One Company Thinks the Next Big Auto Disruption Will Be Gasoline-Powered, Not Electric

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Many experts say it is a foregone conclusion that electric vehicles will be the next wave of personal transportation.  But what if they’re wrong?  Don’t count out the internal combustion engine just yet.

Back in 1991 would you have believed that Subaru could increase fuel efficiency by 41% by 2015?  I would not have.  Most people are not forward thinkers that way, but we do know one.  His name is Frank Sherosky.  Frank is a former GM employee, day trader (of automotive stocks), automotive writer and sort of a modern renaissance man.  About five years ago he started work on a book that explored ways that the internal combustion engine (ICE) could be made much more fuel efficient.  His book called Splitting I.C.E. came out in 2013.  I read the book as a fellow mechanical engineer and car enthusiast with some skepticism.  That quickly passed and what I found was that not only did Frank think there was a better way to build an internal combustion engine, so did a number of companies, in a number of countries.  One of those, Achates Power has some big news.

Achates Power now has a working prototype of a new type of opposed piston engine.  The company explains the engines this way, saying, “With two pistons per cylinder, working in opposite reciprocating action, these engines do not need cylinder heads which are a major contributor to heat losses in conventional engines. Ports in the cylinder walls replace the complex poppet valves and friction-creating valve trains of conventional engines. ”

Achates says its design can improve upon the efficiency of modern small turbocharged and direct injected gasoline engines by 50%.  That would be groundbreaking.  It would mean that these engines on their own (along with current transmission technology) would be able to meet the 2025 CAFE goals set forth by the EPA and CARB.

Coupled with some form of energy recapture like a hybrid drive with regenerative braking or a kinetic energy recovery system, the vehicle might approach the efficiency that some of today’s EVs offer without any range limitations.  A potential like that cannot go ignored, and that is why the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency (that’s an  agency inside an agency in case you are counting), just showed up with a big bag full of taxpayer’s Benjamins to help move the prototype a little closer to the production-ready stage.

achates structure image

One of the largest automotive suppliers in the world, Delphi Automotive, and the Argonne National Laboratory are also helping out.  Delphi and GM have close ties.  Together, Delphi and the two government agencies are providing $9 million in funding for the next three years, and a total of about $13 million in total has been committed.  In addition to its unusual piston and cylinder design, the engine will use compression ignition (spark-less) like a diesel.

David Johnson, president and CEO, Achates Power explained the engine, in a nutshell, saying, “Argonne and Delphi have already shown on conventional four-stroke engines that the potential of gasoline compression ignition (GCI) is significant – GCI provides diesel–like efficiencies, in a gasoline engine, without typical diesel engine, and after treatment cost penalties.”  The company’s new design marries this combustion technology with a three-cylinder opposed-piston engine design.  The company says that an added benefit of the design beyond its efficiency is that CO2 production and pollutants like NOx are lower, and also very inexpensive to manage, unlike in diesel engines.

The plan according to Achates is that “The three-year project will deliver a three-cylinder, three-liter opposed-piston, gasoline compression ignition engine applicable to large passenger vehicles, pick-up trucks, SUVs, and minivans.”  If it does so, and if the efficiency gains are real, internal combustion engines will be the go-to choice for many more decades than they are already projected to be.

We rang up Frank Sherosky and asked him if he knew about Achates, and indeed he did.  When asked what he thought about the company and its technology he offered “I’m familiar with Achates Power in that it is an opposed piston design, similar to the Israeli version of the split-cycle with dual cranks, except the Achates is a two-stroke, not split. That is NOT a negative in my view.  Achates has a more robust marketing and real-life involvement with potential customers than Scuderi (a company spotlighted in Frank’s book).”

It is very likely EVs will play a growing role in future years.  Right now, EV market share is shrinking, and better ICE engines may hold them off a bit longer than many expect.