Clean Power

Published on December 5th, 2012 | by Nicholas Brown


New Detonation Engine Could Slash Fuel Costs

December 5th, 2012 by  

Researchers in the U.S military, General Electric, and other companies are developing a new type of engine (actually, a new family of engines) which can be built to burn hydrogen or fossil fuels. The engines are called “detonation engines.”

Combustion engines in general can already be built to burn hydrogen, but this one is up to 25% more efficient when used in gas turbine power plants, airplanes, and ships.

Airplane via Shutterstock

The benefits of more efficient combustion engines are not just for the fossil fuel industry, but they have the potential to help the wind industry significantly… if combustion engines were to become reasonably efficient.

Wind turbines can be used to power simple electrolyzers which produce hydrogen and oxygen from water. The hydrogen can be stored in high-pressure tanks and burned in the efficient engines to generate electricity.

When wind speeds fluctuate, the hydrogen system acts as a buffer for the wind energy because, technically, the electricity for end-users is being generated by the combustion engine, so the fluctuations in wind energy just affect the hydrogen levels in the tank, while power production is completely stable.

There would be absolutely no variation or interruptions with such a system. Wind power is already a low median LCOE (cost of electricity) of $0.05/kWh. “The only energy source that beats that is hydropower ($0.03),” Zach reported in July.

An efficient engine would render breakthrough energy storage and natural gas backup completely unnecessary. A hydrogen engine this efficient could excel where conventional engines and hydrogen fuel cells failed.

This detonation engine project has already been planned, and now it is in the prototype development stage. The full-scale prototype development is expected to cost $62 million.

The U.S Navy estimated that these engines could save them $300 million to $400 million in annual fuel costs if they retrofitted their ships with them.

At the moment, Navy researchers are using simulations to advance a version of it that could make it practical.

The purpose of the detonation concept is to increase air pressure inside combustion chambers, which manufacturers of typical combustion engines would like to do (except that it is too impractical).

A detonation engine utilizes shock waves to achieve the desired pressure increase, which can be up to 10 times more than that of conventional combustion engines.

Unfortunately, it could take a decade to commercialize this technology.

Source: Technology Review

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

writes on CleanTechnica, Gas2, Kleef&Co, and Green Building Elements. He has a keen interest in physics-intensive topics such as electricity generation, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, energy storage, and geography. His website is:

  • dynamo.joe

    Using electrolysis derived hydrogen to smooth out wind power production is mindnumbingly stupid.
    No matter how efficient your detonation engine is, the electrolysis step is very inefficient, meaning the process as a whole is inefficient.
    Maybe someone comes up with a more efficient catalyst and that could change, but I haven’t seen anyone saying they expect such a phenominal increase in electrolysis conversion rates.

    • Ronald Brak

      It’s very wasteful, but this is not a problem if the electricity is free or almost free. In some places wind power can push the price of electricity down to zero during times of high winds and low demand. And in Australia and other places solar is pushing down the price of electricity durning the day. So if electricity costs nothing or next to nothing it can make low cost, low efficiency storage economical. Of course hydrogen energy storage may not be able to compete with other methods. For example, thermal storage is looking like it could be very cheap.

  • Ronald Brak

    Note that hydrogen is just an option. Kerosene also apparently works, as does methane, etc. It may turn out to be easier to power planes off kerosene or methane and then remove the CO2 released from the atmosphere.

  • Ronald Brak

    New wind is very cheap, especially in the right locations. But in Australia point of use solar outcompetes it because of our low wholesale and high retail electricity prices. This doesn’t mean we will stop building wind turbines or go 100% solar, it just means that at current daytime retail electricity prices and installation costs, a dollar spent installing point of use solar in Australia will give a greater return than a dollar spent building a wind turbine.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Ronald – this might interest you. Seems that solar is lowering peak prices in parts of your world.

      • Ronald Brak

        Oh yeah, it sure is. I am getting an 8.1% cut in what I pay per kilowatt-hour for grid electricity on the first of January as a result of my state’s wind and solar capacity pushing down prices. Here in South Australia rooftop solar has helped us shut down shut down one coal power plant and only run the other for six months a year. Solar is taking large bites out of both coal and gas use in Australia.

  • Ray

    Matt it sounds like a great weapon for those who want US dead. 9-11-01

    • Ronald Brak

      I don’t think it would really help anyone who wants anyone dead. Or at least no more than a normal jet engine, gas turbine, etc. would. If used with hydrogen it should, generally speaking, be safer than using kerosene in jets, which is what is currently used to propel planes. This is because hydrogen burns up while kerosene splashes down. Of course, if hydrogen is used inside it is vitally important that any leakage be allowed to escape because if it gets trapped it can blow the roof off, as at Fukushima nuclear plant.

  • I am very skeptical of this in a practical application.

    -Metal parts are highly susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement in high pressure applications, in airplanes gas lines and nozzles would regularlly have to be replaced, accessibility issues. And high pressure gas in the wings will add weight and can’t be just any shape which will reduce capacity.

    -Hydrogen gas leaks, three times faster than methane, leaves me with obvious concerns.

    -Any highly compressed gas is essentially a bomb, draw your own conclusions of where this might be an issue.

    • The hydrogen would be used in liquid form as far as I am aware of. As for gas leaks, hydrogen is only explosive over a small range. It is less dangerous than current fuels such as gasoline. I am not sure about the metal embrittlement, but pipelines have been used to ship hydrogen.

    • william

      Yeah the conditions need for hydrogen embrittlement are very specific. I don’t believe it would be too much of an issue. However if there are concerns aluminum could always be used because it’s really susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement

Back to Top ↑