Engines: Less Fuel, Fewer Emissions, More Power

Spare a moment for the humble camshaft. Inside the engine of nearly every vehicle sits one or more of these peculiarly shaped rods, endlessly synchronizing the valves that feed air and gas into the engine's cylinders. Each of the elliptical lobes, or cams, along the shaft is strategically placed to press down, then release, a valve as the shaft spins. Their uneven contours create a specific rhythm of openings and closings for the many valves atop a row of pistons. To keep an engine humming smoothly, the camshaft not only must be machined to great precision but also rugged enough to rotate thousands of times a minute over tens of thousands of miles.

Camshafts may be engineering marvels, but carmakers would be more than happy to send them the way of the buggy whip. In today's digitally controlled engines, the camshaft's very rigidity poses a problem. Engineers want an alternative that, when teamed with a computer, can control valves with greater variability. But until now, nothing has emerged that combines digital control with the camshaft's low-cost dependability.

Enter Cambridge (England)-based Camcon Technology Ltd. The four-year-old startup has a technology called Intelligent Valve Actuation (IVA) that replaces the camshaft with an ingenious electromechanical device. Based on a simple switch invented by founder Wladyslaw Wygnanski, the IVA approach controls each valve independently and can leave them partially open when necessary. That means big performance gains: Camcon claims its prototype engines consume 20% less fuel than camshaft-equipped engines, cut emissions by 18%, and crank out up to 25% more power.

The IVA device makes this possible partly because it needs so little energy to switch on and off. Inside, a pivoting metal beam see-saws back and forth when hit with an electromagnetic field. Thanks to springs and permanent magnets built into the armature, the device stores the force from the last on-off cycle and can hold its last position without consuming any additional energy. In addition, says Camcon, it's also superfast and durable since the springs reduce wear by gently decelerating the moving parts.

A relative of the IVA is already undergoing durability tests. In an aerospace development lab, Rolls-Royce PLC is studying whether Camcon technology can improve jet fuel consumption. At over 30 billion cycles, "it's still going strong," says Ian Anderson, Camcon's COO. This spring, Camcon selected a major U.S. parts maker to head up a development consortium for camless engines. "This is a very disruptive technology," observes Anderson, "but players are taking it quite seriously."

With 14 patents already secured and an additional 20 in the works, Camcon is looking beyond jets and autos. The company is pursuing licensing deals with major oil companies. In today's wells, where many lines are bored from a single well head, battery-powered Camcon devices could help fit more switches down each hole. By better controlling the flow of oil from multiple bore holes, output could be boosted. So more black stuff comes out of the earth, and engines burn less of it on the road.

By Adam Aston in New York

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