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Aug 22, 2004
Somender Singh builds a better IC Engine

The internal combustion engine—or is it the ‘infernal’ combustion engine, to you?— isn’t going to go away in a hurry. Hate it all you want, live without it if you can, but millions of them are burning petro fuels right now and warming up the globe. And they are breeding faster than ever before. So, our best chances are with taming them into better behaviour. Somender Singh, a home-spun, hands-on tinkerer in Mysore, Karnataka may have bred just such an animal.

When reporting technology breakthroughs, it’s best to first answer, “what was the problem?” The problem here,is accelerated depletion of fossil fuels, emission of pollutants and climate change due to global warming, all majorly contributed by I C engines. Singh’s invention may not stop any of these, but it will buy our planet more time in which to come up with the magic bullet.

We owe this story to reader John Norris who scooped this good news from ‘Popular Science’ magazine, which has featured Singh’s work. It’s rare for an Indian innovation or product to appear in this 100+ year old publication. It is the equivalent of ‘Nature’ magazine for technology and innovation. It is very selective about its content. For example, over the decades it has devoted no more than 1000 words per achievement of Burt Rutan, the serial aeronautical innovator, the very man who recently built and propelled SpaceShipOne into outer space. Bimbettes can appear sooner on Time magazine covers than inventors in Popular Science’s inner pages.

In its August 21 edition, it has run a 5000 word essay on Singh. We had better take notice. And empathise with him. The poor man has endured enough of the humiliation of Indian pioneers—of being recognised abroad and being ignored at home. But let’s savour his achievement first.

Charles Graeber, author of the Popular Science article on Singh, says the I C engine has scarcely changed in its essence of a “boom that turns a crank”, since Christiaan Huygens in 1673, exploded gunpowder in a chamber to push a piston down. In the over 300 years since, all we have managed is to extract 28% out of gasoline’s ‘boom’ in our engines. The rest is wasted and pushed into the atmosphere as heat and pollutants.

Somender Singh, grew up fascinated by bikes and speed. He was forever trying to make his machines go that bit faster. He is a tech-school drop out but a good mechanic. Singh intuited that if one wanted to improve efficiency of engines, one has to extract more from the fuel that goes in. Singh’s solution is “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.”

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