Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Magnetic Bearings Promise Fewer Trips to the Mechanic

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Magnetic Bearings Promise Fewer Trips to the Mechanic

Article excerpt

If your auto mechanic charges a king's ransom for car repair, this technology is for you. It's called magnetic bearings. If the technology lives up to expectations, it promises:

*A car that never needs an oil change.

*An engine so light and efficient it gets 80 miles to the gallon.

*An important boost to companies trying to build low-pollution vehicles.

Once used only in costly equipment, magnetic bearings are finding their way into all sorts of applications. Companies and the military are trying them out in jet engines, power plants, even refrigerators. Although more expensive than conventional bearings, magnetic bearings consume less energy, create more power, and require less maintenance. The electronics that control them are getting more affordable.

"We're talking about a potential broad change in the way machines are built," says David Eisenhaure, president of SatCon Technology Corporation in Cambridge, Mass.

Just about everyone uses conventional bearings of one kind or another. They're the device that allows one part of a machine to rotate around another part, like a wheel and axle. For example: some wheels turn because little metal balls -- ball bearings -- sit between the wheel and the axle that runs through its center. When the wheel spins, so do the ball bearings, especially if they're coated with grease or some other lubricant.

The new bearings replace the balls and lubricants with an electronically controlled magnetic field. They allow an engine's drive shaft, for example, to "float" in the magnetic field. This cuts down friction and wear. It also allows engines to run faster and hotter.

Many industrial motors can't run faster because their conventional bearings get too hot. If the bearings reach a certain temperature, typically 250 degrees F., the lubricant fails and the machine breaks down. …

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