Prize-winning idea could overhaul engine design PASADENA

November 13, 1992|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

A light bulb went off in Jim Belford's head while he was scuba diving off the Florida coast.

The Lake Shore resident had an idea to make the battery-operated "scuba tows" he used to pull himself through the water go farther.

Frustrated by having to recharge every half hour, he initially just wanted to replace the battery with compressed air. But now, years later, he says he may have revolutionized the motor in a way that could change everything from car engines to refrigerators to power tools.

The Inventors Club of America, a 57-year-old non-profit group that promotes innovation worldwide, apparently agrees. It bestowed its 1992 New Products Award for marketable inventions on Mr. Belford last weekend at a international conference in Atlanta.

Tinkering with bits of old gears in his basement workshop, Mr. Belford devised the Bar Cam Power Transfer Device to replace the common crankshaft. That, he said, will make engines smaller, lighter and more efficient.

"The regular [combustion] engine has been around for so long. . . . There hasn't been anything earth-shattering developed for over 100 years," said Mr. Belford, 34, a heavy equipment operator. "The rotary engine was a great try, but this here is a whole new animal."

Mr. Belford's device is an oval-shaped, metal doughnut with geared teeth inside that transfers power more smoothly and efficiently to a drive shaft than a crankshaft.

Crankshafts "are left over from the steam engine. They've done their job. Now it's time for something new," he said.

Mr. Belford's award puts him in elite company. Others honored ** by the group include the inventor of the floppy disk drive, the laser, the forklift.

L Developing his idea into a patented invention -- Mr. Belford

holds two U.S. patents and has a third pending -- has not been easy financially or emotionally.

When Mr. Belford, who studied automotive mechanics at Northeast High School, began work on the device, some friends scoffed because he did not have college degree.

"I did get laughed at," he said. "People would say, 'If that's such a great idea, how come some engineer hasn't already done it?' "

His wife, Ann, was among the early naysayers. "Eventually, I realized you don't have to be 'smart' to have an idea," she said. "Sometimes, all it takes is common sense."

Mr. Belford resisted the temptation to sell his idea to someone else, which meant he had to bear the legal and filing costs of obtaining the patents himself. But now he's ready to market the device to manufacturers who might incorporate it in their products.

So far the only interest has been from abroad. "The response I get from the American companies boils down to the economy. They all say, 'Why should I build a new product when I can't sell what I have on my shelves now?' "

So convinced is he that his device represents an emerging industry that could create new American jobs that Mr. Belford this week telephoned the office of Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who chided the federal government for allowing manufacturing jobs to move overseas during his recent presidential campaign.

"If he's serious about keeping technology in this country, he'll call me back," Mr. Belford said.

Mr. Belford said he expects the bar cam device to appear initially in compressors used in industrial equipment and then in more commercial products, like refrigerators and air conditioners. He said the automotive industry would need at least five to seven years to retool its plants.

Is the bar cam device going to make him a millionaire? "God, I hope so," he said.

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