Inventor Dean Kamen's top secret project, dubbed "Ginger," is supposed to change the world. It has stirred a media feeding frenzy, and most people speculate that Ginger, also known as "It," is a revolutionary, clean-fuel-burning engine. But should we believe the hype?

"The potential is there," said Alan Niedzwiecki, who heads up Quantum Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Cerritos-based alternative fuel systems technology provider Impco Technologies Inc. "But am I skeptical? Yes."

After Kamen registered the domain names StirlingElectric.com and StirlingScooter.com, rumors flew that he was developing a version of the Stirling engine.

Stirling engines, invented by Rev. Robert Stirling in 1816, work by using heated and cooled gas to move pistons. Noting that the engines are quiet and environmentally clean, scientists have tried to adapt them for cars, but they haven't been able to overcome some technical glitches. The engines have also proven slow to start and costly to run.

But if Kamen has improved on the engine, the impact could be profound.

Niedzwiecki said that the Stirling engine, if refined, has the potential to be a clean engine for many applications.

"Several individuals during the last several decades have worked with Stirling engines and promised to save the world," Niedzwiecki said. "Perhaps he found the missing link, but a lot of details are missing."

Quantum has been a bit more forthcoming about its breakthroughs.

The Impco subsidiary develops enabling technologies for alternative propulsion and energy, which are increasingly in demand by major automobile manufacturers.

Quantum announced last week that it is on the verge of inking a deal with General Motors Corp., which is developing fuel cells that run on hydrogen extracted from gasoline.

The extraordinary attention lavished on Ginger reflects widespread interest in the kinds of alternative-fuel engines that Quantum's existing technology enables.

"What we're seeing are major investments in alternative propulsion systems, energy issues and environmental issues worldwide," Niedzwiecki said. "I've never seen these kinds of investments coming from automobile manufacturers. That provides a signal of what's to come in the future."

Whether or not Kamen's Ginger will have a place in that future remains to be seen.

The scientific community is paying close attention to Kamen, a respected inventor. He has invented a wheelchair that can go up stairs, over sand and raise its user to eye level with standing people. That invention, code named "Fred," won Kamen the National Medal of Technology last year.

Ginger has out-hyped Fred.

A proposal for a book about the top secret project was reported in Inside magazine and generated a wave of media coverage. The proposal included tantalizing quotes from moguls like Steve Jobs of Apple Computer Inc. and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, who declared that Kamen's invention would revolutionize the world.

Besides the news coverage, Web sites like TheGinger.com and TheItQuestion.com have sprung up to disseminate the latest rumors.

Even Kamen said in a recent interview in Brill's Content magazine that the coverage was "hype about a product that doesn't even exist yet."

Realty World

San Francisco-based LoopNet Inc. and L.A.-based PropertyFirst.com announced last week that they are merging, creating what they said would be the commercial real estate industry's largest site where brokers can shop for office space and commercial property.

Interestingly, among the company's largest shareholders is Homestore.com Inc., the Westlake Village-based company that has cornered the online residential real estate market. With the merger, Homestore is getting a solid foothold in the online commercial real estate market.

"We want to have a significant influence in the commercial business," said James Marrelli, Homestore's vice president of corporate planning.

Homestore was one of the largest shareholders in LoopNet prior to the merger. The pre-existing Homestore/LoopNet alliance included Internet distribution deals, commercial listings and revenue-sharing deals on products and services, according to a release issued when the alliance was made in November 1999.

Analysts view Homestore's move towards the commercial market as a long-term strategy.

"Over time, we expect that Homestore will have tentacles into many parts of online real estate," said Wit SoundView analyst Shawn Milne.

Indeed, Homestore has gathered about 1.5 million home listings, or about 95 percent of all the homes listed nationally through professionals.

Homestore's main source of revenue is its partnership with the National Association of Realtors (NAR), whose official Web site Realtor.com is operated by Homestore.

Homestore's dominance of the residential market has attracted the attention of antitrust officials, who have been investigating the company for possible anti-competitive practices in the online real estate industry.

Nonetheless, U.S. Justice Department officials approved Homestore's Feb. 20 acquisition of Cendant Corp.'s Move.com. That deal was worth an estimated $900 million.

Privately held LoopNet and PropertyFirst, which are expected to list more than 145,000 properties with nearly 200,000 users, will go by the LoopNet name.

Staff reporter Hans Ibold can be reached at (323) 549-5225 ext. 230 or at hibold@labusinessjournal.com.

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