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Infininia's J.D. Sitton stands in front of one of his company's Stirling engine solar prototypes. Mr. Sitton is looking to take over the production that the auto industry in abandoning, producing solar generators that are far more efficient than today's best commercial solar panels.  (Source: Ledner)
Retooling auto engine lines to Stirling Engine lines could create a booming new economy

For better or worse, the domestic automakers in the U.S. are in decline for the time being, as are their foreign competitors.  Now the question arises of what to do with all of the production facilities that these companies and their suppliers are dumping off or repurposing.  Among these facilities are engine factories.  Engine-making is a complex process, and retooling these facilities for an entirely new task would be far more expensive than it is worth, in most cases.

That's where J.D. Sitton CEO of Infinia, a Stirling engine solar firm, comes in to play.  After years of struggling to find a home, Mr. Sitton has helped his company enter a renaissance of funding and become a phoenix rising from the ashes of the recession-stricken auto industry.

Infinia has been around for a long time now.  In 1985, the company was founded by six University of Washington professors who hoped to commercialize a Stirling engine-powered heart pump, which never needed a replacement battery.  Unfortunately, the heat source -- a medically save tiny chunk of Plutonium-238 -- turned out to be the project's undoing, as the government feared terrorists kidnapping people to gain access the radioactive material.

Next the organization went through a string of other lackluster projects, including a contract to build the power source for the NASA deep-space exploration probe, a project which has never finished.  Ultimately the company was struggling for lack of direction, despite having some dynamite technology.

That all changed in 2002 with the recruitment of CEO Sitton, who has righted the ship.  In 2005, he demoed a solar dish/Stirling engine setup that converted 24 percent of the energy striking a solar dish to power, more than most commercially available solar cells.  Thanks to that demo, the company secured over $70M USD in venture capital.

In order to make a production-quality version of its solar generators, it has contracted two top-tier Detroit automotive suppliers -- Autoliv and Cosma -- to make the dish and engine.  These companies can now, with minimal retooling, keep their engine facilities thriving at a time when others are closing and face an indefinite future.  In total the company is contracting 60 other domestic engineering companies to design and build the components it needs.

Gary Gereffi, a professor at Duke University and solar industry expert praised the Infinia's progress and growth.  He states, "All this technology is made up of regular parts that manufacturing companies are making all the time.  The difference between our economy and a green economy is not as substantial as people think."

Gregg Clevenger, Infinia's CFO believes that his company will soon produce solar power that's cost equivalent to coal without subsidies, in certain areas.  He adds, "Companies that wouldn't take our calls a couple of years ago are now pursuing us aggressively.  They want to focus on a growth industry rather than a shrinking industry.  We can get to where we look attractive relative to the cost of coal plants.  When that happens, there's no limit to the number of solar systems we can sell."

If his company can succeed at that, they might not just create a solar revolution, but they might save one of the vital manufacturing sectors of the United States -- the Detroit manufacturing industry. 

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RE: Article needs more elaboration
By barrychuck on 3/25/2009 12:10:09 PM , Rating: 1
Did you ever take physics class in high school? Sterling engines have been around forever. They were and still are used in third world countries. The idea of hooking them up to a solar reflector (not panel) is not new. I read a book (in my library) almost 23 years ago about solar power telling how to build one. The point is that many small companies that produce auto parts are looking for new industries to build precision parts for. It just so happens that these tiny engines require very tight tolerance and machine finish to achieve high efficiency. The Sterling engine was developed in 1816, but due to the high tolerances required, was not popular, as higher powered engines using steam, diesel, and gasoline could be built and still work with looser tolerances. Almost perfect seal is required.

As to the why today, the engine would spin a generator to produce electricity. The idea is that less area (panel size) is required to produce the same amount of electricity. The cost should also be much less as well as long term operating costs. Sterling engines are not much more complicated than a two stroke model RC engine. Considering the scale of mass production, the engine capable of almost 1 or 2 hp shouldn't cost more than $1k. Right now, you can't buy a solar panel that puts out the equivalent 745watts=1hp for for less than $3k and more like $5k with a quick Google search. It never ceases to amaze me that some 1800s technology is brought back to life, because modern processes can fix faults in the original production of the "lost" technology.

RE: Article needs more elaboration
By barrychuck on 3/25/2009 12:37:34 PM , Rating: 3
Anybody remember this?

MSI’s Air Power Cooler uses the heat generated from the motherboard chipset to power its fan, using Robert Stirling’s Heat Economiser technology.

RE: Article needs more elaboration
By Myrandex on 3/25/2009 1:06:16 PM , Rating: 2
this was just what I was thinking about when I was reading this article. I never heard anything else about that though :-/ I thought it was pretty neat.


RE: Article needs more elaboration
By kontorotsui on 3/25/2009 4:02:42 PM , Rating: 1
Considering the scale of mass production, the engine capable of almost 1 or 2 hp shouldn't cost more than $1k. Right now, you can't buy a solar panel that puts out the equivalent 745watts=1hp for for less than $3k and more like $5k with a quick Google search.

You forget the maintenance. A solar panel is maintenance free, what about the sterling engine? Can it be left for 20 years exposed to any weather and still work? I doubt it does, with moving parts.

So the 1800 echnology based on moving parts is indeed beaten by modern solid state technology.

RE: Article needs more elaboration
By barrychuck on 3/25/2009 4:13:05 PM , Rating: 2
In theory the solar panels require no maintenance, but they are fragile, moisture can and does corrode the connections, they are hard to transport without damage. Solid state does not always win. I think you will find the 20 year exposure on the solar panels has a high failure rate. Hail storm equals total loss with the solar panels. Even if you had to replace/rebuild the sterling engine, it's still cheaper than the solar panel.

RE: Article needs more elaboration
By Doormat on 3/25/2009 5:52:36 PM , Rating: 3
A long term study of panels from Japan shows a 0.2%/yr panel degradation.

Also, my solar panels have been through a few hailstorms (up to nickel-sized hail) and had no replacements due to weather.

But yea, keep talking about stuff you don't have any experience with...

By William Gaatjes on 3/28/2009 5:09:53 PM , Rating: 2
What is the efficiëncy of these panels ?

i will bet you that as the efficiëncy goes up, the maintenance free years go down. Nothing wrong with timed inspections tho.

RE: Article needs more elaboration
By FITCamaro on 3/25/2009 4:29:32 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah because mirrors are maintenance free and unbreakable.

Solar technology of any kind is not maintenance free.

RE: Article needs more elaboration
By Solandri on 3/25/2009 5:01:29 PM , Rating: 3
Solar energy collected via biofuels are. The plants or algae are pretty maintenance-free (maintaining them improves their efficiency, but is not necessary). This article brings up something I've been wondering about for a while - why is everyone so obsessed with collecting solar energy via panels which converts them to electricity? Plants already convert solar energy into chemical energy. And a Stirling engine will convert it into mechanical energy.

Both, especially the plants, seem like a much cheaper, cleaner, and long-lived method to collect solar energy than manufacturing PV cells. Plants are even self-replicating so can have zero manufacturing costs. And people don't complain if you cover up a football field-sized area with plants, like they would if you covered them with PV panels or mirrors.

By FITCamaro on 3/25/2009 9:36:32 PM , Rating: 2
I'm all for biodiesel created with algae. You still know what I meant.

RE: Article needs more elaboration
By Smilin on 3/26/2009 6:01:06 PM , Rating: 2
Yes. It could run 20 years without maintenance. It's a completely sealed engine and it's not an ICE either. It's a stirling and they don't exactly crank at 3000rpm for 20 years.

Solar panels are pretty low maintenance but they degrade over time as well.

Regardless, if this thing can even run 10 years then need a full replacement it will still be cheaper than a solar panel over 20 years.

RE: Article needs more elaboration
By TA152H on 3/25/2009 4:30:27 PM , Rating: 2
Did you ever take a journalism class in high school? If you did, you wouldn't expect people to remember everything from a high school class, when they haven't used it since. Yes, you can look it up, but then that takes people away from your site.

It's basic journalism, when you introduce something that isn't known by virtually everyone reading it, you mention quickly what it is, and how it relates to something they can grasp.

That would be like me writing an article on the U and V pipelines of the Pentium, and expecting everyone to know, without any explanation, the difference between the two. I know, shouldn't you? Didn't you ever use a Pentium processor? How can you not know that then?

I'm being facetious, of course, but my point is, you can't expect everyone to know everything (especially from a physics class taken 30+ years ago), and if you did a survey, most people don't know what a Sterling Engine is. It's easy to understand once it's explained, so, there should be a short explanation.

By mindless1 on 3/25/2009 6:13:30 PM , Rating: 3
I for one was not taught about Sterling Engines in high school physics. Reality 101 - there is too much information for everyone to be taught everything, even a brief overview.

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs

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