Mainspring's 'flameless' linear generator can use any fuel to generate power

This flameless, flexi-fuel linear generator looks like Darth Maul's lightsaber
Christopher McFadden
The generator has few moving parts, and is zero- to low-emissions.


Scientists at Stanford University's Advanced Energy Systems Laboratory have developed what appears to be a miracle generator that can run on pretty much any fuel source. Called a linear generator, this ultimate flexi-fuel generator might be the "holy grail" of generators for many industries.

The product of 14 years of development, this generator is a genuine breakthrough as it can handle and switch between different fuel sources on the fly without losing power. While that might sound like science fiction, it is, in fact, very much a reality. It also has few moving parts, doesn't require lubrication, and produces very few, if any, emissions.

“The linear generator can quickly switch between different types of green—and no-so-green, if need be—fuel, including biogas, ammonia, and hydrogen,” explained Matt Svrcek, Mainspring Energy co-founder, in an IEEE Spectrum article. “It has the potential to make the decarbonized power system available, reliable, and resilient against the vagaries of weather and fuel supplies,” he added.

So, how does this fantastic generator work? While a Stanford student, Svrcek worked on a project to transform chemical-bond energy into a more macro-scale, usable form. The earliest concepts used air and fuel in a confined chamber with movable walls. These walls compressed the fuel-air mixture as they traveled in opposite directions, causing the molecules to clash quickly and violently until they broke apart and reformed into other molecules. According to Svrcek, this method releases energy in chemical bonds without a spark or ignition source.

The walls continued to move in and out, releasing the previous group of molecules and allowing fresh fuel and air to enter as the cycle continued. A straightforward test conducted in 2008 did not gather the generated energy, but it allowed the team to gauge the idea's effectiveness.

“The results were excellent; the device was efficient as a fuel cell, just as we hoped,” Svrcek wrote. “Now we had to build a version that could generate and run for years at a reasonable cost," he added. Consequently, in 2010, Mainspring Energy was born to build the "flameless" compression reaction generators.

The group created a new device that directly connected the movements of compression and expansion to power production; additionally, their invention functions in various real-world situations and specific lab settings. A Mainspring generator and a 3.3-megawatt rooftop solar array are combined in one installation. The generators are turned off when the sun is out, but when it isn't, they come on to promptly supply "exactly as much power as the building requires."

“The linear generator is fuel-agnostic,” Svrcek writes. “It can run a wide range of fuels, including natural gas, biogas, hydrogen, ammonia, syngas, and even alcohols, without compromising performance.” The linear generator, according to Svrcek, is essential to a zero-carbon grid because of its adaptability to accommodate practically any size of power and its ability to run on almost any fuel.