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Two brothers carry on dream of efficient internal combustion
The IRIS engine works by expanding and contracting like the iris of an eye. Its creators say its greater working surface makes the IRIS more efficient than traditional piston-driven internal combustion.
In the past year, the U.S. auto industry has reeled under market pressure, faced bankruptcy, accepted billions of dollars in government bailout money, and agreed to mandates for cleaner and more efficient vehicles. But for two brothers from Colorado with an automotive start-up company, things couldn’t be better.
Levi Tillemann-Dick, 28, and his brother Corban, 24, are carrying on a dream they hatched with their late father, Denver inventor and businessman Timber Dick, to bring to market a radical new engine design that is much more efficient than a traditional internal combustion engine.
The four-stroke engine used in gasoline-powered cars today was a breakthrough when pioneers like Nikolaus Otto and Gottlieb Daimler developed the design in the 1870s and 1880s. But its operation is so inefficient that only 20 to 30 percent of fuel in the tank is converted to energy that actually makes the car move. The rest is lost, mostly as heat.
(See related quiz, What You Don’t Know About Energy.)
The Tillemann-Dick brothers believe that they can ramp up that efficiency to 50 percent by shifting from a piston-driven engine design to an “internally radiating impulse structure” that expands and contracts like the iris of an eye. They believe their start-up company based in Washington, D.C., IRIS Engines, has an advantage in efficiency and engine power as a result of this unique design, and can benefit from the forces roiling an auto industry currently based on piston-driven engines.
An efficiency drive
In the United States, federal regulators last month finalized a rule that will require automakers to achieve an average fuel efficiency of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The European Union has set a goal that is the equivalent of about 48 miles per gallon by 2017, and Japan has set comparable goals, says Levi, who serves as IRIS Engines’ chief executive. Efforts to address global warming by putting a price on carbon emissions, although currently facing an uncertain future in the U.S. Congress, could raise the bar even higher for automakers. “All of these people, in order to maintain the performance and utility characteristics of their vehicles, are looking hard for new solutions to efficiency and power density,” Levi says.
IRIS Engines is one of several start-ups that are focusing on better engine design. Venture Capitalist Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, has made high-profile investments in two companies working on boosting engine efficiency, Transonic Combustion and EcoMotors.
The Tillemann-Dick brothers also have gotten Silicon Valley recognition—last year winning a $100,000 investment prize from venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson (the funders behind Hotmail and eBay.) However, they declined an investment offer from the firm—Levi says only that the pair felt it wasn’t the right deal—and they continue to work on attracting funding.
Visually, the IRIS engine is a stunning departure from a piston-driven engine. Six gates form a tight circle when closed and then pivot open when a mixture of fuel and air is ignited. One IRIS can replace a four-cylinder engine. Because it uses the walls of the chamber (the gates) as a working surface, rather than the floor of the chamber (the head of the piston), the engine increases its working surface area from about 25 percent to more than 70 percent.
“Starfire” was the name first proposed for the engine by Timber Dick, listed as lead inventor together with his sons on the company’s patents. In 2008, the design beat out more than 1,000 entries to capture first place for transportation technology in NASA’s “Create the Future” annual design competition. But a month prior to the awards ceremony, Dick died in a car accident at the age of 52. Two of his 11 children, Levi and Corban, made the decision to take up his work.