While Stirling engines are conceptually quitesimple, understanding how any particular enginedesign works is often quite difficult because thereare hundreds of different mechanical configurationsthat can achieve the Stirling cycle. Figure 1 shows aschematic of a transparent educationaldemonstration engine that runs on the top of a cupof hot coffee. This engine uses a piece of foamsimilar to what would be used as a filter for awindow air conditioning unit to "displace" the airbetween the hot side and the cold side. This foamdisplacer is carefully mounted so it does not touchthe walls of the cylinder. Figure 2 shows how thisparticular engine achieves the Stirling cycle. In thisengine, the air flows through and around thedisplacer from the hot side then back to the coldside, producing a power pulse during both the hotand cold portion of the cycle. Stirling engines canbe mechanically quite simple since they have novalves, and no sparkplugs. This can result inextremely high reliability as there are fewer parts tofail.It is worthwhile to compare Stirling engines to othermore familiar engines and note their similarities aswell as their differences. Stirling engines are a typeof heat engine. They turn heat into mechanicalwork and in this sense they perform the samefunction as other well known heat engines such asgasoline, diesel, and steam engines. Like steamengines, Stirling engines are external combustionengines, since the heat is supplied to the enginefrom a source outside the cylinder instead of beingsupplied by a fuel burning inside the cylinder.Because the heat in a Stirling engine comes fromoutside of the engine, Stirling engines can bedesigned that will run on any heat source from fossilfuel heat, to geo-thermal heat, to sunshine. Unlikesteam engines, Stirling engines do not use a boilerthat might explode if not carefully monitored.When operating on sunshine, or geo-thermal heat,Stirling engines obviously produce no pollution atall, but they can be exceedingly low emissionsengines even when burning gasoline, diesel, orhome heating oil. Unlike gasoline or diesel enginesthat have many thousands of start stop cycles of combustion each minute, burners in Stirling enginesburn fuel continuously. It's much easier to make acontinuous combustion engine burn very cleanlythan one that has to start and stop. An excellentdemonstration of this principle is to strike a match,let it burn for a few seconds, then blow it out. Mostof the smoke is produced during the starting andstopping phases of combustion.
A Brief History
In the early days of the industrial revolution, steamengine explosions were a real problem. Metalfatigue was not well understood, and the steamengines of the day would often explode, killing andinjuring people nearby. In 1816 the ReverendRobert Stirling, a minister of the Church of Scotland, invented what he called "A New Type of Hot Air Engine with Economiser" as a safe andeconomical alternative to steam. His enginescouldn't explode, used less fuel, and put out morepower than the steam engines of the day.The engines designed by Robert Stirling and thosewho followed him were very innovative engines,but there was a problem with the material that wasused to build them. In a Stirling engine, the hotside of the engine heats up to the averagetemperature of the flame used to heat it and remainsat that temperature. There is no time for thecylinder head to cool off briefly between powerpulses. When Robert Stirling built his first engines,cast iron was the only readily available material,and when the hot side of a cast iron Stirling enginewas heated to almost red hot, it would oxidizefairly quickly. The result was that quite often a holewould burn through the hot side causing the engineto quit. In spite of the difficulties with materials,tens of thousands of Stirling engines were used topower water pumps, run small machines, and turnfans, from the time of their invention up until about1915.As electricity became more widely available in theearly 1900s, and as gasoline became readilyavailable as a fuel for automobiles, electric motors