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An engine like no other

Commercialization on the horizon for Dal invention

- August 16, 2012

Dalhousie master's student Braden Murphy and mechanical engineering prof Dr. Darrel Doman unveil their newly developed pneumatic engine. (Photo credit: Bruce Bottomley)
Dalhousie master's student Braden Murphy and mechanical engineering prof Dr. Darrel Doman unveil their newly developed pneumatic engine. (Photo credit: Bruce Bottomley)

Dalhousie student Braden Murphy was still in high school when he read an article in Popular Science that got him thinking about engines, and how they’re configured.

“My dad showed it to me and it outlined all the inefficiencies of automobiles,” says Mr. Murphy, a master’s student in mechanical engineering. 

A particular shortcoming noted in the article caught his attentionthe inefficiency of engines. Since then, Mr. Murphy has been putting some serious thought towards how to improve them.

What started as a senior design project in the last year of his undergraduate degree has now evolved into a successful pneumatic engine prototype. The engine is smaller, more reliable, and ultimately, more efficient than the technology that’s currently available on the market.

“Pneumatic motors take a compressed gas, like air, and transfer that energy to a rotating drive shaft that turns a piece of machinery,” explains Mr. Murphy. An “air motor” can also be spark-free, so it’s safe to use in environments riddled with hazardous materials, like those in the oil and gas industry. 

Dr. Darrel Doman, co-inventor of the new engine and assistant professor in mechanical engineering, explains the new design requires fewer maintenance checks than current technology, which is a huge financial benefit to companies that need air motor technology. Additionally, the engine is more powerful at slower speeds than previous models— making it ideal in many applications. 

“This innovation doesn’t just happen,” explains Dr. Doman. “You not only need the right people, but you also need strong leadership, as well as the right industrial partners,” explains Dr. Doman. 

A partnership worth exploring

Naturally, the innovative nature of the new engine design was of interest to many, beginning with Dal’s Industry Liaison and Innovation office (ILI). 

“From the outset, this seemed like a solid, promising project that had legs,” says Erica Fraser, manager of technology commercialization for engineering and science with the ILI.

The ILI’s involvement helped secure a licensing agreement with York Bridge Enterprises, which was officially announced on Tuesday.

“This is a great example of the type of assistance our office is striving to provide for the Dalhousie research community by working with both the private sector and the research community,” adds Stephen Hartlen, executive director of the ILI. 

York Bridge Enterprises, based in Toronto, is focused on supporting small start-up technology companies in Canada. 

Ken Richards, a Dal alumnus and partner at York Bridge was flipping through a copy of Dal’s alumni magazine when an article on the Life Sciences Research Institute caught his eye. One simple email from Ken started a chain of events that eventually resulted in yesterday’s announcement. Additional licensing agreements are also in the works.

George Smitherman, another partner with the firm, recognizes the tremendous amount of technology being developed at Canadian universities and the need for access to funds that would allow their creations to be commercialized.

“Through the brainpower of a then-undergrad influenced by the extraordinary capacity of faculty, we have an opportunity to bring to the market a product which addresses some of the most serious deficiencies in the pneumatic engine as we know it today,” says Mr. Smitherman. “It’s our objective and obligation to do what we can to make sure the world gains access to this incredible technology.”

Moving forward

Commercialization is on the horizon as NS-based start-up, Scotia Motor Works, develops the new engine technologyright here in the province. Mr. Smitherman will be the CEO of the company.

“Dal does a lot of great, innovative research and to see it licensed and carried forward into the market and staying in Nova Scotia as well… Well, I think it’s great,” says Dr. Doman.


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