and do exactly what they need to do without
requiring any outside mechanism to move
them,” he explains.
Another important design modification
is that VIPs do not require any lubricants for
its moving parts. In standard steam engines,
operators had to use oil to lubricate the
piston and piston rings for the engine to run
smoothly. Bielenberg wanted to eliminate
lubricants for two reasons: one, because oil
would be an added cost, and two, because the
lubricating oil for the piston would become
mixed with the steam and would have to be
filtered out before recycling condensed water
back into the boiler—an added complication. If
it was not, the oil would burn on the inside of
the boiler and reduce its efficiency.
As a solution, the VIP team used carbon
graphite materials for the sliding surface
of the piston and piston seals. Pistons and
seals made of this crystalline form of carbon
are self-lubricating. This allows the water—a
scarce resource in many places—to be easily
recycled through the machine.
A final improvement of the VIP design is
its robust boiler. In hydrostatic tests, where
pressurized water is used to assess boiler
performance, the machine’s safety factor has
proven three times higher than common U.S.
boilers. This was the result of Bielenberg’s diligent engineering to ensure the boiler met or
exceeded ASME boiler code—a rigorous set of
standards that was formed around the advent
of commercialized steam power generation.
All of these adaptations allow for a more
efficient, safe and compact machine. VIPs
are still hefty pieces of equipment, however:
the completed units weigh about a ton.
All VIPs are currently manufactured by hand in
New England and shipped to their final destina-
tions ready to operate on arrival. Each unit is built
as one piece that can be moved on a pickup truck
and bolted onto a concrete pad inside a shed.
Once a VIP unit is in place, all the operator has
to do is feed it fuel and water to begin using it.
There are drawbacks to hand making
VIP units so far from their target markets,
particularly in terms cost. The machines cur-
rently cost about $20,000 to produce. As the
company sources lower-cost manufacturing
and increases its production volume, the
price is expected to drop to about $15,000.
By comparison, diesel generator sets that
can match the VIP’s electrical power output
cost any where from $4,000 to $10,000—
ongoing diesel fuel costs not included. “So
ours is roughly twice as expensive as that to
make,” Bielenberg acknowledges.
Add in the cost of shipping to ports in
Africa, which runs about $2,500 per machine,
$100 to $500 for transportation from the
port to the final site, and up to $300 for
installation and the VIP becomes a pretty
expensive piece of equipment for low-
income, rural communities to pay upfront.
The team acknowledges that there must be
financing options for the solution to be viable.
But they also expect that when final pricing
is settled, the VIP will be cost-competitive
with other available technologies. (VIP claims
that the machine is already competitive with
comparably-sized solar systems.) Bielenberg
estimates that if the engine were to run eight
to 10 hours a day, the machine would pay for
itself in one to two years.
PROOF IN THE PERFORMANCE
In late 2014, VIP began field testing its units
to assess which aspects of the technology
The VIP produces three types of energy that can be
readily dispatched at any time.
Heat Transfer &
FIG 2B: Efficiency of the VIP 10-k W machine
Total Efficiency of VIP