Is This the End of the Internal Combustion Engine?

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I don’t like driving. I’d much rather take the bus or a train or ride a bike or just plain walk than drive a car. This makes me a pretty bad American, I know.

But even if I’m walking somewhere, I’m still depending on the internal combustion engine to get there. The sidewalk beneath my feet was put there by a cement mixer powered by an internal combustion engine. The buildings I walk past were constructed using combustion powered machines. If I walk into the grocery store, the produce was brought there by a truck with — yes — an internal combustion engine. And some of the greatest environmental problems we’ve had to face are due to the internal combustion engine. Arguably, no single invention has had more influence over our civilization and our planet.

But now it might be on the way out.

Car manufacturers and entire nations are phasing out the internal combustion engine and making way for newer, greener power sources — like batteries.

So, the end of the internal combustion engine might not be too far away.

But its story begins a thousand years ago.

The first device that could be described as an internal combustion engine was just a hollow piece of bamboo. Some enterprising and daring Chinese alchemist filled this bamboo with a mixture of ground up sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate. In other words, gunpowder. They topped it off with a small spear and ignited it. This caused an explosion that sent the spear flying out the end of the bamboo tube. This makes the first rudimentary internal combustion engine also the first gun. These two inventions — both of which would go onto reshape the world — share a common origin.

600 years later, the earliest design for a more recognizable internal combustion engine still used gunpowder as fuel. The bamboo tube had been replaced by a cannon and the spear was now a piston. 17th century polymaths Samuel Morland and Christiaan Huygens both worked on these hypothetical gunpowder engines to pump water. But there’s little evidence that a successful working model was ever built.

After that the internal combustion engine made a number of reappearances in a wide variety of forms. It dabbled with various types of fuel — hydrogen, coal dust, petroleum, and even turpentine. Dozens of engineers and crackpots and business men took a shot at the internal combustion engine, each one making an adjustment here, a breakthrough there — each advancement inching the engine closer to realization — but never quite allowing it to rise above the status of scientific experiment.

That is, until the 19th century, when it was attached it to a handcart, allowing it to move under its own power.

This was essentially the first car.

The internal combustion engine had finally found its true calling — transportation.

Soon a car equipped with an internal combustion engine could easily beat out even the fastest, strongest animal. Carriages discarded their horses and plows dumped their oxen. It allowed us to travel faster and farther. We could build bigger and higher. It made war a thousand fold more destructive.

But it also connected us like never before.

The streets and roads and highways that connect all major cities were built for automobiles powered by internal combustion engines and built by machines with those same engines. Oranges grown in California could be shipped to New York in under a day, throughout the year. The internal combustion engine finally gave us the power-to-weight ratio necessary to make a true flying machine. Now jet engines have reduced the travel time to anywhere in the world to a matter of hours. In 1957, a highly modified internal combustion engine put the first satellite in orbit. Another one put us on the moon in 1969. And it continues to allow us to go places never before possible.

In just over a century, the internal combustion engine not only reshaped the entire world, it made it smaller, and gave us the beginnings of a truly global civilization.

Even if it disappeared tomorrow, the impact that the internal combustion engine has had on the world will linger for long after it is gone. And it’s most enduring legacy may be the carbon in our atmosphere. For decades, we’ve used these engines to convert liquid hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide. What took plants and microscopic algae millions of years to remove from the atmosphere, these engines have spewed back in the blink of a geologic eye. That extra carbon will be there for more than a lifetime and the changes will last generations.

Its contributions to our world are so embedded in the fabric of our day to day lives, it’s easy to take this engine for granted. And when we do take notice of the internal combustion engine, its often because of its downsides. The depletion of our oil reserves. The smog and pollution in our air. The catastrophic effects of climate change.

Batteries are poised to takeover much of the internal combustion engine’s workload. Smaller, lighter, and most importantly cleaner, batteries promise to carry on much of the internal combustion engine’s legacy. They can do almost everything an internal combustion engine can do. So the transition to battery power should be mostly seamless. There will still be cars and they won’t look much different. Produce will still get to the grocery store and there will still be buildings being built and sidewalks being walked upon.

Getting rid of the internal combustion engine would seem to have no drawbacks. And since it is largely invisible as it is, its disappearance could come without anybody noticing much of a change at all.

Except for one thing — the sound.

The internal combustion engine is loud.

After all, it works through a series of constant violent explosions. The first internal combustion engines were loud enough to spook horses and the people who rode them. As they were refined they became quieter but never completely silent. The tiny explosions happening every second could not be completely muffled — even with the addition of a muffler. The low frequency rumble of an internal combustion engine was something people came to expect from their cars. That sound became indelibility tied to the magnitude of an automobile’s power. For close to 150 years, it was the sound of industry, of progress, of travel, of scientific discovery. Whether or not you liked the sound of a finely-tuned engine or found it disruptive and annoying, it was the sound of the modern world.

Of course, not all combustion engines will go away. We’ll still hear the drone of passenger jets overhead and experience the spectacle of a rocket launch. But the roar of an internal combustion engine won’t be the constant backdrop we hear today. For better or worse, the world will be left a quieter place when the internal combustion engine finally goes.

So when future generations look back on this brief time when these engines powered the world, maybe they will look at it like we look at those first cylinders filled with gunpowder. Just another experiment, never fully realized.

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