The same day that Ford and General Motors announced catastrophic third-quarter losses, Dean Kamen was showing off his new electric car. The prototype vehicle, a zippy two-seat hatchback designed with more than a passing resemblance to the Volkswagen Beetle, can go about 60 miles on a single charge of its lithium battery and with practically zero emissions. The secret? “It’s the world’s first Stirling hybrid electric car,” says Kamen.
Dean Kamen drives his electric car behind the DEKA building in the Millyard of Manchester.
Installed in the car’s trunk compartment is a Stirling engine invented at DEKA, Kamen’s technology company in the Manchester Millyard. It powers the features that would normally drain huge power from the battery, notably the defroster and heater.
That leaves the battery primarily for propulsion. “You’re running a pure electric, which is enormously cheaper to operate and enormously more environmentally friendly,” Kamen explained.
And if the battery does run low, the Stirling can recharge it, so you’ll never get stranded, he said. That’s why Kamen calls his Stirling engine “an insurance policy” for the electric car.
Kamen showed off his state registration for his new car, listed as a 2008 DEKA Revolt. “I’m a car manufacturer!” he grinned. “It’s so exciting!”
Dean Kamen, owner of DEKA Research and Development Corp.,
discusses the details of the electric car with a stirling engine
behind the DEKA building in the Millyard area of Manchester
Are Americans ready?
A vanity plate reads “REVOLT” — which Kamen points out goes particularly well with the state’s motto, “Live Free or Die.”
So, are Americans — still stunned by gas prices that spiked last summer — finally ready to embrace the electric car?
Kamen said it takes time for what starts out as a novelty to become accepted; that’s what happened with the cell phone and the personal computer. “And then suddenly, 10 years later, it becomes an instant overnight success and what was once indefensible becomes indispensable.
“And that’s progress.”
For his prototype, Kamen used a recycled version of the Ford Think, an electric car that was discontinued in 2000. A group of Norwegian investors is interested in producing its own version. “They gave it to us so we could experiment with it and see if it could do what we hope it would do, and so far it’s looking pretty good,” he said.
Kamen is in “conversation” with the Norwegians about producing the car he’s invented. But he’s not looking for an exclusive arrangement; he’s hoping they’ll be only “the first among many” to embrace his Stirling-electric hybrid technology.
He ticks off the advantages of the Stirling engine as a backup system: It can use any fuel, from biodiesel to natural gas; it burns clean; it can even be programmed to turn on so the battery and car are all warmed up by the time you get in.
Kamen hopes his car could be in production within two years. He doesn’t know how much it would cost, but the goal is to make it affordable for average consumers, he said. And he expects some components will be made in New Hampshire.
But Kamen, who calls himself an “eternal optimist,” is not optimistic that the struggling American carmakers will embrace this new technology. Most big companies seem to misconstrue Darwin’s ideas about which species survive, he contends.
“I think what Darwin really was saying was: It’s not the fittest, not the smartest, not the strongest; it’s the ones that can adapt to change. And big industries that have long histories, particularly successful long histories, and a lot of ingrained infrastructure become the least adaptable to change.
“And when a disruptive opportunity comes along, they are the last that are capable of dealing with it.”
Still, Kamen believes the energy crisis created just that sort of opportunity. “And no matter what happens to the short-term price of oil or availability of oil, the fact is there are better technologies around now that are getting more attractive all the time, to move us out of the 19th century model of propulsion for vehicles into a 21st century model.”
Kamen said he already has had conversations with “supporters” of Barack Obama, “about the fact that this (energy) situation could be a blessing in disguise.
“In every problem, there lies an opportunity,” he said. “And frankly, we suddenly have a lot of opportunity.”
He would urge the President-elect “to try to dispassionately look at the real issues and the real alternatives,” he said. “And some of them have a little short-term pain associated with them, but in the long run everybody wins. “And I would work hard to make sure that the public understands that, and that you have the vision and the courage to make sure that the choices we make are the long-term good choices, not the politically expedient ones.”
But Kamen contends the biggest challenge facing the country isn’t energy or even the economic crisis. “It’s getting more kids that are going to soon be responsible for the prosperity, wealth-creation and security of this country to be more technically competent, and more technically passionate, and enthusiastic about solving the big problems of the future. And that, of course, is what FIRST is all about.”
As he so often does, Kamen has turned the conversation to FIRST, the now-international robotics competition he created 16 years ago to inspire students around science and technology. It’s one of his true passions.
Another passion is using his inventions — a water purifier and his Stirling engine — toward the betterment of some of the planet’s poorest people. Kamen calls it “a moral imperative that the poorest people of the world can at least access a little bit of clean water and power.”
It’s also in America’s self-interest to help them do so, Kamen insists.
“To me it’s pretty obvious . . . that becoming a source of knowledge and health and wealth in the world is in our economic best-interest, it’s in our security best interest, it’s in our moral and ethical best interest. There’s no downside in creating a world where all people can be happy.”
And the alternative is not acceptable, he said: “We don’t help four billion people out of abject poverty and disease, we don’t make them customers, we don’t make them suppliers . . . And they become desperate and angry, and people with nothing to lose and reason to hate — and there’s four billion of them.”
Back to that electric car? It’s all part of Kamen’s master plan.
“The car is a step along the way to be able to build, in high volume, high-quality, low-cost electric generation for a couple billion people,” he explained.
“If we can demonstrate the utility of the Stirling engine by putting it in a car . . . it will leave me with an engine that I can use to supply electricity to the world.”
Via Union Leader