A Stirling engine is a heat engine that operates by cyclic compression and expansion of air or other gas (the working fluid) at different temperatures, such that there is a net conversion of heat energy to mechanical work.More specifically, the Stirling engine is a closed-cycle regenerative heat engine with a permanently gaseous working fluid. Closed-cycle, in this context, means a thermodynamic system in which the working fluid is permanently contained within the system, and regenerative describes the use of a specific type of internal heat exchanger and thermal store, known as the regenerator. The inclusion of a regenerator differentiates the Stirling engine from other closed cycle hot air engines.
Originally conceived in 1816 as an industrial prime mover to rival the steam engine, its practical use was largely confined to low-power domestic applications for over a century.
The Stirling engine is noted for high efficiency compared to steam engines,quiet operation, and its ability to use almost any heat source. The heat energy source is generated external to the Stirling engine rather than by internal combustion as with the otto cycle or diesel cycle engines. Because the Stirling engine is compatible with alternative and renewable energy sources it could become increasingly significant as the price of conventional fuels rises, and also in light of concerns such as peak oil and climate change. This engine is currently exciting interest as the core component of micro combined heat and power (CHP) units, in which it is more efficient and safer than a comparable steam engine.
Invention and early development
The Stirling engine (or Stirling's air engine as it was known at the time) was invented and patented by Robert Stirling in 1816.It followed earlier attempts at making an air engine but was probably the first put to practical use when, in 1818, an engine built by Stirling was employed pumping water in a quarry.The main subject of Stirling's original patent was a heat exchanger, which he called an "economiser" for its enhancement of fuel economy in a variety of applications. The patent also described in detail the employment of one form of the economiser in his unique closed-cycle air engine design in which application it is now generally known as a "regenerator". Subsequent development by Robert Stirling and his brother James, an engineer, resulted in patents for various improved configurations of the original engine including pressurization, which by 1843, had sufficiently increased power output to drive all the machinery at a Dundee iron foundry.
Though it has been disputed,it is widely supposed that as well as saving fuel, the inventors were motivated to create a safer alternative to the steam engines of the time,whose boilers frequently exploded, causing many injuries and fatalities.
The need for Stirling engines to run at very high temperatures to maximize power and efficiency exposed limitations in the materials of the day, and the few engines that were built in those early years suffered unacceptably frequent failures (albeit with far less disastrous consequences than a boiler explosion) — for example, the Dundee foundry engine was replaced by a steam engine after three hot cylinder failures in four years.
Subsequent to the failure of the Dundee foundry engine there is no record of the Stirling brothers having any further involvement with air engine development and the Stirling engine never again competed with steam as an industrial scale power source (steam boilers were becoming safer and steam engines more efficient, thus presenting less of a target to rival prime movers). However, from about 1860, smaller engines of the Stirling/hot air type were produced in substantial numbers finding applications wherever a reliable source of low to medium power was required, such as raising water or providing air for church organs.These generally operated at lower temperatures so as not to tax available materials, so were relatively inefficient. Their selling point was that, unlike a steam engine, they could be operated safely by anybody capable of managing a fire.Several types remained in production beyond the end of the century, but apart from a few minor mechanical improvements the design of the Stirling engine in general stagnated during this period.
During the early part of the twentieth century the role of the Stirling engine as a "domestic motor" was gradually taken over by the electric motor and small internal combustion engines. By the late 1930s, it was largely forgotten, only produced for toys and a few small ventilating fans.
Around that time, Philips was seeking to expand sales of its radios into parts of the world where electricity and batteries were not consistently available. Philips' management decided that offering a low-power portable generator would facilitate such sales and asked a group of engineers at the company's research lab in Eindhoven to evaluate alternative ways of achieving this aim. After a systematic comparison of various prime movers, the team decided to go forward with the Stirling engine, citing its quiet operation (both audibly and in terms of radio interference) and ability to run on a variety of heat sources (common lamp oil – "cheap and available everywhere" – was favored).They were also aware that, unlike steam and internal combustion engines, virtually no serious development work had been carried out on the Stirling engine for many years and asserted that modern materials and know-how should enable great improvements.
By 1951, the 180/200 W generator set designated MP1002CA (known as the "Bungalow set") was ready for production and an initial batch of 250 was planned, but soon it became clear that they could not be made at a competitive price. Additionally, the advent of transistor radios and their much lower power requirements meant that the original rationale for the set was disappearing. Approximately 150 of these sets were eventually produced.Some found their way into university and college engineering departments around the world giving generations of students a valuable introduction to the Stirling engine.
In parallel with the Bungalow set, Philips developed experimental Stirling engines for a wide variety of applications and continued to work in the field until the late 1970s, but only achieved commercial success with the 'reversed Stirling engine' cryocooler. However, they filed a large number of patents and amassed a wealth of information, which they licensed to other companies and which formed the basis of much of the development work in the modern era.