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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Hopkins Family Sets
Internal Combustion on Fire

Jairus Grove playing video game

“We know we have a powerful idea,” brothers Levi (left) and Corban Tillemann-Dick say of their reconfigured combustion engine.

In 2004, Corban Tillemann-Dick ’09 had just enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Academy when he and his father had a brainstorm for a dramatic new kind of automotive engine. Both loved tinkering with engines, from cars to lawn mowers, and they agreed that conventional engines were frustratingly inefficient.

“My dad had a real passion for problem solving,” says Corban. “We would bat ideas back and forth.” This particular idea became the IRIS Engine (for Internally Radiating Impulse Structure). It was a big one: By reconfiguring the piston-rod core of the internal combustion engine with an expansion chamber, you could dramatically enhance the efficiency and power of engines that are used for everything from automobiles, to ocean liners, to small unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Any surface that is exposed to the forces of combustion has to respond by either heating up or moving,” explains Corban. “In a conventional cylinder, it’s just the bottom of the barrel that moves.” The IRIS, on the other hand, expands and contracts in diameter, pumping from all sides like a heart.

The Tillemann-Dicks believed their innovation had the potential to revolutionize the automotive industry, so Corban felt he had to shift gears. He decided the place to pursue the idea was Johns Hopkins. “I transferred,” he explains “in large part because this idea was so compelling, and Hopkins seemed a great place to nurture it.” He adds, “It was a great choice.”

When Corban came to Hopkins, his older brother, Levi, was already studying at Hopkins’ Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, having been persuaded by their grandfather, the late Rep. Tom Lantos, about the merits of Hopkins several years earlier.

In April 2008, their lives took a sharp turn when their father, Timber Dick, died in a tragic car accident. After that, Corban and Levi redoubled their efforts to develop the IRIS in his honor and launched Iris Engines Inc., joined by younger brother Tomicah PhD ’09, who is a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton. (Two other siblings are also Hopkins graduates: Liberty ’09 and Charity, Peabody ’07).

The IRIS drew praise from NASA with an award in 2008. Then, last April their proposal won the Johns Hopkins University Business Plan Competition and $5,000.
U.S. and Japanese manufacturers have shown interest in the concept and in the chamber prototype IRIS Engines Inc. completed last spring. However, the company will likely have to build a functioning engine to gain real traction.

Levi and Corban are particularly excited about the design’s potential to reduce carbon emissions and fuel demand. They shuttle around the country pitching investors for the capital to prototype an IRIS engine. The team is also applying for federal grants in cooperation with AVL Powertrain—the auto industry’s largest engine research company. “It’s the chicken or the egg story,” says Levi. “We know we have a powerful idea, but in order to prototype it we need capital, and in order to get capital, we need more data.”

While IRIS Engines Inc. is poised for growth, in the world of engines things take time, the brothers say. Their hope is to build a prototype and license the design to manufacturers over the next three to four years.







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