In Search Of the Silver Bullet

From: Elaine Hunt (
Date: Tue May 08 2001 - 17:24:12 EEST

>In Search Of the Silver Bullet
>Meet five modern pioneers who are using technology in their quest to slay
>some of the world's most fearsome problems, from leukemia to pollution.
>Mon May 14 00:00:00 EDT 2001
>How much time and energy do people spend worrying about the ills the world
>will face in the next 50 years? Impossible to know, but clearly the answer
>is--a lot. Protesters rant monthly, it seems, about the effects of
>international trade on the environment. News outlets spill gallons of ink
>over this health crisis or that, the future of Social Security, greenhouse
>Wringing hands over such issues is easy. But doing something about
>them--forging the "silver bullets" that will make the world's persistent
>problems go away--is another matter altogether. To get an idea of what
>such single-minded efforts re-quire, FORTUNE paid visits to five
>in-the-trenches innovators, each on the verge of what could be a
>breakthrough discovery. Carl Deckard is working on a new low-emissions
>engine; Brian Druker, a high-precision drug to combat leukemia; Pete
>Kight, electronic currency; James Heath, a next-generation computer
>processor; and Charles Arntzen, a vaccine cheap enough to immunize the
>people of developing countries against hepatitis B.
>As a group, the five have spent almost 70 years trying to solve their
>problems. Parked in darkened basement laboratories and makeshift garage
>workshops, they've drawn on stores of extraordinary stamina and a
>superhuman tolerance for night after night of thankless toil. They've had
>to be stubborn: Inspiration hits every once in a while, but that doesn't
>mean anyone on the outside gets what they're doing. These five have
>agitated for attention and struggled to get funding, battling an endless
>parade of skeptics, competitors, and cynics. Their insights are usually
>laughed at before they're praised.
>They are also the first to admit that their solutions may not work. But in
>the search for the silver bullet, their doubts don't matter. With plenty
>of determination and faith to cushion the ride, they know the solutions
>will come.
>--Eryn Brown
>The Little Engine That Could, Maybe
>Two-stroke engines are the cockroaches of the motorized world. You see
>them--and hear them and smell them--in products ranging from leaf blowers
>and lawn mowers in Beverly Hills to chain saws in Sweden to motorboats in
>Bolivia to millions of little motor scooters in China, India, and the
>Pacific Rim. While four-stroke automobile engines get most of the
>attention from regulators who set emissions standards, the little
>two-bangers have a greater impact on global pollution because there are so
>many of them and because they are noisy and noisome and less fuel
>efficient. One old two-stroke motor scooter in Beijing puts more pollution
>into the atmosphere than a dozen or more new automobiles on the Los
>Angeles freeway.
>But there are reasons for the enduring popularity of two-stroke engines,
>so called because the piston completes an ignition cycle in one upstroke
>and one downstroke. They are smaller, lighter, and less complex (and thus
>cheaper to build) than four-stroke engines. They crank out a lot of power
>for their size, and unlike four-stroke engines, they keep chugging even
>when held upside down, making them more practical for use in handheld
>gas-powered tools like weed whackers and tree trimmers.
>Carl Deckard, 39, an independent inventor working in a small, cluttered
>workshop in Austin, Texas, thinks he can turn the engine industry upside
>down, just as his idol, Henry Ford, did a century ago. He hooks his thumbs
>in his suspenders, leans back, and ticks off what he sees as the
>advantages of his four-stroke Deckard engine, which has consumed his life
>for the past four years: It has only one major moving part. It has low
>exhaust and noise emissions and low fuel consumption, yet has a high
>power-to-weight ratio and good low-speed torque.
>Deckard is confident that his engine--technically a "hybrid rotary
>reciprocating gasoline engine"--will prove to be a cheap and clean
>alternative to today's two-stroke engines. Deckard's working prototype,
>about the size of a small coffee can, is a combustion engine with a piston
>and a cylinder. What makes it unusual is that the piston remains
>stationary while the cylinder rotates around it, completing a full
>four-stroke combustion cycle in each rotation.
>The Deckard engine can be shrunk to work in devices as small as model
>airplanes, but its real potential is in those weed whackers, leaf blowers,
>and other engine-driven hand tools. While Deckard wants to make money from
>his invention, he also seems sincere about the social benefits his engine
>could bring--in reducing hydrocarbon emissions in smog-choked Pacific Rim
>cities, say, or in improving the health of lawn-care workers.
>The drawback? The Deckard engine still has a high dream-to-reality ratio.
>Many companies with far more financial and engineering horsepower than
>Deckard has are also working on alternative engines. They have no choice:
>Stringent new environmental regulations in California require them to meet
>reduced-emissions standards if they want to sell their products in the
>U.S. Honda, Ryobi, and others are putting smaller, more efficient
>four-stroke engines in lawn mowers, motocross bikes, and outboard motors,
>and the Japanese government is helping to subsidize the development of the
>so-called stratified scavenging engine, a new, more efficient two-stroke.
>Though Deckard acknowledges the daunting competition, he also shrugs it
>off. "A lot of people are working on alternative engines. But this one,"
>he says, patting a silver prototype fastened to a worktable, "has a better
>chance of succeeding because it is simple. Simple, simple, simple, with
>only one major moving part, and that means less cost. And there's a big
>market need."
>Deckard is no stranger to the challenges faced by anyone who has different
>ideas on the way things should work. A boyhood visit to the Henry Ford
>Museum in Michigan instantly and irrevocably set him on a path to becoming
>an inventor. In 1987, while getting his doctorate in mechanical
>engineering from the University of Texas, he was a principal developer of
>something called a selective laser sintering system--basically a
>three-dimensional laser printer that constructs parts directly from
>computer-aided design (CAD) programs. Today automobile companies use it
>for the rapid prototyping of complex parts, and Deckard proudly notes that
>NASA has used parts made with his system on the space shuttle and the new
>International Space Station. He holds 16 U.S. patents on the invention and
>several foreign ones. The royalty payments have let him quit his teaching
>job at Clemson University and work on his engine full-time.
>Now Deckard is trying to win backers for his engine. He has shown it to a
>number of companies that make portable, gas-powered equipment. "Nobody
>jumped up and down demanding to put money in it at this point," he says.
>"But they gave me a lot of encouragement, enough to keep my major
>investor--me--happy, enthusiastic, and committed."
>But for how long? As Deckard points out, it takes a long time to develop a
>revolutionary engine--decades, in the case of the Wankel rotary engine. By
>that standard, the commercial success of the diesel engine came swiftly,
>in 18 years. Although Deckard made the first sketch of his engine in the
>early 1980s, he didn't start serious work on it until 1997 and did not
>have a running model until a few months ago. He is gathering data to prove
>that his engine is more efficient than today's two-strokes and to
>determine how much time and money he will need to commercialize it. "I'm
>not guaranteeing that I'll be out on the market in five years," Deckard says.
>Meanwhile, he keeps his brain tuned up by taking flying lessons--he soloed
>for the first time a few weeks ago--and skiing. "A lot of my best thinking
>is done away from the office," he says. "There's always a list in my head
>of what to work on next. I've got a whole queue of inventions." What comes
>after the three-dimensional printer and the Deckard engine? He declines to
>answer, except to say, "I'm definitely going to pick something easier next
>--Peter H. Lewis
>Reporter Associate Feliciano Garcia

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Elaine T. Hunt, Director
Laboratory to Advance Industrial Prototyping
Clemson University 206 Fluor Daniel Bldg.
Clemson, SC 29634-0925
864-656-0321 (voice) 864-656-4435 (fax)

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