On the road to flywheel power Engines: Where auto- makers have been stymied in their efforts to replace the venerable if noxious internal combustion engine, Ben and Harold Rosen say they're just revving up.

Sun Journal

March 22, 1997|By Donald W. Nauss | Donald W. Nauss,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DETROIT -- When they've already changed the world, what are two brothers supposed to do as retirement looms? For Ben and Harold Rosen, the answer is to try to do it again.

The Rosens have embarked on an effort to produce a clean, efficient and powerful automotive power source that will do nothing less than replace the internal combustion engine.

If that sounds familiar, it is. There have been countless schemes to rid the world of the noxious power plant. Yet the sturdy engine, repeatedly refined since it was developed by Gottlieb Daimler in 1896, has survived all such assaults.

But the Rosens, working out of a modest research laboratory in Woodland Hills, Calif., with a small staff and budget, are not ordinary tinkerers. Their approach, a hybrid electric system that combines a gas-burning turbogenerator -- essentially a miniature jet engine -- with an exotic flywheel that stores energy like a battery, is getting serious attention.

Ben Rosen, 63, is a bona fide Silicon Valley legend. A one-time engineer turned Wall Street analyst turned high-tech venture capitalist, he helped finance more than 80 start-up companies, including Compaq Computer Corp. and Lotus Development Corp., a maker of software. He remains chairman of Compaq, which surpassed IBM three years ago as the world's largest maker of personal computers.

Harold Rosen, 70, is a gifted inventor who pioneered the development of geostationary satellites that have made today's instant global telephone and television communications possible. He holds more than 50 patents.

Such credentials give the Rosens instant credibility; it also doesn't hurt to have Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen among their investors. Some think they have the technological and entrepreneurial heft to accomplish in a few more years what Detroit says is unlikely, if not impossible, in the foreseeable future.

With luck, the Rosens say, they can begin mass-producing their engines within six years. Unlike those electric vehicles now hitting the road, their approach promises no compromise on creature comforts or performance: It would double the driving range of today's gasoline-powered cars, operate virtually pollution-free and offer fast acceleration.

Given history, high costs and intense competition, Detroit insiders consider the Rosens' undertaking a long shot. "The odds are probably 1 in a hundred," says David Cole, executive director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Ben Rosen, interviewed recently in Atlanta, where he outlined his plans to auto dealers at an industry symposium, concedes: "Skepticism is appropriate."

Other promising, experimental engines such as the Stirling and the Orbital did not live up to their billing. And Mazda's proven Wankel rotary engine appears to be fading from use. Turbines have been under study by automakers for decades but present major problems of size and efficiency.

The Rosens' technology depends on a flywheel. In its simplest form, a potter's wheel is a flywheel in the form of a stone that picks up energy as it spins from a foot kick. But making an industrial flywheel involves vacuums, magnetic bearings and exotic materials.

The flywheel in the Rosens' system consists of 4.5 miles of ultrathin carbon fiber wrapped around a titanium hub and steel shaft. It spins in a vacuum to minimize friction. The flywheel is mounted vertically on an electric motor generator and is encased in a steel sphere about the size of a beach ball.

The Rosens claim that their system, designed to store excess energy from the turbogenerator as well as recover energy from braking, can increase fuel economy to 45 to 80 miles per gallon, depending on a car's size. It can also generate up to 240 horsepower and go from 0 to 60 mph in less than seven seconds, they say.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. each have done research into flywheel technology only to drop the efforts as unpromising at this time because of safety and cost concerns. Private firms, such as United Technologies Corp. as well as several national labs, continue to study their feasibility.

Detroit's wariness about the flywheel is understandable: It spins at up to 55,000 revolutions per minute, creating enormous centrifugal forces. If it fails -- perhaps knocked off its axis by a collision -- the wheel could disintegrate, spitting shrapnel about with deadly force.

The Rosen brothers have found the research and development much more difficult than expected. Two attempted road tests of the new hybrid system ended in embarrassment last year when the vehicle wouldn't start. But Jan. 7, a 1993 Saturn coupe equipped with the turbogenerator-flywheel contraption completed a spin on a racetrack in the Mojave Desert.

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