Power in miniature is backed by a champion: Revolutionary engine wins the Brabham seal of approval

INVENTORS and research and development buffs have been trying to develop an alternative to the conventional internal combustion engine for years. Now an Australian company chaired by Sir Jack Brabham, the former world motor racing champion, claims to have succeeded.

Split Cycle, based in Queensland, has developed a miniaturised engine which is just as powerful as a normal engine but only the tenth the size. The engine, which the company unveiled in London last week to potential investors, weighs only 30kg and is no larger than a saucepan.

Sir Jack, who in 1964 became the first driver to win a grand prix in a car he designed and built himself, has invested in the project. Now, aged 67, he says: 'I am very excited about it. I went to look at it three years ago and I have not let go of the project since. This engine is here, it is reality. It is not pie in the sky any more.'

The engine was developed by a New Zealander, Rick Mayne, and an Australian, Brian Bambach. Key to the technology is that it does away with the crankshaft - the handle-shaped bar that converts the up and down motion of the piston into the smooth, circular motion of a driveshaft.

The pistons and cylinders are arranged radially. Instead of having connecting rods joined to a crankshaft the pistons lie on and push Geneva wheels - shaped like stars with rounded points. As the piston passes oveEr a bump it rises up in the cylinder until a new explosion driveTHER write errors it down again, turning the Geneva wheel and thereby the central output shaft.

The engine's high torque, which generates the same power from revolving by 15 degrees that a conventional engine would achieve from a full 360- degree cycle, is caused by its odd firing pattern. Two of the cylinders, one on each side, fire at the same time, hence the name 'split cycle'.

Ken Hanson, a financial adviser to the company, says a split cycle engine can generate the same power as a V12 Jaguar engine from 10 per cent of the weight and with 700 fewer parts. This extra power means that a gearbox may not be needed for many applications.

The engine runs on a mixture of petrol and water, though it could function on water and alternative fuels such as natural gas or methane. Exhaust emissions are minimal, making it attractive to the environmental lobby. Vibration is also negligible.

On top of all that, the engine has not needed any oil in the tests to date. 'We are not saying it will never need any, but we haven't used any so far,' says Mr Bambach.

The engine cost dollars A1m ( pounds 446,000) to develop and a further dollars A2m has been spent on protecting the engine through worldwide patents. 'A lot of the early money came from mums and dads,' says Mr Bambach, who, together with Mr Mayne, sold the technology to Split Cycle in 1988.

But is the engine likely to hit the market, or is it just another boffin's dream? Split Cycle took a step in what it perceives to be the right direction last week when it signed a Adollars 72m deal with a Slovakian company to produce the engine. Mr Bambach had hawked his brainchild around major European and American car manufacturers but could generate little interest.

But, despite its backers' obvious enthusiasm, the engine faces tough opposition. The Orbital Engine Company of Australia is further ahead with its fuel-injected two-stroke engine - usually associated with lawnmowers. It is small and light and has low emissions, but there are question marks over its durability and whether it can be produced in volume. But Ford has bought the licence for it in Europe.

Whether this new pocket dynamo of an engine will do for the motor industry what the silicon chip did for the computer, as the company claims, is open to question. Sir Jack, who is lending his name to the project rather than taking an executive role, certainly seems pleased with it.

How much faster might the three times world champion have sped with such an engine on board? 'It wouldn't have complied with the regulations,' he says flatly.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

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