Is the Industry Ready for a New Engine?

Since I joined Achates Power, I’ve often been asked, “Can an ‘outside company’ change the 100+ year-old engine business?”  In our industry, there are few historical examples to reference.  The most notable is the Wankel engine, which had some commercial success.  Unfortunately, the engine didn’t deliver on the market’s request for a cleaner alternative. Today, we need dramatically more fuel-efficient engines that also meet emissions and all the other requirements of modern, conventional engines.

That being said, I’m quite optimistic about our chances for success. Read our technical publications and you’ll see why:  our engine delivers unprecedented fuel efficiency and meets the toughest emissions standards.  Our demonstrated results are clear, compelling and fully aligned with the scientific fundamentals.

That’s a good start, but what else is different this time?

For one, there has never been a greater need for more fuel-efficient engines. For decades, the industry focused on meeting ever tighter emissions standards and faced steep penalties for failure, so dramatic innovations were avoided.  During this same period, U.S. fuel prices were low, so improving fuel efficiency was not a priority.  As a result, the fuel economy of the U.S. auto fleet has not improved in 20 years. (Note: In Europe, where fuel prices are high, new clean diesel engines now dominate the market. Similarly, in commercial applications, where total fuel consumption is high, fuel-efficient diesel engines dominate.)  But, now that the industry has met those strict emission standards and fuel prices are high, and going higher, the efficiency of conventional diesel engines is facing diminishing returns—making the time ripe for innovations that deliver significantly better fuel economy and maintain or improve other engine attributes, including cost.

Second, we have access to an incredible array of tools.  Imagine what the engine pioneers from early last century could have done with chemically reactive computational fluid dynamics and high pressure fuel injection. Some of our CFD runs take eight days on our supercomputer.  They would have taken 800 days 10 years ago.  And these are essential to optimize the complex gas exchange process inherent in a two-stroke engine and to take advantage of the unique combustion geometries of the opposed-piston architecture.

Third, we got lucky. Our founder, Dr. Jim Lemke, had a great idea and worked closely with his visionary friend, the late John Walton, to build the company on a solid financial and technical foundation.

Finally, our timing was good.  We were hiring in 2008 and 2009, when much of the transportation industry was downsizing, and were fortunate to attract a technical team from Ford, GM, AVL and other industry leaders.

So, yes, I do think the industry is ready for a new engine. . .a clean, more fuel-efficient and lower cost engine from Achates Power.

4 thoughts on “Is the Industry Ready for a New Engine?

  1. David,
    I couldn’t agree more. There is a growing demand for efficient, flexible powertrain systems in the market today; technology that truly impacts fuel economy and emissions while creating economic value for the customer (whether commercial or consumer). Customers should have access to our best thinking and it is companies like Achates Power that will catalyze the industry to implement solutions like the API engine. I am looking forward to seeing how the API engine changes the diesel poewrtrain landscape.

  2. David,

    first of all congratulate to your excellent results including your latest durability tests.
    A sidetrack question if efficiency gets too good. A common problem with both electric and TDi vehicles is the limited amount of waste power available. You may even buy electric vehicles with half the range at four season drive if heater is powered by the battery.
    When driving 60 mph we need need roughly 10 kW on an average diesel car (cv 0.36, frontal area 2.4 m2, air density 1.2 kg/m3). If we boost the 37% fuel efficiency to 50% we reduce waste power from 22kW to 13 kW (0.8 drive train efficiency). Supposing that we need ~ 5kW for heating the cabin do you have any concerns with heating efficiency? It may me handled exclusively from the vehicle side but do you do anything different (upfront) from the engine side?


    • Sventin:

      Thanks for your interest, feedback and question. It’s absolutely a fact that a more efficient engine, like ours, will reject less heat to the exhaust and/or coolant. This is not a problem once an engine is itself warmed up (we’ll be able to keep the cabin warm and the windows fog free while cruising down the highway). But, during and just after starting a cold engine, the problem of insufficient heat rejection is a common one for conventional diesel engines as compared to gasoline engines. Mind you, all engines these days suffer with this challenge as we need to direct as much of the available rejected heat to the exhaust stream to get the various catalysts up to their operating temperatures. However, there are a variety of solutions for this “warm up” challenge and, as such, it does not and cannot prevent us from moving forward with dramatic improvements to the fuel efficiency of our engines.


  3. David,
    I was involved with diesel engines for my entire career at Detroit Diesel and have the following “stories” about threats to diesels.
    When I went to MIT in 1958, for my Masters in Mechanical Engineering, I enrolled in Prof. C.F. Taylor’s diesel engine design class. We needed four students or the class would be cancelled. MIT put the arm on the Navy to enroll two students so we had our four. Prof. Taylors brother, Prof. E.S. Taylor, was teaching the gas turbine engine design class and he had the maximum of 20 students. Everyone thought that gas turbines would replace diesels.
    In 1969, Detroit Diesel was given the General Motors industrial gas turbine program (GM kept the passenger program) and again we in the diesel engineering group were competing with the gas turbine group. The gas turbine had very low exhaust emissions so if the diesel was legislated out of the market we would have a product. We installed several gas turbines in trucks and buses, and the fuel economy was very poor. The the first energy crisis, 1973, came and fuel economy became more important than emissions so soon after that the industrial gas turbine program ended.
    In 1975, Detroit Diesel was given the GM rotary diesel program (GM kept the gasoline rotary) and we set up a group to further carry on the development. When GM dropped the gasoline engine program, we dropped the diesel program.
    In the 1980’s, after two energy shortages (1973 & 1979), alternate fuels were in vogue ie: methanol, ethanol, natural gas, so the diesel was going to be replaced with spark ignited or compression ignited alcohols or CNG. As we now know, the spark ignited CNG and dual fuel CNG engines are getting some market share, but not a real competitor to the diesel.
    I will only comment on three other programs that GM thought would replace the diesel: Lear steam engine, Sterling engine, Free piston engine. Again, the diesel was tough to beat.
    As we know today, the diesel has reduced its emissions of PM and NOx by 99% and its thermal efficiency is approaching the 50% point. So it looks like the diesel is still kicking, 130 years after its invention by Rudolf Diesel.

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