Development and Performance of a 3 kW(e) Air Charged Free-Piston Stirling Engine with Linear Alternator

D.M. Berchowitz, M. Richter and D. Shade, Sunpower Inc.

22nd Intersociety Energy Conversion Engineering Conference

August 10-14, 1987/Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

For permission to copy or republish,- contact the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 370 L'Enfant Promenade, SW, Washington, DC 20024


Development and Performance of a 3 kW(e) Air Charged Free-Piston Stirling Engine with Linear Alternator

D M Berchowitz

M Richter

D Shade Sunpower Inc, Athens, Ohio


111is paper describes the continuing effort to develop II free-piston Stirling engine (FPSE) linear alternator combination for use in a quiet, Diesel fueled portable 3 kW generator set. The FPSE is 10 be charged with air which is a significant departure from the standard practice of using helium. Helium charged tests have also been run and it is shown that while both air and helium deliver nearly the same net power, the air engine is somewhat less efficient. In this particular application, the practicality of using air easily offsets the efficiency advantage of helium. A systems integration test rig (SlTR) has been constructed in order to demonstrate stand-alone operation of the generator set. In this configuration the set has demonstrated low noise, power on nitrogen charge, low exhaust temperature and the ability to use Diesel as the primary fuel. Rapid response to load change has also been a requirement, In order to achieve this an adaptive load controller is used which easily allows the system to exceed the load response requirements. Frequency is essentially unaltered by load changes.

1 Background

This project began in the last quarter of 1984. The major requirements being:

i) 3 kW(e) continuous power under environmental temperatures ranging from -46°C to 52°e. Under these conditions the frequency should be maintained to within 0.25%.

ii) That the unit be Diesel fueled.

iii) 750 hrs MTBF (mean time between failure) and 3000

hrs to overall.

Iv) Low noise (60db at 6m)

v) Size less than 0.34 m3 and weight less than 136kg. vi) Brake efficiency better than 23%.

Within these general requirements the following were to be stressed i 11 order of importance:

i) Performance

ii) Reliability iii) Noise levels

Iv) Ease of transport

v) Ease of maintenance.

Originally, the working fluid was not specified but it was pointed out that the lighter gases such as helium or hydrogen were not preferred because of the difficulty of long term containment and lack of availability in the military supply system.

The generator set proposed by Sunpower was designed around a free-piston engine which was expected to run on either air or helium charge. Air was the first choice with helium being a back-up option. Also, if the engine indicated efficiency could exceed 29% then direct air cooling could be implemented. The system. as originally proposed is discus sed in some.derail in! I].

2 Description

The engine is a relatively low pressure design (25 bar for air and 19 bar for helium) wi th also a low compression ratio. This resu Its in lower leakage losses and therefore allows larger machining tolera nces to be employed [I , 2]. On th is eng! ne the only close fitting components are the piston and displacer bearings. Ring seals are used on all other running surfaces.

The heat exchangers are fairly large and extensive in order to obtain high NTU commensurate with low viscous losses with the use of air. This is particularly true with the regenerator. The low compression ratio and large heat exchangers give the engine a low aspect ratio which results in a squat appearance. A side advantage of this configuration is that there is more surface area available for the external heat exchangers. All heat exchangers, both internal and external, are simple fin type. Figure 1 shows the engine as envisaged after the preliminary design process. The engine body and alternator housing are of cast aluminum and the head is a monocoque stainless steel structure. These parts are shown in Figure 2. At the end of the development program it is expected that the engine/alternator mass will be in the neighborhood of 110 kg. The assembled engine ready for testing is shown in Figure 3.

All air tests so far have actually been conducted using nitrogen since in this way oxidation problems could be avoided during the initial development. Thermodynamically and dynamically, nitrogen and air are very similar gases. Therefore, if the engine runs well on nitrogen it should run just as well on air if the


Copyright © 1987 by D. M. Berchowi t z , Published by the American Ins ti tute of Aerons<.Itics and As r ronaut a cs , Inc. with pe rmt s s ,

effects of oxidation are ignored. In this paper "air" tests were in

fact nitrogen tests. It is planned to use air in tests slated for later Table 1 Working gas properties this year. Table I lists a summary of the properties of helium, nitrogen and dry air at typical operating conditions.

S It)lor eno coil

Pi ston

Figure I Section view of original design

Figure 2 Alternator pressure vessel and heater head

Figure 3 3 kW free-piston Stirling engine on test stand

rmperty Helium Air Nitrogen
50°C 1600"C 50°C 1600°C 50°C -r 600°C
Viscosity [Pa sl x 10.6 20.80 40.70 19.26 38.68 18.80 36.60
Thennal conductivity
[W/mKJ 0.16 0.33 0..027 0.06 0.028 O.os
!Gas constant [JJl;g Kl 2079 287 297
Ratio of specific heats 1.66 1.4 1.4 3 Development

The first engine test was ru n on A ugust 1985 on nitrogen. Many of these first nitrogen tests were extremely disappointing, generally less than 200W(e) being recorded. This was mainly attributable to poor brazing of the internal hot heat exchanger fins, seal drag and poor heating which when rectified did improve the power to 1.7 kW(e) and 3.2 kW(e) for helium. Further modifications to the regenerator, dynamic seals and displacer mounting improved the performance for helium to the levels indicated in Figures 4 and 5 which were reasonably close to what was expected. The high indicated efficiencies on helium were particularly satisfying with over 40% being recorded. Air tests were still disappointing and remained at levels below 2 kW(e).


Power vs Stroke for Helium



III Electrical power D lIy

• Rear and losses .D

a pVpower ~


~ .IlY







26 28 30 32 Piston stroke (mm) Figure 4 Power with helium charge





It was later noted that the air tests had distinct maxima in the power versus stroke curves which occurred at points well below lhe design stroke (Figure 6). Furthermore, it was found that the power versus pressure increased with reduced pressure which would seem contrary to simple theory (Figure 7) since both ideal cycle work and frequency are reduced by lowering the pressure .. The power drop-off with increasing stroke and the power relationship to pressure could be explained by the presence of large internal viscous losses which are strong functions of gas velocity [1.4] and therefore also frequency. Since the frequency is reduced with reducing pressure (Figure 8), the viscous losses


lndtcated Efficiency vs Gas Temperature Ratio for Helium







2_ 1




Temperature Ratio Figure S Indicated efficiency with helium charge

Power vs Pressure for Nitrogen


o a.



------- ...

---- ...


'o..__. ~ I/> ~ __ . _ A

----. ~

.._____ .

o~o •


0-0_0_. _. 0 00 __

-.--. --a .-.-.-







Pressure (bar)
A pV power Stroke '"
° E lsctr] cal powe r 22,2mm
• Rear end losses
I>. pV power Stroke '"
0 Eleclrical power
0 Rear end losses should be diminishing rapidly as the pressure is lowered. If the gain from the reduced viscous losses is greater than the reduction of ideal power, then the power would increase with reduced pressure and not vice versa. Figure 9 shows the degree of power Figure 7 The effect of charge pressure on power for nitrogen increase with reducing frequency. Obviously after a certain point charge the power should begin to drop off with reduced frequency thus

producing a maxima in the power versus frequency curve. In this case we were not able to run the engine at a low enough frequency to determine the maxima for fear of alternator saturation which would leave the engine without a load. Note that the rear end losses (ie, those losses which occur between the produced power at the piston and the delivered electrical power) do not show the same strong relationship to frequency as the pV power does. The rear end losses, in order of importance, consist of alternator losses, seal friction, gas spring hysteresis and viscous losses.

Power vs Stroke for Nitrogen

3,-~-.--p~v~po-w-e-r----------------------~ ° Electrical power

a Rear end losses


j, 0
20 22
~ 24 26 28

Piston stroke (mm)

Figure 6 Power for nitrogen charge (early tests)



Another way of reducing the gas velocities and hence the viscous losses is to reduce the stroke. Data from two piston strokes are also shown in Figure 9 which shows that at the higher frequencies the power is increased by reducing the stroke.

Frequency vs Pressure for Nitrogen

N 60
;;. 58
d> 56
Z 54
18 26


22 24

Pressure (bar)

Figure 8 Relationship of frequency to pressure


Power vs Frequency for Nitrogen

-----tI - 0 - [] __ . [] EI-

- ....



54 56 58 60 Frequency (Hz)



'" pV power J Stroke '" I>. pV power ]
0 Electrical power . 0 Electrical power Stroke '"
22.2mm 31.4mm
• Rear end losses n Rear end losses Figure 9 Effect on power output due to frequency for nitrogen


Efficiency measurements on the nitrogen tests are still lower than expected. Figure 11 shows efficiency as a function of gas temperature ratio. All these points were taken at power levels of greater than 3 kW(e). Calculations indicate that the air engine is particularly sensitive to the regenerator performance. Figure 12 shows the power and loss inventory as currently calculated for air. The major irreversibilities can be seen 10 be due to

regenerator viscous losses and ineffectiveness. Tests show a Table 2 Experimental Performance and Operating Parameters

substantial difference in performance be! ween 91 % and 93 % Helium Charge (Test 91) -C-lmr-g-e-p-m-ss-w~e-(-ab-S-)--J-9-.2-00--r~--P-o-w-cr----------~3.~93~k~W~(e~)

Voltage (rms) 123.0 V Current 30.4 A

Frequency 60.6 Hz Pressure (rms) 2.01 bar

Pressure phase angle 12.6° Displacer phase angle 61.80

Piston amplitude 17.1 mm Displacer arnplitude 12.7 mm

Temperature ratio 2.12 Heat rejected 14.61::W

pV power (piston) S.6 kW pV power (displacer) 1.2 kW

pV efficiency 30.5 % Eng./all. efficiency 21.3 %

Once it was clear that viscous losses were essentially dissipating a large fraction ofthe developed power, an extensive program was initiated to reduce these losses in both working spaces, the bounce volume and the internal heat exchangers. This activity resulted in large gains and eventually we were able 10 produce power curves as shown in Figure 10. An important feature of Figure 10 is that the power curves no longer display a maxima for practical strokes as in Figure 6. Note also that the rear end losses have been reduced. At this time the sustainable power is 3.5 kW(e) with power bursts to over 4 kW(e) with a slight heat soak. This is within 10% of our original design goals.

Power vs Stroke for Nitrogen (Recent Tests)


• Electrical power

D Rearendlosses

" pV power

30 Stroke (mm)

Figure 10 Power for nitrogen charge (later tests)



porosity regenerators. Without any other changes, the 93% regenerator results in an engine efficiency of 16.6% whereas the 91 % regenerator improves this to 26.4% at the same power level. This corresponds to a difference of nearly 6 kW in rejected heat. An activity to optimize the regenerator has therefore been initiated which is expected to return significant improvements in engine performance.

Table 2 compares test data for helium and nitrogen at the best sustained power levels. Note that though the indicated efficiency on helium is much higher than on air, the engine/alternator efficiencies are not too different. This is mainly because the rear end losses are much greater for helium.

Efficiency vs Gas Temperature Ratio for Nitrogen


I'J lncicated
26 • EnginelAlternator
~ 24
>- 22
Q) 20
~ 18 •

2.40 2.42 2.44 2.46 2.48 2.50 2.52 Temperature ratio

Figure 11 Efficiency for various gas temperature ratios (n i trogen)

At this time the engine exceeds all performance requirements on helium charge and is near to satisfying them on air charge. Current work is expected to improve the performance on air charge to levels well in excess of the original requirements.

POV"f. "','9"£+03 Ktol. IHIt. ·1.47(.04 Hu,t in. 2.0:8'Et04 H~'t"c\l" 0.240

nc. :540,3$1 ,I-t. 995.&' Cu1f.,...&I.T. ~20.n Huhr ~:r. 1"2'i.:U

CIH1.,.- fir. .. ft .• 0.71n HI~bi" fin .ft.. 0:1';3 Rt911"1_ Uf,,,,t.- 0.9732

.. CiI'"NlI (9~ hrnJl'.) - 0.le8 ,. C.:&rna.1 (wo!.11 !f'irIP.) ..

Figure 12 Engine performance and loss inventory as calculated

Nitrogen Charge (Test J87)

Charge pressure (nbs) Voltage (rms) Frequency

Pressure phase angle Piston amplitude Temperature ratio pV power (piston) p V effie ienc y



Pressure (rms) Displacer phase angle Displacer amplitude Heat rejected

pV power (displacer) Eng./all. efficiency

3.SS kW(e) 28.3 A

2.15 bar 59.5· 12.3 mm 15.86 kW

l.lkW 18.0%

25.S 00r 120.5 V 60.2 Hz


15.3 mm 2.51 4.191::W

26.4 %


4 Alternator

The permanent magnet alternator is similar in design to the unit developed for the SPIKE engine [21, but designed for a higher efficiency at full power. Efficiencies for the SPIKE alternators were in the neighborhood of 80% whereas in the 3 kW engine they approach 90%. Some improvement is still expected here since electrical losses that occur in the supporting structure due to fringing magnetic fields can be reduced by material changes. Figure 13 shows the performance of the alternator at its current level of development.

Alternator Efficiency vs Power

>U I:

~ 0.9



0_8 +---r--r----.-r--..----y---.-------.--r-----l o

1000 2000 3000 4000 5000 Power delivered (W)

Figure 13 Alternator performance


5 Adaptive load controller

Rapid recovery to load changes is an important requirement of this project. The load controller achieves this by Shunting a portion of the armature output current through a variable resistor to maintain a substantially constant output voltage across the useful load (3). This procedure results in a constant load on the alternator for load changes near the operating point. If the useful load is changed substantially, the engine is forced to operate at a different stroke by changing the load on the alternator output. Since power is proportional to stroke, the engine power is changed so that less power needs to be wasted in the controlling resistor. In this event, the voltage is retained constant by switching in a different alternator winding. Each operating stroke corresponds to a different winding stage in the alternator coil. The larger the number of stages the less the efficiency


Infinite stroke control


_- /1

// ..

f 3 Stage stroke con trol

r t I










Delivered Power (kW)

Figure 14 System efficiency as a function of delivered power (system efficiency = useful work/fuel energy)

6 Burner

A recuperative Diesel fired burner with glow plug ignition has been implemented. The glow plug ignition avoids elecrromaguetic interference. Only 80W(e) is required for the blower with another 60W(e) for the fuel pump. Currently, the heating efficiency is only 60%. Development is continuing, and it is expected that the heating efficiency will be substantially improved. A parallel program is ongoing a Argonne National Labs to implement a heat pipe heating system. This unit would not only be more compact but would also provide a much more uniform temperature distribution over the head, the lack of which has been a recurring problem.

7 Box and Packaging

In order to demonstrate stand alone operation, a systems integration test rig (S ITR) has been constructed. This unit supports the engine/alternator assembly, the burner and all system peripherals required for autonomous operation. No effort has been made to configure the unit to be compact at this time. It is more important that the unit be easily worked on and easily instrumented. Some of the peripherals have not been optimized in tenus of power consumption, but current useful electric power delivered from the box is just on 3 kW. furthermore, without

disadvantage since less power needs to be dissipated in the _ sound insulation, the audio signature is 60db at 6 to 7m (at controlling resistor. At this time a two stage alteruator has been 60Hz). Figure 15 shows the current configuration of the SITR, implemented to verify the approach. Typical response time for note that the engine lies horizontally. The developed unit will be 100% load change is less than 0.25$. Figure 14 shows how the much more compact and of lower mass. A full scale mock up of

system efficiency is modified by a three stage alternator. the developed unit is shown in Figure 16.



Figure 15 Systems integration test rig

Figure 16 FuU scale mock up

8 Closure

The air charged free-piston Stirling engine linear alternator combination is showing good promise. Major developmental hurdles have been crossed and it is now clear that a simple, reliable and quiet generator set can be constructed around this technology. During the coming year it is expected that further improvements will be made which will improve both power and efficiency. Meeting the stringent requirements for this program are now well within reach and in some cases will probably be exceeded. Moreover, the general practicality of this approach suggests applications in many other commercial areas such as cogeneration, gas fired heat pumps and solar energy converters.

9 Acknowledgements

This program was initiated as an SBIR sponsored by the Ft. Belvior Research, Development and Engineering Center in response to the US Army's silent electric power operational requirement. Currently the program is funded under contract number DAAK70-84-C-0107 also administered by Ft. Belvior. The program was originally coordinated by D Vaughn.

10 References

Berchowitz D M Richter M. 3 kW Stirling Powered Generator Set, Proc 20th IECEC, Miami Beach, Florida, August 1985, paper 859024, pp 3.196-3.202.

2 Berchowitz D M. TIle Development of a I kW Electrical Output Free-Piston Stirling Engine Alternator Unit, 18th IECEC ,Orlando, Florida, August 1983, paper 839146, pp 897-901.

3 Redlich R W. Adaptive Regulation System for a Linear Alternator driven By a Free-Piston Stirling Engine, US Patent, number 4,642,547, Feb 10, 1987, date filed Aug 19,1985.

Berchowitz D M. Stirling Cycle Engine Design and Optimisation, Ph D Thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, August 1986.



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