When I met Thomas Engel in Sweden on Nov. 28, 1990, he said, “The paths of life are frequently this strange.” It was after he mentioned that if a shoe factory had been present in his vicinity at the time he invented PEX, we would perhaps be walking around today on shoe soles made of cross-linked polyethylene.

But it was chickens, not shoes, that put PEX on the map. Professor Engel explained: “In our neighborhood, there was a chicken farm. One day I was asked whether I could make pipe of this material, which could be laid in the ground. In this way, the hens would have a larger amount of heat and would lay more eggs.”

Chickens. Gosh.

“In 1965, I was together with various scientists of the Phillips Petroleum Co. in Bartlesville, Okla., and we were discussing the cross-linking of polyethylene. It was possible at that time to cross-link polyethylene by means of highly active radiation. The problem, however, lay not only in the extremely expensive, and somewhat dangerous, equipment but also because this method of cross-linking was feasible only for wall thicknesses of up to 0.5 mm. The important uses for cross-linking polyethylene would, however, always be for thick-walled parts, having a wall thickness of 1 mm to 10 mm.

“I began my studies using an extruder and I very rapidly found this technique was not feasible. This was followed by lengthy experiments with laser beams. Finally, I decided in favor of a compression method, with intermolecular friction, telling myself that the cross-linking of the molecules would have to be easier if I could heat them rapidly and bring them closer together by high pressure, so as to then cross-link them in the presence of a catalyst. Years of intensive research followed, finally culminating in success. The result was a handful of glittering white plastic, which came out of the autoclave.

“With this small treasure in my pocket, I flew back to Phillips Petroleum in the United States, where we carried out analysis. We found I had actually obtained 97% cross-linking. And as a result, the thread-shaped chains of molecules connected directly to each other. We heated the polyethylene and the plastic simply would no longer melt into a shapeless mass. The joy was immense, but what was to be done with this new plastic, and into what could it be fabricated?”

He then explained how he traveled from one chemical company to another in the hope of selling a license, but the answer was always the same: “That’s marvelous, but what do we do with it?”

Enter the chickens, just strolling down the path of life. They led Engel to Wirsbo (now Uponor), and to the laying of pipe under the turf of Olympia Stadium in Munich for the 1972 Summer Olympics (another first).

The first OPEC oil embargo followed in 1973, and we began looking at low-temperature, hydronic radiant heating as a way to save energy.

Engel had no advanced degrees. In fact, he never finished high school. At 19, he walked out of the American prisoner-of-war camp at Ingolstadt, Bavaria. He worked as a dishwasher, drove a taxi, labored in a furniture factory and in construction. And then he began to experiment with polyethylene, which he had read about during his years as a POW. That led to his invention of Engel-method PEX. He went on to get 120 patents, but preferred selling rights or licenses to his inventions rather than become a manufacturer. He was a millionaire before he was 30.

His licensee in the United Kingdom during the early 1950s was a collector of A.L. Breguet timepieces. Breguet died in 1823 and many consider him to be the finest watchmaker of all time. Engel was so taken by Breguet’s art he became a collector himself and went on to write the book, “A.L. Breguet, Watchmaker to Kings, Thoughts on Time.” He also made incredible watches of his own design, some of which have sold at Christie’s for more than I paid for my car.

And you’d think between the PEX and the timepieces this would be enough for one life, right? Especially coming from a guy who had no formal education.


Motor powered by magnets

I came across an article from November 2013 the other day. It was about Engel. He had solved the permanent-magnet motor puzzle and wanted to give away his discovery because mankind needs affordable energy. His motor is spinning in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Lukas Weber wrote the article, “It just keeps running and running,” in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He says that Engel’s motor gets its power from neodymium magnets, the strongest permanent magnets known. Neodymium is a rare-earth element used in electronics.

“Magnets made out of this material are used in nuclear spin tomography and in wind generators; they drive water pumps of heavy trucks and keep tools steady,” Weber writes. “Several suppliers of these magnets have assured us that the power of the magnets doesn’t diminish — even after years of use.”

Engel theorizes the power of the magnets can be converted into rotary motion. His brass machine resembles a small lathe. Magnets are attached to the disc rotor and the shaft turns in ceramic bearings.

“A disc magnet fixed at the correct angle and distance from the rotor, but which itself is able to rotate (Engel calls it the mirror), can affect the rotor magnets,” Weber writes. “There is attractive and repulsive force, depending on the orientation of the pole, the rotor can thus be set in continuous motion as long as the mirror keeps rotating. The mirror’s rotation regulates the speed of the rotor. The mirror hangs in a kind of outrigger. Two electric wires connect to the lower end with crocodile clips. There is a tiny electric motor that rotates the mirror.”

Weber wondered if it is possible to do without electricity in the motor, but Engel said no. The electric motor only has 8 milliamperes at 9 volts; it’s only a control mechanism. The power from the magnets at the shaft is much greater.

Weber continues: “The rotation is about 400 rpm. We don’t have an instrument to measure mechanical power. So we are having to use the finger brake. It is difficult to stop the rotation by grabbing the shaft. With a bit of dexterity, one can turn the mirror by hand and set the rotor in motion. There is hardly any resistance when turning the mirror. The output felt at the shaft is clearly greater than the input needed to give the impulse. Of course measurement was only done with human sensors.”

Another possibility is to put a second rotor on the opposite side, Engel noted. A screwdriver held between the mirror and the operating rotor results in the screwdriver oscillating between the magnets without touching them.

Weber notes that scientists are skeptical of Engel’s results. Markus Münzenberg, a professor for experimental physics at Göttingen University, said that it is “impossible” for a motor to produce more energy than it uses. Professor Ludwig Schultz, the director of the Institute for Metallic Materials in Dresden, noted that while it is “possible” for magnet configurations to attract and repel other magnets, “the potential energy would periodically bleed off without there being a gain in energy.”

When Engel’s invention is likened to a perpetual motion machine, the inventor says that no such thing exists.

“Engel is convinced that his machine uses the enormous energy which is inherent in quanta, those inconceivably small components of atoms first described by the physicist Max Planck in the early part of the last century,” Weber says. “He therefore calls his machine a quantum-deviation apparatus. He says it has to be further developed. He next wants to attach a small generator to the shaft and show that his motor delivers more electricity than is needed for its control. If he could do that, we’d really have some sensational news.”

The paths of life are frequently strange and brilliant people are often seen as somewhat crazy at first. But they’re often right.

Engel came to the end of life’s path last April. He was 88 years old.


 This article was originally titled “The Engel method” in the September 2015 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.