Reporter 459, 20 November 2000

Maths helps refine Stirling’s promise

An engine invented by a Scottish clergyman in 1816, which became the powerhouse of the Soviet navy’s submarine fleet, will soon find a home in nearly every British household – and can take the place of the country’s nuclear power stations.

Applied mathematician Professor Derek Ingham is working closely with Khamid Makhkanov, a leading engineer from Uzbekistan, to develop a new generation of Stirling engines.

Grand plan: Professor Derek Ingham, left, and colleague Khamid Makhkanov believe the Stirling engine is coming into its own after 185 years

The Stirling is an external combustion engine, worked by a closed cycle of compressing and expanding gas in cylinders which are heated and cooled in turn. This forces pistons up and down to power a driveshaft.

One of the beauties of Robert Stirling’s invention was that the heat input can come from virtually any source – a kerosene burner, a coal or gas fire, a solar panel or a biomass energy source. The engine is extremely efficient, gives off very low emissions and requires only minimal maintenance. It produces very little noise or vibration, which made it especially attractive to submarine designers.

Dr Makhkanov’s research institute in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, is attached to one of the world’s largest and most advanced Stirling engine manufacturing centres, formerly a key supplier to the Soviet military machine.

Support from NATO’s Science for Peace programme and EU for ex-Soviet industry’s diversification into civilian applications has helped Dr Makhkanov’s collaboration in Leeds. The British Council and the Royal Society have also provided funding.

"These engines have a great many peaceful uses," said Professor Ingham. "One of them fitted to each household heating boiler in Britain could produce as much power as all our nuclear stations – about 15,000 MW."

The Leeds-based expertise across several departments in the field of computational fluid dynamics is helping to produce more sophisticated mathematical models to improve Tashkent’s designs.

"Progress in this area requires a solid mathematical foundation," said Professor Ingham.

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