I don’t know if the future of motorcycles will be as battery-powered as many pundits claim. Lacking Nostradamus’ vision into the future, I cannot begin to predict what might happen 30 years hence. Hell, for all I know, there will be no motorcycles at all come 2050, with all we hair-in-the-wind bikers riding some sort of fan-blown hovercycle.
But this I am absolutely certain of: There will be no BMW R1250 GSA equivalent in the next 10 years that is powered entirely by electricity. By that, I mean that there will be no battery-powered adventure bike that weighs “only” 268 kilograms — BMW’s official curb weight — yet has a real-world 500-plus km of range at a steady 120 km/h. Oh, lots of manufacturers are making incredible boasts of incredible autonomy, but that’s in the city, where brake regeneration greatly extends range. The fact remains that the likelihood of being able to buy a lightweight battery-powered touring bike with the highway range we’ve all come to expect and demand from conventionally-fueled motorcycles is virtually nil.
So, what to do? Short of stopping every hour and a half for a 30-minute battery recharge, is there any technology that might marry our need for both zero — or, at least, reduced — emissions and distant horizons?
Maybe there is. Maybe, as in, the technology is all new and, as yet, unproven. And maybe as in it might depend on a technology now in serious disrepute: internal combustion.
But not internal combustion as you and I know it. Internal combustion with no pistons, no connecting rods and no crankshaft. No camshaft either, and no valves per se. Astron Aerospace’s Omega 1 engine has none of the above and yet it works on the same four strokes as your Gixxer 1000. But it looks like a turbine. Or, more accurately, like four tiny little turbines stacked on top of each other.
As for how it works, well, that’s complicated. Complicated enough that the best thing you could do is visit Astron’s website — you’ll find it at astronaerospace.com — and watch the 10-minute video. If you’re looking for the dime-store explanation, however, imagine a gas turbine engine without fan blades. Instead, the power-generating portion of the Omega 1 incorporates two rotors, one directly above the other (two other rotors handle the intake and compression strokes). The lower rotor is round except for a distinct “hump” on its outer diameter. And that hump is what makes the Omega work. In fact, it’s kinda-sorta the Omega’s “piston,” and once the fuel trapped in the “combustion chamber” — the area between the inner rotor and the outer wall — is ignited, the force of the explosion against the flat side of the “piston” causes the rotor to, well, rotate and generate power.
As to why the Omega 1 is so efficient, well, that’s a combination of both mechanical and thermal superiority. For instance, the Omega doesn’t have to convert linear motion into rotary work. In a traditional gas engine, the piston only moves up and down, a complicated arrangement of connecting rods, crankshafts, and piston wrist pins needed to convert its linear motion into the circular movement that’s necessary to rotate wheels.
The Omega’s other advantage — and I truly apologize for talking all this technical mumbo-jumbo — comes down to leverage. The Omega engine, the company claims, has a power stroke of nearly 275 degrees; by comparison, says Matthew Riley, founder and CEO of Astron Aerospace, a piston-engine power cycle lasts but 30 degrees (yes, I know that, theoretically, an ICE (internal combustion engine) has a 180-degree power stroke, but Riley contends that only 30 degrees of that is truly effective).
The Omega’s other mechanical advantage is that said power stroke works on a four-inch fulcrum (we’d say “stroke” if we were talking a piston engine); essentially the distance from its “piston” to the centre of the rotor. A piston engine, says Riley, has an effective fulcrum of just 0.5 inches. Yes, all you ICE scholars, most gas engines have a much longer stroke, but the point he is making is that traditional ICEs only offer that maximum fulcrum — and, crikey, now I am really geeking out — when the piston is in a narrow band of 25 to 35 degrees after top dead centre. In other words, the Omega engine is at its maximum “stroke” for 270 degrees while a piston engine is there for just 10.
That’s why the Omega puts out so much torque for its size. From a mere 35 pounds Riley claims his little powerhouse pumps out a truly astounding 170 ft-lb of torque. It will also, thanks to its 25,000-rpm redline, muster up some 160 hp. And Riley says that because of that incredible power spread — his rotary combustion engine idles at 1,000 rpm, yet spins up to 25 grand — no transmission is needed, just a clutch to get it away from stop lights. In other words, the new Astron design pumps out superbike-like power yet probably weighs about a quarter of a current 1,000-cc powertrain.
There are yet more advantages. For one thing, the Omega 1 can run on multiple fuels, which means that, along with gas, it can, as you might have guessed from my prior reference to zero-emissions, run on hydrogen. As well, the only lubrication needed is for the centre-mounted bearings supporting the rotor. With no oil required to coat “cylinder walls” or threatening to squeeze past valve guides, there are no errant hydrocarbons to be burnt. According to Riley, NOx and hydrocarbon emissions are much reduced.
Oh, and there’s one last thing that might warm the cockles. The darned thing even sounds like a true-blue internal-combustion engine. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it, too.