India is booming. The expanding population has overwhelmed the Bangalore-Mysore road the way a river floods its banks, and the flow of two-way traffic is choked with a living history of human transportation. There are belching herds of diesel trucks, diesel buses and iron-framed diesel tractors. There are wooden-wheeled carts pulled by brightly painted Brahma bulls, and two-stroke-motor rickshaws fueled by kerosene or cooking oil or whatever else is flammable and cheap. There are mopeds and bipeds and bicycles and motorcycles, and every conceivable type of petrol-powered, internally combusting automobile, from doddering Ambassador cabs to gleaming 16-valve Mercedes miracles. But there's only one car like the one Somender Singh and I are riding in right now.
That’s because Singh invented it. Or rather, reinvented a piece of it: a small detail on the engine that he calls “direct drive.” He claims that his invention makes an engine
cleaner, quieter and colder than its internal-combustion cousins around the world—while using up to 20 percent less gas.
“Some people say to me, ’Singh, why are you wasting your time on such a thing?’” he yells, his singsong Indian English barely piping above the tooting traffic. “But I tell you sir—I tell the world: I have conquered the internal combustion engine!”
To hear Singh tell it, his story has all the makings of a Bollywood movie, a classic heartwarmer about a small-fry Indian grease monkey who challenges the big boys armed only with a dream and a dirty wrench. And there’s no doubt that he has come up with something new, at least in the eyes of the U.S. Patent Office. But has a potbellied philosopher-
mechanic from Mysore really discovered the efficiency
El Dorado sought by every auto manufacturer, R&D center and thermal engineer from Detroit to Darmstadt?
Well, maybe. So far, all Singh’s invention has earned him is a few polite rejection letters from presidents, professors and auto manufacturers—while costing him tens of thousands of borrowed rupees and an untold number of sleepless nights. His eyes are glazed with the heat of an idea he can neither sell nor surrender. Mostly, he seems to have discovered the hard way that in 2004, it takes more than a patent and personal conviction to reinvent the automobile.
Even though Mysore is only a few hours south of the Indian IT epicenter of Bangalore, most of its 700,000 inhabitants lead traditional lives seemingly untouched by technology. The poor still work the fields and factories as they have for centuries, weaving silk or hand-rolling sandalwood incense; the last raja still lives in a whitewashed fairy-tale palace framed in stained glass and 97,000 lightbulbs. And every fall rich and poor alike make their pilgrimage up Chamundi Hill to pray to the mountain goddess who has watched over their tile-roofed city since time began. This is a place of yoga and vegetarian food, of barefoot men swathed in traditional white longhis and women draped elegantly in colorful saris.
In such a place, Somender Singh has long been an eccentric—a blue-jeans rock-’n’-roller, a leather-jacketed motorcycle race champion and homegrown Evel Knievel, an
autodidactic birdman who soars above the palaces and red clay roofs in Mysore’s first and only motorized hang glider. Like most Indians, he is a reverent man; he prays to the mountain goddess for strength and wears a green ring from his guru to cool his fiery heart. But unlike most Indians, he also worships at the altar of the speed demon.
Singh has craved it for as long as he can remember: real bad-ass, teeth-gritting speed. And when, at age 10, a cricket ball to the eye destroyed his chances of following his father into the air force, Singh was destined to find that speed on the ground. So in 1968, following the time-honored tradition, he dropped engineering college for the old-school curriculum of trial and error and the dog-eared hot-rod canon of J.E.G.
Harwood’s Speed and How to Obtain It and Gordon Jennings’s Two-Stroke Tuner’s Handbook. He bought a motorcycle and then dedicated his health to racing it. When the sponsors wouldn’t touch him, he started his own team and called it Speedwell—and it did, winning more than 120 trophies for him as a racer in national and international events, and some 400 more for the machines he tuned.
Winning made Singh a local celebrity, to the point that when the first movie musicals were being made in the local Kannada language, the producers tapped him for typecast guest appearances—first as a pompadoured rocker strumming an electric guitar to Elvis’s “Hound Dog,” then as a daredevil motorcycle stuntman jumping stairs and cars. When a 1986 cycling accident left him with a broken shoulder and collarbone, Singh traded his helmet for a wrench and hung out his shingle as a mechanic. Now if you own a performance vehicle and are passing within a day’s drive of Mysore, Singh’s garage is a pilgrimage site of its own.
To get there, simply follow the Mysore road to a small sign announcing the headquarters of Speedwell Tune Up Centre and Garuda R&D. Beyond the sign you’ll find a little metal gate and a 50-foot yard containing a few cars, more motorcycles and the familiar open darkness of a working mechanic’s garage. Singh’s workshop doubles as the family home he shares with his wife and 10-year-old daughter. Out front, sleeping dogs and rusting car chassis lie in the shade of a rain tree. His assistants—four kids, their hair in modified d.a.’s, wearing rolled dungarees—peer into the mystery revealed beneath an open hood.
Singh’s office is in the back, separated from the greasy piles of engines and parts by a beige shower curtain. On the walls, competing for space between the pictures of Christian saints and Hindu gods and the standard mechanic’s warnings against urgent jobs and requested credit, are yellowed clippings celebrating Singh’s earlier life of speed. “Singh Takes the Day,” one reads, and “5,000cc Man Machine.” The grainy photocopies show a man who seems a lifetime younger, his eyes black and staring, his rugged mug framed with thick black hair. Below the photos, and a menacing poster of two jets about to collide in midair, is a sign bearing Singh’s motto: We specialize in work which few understand.
“And this has been my problem sir,” Singh says with a shrug. He settles in behind a metal desk heaped with paper and parts. “It has been my problem ever since I started this whole business of whatever I started doing in my life.”
It’s On this desk, somewhere Under the tools and parts and the notebooks crammed with letters and diagrams, that you’ll find a concave bit of steel, with rough grooves scored through the four axes like the points of a compass. It looks a bit like a homemade ashtray. In fact, it is Singh’s problem—his invention. Even as a prototype, it’s high-concept but exceptionally low-tech, the sort of thing you might be able to make in your own garage with a steady hand and a Dremel tool. Which is, essentially, what Singh did.
“I am no great genius man, no man with letters after his name or fancy institutions, and what I have invented is really very simple,” he admits, as he pushes aside the clutter to reveal a child’s chalkboard. “But to understand even so simple a concept, you first must have a basic understanding of the forces at work within the combustion cylinder, the concept of turbulence and combustion which define the engine.”
Singh takes the chalk and draws a rectangle with a domed top: a combustion chamber and the cylinder head, the ashtraylike piece of metal he has modified. Then he draws a diagonal line across the edge of that dome, then another, representing the grooves he has carved—his invention. The grooves are supposed to better mix the air and fuel inside the chamber. Singh is convinced that it makes combustion more efficient.
If a child’s chalkboard seems an overly basic tool for explaining a new engineering concept, remember that the internal combustion engine is itself hardly rocket science. Its fundamental conceit—a boom in a closed chamber, a zoom translated through piston, rod and crank—has remained pretty much unchanged since 1673, when the Dutch physicist
Christiaan Huygens designed a brilliant, nonfunctional, closed-cylinder, piston-driven engine that ran on gunpowder. The functional, liquid-fueled version of that invention—the internal combustion engine (ICE)—has been with us for about 200 years, over which time it has transformed itself from Swiss engineer Francois Isaac de Rivaz’s wonky four-wheeled hydrogen thingamabob (1807) to the fairly familiar gas-fuel innovations of Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler (late 1880s) and then wrapped under the familiar body shapes of Henry Ford (early 1900s).
Since then, gas has risen in octane, and the carburetor has been invented and largely discontinued. Engine emphasis has shifted from deep power to muscle to fuel economy and back, engineers have realized that compression is a key to maximizing thermal efficiency, and inventing the automobile has grown from an amateur’s obsession to a multinational juggernaut. But all of that is really just window dressing. The basic concept—the boom that turns a crank—has not really changed at all. And one of the physical fundamentals of that basic concept is turbulence.
Turbulence is the chaotic movement of fuel and air through the ICE’s combustion chamber—the swirl and tumble that makes hydrocarbons and oxygen combine fast and furiously in an efficient engine. Compressed fuel stagnates and separates and burns inefficiently, if at all—imagine
trying to burn a phone book without fanning the pages. Turbulence mixes it up, fans those pages. It’s what allows modern high-compression engines to go boom.
A hundred years ago, turbulence was to automotive engineers what chaos is to the Old Testament: a raw randomness ungoverned by words or math, an unordered whirlwind of particles as inexpressible to engineers as angels dancing on the head of a pin were uncountable to Sir Thomas More. Then came a Cambridge don named Harry Ricardo.
Modern automotive engineers want turbulence, and they can describe it, just as modern mathematicians can describe chaos. What you want are swirling eddies of air and fuel mix, each variegated into smaller sub-eddies, and so on, down to individual molecules. Imagine it as a cascading Mandelbrot set of air and fuel inside the chamber. Then there’s a spark, and the whole thing goes off like a daisy chain of fire, a giant fractal fuse.
Engineers have devised all manner of technologies to create this particular form of chaos in their combustion chambers, from ornately angulated fuel injectors and domed cylinder heads to swirl-and-tumble-inducing atomizers. But 100 years ago, Ricardo found a far easier way to make the air-fuel mix in an ICE more turbulent. He built a combustion chamber that was domed in the middle and tapered on the edges, like a derby hat, so that the edges of the rising piston would come very close to the angled edges of the cylinder head. The piston goes up, and the fuel along the edges squirts into the center, to mix and swirl near the spark plug. Imagine pinching the edges of a jelly doughnut. He called this concept “quench.” Today we call it “squish.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.