Chilly Climes

Chad Gubala envisions a suitcase-sized gadget capable of powering a typical home, fuelled by the one resource the Yukon has no shortage of: the cold. It sounds like science fiction.

Chad Gubala envisions a suitcase-sized gadget capable of powering a typical home, fuelled by the one resource the Yukon has no shortage of: the cold.

It sounds like science fiction. But the technology, in various forms, has existed since 1816.

It’s called a Stirling engine. To run, all it needs is a source of heat and a source of cold.

Today Stirling engines are used to power remote lighthouses and ultra-quiet submarines. Gubula hopes to see them help power Yukon’s telecommunications network, and, one day, people’s homes.

Gubala was appointed last month as director of Yukon College’s applied science arm, the Yukon Cold Climate Innovation Centre.

As such, he straddles the worlds of academe and business. Or, as he jokingly puts it, pride and avarice.

This means that getting a Stirling engine to work in a lab is only part of the puzzle for him. He wants to build something people will use.

Good thing, because Yukon College already has a menagerie of green gadgets that currently sit unused. To wit: solar panels, a wind turbine and a fancy furnace that vapourizes wood-chips.

Gubala already has a potential customer. Northwestel has partnered with the college for the three-year project, and is pitching in $50,000 of the project’s $120,000 annual budget.

The company is interested because it has more than 100 microwave towers scattered across Canada’s North. These stations, which provide the backbone to Yukon’s telecommunications network, are expensive to operate and maintain.

Because they’re off the power grid, the stations are powered by diesel. Because they’re often far from access roads, they must be periodically resupplied by helicopters slinging bladders of fuel.

And those helicopter trips are expensive.

Enter the Stirling engine, named after the Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling who patented the invention in 1816.

Unlike internal-combustion motors, which power our cars, lawnmowers and diesel generators, the Stirling engine is powered by outside temperature differences.

At the heart of a Stirling engine is an enclosed gas chamber. In simplified form, the chamber is heated at one end and cooled at the other, causing gas to alternately expand and contract. The machine is rigged so these gas movements power pistons. Heat is transformed into mechanical energy.

Older Stirling engines depended on temperature differences of several thousand degrees. But Gubala believes today’s technology could produce a Stirling that could squeeze out two to five kilowatts of power from a temperature difference of 100 degrees Celsius.

“It allows us to get more efficiency from using our cold, which is a counter-intuitive concept,” said Gubala.

Because the engine depends on heat as well as cold, a Stirling wouldn’t be able to produce power by itself. But it could offer big energy efficiencies over diesel alone.

For Northwestel’s stations, a Stirling engine could provide fuel savings of 20 per cent, Gubala figures. Doing a quick back-of-the-envelope estimate, “that adds up to a couple million bucks pretty quick,” he said.

Gubala soon hopes to hire a post-graduate researcher to lead the Stirling project over the next three years. The first year will focus on selecting the right model from a dozen different global companies.

To leverage more federal money for the project, Gubala proposes to partner with the University of Alberta and the University of Northern BC.

The finished project could power a lot more than satellite towers. For example, “it’s a beautiful system for people living off the grid in the Yukon,” said Gubala.

“We’re really looking at this having a lot of legs.”

And the gadget’s development in the Yukon should give time to educate suppliers and local mechanics, so that when the engine is ready for use there would be a supply chain waiting for it.

“The last thing we want to come up with is something really cool that nobody can support,” said Gubala.

That would seem to set the Stirling engine apart from Yukon College’s other green gadgets.

Gubala has bigger ambitions than that. He has high hopes the right Stirling engine design could place Yukon in the centre of a high-tech hub of global companies and Outside universities.

“This is how the North is going to develop. That’s how we’re going to shine.”

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP are making an appeal for information in the case of Mary Ann Ollie, who was murdered in Ross River last year and whose case remains unsolved. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Submitted
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read