Engine manufacturers, the automotive industry, and even the United States government have been debating the nature of combustion engines for more than 150 years.
And now, in a landmark report published today, a coalition of scientists has finally settled on the answer: a tiny engine that runs on air, and that doesn’t need a lot of fuel.
The result is a small engine that can run on batteries, or even, in theory, on a solar panel.
“The first combustion engine was invented by a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin in the late 17th century, which is how the word ‘conventional’ came into being,” says Mark Bove, a research engineer at the U.K.-based British Engineering Laboratory (BELL) and lead author of the new study.
The idea that a tiny gas engine could be able to run on solar power was first proposed by British chemist Sir James Clerk Maxwell in the mid-1800s.
But while Maxwell was a genius, he also wasn’t the first person to propose such a tiny combustion engine.
The earliest example of such a small combustion engine dates back to a 19th century Russian chemist named Alexander Korolev.
Korolevs work on a tiny hydrogen-powered steam engine came after his father was killed when a meteor crashed through a window.
In 1857, Korolevich started developing a small gas engine that ran on water.
The water was purified to create an oil called hydrogen gas, which could be purified by electrolysis, and the oil then was used to make steam.
Korotev was the first to commercialize the idea of using hydrogen as a fuel, but he wasn’t successful, so he turned his attention to the combustion of oxygen.
Korotov also developed a small fuel that ran off oxygen.
But the first practical hydrogen engine, the Russian Konstantinov-Sokolov design, ran on air.
In fact, Korotovich-Sukolov was one of the first steam engine engines that were ever built.
“It was a very important step,” says Bove.
“In the mid 1800s, a lot more work was done in Germany, where Alexander Korotevs work was based, than in the U: they had the same idea, but they were using gasoline instead.”
In addition to Koroteov, Korotevich-Sugolov and Koroteviks engine used steam and water as fuel.
“So we need to understand the origins of Korotvich and Sokolov, the oxygen, the hydrogen, and Korotkov and Sokoltov and Sogolov engines,” Bove says.
“What’s the story behind the origins?
How did this come about?”
Bove and his colleagues at BELL took the research into the realm of physics and mathematics.
The work, published in the journal Nature Physics, focuses on how the two concepts are related.
“We found that oxygen is the gas, and hydrogen is the energy source,” says co-author Alexei Borodin.
“This is the first time we have found a mathematical solution for the relationship between these two fundamental concepts,” he says.
Borodinc, a physicist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is not sure what the exact relationship is.
“You know, we don’t know what the ultimate outcome of this is going to be,” he admits.
But he says the study points to a much larger trend: “In this day and age, we are constantly asking whether or not we need a fuel for our electric vehicles, because you don’t have to have any gas.
And we have a lot to gain from having this solution.”
But it will be a while before all vehicles, including cars, will have to run off hydrogen.
Bove notes that while hydrogen and gasoline are both plentiful in the world, they are not enough to power electric cars.
“The problem is that hydrogen is a little bit expensive, whereas gasoline is a lot cheaper,” he explains.
“And it’s a little less fuel-efficient, which means that you don´t have to go all the way to the limit.”
It could be years before hydrogen vehicles can be sold in the United Kingdom.
However, the BELL team hopes to convince the European Union, the U to fund the development of hydrogen fuel cells.
Currently, a hydrogen fuel cell is a battery made up of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms.
In the future, the team hopes that the new research will lead to a hydrogen-fueled electric vehicle, called a hydrogen battery, which would be cheaper to manufacture than traditional gasoline batteries.
“Fuel cells are very expensive to build,” says Borodins research manager, Adrian Jorgensen.
“That´s why we are really interested in the battery technology in general, because it would make a lot better cars.”