Stirling Engines and Vacuum Motors for a Trip Back in Time – UPDATED - Who needs electricity when you have flame eaters?

Vacuum Motor

This is a vacuum motor, also known as a "flame eater," a very simple, but beautiful demonstration of converting heat into mechanical motion

Some enthusiasts of the latest high technology, especially the younger ones among us, have never developed an appreciation for engines of the past, perhaps because they've never been exposed to them. Some of us, though, have long loved exposed rocker arms and flywheels and smile at the simplicity of stirling engines and vacuum motors and if you look around a bit, you'll find some companies producing beautiful functional examples you can put on your desk. When the world seems to be moving just a tad too fast, light one of these up and listen to the chugga chugga sound as it goes about its business.

These are external combustion heat engines and a small difference in temperature creates a pressure differential that makes the engine run.

The examples here are from a German company, Böhm Stirling-Technik, and, from what I've seen, their work is right up there with the best of them. Their website is well worth looking over, lots of sounds from the various engines and the videos throughout are neat to watch.

Yes, you can find all sorts of other companies making them, too, but the ones from Böhm look like they are really well made and would last a long time, bringing more than a few smiles and moments of contemplation. Watch the video below, especially the later part where he throttles it way back near the end.

They also have some multi-cylinder stirling engines with all sorts of rockers and connecting rods, real eye candy.

4 cylinder stirling engine

4 cylinder stirling engine, enough to keep your eyes occupied while your brain wanders

Just thought I would toss this out there after talking about electric motorcycles. When everyone is whizzing around on their whining machines, it will be nice to listen to something that looks mechanical and sounds really old school.

Link: Böhm Stirling-Technik

UPDATE: Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and a whole lot of other neat technologies, is currently working on a stirling engine based electric generator called the Beacon 10. He's working with NRG Energy to commercialize the 10KW generators and getting them into high end houses with hopes of bringing down the cost. He's been running a smaller 2.5KW version in his own house for several years.

Beacon 10, a stirling engine electric generator

Beacon 10, a stirling engine electric generator being developed by Dean Kamen

The stirling engines use natural gas for the external heat source. They're quieter than regular generators and more efficient, but they are large. Kamen sees them as a way to generate electricity for home use, especially as a backup, or even a replacement, for solar panels, and as a way to economically heat large amounts of water for businesses like a laundry or restaurant.

It's a very cool update of old technology with new high tech materials and techniques.

Link: Forbes via Hacker News


  1. says

    My uncle has an old Stirling fan from the 1920s and has been a Stirling nut for years. The original fans are not common and quite valuable these days. I see lots of “new” heat engine fans around now, but back then when it was hot and you didn’t have electricity, they were pretty cool.

  2. Henrik Harding says

    Swedish shipyard Kockums has built Stirling engines for submarines. Started live use around 1990 and is still in use today. Great way to make a submarine stay submerged for longer without nuclear power.

    • Paul Crowe says

      Just did a little Google research to see how it worked. That’s quite fascinating. Thanks, Henrik.

  3. Lee Wilcox says

    Taught technology for a spell and had a desktop stirling. Ran for over 40 minutes atop a coffee cup with boiling water. Kids were fascinated.

  4. says

    These things are neat- steam punk. Would love to see one in a car, with all those exposed bits, looks like something you’d see powering a 1920’s touring sedan. Why can’t engines be built with such an appearance instead of hiding under guady plastic. They rremind me of the engines, the boats have in the game; Blood Wake. Give me a big enough inline six to power a rat rod!