this? Not much other than it would take a lot of effort to make a leaf blower fly. We appreciate all of [Peter]’s hard work here, but we think he’s better off concentrating on his beautiful homebrew ultralight instead.

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Results of 3D-Printed Cylinder Head Testing Fail to Surprise

It’s the suburbanista’s weekend nightmare: you’re almost done with the weekly chores, taking the last few passes with the lawn mower, when you hear a pop and bang. The cylinder head on your mower just blew, and you’re out of commission. Or are you? You’ve got a 3D printer – couldn’t it save the day?

If this bench test of plastic cylinder heads is any indication, it’s possible – just as long as you’ve only got 40 seconds of mowing left to do. [Project Farm] has been running all sorts of tests on different materials as field-expedient cylinder heads for small gasoline engines, using everything from JB Weld epoxy to a slab of walnut. For this test, two chunky heads were printed, one from ABS, of the thermochromic variety apparently, the other in PLA. The test went pretty much as expected for something made of thermoplastic exposed to burning gasoline at high pressure, although ABS was the clear winner with two 40-second runs. The PLA only lasted half as long before the spark plug threads melted and the plug blew out. A gasket printed from flexible filament was also tested, with predictably awful results.

As bad as all this was, it still shows that 3D-printed parts are surprisingly tough. Each part was able to perform decently under a compression test, showing that they can stand up to pressure as long as there’s no heat. If nothing else, it was a learning experience. And as an aside, the cylinder heads were printed by [Terry] from the RedNeckCanadians YouTube channel. That video is worth a watch, if just for a few tips on making a 3D-printed copy of an object. Continue reading “Results of 3D-Printed Cylinder Head Testing Fail to Surprise”

Micro Chainsaw Gets a Much Needed Nitro Power Boost

When life hands you the world’s smallest chainsaw, what’s there to do except make it even more ridiculous? That’s what [JohnnyQ90] did when he heavily modified a mini-electric chainsaw with a powerful RC car engine.

The saw in question, a Bosch EasyCut with “Nanoblade technology,” can only be defined as a chainsaw in the loosest of senses. It’s a cordless tool intended for light pruning and the like, and desperately in need of the [Tim the Toolman Taylor] treatment. The transmogrification began with a teardown of the drivetrain and addition of a custom centrifugal clutch for the 1.44-cc nitro RC car engine. The engine needed a custom base to mount it inside the case, and the original PCB made the perfect template. The original case lost a lot of weight to the bandsaw and Dremel, a cooling fan was 3D-printed, and a fascinatingly complex throttle linkage tied everything together. With a fuel tank hiding in the new 3D-printed handle, the whole thing looks like it was always supposed to have this engine. The third video below shows it in action; unfortunately, with the engine rotating the wrong direction and no room for an idler gear, [JohnnyQ90] had to settle for flipping the bar upside down to get it to cut. But with some hacks it’s the journey that interests us more than the destination.

This isn’t [JohnnyQ90]’s first nitro rodeo — he’s done nitro conversions on a cordless drill and a Dremel before. You should also check out his micro Tesla turbine, too, especially if you appreciate fine machining.

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3D-Printed Parts Torture-Tested in Nitro Engine — Briefly

Additive manufacturing has come a long way in a short time, and the parts you can turn out with some high-end 3D-printers rival machined metal in terms of durability. But consumer-grade technology generally lags the good stuff, so there’s no way you can 3D-print internal combustion engine parts on a run of the mill printer yet, right?

As it turns out, you can at least 3D-print connecting rods, if both the engine and your expectations are scaled appropriately. [JohnnyQ90] loves his miniature nitro engines, which we’ve seen him use to power both a rotary tool and a hand drill before. So taking apart a perfectly good engine and replacing the aluminum connecting rod with a PETG print was a little surprising. The design process was dead easy with such a simple part, and the print seemed like a reasonable facsimile of the original when laid side-by-side. But there were obvious differences, like the press-fit bronze bearings and oil ports in the crank and wrist ends of the original part, not to mention the even thickness along the plastic part instead of the relief along the shaft in the prototype.

Nonetheless, the rod was fitted into an engine with a clear plastic cover that lets us observe the spinning bits right up to the inevitable moment of failure, which you can see in the video below. To us it looks like failing to neck down the shaft of the rod was probably not a great idea, but the main failure mode was the bearings, or lack thereof. Still, we were surprised how long the part lasted, and we can’t help but wonder how a composite connecting rod would perform.

Still in the mood to see how plastic performs in two-stroke engines? Break out the JB Weld.

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The Last Interesting Chrysler Had a Gas Turbine Engine

The piston engine has been the king of the transportation industry for well over a century now. It has been manufactured so much that it has become a sort of general-purpose machine that can be used to do quite a bit more than merely move people and cargo from one point to another. Running generators, hydraulic systems, pumps, and heavy machinery are but a few examples of that.

Scale production of this technology also had the effect of driving prices for these engines down, and now virtually everyone in the developed world has cheap and easy access to them. In the transportation world, at least, it looks like its reign might finally be coming to a slow, drawn-out conclusion as electric cars capture more and more market share.

Electric motors aren’t the first technology to try to topple the piston engine from its apex position on top of our modern transportation industry, though. In the 1960s another technology, the gas turbine engine, tried to replace it — and failed.

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Fridge Compressor to 2-Stroke Engine: JB Weld for the Win

We like this one because it has a real Junkyard Wars feel to it: turning a cast-off fridge compressor into a two-stroke internal combustion engine. [Makerj101] is doing this with tooling no more complicated than a hacksaw and a hand drill. And JB Weld — lots and lots of JB Weld.

[Makerj101]’s video series takes us through his entire conversion process. Despite the outward similarity between compressors and engines, there are enough crucial differences to make the conversion challenging. A scheme for controlling intake and exhaust had to be implemented, the crankcase needed to be sealed, and a cylinder head with a spark plug needed to be fabricated. All of these steps would have been trivial in a machine shop with mill and lathe, but [Makerj101] chose the hard way. An old CPU heat sink serves as a cylinder head, copper wire forms a head gasket and spacer to decrease the compression ratio, and the old motor rotor serves as a flywheel. JB Weld is slathered everywhere, and to good effect as the test run in the video below shows.

Think you recognize [Makerj101]? You probably do, since we featured his previous machine shop-less engine build. This guy sure gets his money’s worth out of a tube of JB Weld.

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Where are all the Camless Engines?

Electric cars are all the rage lately, but let’s not forget about the old standby – internal combustion. The modern internal combustion engine is a marvel of engineering. Today’s engines and surrounding systems have better power, greater fuel economy, and lower emissions than anything that has come before. Centuries’ worth of engineering hours have gone into improving every aspect of the engine – with one notable exception. No automotive manufacturer has been able to eliminate the engine’s camshaft in a piston powered-production vehicle. The irony here is that camless engines are relatively easy to build. The average hacker could modify a small four-stroke engine for camless operation in their workshop. While it wouldn’t be a practical device, it would be a great test bed for experimentation and learning.

Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow

dohcA multi-cylinder gasoline engine is a complex dance. Hundreds of parts must move in synchronicity. Valves open and close, injectors mist fuel, spark plugs fire, and pistons move up and down. All follow the four-stroke “Intake, Compression, Combustion, Exhaust” Otto cycle. The camshaft controls much of this by opening and closing the engine’s spring-loaded intake and exhaust valves. Lobes on the shaft press on tappets which then move the valve stems and the valves themselves. The camshaft itself is driven at half the speed of the crankshaft through timing gears, chains, or a belt. Some valve trains are relatively simple – such as overhead cam engines. Others, such as the cam-in-block design, are more complex, with pushrods, rockers, and other parts required to translate the movement of the cam lobe to movement at the valve.

Exactly when, and how fast a valve opens is determined by the profile of the cam lobe. Auto racing and performance enthusiasts often change camshafts to those with more aggressive profiles and different timing offsets depending on the engine’s requirements. Everything comes at a cost though. A camshaft machined for maximum power generally won’t idle well and will make the engine harder to start. Too aggressive a lobe profile can lead to valve float, where the valves never fully seat at high RPM.

Myriad Solutions

vanosEngine manufacturers have spent years working around the limitations of the camshaft. The results are myriad proprietary solutions. Honda has VTEC, short for Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control. Toyota has VVT-i. BMW has VANOS, Ford has VCT. All these systems provide ways to adjust the valve action to some degree. VANOS works by allowing the camshaft to slightly rotate a few degrees relative to its normal timing, similar to moving a tooth or two on the timing chain. While these systems do work, they tend to be mechanically complex, and expensive to repair.

The simple solution would be to go with a camless engine. This would mean eliminating the camshaft, timing belt, and most of the associated hardware. Solenoids or hydraulic actuators open and close the valves in an infinitely variable number of ways. Valves can even be held open indefinitely, effectively shutting down a cylinder when max power isn’t necessary.

So why aren’t we all driving camless engines? There are a few reasons. The advantages of camless engines to camshaft engines are analogous to the advantages of electronic fuel injection (EFI) vs carburetors. At the core, a fuel injector is a solenoid controlled valve. The fuel pump provides constant pressure. The engine control unit (ECU) fires the injectors at just the right time to inject fuel into the cylinders.The computer also leaves the valves open long enough so that the right amount of fuel is injected for the current throttle position. Electronically this is very similar to what would be required for a camless engine. So what gives?

22R-e, an early EFI engine
Toyota’s celebrated 22R-E, an early EFI engine

Hackers in their 30’s and beyond will remember that until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the carburetor was king. Companies had been experimenting with EFI since the 1950’s. The system didn’t become mainstream until the stiff pollution laws of the 70’s came into effect. Making a clean, fuel-efficient carbureted engine was possible, but there were so many mechanical and electronic actuators required that the EFI was a better alternative. So the laws of the 70’s effectively regulated carburetors out of existence. We’re looking at much the same thing with camless engines. What’s missing are the regulations to force the issue.

All the big manufacturers have experimented with the camless concept. The best effort to date has been from Freevalve, a subsidiary of Koenigsegg. They have a prototype engine running in a Saab. LaunchPoint Technologies have uploaded videos showing some impressive actuator designs LaunchPoint is working with voice coils, the same technology which moves the heads in your hard drive.
None of this means that you can’t have a camless engine now – companies like Wärtsilä and Man have engines commercially available. However, these are giant diesel engines used to drive large ships or generate power. Not exactly what you’d want to put in a your subcompact car! For the hacker set, the best way to get your hands on a camless engine today is to hack one yourself.

Ladies and gentlemen, start hack your engines!

cam1Simple, single-cylinder camless engines are relatively easy to build. Start with a four stroke overhead valve engine from a snowblower, scooter, or the like. Make sure the engine is a non-interference model. This means that it is physically impossible for the valves to crash into the pistons. Add a power source and some solenoids. From there it’s just a matter of creating a control system. Examples are all over the internet. [Sukhjit Singh Banga] built this engine as part of a college project. The control system is a mechanical wheel with electric contacts, similar to a distributor cap and rotor system. [bbaldwin1987’s] Camless Engine Capstone project at West Virginia University uses a microcontroller to operate the solenoids. Note that this project uses two solenoids – one to open and one to close the valve. The engine doesn’t need to rely on a spring for closure. [Brian Miller] also built a camless engine for college, in this case Brigham Young University Idaho Camless Engine. [Brian’s] engine uses hall effect sensors on the original camshaft to fire the solenoids. This route is an excellent stepping stone before making the jump to full electronic control.

It wouldn’t take much work to expand these projects to a multi-cylinder engine. All we’re waiting for is the right hacker to take up the challenge!