Friday, June 30, 2006

Can air power a bus?

Prototype by KART bus mechanic could be ready in August

Express Staff Writer

Lynn Dickerson is working on a new engine that could give the valley's buses clean, cost-effective power. Photo by Willy Cook

It's hard to say whether Lynn Dickerson's hands or mind work faster.

On most days, the mechanic is busy tinkering with Ketchum Area Rapid Transit buses.

Most evenings, the Carey resident slips away from his day job in Ketchum to work on an idea that could save the bus authority more than $50,000 each year.

It could also make Dickerson renowned as the man who harnessed the power of air.

A patent is pending for an air motor that Dickerson hopes eventually to apply to KART's fleet of diesel-run buses. The design differs from other air motor concepts that have periodically debuted.

"The background to this started 35 years ago," Dickerson said.

A 1966 Pontiac GTO with 335 horsepower initiated him into the world of mechanical possibilities.

"When I was in high school I had one, so I got hooked on performance," he said.

More recently, he reconfigured a little red Mazda pick-up to run on a mix of gasoline and hydrogen.

"Hydrogen, when mixed with gas, doesn't make that much difference in gas mileage, but it does improve performance," he said.

As a bus mechanic, Dickerson wondered how alternate sources of fuel could be applied to the KART fleet.

"I started toying with the idea of running this engine off hydrogen," he said. "The hardest part was finding a reliable source of hydrogen."

Internet searches led him to the idea of using compressed air instead.

A year and a half later, a prototype is nearly half done.

"This little air motor will weigh 45 pounds," he said.

Although the prototype is scalable, meaning it can be replicated on a larger scale to fit into a KART bus, a discovery led him to realize the invention's limits.

"The other thing I encountered early on in this process is distance," he said. People use personal vehicles for errands, road trips and other outings whose mileage is almost always an unknown.

Air motors last for a specified number of miles, making them impractical for mass-market automobiles.

"It's ideal for a transit bus because their routes are mapped," Dickerson said. "You know how many miles you're going, so you know how many (air) tanks to put in."

An immediate and extensive use of air engines also could wreak havoc on the economy, Dickerson cautioned.

"The only thing I'm really interested in putting this toward is something that doesn't disrupt the system," he said.

The KART bus system, however, could be aided by the invention.

When buses come back to the bus barn, instead of filling up with diesel, they could be hooked up to a hose and supplied with air through an air chuck. An intake nozzle already exists in the buses for air suspension and air brakes.

"You just plug it in and fill up your tank," he said. "No more fuel, no more exhaust, and it wouldn't be powered by a lot of batteries."

KART Manager Terry Crawford supported Dickerson's idea right away.

"It would be cleaner, and it would save us a bunch of money," Crawford said.

Each KART bus that travels the Ketchum-Sun Valley route logs approximately 250 miles per day, Crawford said. That service costs approximately $50,000 a year in fuel.

KART recently merged with PEAK, a valley-wide commuter bus service, so the technology could one day be expanded to more routes.

First, though, the air motor will be tested in an Isuzu Trooper sport-utility vehicle.

"We'll see if it's got enough power to tow a bus," he said. "Then we'll go to the next stage and build a bigger one for the bus."

"If I can find time to stay on schedule, it could be ready in August," he said. "I'm that close."

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