Robert Grisar knows a thing or two about taking promising technologies beyond the “wouldn’t it be nice” stage to the “have to have it” stage — which is why he decided last year to join a small Vancouver-based company that owns the worldwide rights to a rotary engine technology.
The technology promises to produce more power, but from an engine that has fewer moving parts and weighs far less than four-stroke piston engines now in common use, says Grisar, vice-president of engineering for RadMax Technologies, Inc., a division of Spokane, Washington-based REGI U.S., Inc., which owns the U.S. rights to the RadMax rotary technology.
Parent company, Vancouver-based Reg Technologies, Inc. owns the worldwide rights.
Reg and REGI U.S. are both headed by president and CEO John Robertson, who purchased rights to the technology in 1992, after having been involved with a number of development stage companies in the oil and gas and mining sectors.
Grisar joined the company a little over a year ago after more than 30 years of engineering experience designing and implementing electronic and mechanical systems for the U.S. Department of Defense. He helped found MILPARTS (Military Parts Reinvention Network), which manufactures replacement parts of legacy defense equipment.
Reg, which is listed on the TSX Venture Exchange and Nasdaq, has been on the cusp of commercializing the technology for more than a decade, says Grisar. But having a promising technology and one that will actually be used commercially are often two very different things, which is why Grisar, who had a track record commercializing good ideas, was recruited by Robertson.
“We’re in the development stage, but in any vehicle [or device] where size and weight are important, the RadMax engine can dramatically improve fuel economy,” he told Energy Evolution.
The first-generation model of the RadMax rotary-based internal combustion engine was developed in the early 1990s at the University of West Virginia.
“The problem was they didn’t have enough compression because there was a problem with the seals,” says Grisar.
After CEO Robertson purchased the rights to the technology, further development took place. However, the engine was still not commercially viable. That’s where Grisar came into the picture.
“One year ago John [Robertson] hired me to get it on the road,” he notes.
He and a team of about nine other technicians — half of the company’s total workforce — spend all of their time in a facility near Cleveland, Ohio, working on refinements to the engine.
“I’ll have a prototype running by the end of the summer,” Grisar says.
And he believes he has found the easiest path to making the engine commercial.
“I said [to his colleagues] we’re always trying to build an engine. But this thing works as an engine, a pump and a compressor. Why don’t we build the pump first?”
This is what he and his team did.
Using the engine as a pump is relatively straightforward, since no fuels need to be ignited, but it did allow for a reliable test of the engine performance, especially of the seals.
The design team had its pump-only version alpha-tested (in its own facility) and then beta-tested in a third-party lab and it worked well.
The group is now working on using the engine as a compressor.
“With a compressor you take air and compress it [force it into less space],” Grisar says. “To make an engine work you have to have compression. If we can work on the compression and validate the seals, we can go to the next [and final] step.”
However, there are also markets where the engine can be used as a pump or a compressor.
Rotary engines aren’t new. In fact, Japanese carmaker Mazda has used the Wankel rotary motors in some of their cars for many years (with somewhat limited success).
However, the RadMax engine potentially has two to three times the power of a Wankel motor and would weigh half as much.
The engine is comprised of a disc-shaped rotor and driveshaft that turns the housing, or stator, which remains stationary. Up to 12 vanes mounted parallel to the shaft slide up and down along the outside of the rotor as they follow a track along the inside of the stator housing. Combustion chambers form between the rotor, stator walls and vanes, and their volumes change as the vanes move during rotation.
The current version of the engine has 12 vanes (although it could use less), which generate 24 combustion events (intake, compression, ignition exhaust) per rotation. Because the engine has a higher compression ratio than a conventional engine, it can more efficiently burn a variety of fuels, including diesel and biofuels.
It also uses 13 moving parts rather than the 40 in conventional piston engines, mostly because the rotor and vanes replace timing gears, connecting rods, pistons, cylinders and valves. This should improve reliability and lower manufacturing costs.
The company claims the RadMax can potentially be used in a variety of applications, from small weed-trimmers to trucks and jet engines, to air conditioners and personal power applications.
“A typical engine has 3,000 parts and our engine has less than 100, although some are pretty complicated,” says Grisar.
He believes the RadMax will achieve reliability far beyond conventional piston engines. But he and his design team must prove that first, given the track record of the Wankel rotary engine.
“The Wankel engine is lightweight and efficient, but they need to be replaced after about 100,000 miles,” which is why they’ve never achieved widespread use, he says.
Grisar believes he has both the technical and business background to solve some of the design problems with the RadMax.
He worked on electronic and mechanical systems for the U.S. Department of Defense, including such sophisticated applications as airborne radar for fixed and rotary wing aircraft; shipboard-submarine and torpedo sonar; and satellite communications systems. He was also responsible for the design, fabrication, test and implementation of the thermal protection systems for the space shuttle solid rocket boosters.
His commercial experience included designing and implementing the user interface and software for medical imaging and diagnostic systems.
Grisar’s commercial experience also included founding MILPARTS, which makes replacement parts for military aircraft, submarines and land vehicles. He used laser equipment, which he developed, to “reinvent” parts that needed to be designed for accuracy as minute as one/100 of an inch.
MILPARTS was sold in 2000 and has since been bought three other times.
The final time it was sold was the last straw for him.
“My new boss called and told me I should stop working for MILPARTS [even though the replacement parts were still in high demand],” he says. “That’s when I stopped working for them.”
He joined RadMax in December 2006.
Grisar acknowledges that it won’t be easy getting the RadMax engine adopted commercially.
Piston-based engines are a “marvellous technology,” he says. “Why would anyone want anything else?”
He answers that rhetorical question by asking who wouldn’t want a more fuel-efficient, lighter and more powerful engine.
“We have the same displacement as a diesel engine, but weigh 20% of what a diesel engine weighs and take up 20% of the space.”
He believes the most logical application for the RadMax engine is in tractor-trailer trucks, where they could replace diesel engines. He also believes they will be ideal for the aircraft industry and in marine applications.
It also could be used in the oil and gas industry, particularly where undersea pumping is required.
“It would be easy to configure this where you can have half of it to be an engine and the other half to work as a pump,” he says. “On offshore oil drilling platforms, where size and weight are important, it could be very significant because you can reduce the weight of the pumping system from about 200,000 pounds down to 3,000 pounds.
Grisar also sees possible applications in the passenger vehicle segment, particularly as a diesel-electric.
“[India-based] Tata Motors is planning to market the poor man’s car [for under $2,500],” he says. “Our engine could be one-fifth the size of a standard Toyota engine [used in a compact car].”
He says the company “has agreements in place” with unidentified companies, although he hinted the first deal will be with a diesel engine manufacturer.
“There will be a press release [about a deal] real soon,” he says.
Reg Technologies plans to license its technology to manufacturers. “We don’t want to get involved in manufacturing,” Grisar says.
Because of growing concerns about the environment, he sees the engine eventually gaining more adoption because of its flexibility, since it can burn virtually any fuel.
“There are no timing chains in this engine, so you have complete combustion, which means you can burn any oil-based fuel without any adjustments,” he explains. “That means any biofuels can be used with it.”
He says the company, which raised almost $1 million in early March in a private share placement to further fund its operations, has a great future.
“I left a high-paying, six-figure job to do this, so I’m convinced we will succeed,” says Grisar.
Should have kept your six-figure job Grisar:)