The thankless quest to build the engine of the future

The thankless quest to build the engine of the future
Idealog practical-guy-in-residence Vaughn Davis heads for what could quite possibly be this country’s ultimate man cave to meet a bunch of blokes who don’t just tinker with engines, but design and build them.

Idealog practical-guy-in-residence Vaughn Davis heads for what could quite possibly be this country’s ultimate man cave to meet a bunch of blokes who don’t just tinker with engines, but design and build them.

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Noel Duke with one of the few operating Duke Engines. PHOTO: Tony Nyberg

Automotive history is littered with designs for The Next Great Engine. From the boy racer’s favourite, the Wankel (advertising slogan: “It’s pronounced Vankel! Vankel!”), to the water-fuelled motor that’s been teetering on the brink of success since the early 20th century, inventors, tinkerers and dreamers have been trying to improve on the traditional four-stroke since the design first sucked, squeezed, banged and blew its way into being almost 140 years ago.

And for the past two decades, a small but significant part of that improvement has been happening right here in Aotearoa at the hands of Noel Duke and his team at Duke Engines.

The story’s had its ups and downs, and despite attracting significant investment, impressive test results and a heap of end-user interest, the engine has yet to advance beyond the third-generation prototype I’m standing in front of today in a rather well-equipped domestic garage in the Auckland suburb of Blockhouse Bay.

Tools and test equipment are everywhere, along with at least one go-kart and a pretty mean-looking hot rod. The centre of attention, though, gleaming on its stand and connected to a battery by a thin black cable, is one of the planet’s few operating Duke Engines.

Strip away the electronics, fuel injection and flywheel, and the Duke looks a bit like a beer keg laid on its side. Inside, five parallel cylinders house five pistons, rising and falling in a nearly sinusoidal motion (yeah, look it up) instead of the push-me-pull-you action of more conventional in-line, horizontally opposed or V-configured engines. The design is valveless too, with ports in the cylinder walls letting the fuel-air mixture in and the exhaust gases out.

The result is a parts count about 30 percent lower than an equivalent conventional engine, lower fuel consumption and impressively lower vibration. As soon as the engine is running, engine builder Tony pulls out a two-dollar coin to show off the Duke’s party trick: balancing the coin on edge on the engine casing as it’s started, idled, revved and stopped.

It’s a neat trick, and the engine is undeniably better than whatever you’ll find under the bonnet of your Subaru, but after nearly 20 years of development the company has yet to sell a single motor.

They’ve been close. And it’s entirely possible that by the time you read this they will have received the email or phone call they’ve been waiting for. Once, tantalisingly, the company was within one signature of a development agreement with an American defence contractor, when US Government budget cuts turned off the funding tap and put thousands of companies on hold overnight, including the one Duke was about to cut a deal with.

While Duke says the engine would be fantastic in a car – and his engineer wife ran her Daihatsu with one for a year – he says the hurdles to getting the engine certified for passenger vehicles are just too high and would cost somewhere around $20 million. (Investors including the Gallagher Group have so far sunk north of $10 million into the project.)

Instead, Duke’s focus is now on alternative applications such as portable generators, military vehicles and aviation, where the development cost is far lower.

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The Duke engine design has qualities that make it ideal for each of these three applications. As a generator, its compact design and light weight make it easy to transport, making it great for disaster relief. The valveless design makes switching between different fuel types such as petrol, diesel or jet fuel easy – a major plus for military use where simplifying supply chains is a major challenge. And while aviation uses might seem at first glance to contain even more hurdles than automotive, the US Federal Aviation Administration’s open-minded approach to home built and ‘experimental’ designs means the Duke’s small cross-section and good power-to-weight ratio have attracted plenty of interest from the sector. According to Duke, the company received more than 1,200 orders following its display at the Oshkosh Airshow in 2012 – orders for an engine that doesn’t yet exist.

noel duke - duke enginesAlmost 20 years after he first decided to build his engine there’s almost no doubt that Duke’s built a cracker. Every test it’s taken
– and it’s had plenty – it’s passed (apart from that one time in the States when it blew up, but that’s a different story).

It starts first time and when engine builder Tony guns the throttle it roars and sings like a living thing. Even standing still it looks futuristic and sculptural, like something you’d find powering a helicopter, rather than bolted to a test stand in a suburban garage.

Tony leans forward and turns off the ignition, and the little garage in Blockhouse Bay falls silent and suddenly feels just a little bit colder. The Duke team stand with their hands in their pockets like men staring at the last embers of a fire.

The engine ticks as it cools and Noel, talking maybe to me but maybe to no-one in particular says, “You know, I still wake up in the middle of the night with ideas to make it better. That doesn’t cost you anything.”