I’ve started a number of companies in my career, in several different industries. While I took my Ph.D. in theoretical physics, I’m a pretty applied guy—I tend to look for new ways to solve problems. In addition to being a physicist, I’m also a private pilot with more than 7,000 hours of flying time. I’ve flown a number of different planes over the years. A multi-engine plane, of course, has the advantage of allowing a pilot to continue flying if one engine fails, but the vast majority of private pilots fly single-engine planes. I began to wonder if there was a way to design an engine that is both light and fuel efficient so that two could be ganged together to drive a single prop, combining the fault resiliency of a twin-engine plane while reducing cost and asymmetrical thrust.
When I went on a beach vacation in 1998, I took Charles Taylor’s two-volume book on internal combustion engines and learned about the Junkers Jumo 205/207 engines of the 1930s and 40s. These opposed-piston, two-stroke, diesel aviation engines set benchmarks for fuel efficiency and power density that still, in combination, have not been matched. The challenge, however, lay in the ability to make the historically efficient and power dense opposed-piston architecture meet modern emissions and durability standards—which it had failed to do since the 1970 passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, I began trying to solve this problem with Bill McHargue, a fellow physicist, in 1998. My inspiration was wondering what Junkers could have done with today’s engine technology—high-pressure common-rail fuel injectors, supercomputers, chemically reactive computational fluid dynamics, computer-aided engineering, advanced materials and lubricants, and sulfur-trace oil measurement tools.
By 2004, we made enough progress on improving the original Junkers design that we formed Achates Power, in partnership with fellow pilot, and friend, John Walton. True to my original focus of developing a more fuel-efficient back-up engine for a single-engine plane, I named the company after Achates—a character in Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid and the faithful friend to Aeneas (just as I hoped this engine would be a “faithful friend”).
It didn’t take long to realize, though, that if we created an engine clean enough to meet tough on-highway emissions standards, we could address a much larger market for commercial and passenger vehicles. With a global engine market that tops $300 billion a year and is projected to grow to $525 billion a year by 2020, I knew that the automotive industry is ultimately where we should focus our efforts. Armed with this knowledge, we went about staffing the company with the best and brightest scientists and engineers from the top automotive engine development and manufacturing organizations. We also sought out experts in academia and industry to guide us as part of the Achates Power Technical Advisory Board.
By 2005, we had finished our first engine prototype and had begun testing it in our in-house test cell. A second test cell was added in 2009 and, since then, nearly 3,000 hours of testing have been completed on the initial engine design as well as several other variations.
While I’ve always believed that we’d successfully modernize the opposed-piston, two-stroke engine, even I’m impressed with the level of efficiency gains we’ve witnessed over the last year. These gains, benchmarked against the Ford Power Stroke (considered one of the best medium-duty engines available) have demonstrated:
- More than 20% lower cycle average brake-specific fuel consumption
- Similar engine-out emissions levels meeting the most stringent emissions regulations in the world
- Low fuel-specific oil consumption
- Reduced cost, weight and complexity
Based on these results and our successful discussions with customers and prospects globally, I have no doubt that the Achates Power engine will make it to highways around the world. As new federal standards require an even more significant increase in fuel efficiency and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, our opposed-piston, two-stroke engine is poised to transform the transportation industry—providing an economically and environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional, hybrid and electric powertrains.