photos: green wombat
In a world of Stepford executives who never deviate from the corporate party line, there’s something refreshing about an entrepreneur willing to take a tumble – literally – for his latest innovation. In uber-inventor Dean Kamen’s case that meant crashing his Stirling electric hybrid scooter in front of Green Wombat and a photographer. In June, Green Wombat visited Westwind, Kamen’s estate outside Manchester, New Hampshire, to talk to the Segway inventor about his plans to install a Stirling heat engine in an electric car made by Norway’s Think. (See "Have You Driven a Fjord Lately?" in the August issue of Business 2.0.) But first, Kamen wanted to demo the scooter (photo above) to show how a virtually greenhouse gas-free Stirling engine could extend the range of an electric vehicle by trickle-charging the battery. As he zooms down the driveway, the scooter goes sideways – its weight distribution needs some tweaking – sending the inventor flying into the grass. "Say you’re in Bangladesh or anywhere in the world where people don’t have electricity," says Kamen, dusting himself off and not missing a beat. "You get home and you plug your house into it." He shows off power plugs behind the scooter’s seat. "It’s your power system, it’s your heating system, it gives everybody electricity. When you leave in the morning, you drive away with your local power plant."
Over the past decade, Kamen, who made a fortune as inventor of the insulin pump and other medical devices, has spent some $40 million developing Stirling engines. They can use virtually any fuel source to heat a sealed container containing a gas – hydrogen or helium, for instance – that expands and contracts to drive a piston and produce electricity. (The scooter uses a small can of propane as the fuel source.) "We run two villages in Bangladesh on Stirlings that run on freakin’ cow dung," says Kamen, who envisions Stirling engines powering the world’s off-the-grid villages and using the waste heat produced by the engine to purify water.
But Kamen needs to get to mass production to realize that dream and that’s where Think comes in. Kamen met Think CEO Jan-Olaf Willums last year at MIT. "I took him up to New Hampshire and we spent half the night speculating about how cool the world could be if you put the right technologies in the right place at the right time," says Kamen. "I need some killer app to put this thing into production. And one way to do that would be to create the world’s first hybrid Stirling electric car." So Willums shipped a Think City to Kamen, who is now modifying the two-seater coupe to carry a Stirling engine (photo at right) powered by veggie oil, for instance. ("You could drive across the country, stopping a McDonald’s to fill up," says Kamen.) That would not only extend the Thinks range by hundreds of miles but turn the car into a mobile generator. When electricity demand peaks during the day, thousands of Thinks plugged in at office parks could feed power back to the grid so utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Edison (EIX) could avoid having to fire up planet-warming power plants. The Stirling engine would then recharge the car’s battery for the commute home. When we last spoke in July, Kamen had the autmotive version of the Stirling engine up and running. The next step is to hook it up to the City and see if it’ll work as planned. You probably won’t see a Stirling in a Toyota (TM) or Ford (F) but the device gives Think another power plant to offer its customers.
“If you have enough Thinks out there you would literally change the architecture of the grid,” says Kamen, taking Green Wombat for a drive around Westwind and past his wind turbine before parking the blue Think City near his pair of Enstrom helicopters. (He keeps the Think in a garage that also houses his 1898 steam-driven car and a 1913 Model T.) Kamen heads to the control room of his 33,000-square foot house. An Internet-enabled blue box called a Teletrol controls the home’s power systems, including a Stirling engine about the size of an air conditioner that can act as a backup generator or a mini power plant that kicks on when electricity demand soars. Kamen invented the Teletrol and his company of the same name remotely operates the heating and air-conditioning systems of buildings like the Sydney Opera House. Kamen, of course, would like to see a Teletrol in every house, acting as the interface between your Web-enabled Think and the grid (and, ideally, the Stirling engine that sits in your basement or utility room.)
"The big advantage is once we’re in production with that engine, where it will really be uniquely valuable is to the 1.6 billion people on this plant who’ve never used electricity," says Kamen. "We will become the Con Edison of every village in Asia, Africa and Central America."