If John Gordon Davoud becomes rich and famous by easing America's energy and air pollution crises with a replacement for the gasoline engine, it will be because a Scottish Presbyterian minister didn't like steam 161 years ago.

Davoud believes steam is the ingredient that will perfect the engine invented by the anti-steam parson, the Rev. Robert Stirling. It is a highly efficient engine that will run on anything that burns, including such fuels as vegetable oil, kerosene and methyl alcohol.

The trouble is, and has been for the 161 years, that the engine won't run very long, only about two continuous days. Among the organizations that have tried to make it run are the Ford Motor Co. and the N.Y. Philips company of the Netherlands.

Now Davoud, a Richmond consulting engineer, and his associates are convinced they have solved the problem. Davoud presented his ideas at the fourth International Symposium on Automotive Propulsion Systems in Arlington recently.

Ford also described its recent experiences with the engine at the symposium. An official said it "flew apart." Davoud, who is "talking" to Ford about possible financing, said the Ford project simply "didn't work out."

The Stirling engine is an external combustion engine, which means, according to Davoud and Ford, that a gas (not a gasoline) is contained in a cylinder and is heated by fuel outside the cylinder. Virtually any fuel will do as long as it produces heat. The heat increases the pressure on the entrapped gas and forces the pistons to move.

(An internal combustion engine works by having the gasoline ife within the cylinder.)

The problem with the Stirling engine for 161 years, according to Davoud, is that no one could figure out what gaseous substance to trap in the cylinder and heat into action. Whatever was tried leaked out. Lately, engineers have tried nitrogen and helium, but the molecules of those gases are os small that they seep right through metal that gets hot, Devoud said.

Now Davoud says steam is the answer. Apparently it was too obvious to be seen before.

Davoud said that the Stirling engine is "potentially very efficient. It has the potential to replace the gasoline engine.

"Three is a second problem, apart from having a gaseous substance that doesn't leak out: The engine doesn't respond fast enough to controls. But that can be worked out. We need research money, which is why we're now talking to Ford.

"A small company like ours, at this point in history, with an energy crisis, ought to have some help. We received a couple of government grants to work on things related to the Stirling, but which have other uses, so we've developed most of the components and the processes.

"Now we need about $2 million, or somewhat less, to actually build the bloody engine and make it work. President Carter hasn't mentioned research and development.He should. That's where the answers are," Davoud said.

"I guess it is fair to say I got the original idea to use steam in the

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Still, Davoud is not an eccentric inventor starving in an attic. He and his partner, Jerry A. Burke Jr., both of whom are in their late 50s, operate an engineering consulting firm in Richmond, D-Cycle Power Systems Inc. They receive financial support and "a lot of good advice from Lee Dudley, who is in the oil exploration business, and Dr. Donald S. Daniel Jr., a physician, both in their early 40s.

Davoud, educated as a chemist in his native Canada, was a Rhodes scholar; worked on weapons research during World War II; subsequently worked for a large British chemical firm, where he said he supervised 14,000 people, and finally was executive vice president of two division of Firestone before becoming a consultant.

"I guess it is fair to say I got the original idea to use steam in the Stirling, but my partner has worked with me on it on a daily basis," Davoud said.

"You know, its funny, but poor old Stirling thought the metal was his main problem. When Bessemer came along with his improved way to make steel, Stirling was an old man. There is a quote attributed to him - something like. "If only Bessemer had come along 50 year earlier.' But it wasn't the metal. He just should have used steam.

"I think Stirling would be entitled to wonder just what in hell we've been doing all these years.