The Engel Method

Published: October 5, 2015

Categories: History Lesson, Darn-Good Stories

Thomas Engel with magnet motor 400

When I met Thomas Engel in Sweden on November 28, 1990, he said, "The paths of life are frequently this strange."

He said this after mentioning that if a shoe factory had been present in his vicinity at the time he invented PEX, we would perhaps today be walking around on shoe soles made of cross-linked polyethylene.

            But it was chickens, not shoes, that put PEX on the map. Professor Engel explained, "In our neighborhood, there was a chicken farm, and one day I was asked whether I could make pipes of this material, which could be laid in the ground. In this way, the hens would have a larger amount of heat and would lay more eggs."

            Chickens. Gosh. Jean Simon Bonnemain would be proud.

            "In 1965, I was together with various scientists of the Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and we were discussing the cross-linking of polyethylene. It was possible at that time to cross-link polyethylene by means of highly active radiation. The problem, however, lay not only in the extremely expensive, and somewhat dangerous, equipment, but also because this method of cross-linking was feasible only for wall thicknesses of up to 0.5 mm. The important uses for cross-linking polyethylene would, however, always be for thick-walled parts, having a wall thickness of one to 10 mm.

            "I began my studies using an extruder and I very rapidly found that this technique was not feasible. This was followed by lengthy experiments with laser beams. Finally, I decided in favor of a compression method, with intermolecular friction, telling myself that the cross-linking of the molecules would have to be easier if I could heat them rapidly and bring them closer together by high pressure, so as to then cross-link them in the presence of a catalyst. Years of intensive research followed, finally culminating in success. The result was a handful of glittering white plastic, which came out of the autoclave.

            "With this small treasure in my pocket, I flew back to Phillips Petroleum in the U.S., where we carried out analysis. We found I had actually obtained 97% cross-linking. And as a result, the thread-shaped chains of molecules connected directly to each other. We heated the polyethylene and the plastic simply would no longer melt into a shapeless mass. The joy was immense, but what was to be done with this new plastic, and into what could it be fabricated?"

            He then explained how he traveled from one chemical company to another in the hope of selling a license, but the answer was always the same: "That's marvelous, but what do we do with it?"

            Enter the chickens, just strolling down the path of life. They led Thomas Engel to Wirsbo (now Uponor), and to the laying of pipe under the turf of Olympia Stadium in Munich for the 1972 Summer Olympics (another first).

            The first OPEC oil embargo followed in 1973, and we began looking at low-temperature, hydronic radiant heating as a way to save energy.

            Thomas Engel had no advanced degrees. In fact, he never finished high school. At 19, he walked out of the American POW camp at Ingolstadt, Bavaria. He worked as a dishwasher, drove a taxi, labored in a furniture factory and in construction. And then he began to experiment with polyethylene, which he had read about during his years as a prisoner of war. That led to his invention of Engel-method PEX. He went on the get 120 patents, but preferred selling rights or licenses to his inventions rather than become a manufacturer.  He was a millionaire before he was 30.

            His licensee in the U.K. during the early-'50s was a collector of A.L. Brequet timepieces. Brequet died in 1823, and many consider him to be the finest watchmaker of all time. Thomas Engel was so taken by Brequet's art that he became a collector himself and went on to write the book, A.L. Breguet, Watchmaker to Kings, Thoughts on Time. He also made incredible watches of his own design, some of which have sold at Christie's for more than I paid for my car.

            And you'd think between the PEX and the timepieces this would be enough for one life, right? Especially coming from a guy who had no formal education.

            I came across an article from November, 2013 the other day. Sterling D. Allan of peswiki.com had complied it, and he explained that he had translated it from German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The article's author was Lukas Weber, who wrote that Thomas Engel had just announced that he had solved the permanent-magnet motor puzzle and wanted to give away his discovery because mankind needs affordable energy.  His motor is spinning in Lucerne, Switzerland.

            Lukas Weber, the article's author on peswiki.com, writes, "During the three hours we were there, it was chugging along quietly. There is no noticeable development of heat. The motor obtains its power from neodymium magnets. Those are the strongest permanent magnets known. Neodymium is a rare-earth element, much used in electronics. Magnets made out of this material are used in nuclear spin tomography and in wind generators; they drive water pumps of heavy trucks and keep tools steady. Several suppliers of these magnets have assured us that the power of the magnets doesn't diminish - even after years of use.

            "Engel's idea is that it should be possible to convert that power of the magnets into rotary motion. He built a machine made of brass, resembling a miniature lathe. The rotor is a disc with magnets fixed to it. The shaft turns in ceramic bearings. A disc magnet fixed at the correct angle and distance from the rotor, but which itself is able to rotate (Engel calls it the mirror) can affect the rotor magnets. There is attractive and repulsive force, depending on the orientation of the pole. The rotor can thus be set in continuous motion, as long as the mirror keeps rotating. The mirror's rotation regulates the speed of the rotor. The mirror hangs in a kind of outrigger. Two electric wires connect to the lower end with crocodile clips. There is a tiny electric motor that rotates the mirror. So it isn't possible to do without electricity altogether? The inventor signals his disagreement. 'Eight milliamperes at nine volts,' he says. That is only a control mechanism. The power at the shaft is much greater. Engel also thought about a mechanical drive for the mirror directly from the rotor shaft, but opted against this as it would considerably increase mechanical complexity.

            "The rotation is about 400 RPM. We don't have an instrument to measure mechanical power. So we are having to use the finger brake. It is difficult to stop the rotation by grabbing the shaft.  With a bit of dexterity, one can turn the mirror by hand and set the rotor in motion. There is hardly any resistance when turning the mirror. The output felt at the shaft is clearly greater than the input needed to give the impulse. Of course, measurement was only done with human sensors.

            "It would be possible to put a second rotor on the opposite side, to be addressed by the same mirror. Holding a screwdriver between the mirror and the rotor in operation results in an oscillating motion of the screwdriver between the magnets, without however touching them. Mr. Engel would like to do more experimentation with the number of magnets and their form, but he says he lacks the strength for further development.

            "Science is skeptical. 'A motor which produces more energy than it uses up is impossible,' says Markus Münzenberg, a professor for experimental physics at Göttingen University. Because in closed systems, the sum of energy is always equal. The apparently high torque at the shaft could be a consequence of inertial mass of the machine which, once in motion, is difficult to stop.

            Professor Ludwig Schultz, the director of the Institute for Metallic Materials in Dresden agrees. 'While it would be possible to imagine magnet configurations that periodically attract and then repel other magnets, but in that case the potential energy would periodically bleed off without there being a gain in energy.'

            "The inventor's reaction to the question whether his motor is a perpetual motion machine is somewhat resentful. 'There is no such thing,' he says.  Mr. Engel is convinced that his machine uses the enormous energy which is inherent in quanta, those inconceivably small components of atoms first described by the physicist, Max Planck, in the early part of the last century. He therefore calls his machine a quantum-deviation apparatus.  Some things are still unclear for the inventor himself. He says it has to be further developed, and he next wants to attach a small generator to the shaft and show that his motor delivers more electricity than is needed for its control. If he could do that, we'd really have some sensational news."

            The paths of life are frequently strange, and brilliant people are often seen as somewhat crazy at first. But they're often right.

            Thomas Engel came to the end of life's path in April 2015. He was 88 years old.