Long profile of Dean Kamen, discusses his Stirling engine

Ben Hazell says: "Dean Kamen invented the Segway. He's also made a fortune in medical technology and now thinks he's built a working Stirling Engine - efficient electrical energy from heat. If it's true it's amazing and world changing - the breakthrough we need to face climate change. Even if it's not, he's a fascinating guy."
Now he and his engineers have built and tested a range of Stirling engines suitable for mass production that can be run on anything from jet fuel to cow dung. The one in the boot of the small blue car is designed to extend its range and constantly recharge its batteries to make a new kind of hybrid vehicle: one fit for the roads of the 21st century. A Stirling-electric hybrid, Kamen tells me, can travel farther and more efficiently than conventional electric cars; it generates enough power to run energy-hungry devices such as heaters and defrosters that are essential for drivers who, unlike those he calls the 'tofu heads' of California, must cope with a cold climate; and even using petrol, the engine runs far cleaner than petrol-electric hybrids such as Toyota's Prius.

However, Kamen confesses, his new creation isn't quite finished yet: 'The Stirling engine's not hooked up. Which really pisses me off.'

But it could work?

'It will work,' he says. 'Trust me.'

Dean Kamen: part man, part machine


  1. He invented a “working Stirling Engine” something like 6 years ago, and yet it has never actually been seen. It seems like this story resurfaces at least once a year.

  2. Hey, stop mocking this guy! The Segway changed the world! I can’t walk out of my home with tripping over Segways all over the place!

  3. Just an FYI:
    Stirling Engines have been “Working” for over a hundred years. It is just that they “Work” best fro specific applications – those where the engine speed stays consistent (like submarines).

    However, this is still exciting. It looks like he has adapted the engines for new applications.

  4. Don’t knock the Segway! It did something I long considered impossible: Making mall security guards look more rediculous than they already did.

  5. What this article unfortunately fails to mention is Dean’s most important creation: the FIRST Robotics program, http://www.usfirst.org. This program reaches tens of thousands of kids worldwide, getting them interested in science and technology while also being ridiculous amounts of fun. I’m sure more technological achievements will come out of the kids who participated in that program than Dean Kamen will ever do by himself. His true achievement is getting all of the kids interested in those careers who wouldn’t have been otherwise.

  6. in theory it can turn any source of heat into electricity, in silence and with 100 per cent efficiency.

    In theory we could have emissions free fusion reactors running off seawater providing all the power we could ever need. In theory.

  7. AGH! Attack of the Bad Science Journalist!

    I guarantee that Adam Higginbotham did /not/ source the “100 percent efficiency” line from Kamen – As the world’s most incredible engineer, he has probably designed an autonomous machine that seeks out and backs into a corner anyone who claims that he’s said any such thing.

  8. The combination of “cheap energy!” and “it’s just not hooked up yet” set off a major vapourware alarm in my head.

    Given that hybrid electric / petrol vehicles are well-studied enough to be commercially available, shouldn’t it be trivial for a good engineer to plug his power source into a pre-made hybrid car?

    Disclaimer: I know nothing about hybrid cars. I’m probably talking out of my arse, and hate when people do this about my specialty. Still, this is the internet, where unfounded punditry is not just allowed, but lauded!

  9. Every time I see a Segway go by (which is really only about twice a year) I want to bitch slap whoever is riding it. I want to throttle them while I scream in their face that it is just a massively over engineered scooter that travels very slow, takes up lots of space, has a crappy range, and it ungodly expensive. By absolutely every single conceivable measurement, a 100 dollar scooter kicks the shit out of a Segway. Anyone who buys one for any other reason than that they have too much money and carve novelty should be dragged out into the street and shot.

    With that off my chest, let me just say to the above article, I’ll believe it when I see it. Sterling engines are great and all, but they are not magical. Sterling engines just make it a lot easier to burn other things for power. If that was the only challenge, the whole energy thing would be done and over with. You can retool a modern engine to burn other things, it just isn’t terribly easy. As much as we whine about gas prices, not much else out there is any cheaper and thus worth burning. If ethanol or cow shit turned out to be massively more economically and we actually had a supply that could meet the demand, we would be merrily burning it in our cars.

    So, a Sterling engine is nothing to get excited over. On top of that, sterling engine “designers” often fall into the same traps of perpetual motion machine “designers”. They, with awesome regularity, vastly overestimate how efficient their engine actually is and what its performance is. We get insane performance and efficiency claims pretty much all the time from them and they turn out to be complete bullshit pretty much 100% of the time.

    Someone wake me up when they actually stick it in a car.

  10. I second Vardaman’s comment. I’m a product of FIRST, and it is nearly impossible to explain the experience to any of the “normals.” You see a lot of very creative solutions to technical problems coming from High School students. Through the FIRST Lego league, that kind of influence has been introduced to middle school kids as well.

  11. On a side note, I’ve seen an application of Sterling engines for winding thread onto bobbins from the turn of the century. Watching them run you swear they’re working by magic.

  12. Mall security guard riding Segways? That’s a funny idea but I’ve seen far more real-world cops on Segways than I care to ever imagine. Like these guys here.

    What makes it doubly ridiculous is that the NYPD is hellbent against bicycles in NYC. But somehow these thousand dollar wastes of public money are acceptable?

    Truly wonder how many tax-payer dollars have been wasted putting cops on Segways. And how much money Dean Kamen has gotten thanks to this pork-barrel nonsense.

    He’s a showman. Not a scientist.

  13. Actually, we’ve had working Stirling engines for closer to TWO centuries.

    As noted, the goal is to make them ever more efficient, approaching (but never achieving, thanks to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) 100% efficiency.

    And yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  14. I kinda thought that once the novelty of the Segway wore they’d become the defacto transport of choice for people with mobility problems. They haven’t and I don’t know why, they seem perfectly suited for elderly and those with problems walking. Too hard to control maybe?

    And I recently saw some twit boarding an aircraft with one in Quebec City. Too weird/funny/pathetic. Unless he had mobility issues in which case, bravo.

  15. Disney World uses Segways in parking lots and other places, as well as offering Segway tours of Epcot. But when petitioned by Guests with limited mobility to use their personal Segways in the parks, they were denied.

  16. Yea, yea, yea, the “tofu” crowd even bought a few of the scooters for the parking police in our town. Everytime I see one I have to cringe, thinking about all the morbidly obese jerks I see at Walmart and the grocery who “can” walk, but don’t and get those electric scooter to shop.

    But this thing? I don’t believe we’ll ever see it in mass production. Frankly, I’m becoming ever more jaded about this “science” stuff. If science were so great we’d have flying cars like the Jetsons. We’d have a cure for cancer and a host of other diseases. Anymore these so-called scientists make stuff up; write a book and then get paid millions for interviews and such because the 24 hour mass media has to have somebody to interview!

  17. I now want to write a piece of dystopic near-future science-fiction, with the protagonists being chased across a warming Earth by overweight mall security guards riding Sterling Engine-powered Segways. With only their high-school robotics skillz to protect them, can they survive the horrors of “Kamensworld”?

  18. I had another Idiocracy Moment the other night while standing in line on the sidewalk to see a friend’s band – a young kid sped up the sidewalk on a SegWay.
    It had a seat on it.
    He wasn’t handicapped, since I had seen him around before. He simply didn’t feel like standing up for the duration of his journey on his spiffy new toy.

  19. TANSTAFFL still applies. Though a Stirling can eat a lot “thinner” fuel than most heat engines-It’s still bound by Carnot.

    As for the Segway? At it’s present market price the customer base is limited. Priced closer to intrinsic value? At a competition driven price-with a range extending motor. Like that Stirling under current development. Running a Stirling on the drive system’s otherwise wasted heat does not violate TANSTAFFL. Though it lowers the cost per meal. Perhaps by enough to make rental service affordable?

    Adding snap lock mounted batteries tilts the market viability a bit more. Handled akin to Propane “Bottle Exchange” stations- placed at intermodal points that Seg has now become infinitely more practical for both private owners and rental operators. Let’s for example look at much of BART’s ridership. Suppose as a more radical model that Segway were racked in and out of an airport cart emulating rail. Walk a block at most to a rack station- slot your key- climb on the Seg- dismount at the BART station- racking the Seg on your way in. Reverse the process at your destination. But that price per scooter would have to come way down for this to fly. Hmn- Absorb the the “cost” to reap the future revenue stream? As in Don Lancaster’s comment about a steady flow of nickels…

  20. Kamen is awesome for the iBOT wheelchair more than anything else. It’s a wheelchair he developed using the same technology as the Segway (its development actually preceded the Segway). Among other things, it lets the user climb stairs and curbs, and sit at eye level.

    Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBOT for a bit more info on the wheelchair.

    Yeah, the Segway is easy to mock, but the iBOT is just wonderful. It’s a shame that it’s so expensive – I have a friend who could really use one.

  21. Ugh, are all journalists somehow surgically altered so that they have a lack of knowledge of the most basic laws of physics? I constantly see news articles gushing about the latest great breakthrough in energy that even I, with no formal schooling in physics, look at and go, “that can’t be true because of X”.

  22. The best consumer Stirling engine solution I have seen is by Whispertec in New Zealand. It is for homes or boats needing self-contained heating and electical power. So, the “waste” heat provides all the hot water and heating a home requires at about 87% efficiency and produces some electricity as a byproduct. It sort of turns the efficiency argument on its head.
    With a battery bank for load leveling, it can support most of a small electricity requirement.

    It is supposed to be maintenance free and very quiet. OTOH, it costs over 10K, so has most of its appeal for remote homes and boats.

  23. I stopped reading at this line:

    in theory it can turn any source of heat into electricity, in silence and with 100 per cent efficiency.

    Second law of thermodynamics. You can never have 100% efficiency.

    Adam Higginbotham is an ignoramus.

  24. this is what I think of when I see Segways…

    the prospect of clueless users loose on them moving far too fast for pedestrians to get out of the way…

    The problem is that when you fall off of a Segway you fall of backwards. Also, if you’re older and have circulation problems and muscle problems standing straight is not good. No to mention balance problems.

    That’s why those mini-scooters are so popular. And why “reinventing the wheel” in this case is not needed.

    Now that I’m thinking about it, with the amount of Segways given to police forces combined with the fact that the main innovation of the Segway is auto-balancing, could there be a potential military use for the technology Kamen is devising?

    There’s simply something odd and creepy about the way he presents his science to the world.

  26. The Segway rightly deserves every pound of ridicule heaped upon it. Sure, what we need is for people to be walking/cycling *less*…
    From an engineering/geeky standpoint it is pretty cool though.

    Despite my loathing for the Segway, I’m inclined to admire Dean Kamen, he’s clearly a brilliant guy, and that kind of earnest desire to solve problems with his inventions is awesome. I’m more inclined to place my faith in his stirling engines than in the Aussie perpetual motion snake-oil salesman also featuring on BB today…

    Best use of a segway ever? As a comic prop by Wil Arnett as GOB Bluth :D

    Want to watch Arrested Development now…

  27. The Luke arm alone could justify a lot of things. I also imagined the elderly and handicapped getting a lot of use from Segways, but as usual the slovenly lurch in to claim whatever helps them hoard calories.

    I hope Kamen does get places with the Stirling, and if he does, I like to think we can ultimately credit his father Jack’s work for EC Comics as putting the futurism in his son.

  28. I find it disturbing and distasteful that nattering naybobs are poo-pooing someone’s inventiveness. I enjoy and applause innovation for innovation’s sake; sure, the Segway didn’t take off like it could have (I blame the hype surrounding it) but it’s still a pretty cool idea. I have no doubts that one of the budding geeks (and I use the term fondly, for myself as well) can build upon the technology and take it further, and Mr Kamen is taking the steps to create and encourage. Maybe a few of you negatives can step back for a minute and try and imagine better uses for technology and inventiveness yerselves…
    Would y’all prefer a static civilization, with a distinct lack of creativity?

  29. I’m kind of surprised at the amount of negativity directed toward the guy. He seems like an intelligent and conscientious person. Oh well, I guess nerd envy can get ugly. I’ve seen video of the ibot and it is amazing. The “Luke” arm also sounds very cool. I read a short bio and this guy definitely marches to a different beat.

  30. I like bikes.

    Seriously, what’s wrong with a bike? How about a velomobile? (no link, just google it)

    I’ll say it over and over. Step One is community design. No more commuting 25 miles from suburb to city. Bring major employers to the suburbs — you know, your local business district. Step Two is to promote (with incentives) mass transport, BIKES, and WALKING.

    Velomobiles: healthy for you, healthy for the environment, healthy for the economy (get off the gas, etc. We could use gas more efficiently: freight delivery, mass transit, you take it from there….)

  31. I hear you, PFLINT, but I don’t see bikes ever being used to their full potential here. Bicycling is too unlike driving to ever be more than a mostly marginalized means of transport for adults. Americans in general have a powerful emotional attachment to owning and driving their own cars. The usual response to any attempts to heighten support for biking, especially anything that may be perceived as having an adverse affect on driving, is seen as an assault on personal freedom.

  32. There’s at least one patient at my wife’s neurologist’s office that uses a Segway to get around. I’m not sure what her problem is, but as long as it’s not balance I suspect the Segway greatly improves her mobility.

  33. I’m enjoying the image of all the nay-sayers in the world who put down what other people are doing, while all they do is shuffle paper, consume and complain.

    They’re one constant in a changing world; they were there for Goddard & Tsiolkovsky, there for Fulton and Watt, and were undoubtedly there for Hero when he showed off the first steam engine.

    Every one of the artifacts they surround themselves with is the product of someone with a vision whose friends and relatives all say they’re nuts.

  34. As a so-called “naysayer” all I have to say is this: I will admire Dean Kamen when he actually creates or proves what he claims. The odd air of mystery around his projects combined with the fact his most public fame came from “reinventing” the scooter into an overpriced thingamabob makes him seem more magician than scientist.

    There are tons of scientists and inventors out there who do more but with less of a publicity budget.

    Being a visionary doesn’t mean creating a cult of personality.

  35. There’s another constant: Charlatans selling scientifically impossible inventions that no one has ever seen.

  36. Wait, wait, wait!! Did y’all read the full interview? Check this out:

    Today, work on new medical technology for such companies as Johnson & Johnson remains the chief source of revenue for Deka – what Kamen refers to as his ‘day job’. But the company has also been responsible for several innovations commissioned by Darpa, the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. Among these is the PowerSwim, fins that allow combat divers to swim underwater at up to two knots, and a ‘controllable launcher’, for fighting in urban environments, which uses compressed air to shoot a man onto the roof of a building in 1.2 seconds. ‘That’s a fun thing,’ Kamen says. ‘He goes firing up at high speed, slows down, and just as he reaches the top of the parabolic arc, he’s standing there and will just walk onto the building… it’s simple physics.’

    When he first suggested this solution to the men from Darpa, Kamen says they sat in his conference room and laughed at him. ‘And a few months later, I delivered one. And it works beautifully.’

    Now that is awesome! Imagine a SWAT tractor trailer rolling up to a scene with 10 of these lined up in the trailer, and suddenly – POOF! – ten guys on the rooftop in a second. Sounds like a scene from Minority Report.

  37. #47 – So he’s actually managed to sell a human cannonball to the military? Well I’m not sure if it’s particularly innovative, but it’s certainly marketing genius.

  38. lol @ the haters. the ibot is helping the disabled, the vapor compression machine will bring clean water where it’s needed and the segway is.. well, useless fun. but yeah, you go haters! RAWR!

  39. Stirling engines are theoretically simple and efficient, but present massive practical problems.

    Because the Stirling cycle is a hot gas cycle they face a huge problem with parasitic heat losses. Gases have low heat capacity and low thermal conductivity compared to most solids, which means that the heat in a Stirling engine wants to go almost anywhere except the working fluid.

    This is why Stirling engines have been around for 200 years but only found a few niche applications where mechanical simplicity, low vibration, and sealed operation are important. Historically that has meant mostly space craft and submarines.

    The challenge for a Stirling designer is to build it out of materials that have, low heat capacity and thermal conductivity, and good mechanical properties, which is not an easy combination. Some solar conversion facilities, which run at quite high temperatures relative to most Stirling applications, are currently practical.

    The advantage of a Stirling/hybrid is fuel neutrality. Because Stirlings are external combustion engines they aren’t restricted to burning liquid fuels. If you had a practical Stirling/hybrid car you could run it on coal or wood or elephant dung or switchgrass.

    So I’m not going to count Kamen out on this, despite my misgivings about his penchant for showmanship. There are real problems still to be solved that are of an entirely practical, nuts-and-bolts engineering nature, so he certainly has something to do. And the basic idea of a Stirling/hybrid is sound: use a constant speed heat engine to generate electricity which you use to turn the wheels, like a diesel-electric locomotive.

    I’ll believe he has something practical when I see it, but it’s a good problem to be working on right now.

  40. I really admire what he’s done with iBot, and if the stirling engine car isn’t vapourware it’ll be great. When it comes to the Sedgway though, I’m totally with PFLINT. For a fraction of the price of a Sedgway, anyone can buy a bicycle that will totally outperform it, be light enough to carry up several flights of stairs with one arm, carry or tow loads, be simple enough to maintain at home with cheap manual tools, be easy to upgrade, and crucially, save all that time people spend in gyms by getting you fit on the way to work.

    As has been pointed out, for people with certain disabilities, the Sedgeway is probably great, but for most people, it’s an inferior solution compared to something that has existed for well over a century and keeps getting better.

  41. #44 – You do know that his huge list of awards and accolades is there for a reason? He’s got a serious history of coming up with novel ideas and doing the impossible. I’ve never heard any doctor who was working at the time say anything other than “didn’t think it could be done” about his inexpensive, briefcase sized dialysis machine. It was a huge leap. And that’s not the only major improvement to medical tools he’s made.

    Actually look into his inventions before attacking him as a crackpot.

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