Dean Kamen on Clean Energy, Clean Water, and Commuting in the Mega City (Part Two)

TreeHugger: In addition to that, you have rigged up a Think City electric car (this tiny Norwegian EV that was at one time owned by Ford and is now independent again) with a Sterling engine. Is this still something that you are pursuing?

Kamen: In fact I drove that car you just discussed into work today from my house. It's a lot of fun and our theory there is that eventually (nobody knows how long eventually is, especially when it comes to both developing technologies and having the public accept them) but eventually, a lot of vehicles that move people around will be purely electric. This is because there will be easier and more cost effective ways to carry enough energy in the form of batteries or fuel cells or other storage media to move these vehicles around.

Right now, however, the big advantage of an electric vehicle is that the motor doesn't waste any power when you're not moving (in other words it doesn't need to idle when you're at a traffic light or sitting in traffic). Electric motors are smaller and lighter as a source of torque than the gas engine. They don't need transmissions. They don't need clutches.

There are a lot of advantages to them, but the huge disadvantage of a purely electric vehicle is that it has to carry all the energy to move that car around in the form of batteries. And you can carry about a hundred times as much energy in a gallon of gas as you can in that amount of battery.

So electric cars have to have either hundreds and hundreds of pounds of batteries, which costs thousands and thousands of dollars, or they have very limited performance. We said, let's get the best of both worlds until the rest of the technologies to go purely electric make sense.

We said, let's build a small Sterling cycle engine, put it in a small electric car, let the car have only enough battery to meet the peak performance it needs to develop enough torque to give it some real good get up and go. Let it have enough range on those batteries to do most things. But let's let the little Sterling sit there and always be topping off the charge, and keeping your car warm so you don't waste electricity doing some of the auxiliaries like defrosting and heating. And you never have to worry about being stuck somewhere because the Sterling can come up and charge the batteries.

We thought this was a very nice application for the Sterling. Frankly, to us, it was a stepping stone to getting the Sterling into production so that, as I said before, we could supply millions of these things to the developing world. It could be the source of electricity for the water machine we were just discussing, because although the water machine doesn't need membranes and filters and all the other stuff, it unfortunately does need electricity. And many of the places in the world that don't have clean water also don't have access to electricity.

So, we thought, we've got to develop both the water system (the Slingshot) and the Sterling system together so that we could serve both needs.

TreeHugger: Calling All Innovators is a design competition that you've helped spearhead. Tell us a little bit about this.

Kamen: There's no end to the imagination of kids around the world; and some kids are 90 years old. But it's rare that you can get them all focused and organized on solving particular problems, particularly ones that have a real social impact. A lot of inventors are caricatured as wacky people inventing Rube Goldberg machines. So when these people came to me and said, "Hey, we'd like you to help us highlight a program to get more kids—but, again kids of any age—to use advanced technologies to help develop technologies that the world really needs," I thought it was a good idea.

Maybe by using some of the cell phone technologies and other now-available and cost effective and reliable technologies; maybe by putting prizes or incentives or focus out there we can get more smart, creative people to use their energies to produce new ideas and innovations that will really make the world a better, more sustainable place.

Tags: Carbon Footprint | Commuting | Desalination | Electric Cars | Energy | Lighting | Solar Power | Traffic | Urban Life

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