Achates Claims Huge Gains in Fuel Efficiency of Opposed-Piston Design
Achates Power was founded in 2004 with the idea of re-engineering the opposed-piston, two-stroke engine, a design that has been used in ships and submarines, aircraft, trucks, and other vehicles for more than 100 years.
Such engines fell out of favor with the adoption of stricter tailpipe emission standards during the 1970s. But Achates founder James Lemke, an adjunct engineering professor at UC San Diego, saw advantages in the design. Lemke figured that using advanced cylinder bore manufacturing techniques and materials, new fuel injection technology, synthetic oils, and other engineering advances would significantly increase fuel efficiency, reduce greenhouse gases, and cut the overall cost of a diesel-powered engine.
Achates has a video that helps explain how the opposed-piston design operates more efficiently. Because there is no cylinder head, high-pressure gasket, or valve train, the engine weighs about one-third less than a conventional diesel engine. Because it requires less machining and assembly, the design also is less expensive and easier to manufacture.
Lemke, a serial entrepreneur and expert in magnetic recording equipment and materials, wasn’t the only innovator to see the advantages. There’s been something of a renaissance in opposed-piston engine design over the past decade, and a flourishing of venture-backed startups that includes Achates, San Carlos, CA-based Pinnacle Engines, and EcoMotors in Detroit.
In San Diego, Achates now has 40 employees and has raised about $70 million in venture funding from Sequoia Capital Partners, RockPort Capital Partners, Madrone Capital Partners, InterWest Partners, and Triangle Peak Partners. When I visited Achates’ lab, CEO David Johnson predicted the company’s design would revolutionize the automotive industry.
Like many startups in the auto industry, Achates also faces an inherent challenge. Its business model relies on working closely with engine makers that want to adopt Achates’ innovative design. “We see ourselves as disruptive, but not disruptive of everything,” Johnson said. “We’re disruptive as to the architecture of the internal combustion engine.”
Working under an engineering services contract with major automakers can be a good business, and Achates is looking to be profitable by the end of this year, according to Larry Fromm, Achates’ vice president of business and strategy development. (When I asked Johnson about achieving profitability, he was more circumspect, saying, “We feel really good about our goals and our progress, but we’ll see.”)
But Achates’ lucrative contract work also comes with a key PR disadvantage—Achates’ customers usually impose non-disclosure requirements that prevent the San Diego startup from identifying its customers or discussing its projects.
So Johnson and company were pleased to discuss a three-year contract that was awarded last month by the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) to AVL Powertrain Engineering and Achates Power.
“It’s the first contract we could talk about,” Fromm said. “We are working on other engines for other companies. Truck engines. Stationary power engines. But we can’t talk about that.”
TARDEC, a major Army research, development and engineering center based at the Detroit Arsenal in Warren, MI, awarded the contract for design and construction of a “next-generation combat engine.” The $4.9 million contract calls for AVL, the prime contractor, to make an engine based on Achates’ opposed-piston design, with superior fuel efficiency, high power density, and reduced heat loss through combustion and exhaust gases. The engine is intended for use in a wide range of military vehicles, and must be multi-fuel capable. When completed, Fromm estimates the engine will produce between 200 and 250 horsepower.
“Think of the fleets of vehicles our military uses,” Johnson says. “Trucks, ambulances, humvees, MRAPs [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected]. It’s a huge logistical infrastructure, and it uses about 2 percent of all fuel used in the U.S.”
The Army allowed Achates to disclose the contract award, but Johnson said the company wouldn’t be releasing performance data and other details about the Army’s next-generation engine once it’s completed. Still, he says the Army contract is “a reflection of the work we’ve done so far. It’s actually a modest contract for us, and one that’s easy for us to deliver.”
So what can Achates disclose?
In numerous benchmark comparisons with various engines, including both production models and advanced development engines, Johnson says the Achates engine “consistently shows a 15 to 20 percent improvement in fuel efficiency over the very best engines that are out there.” This includes published data for the best-selling diesel truck engine in the U.S., the Ford 6.7 liter V-8 power-stroke engine, built for Ford’s popular SuperDuty pickup truck. Achates says its engine also can comply with the strictest emission standards, including EPA 10 and Euro6.
In an industry that typically strives for a 1 or 2 percent gain in fuel efficiency, Johnson says, “20 percent is huge. It’ll change the world. But not like the lightbulb. It’s going to take some time.”
In addition to contract work, Achates sees revenue-generating opportunities in technology licensing. “We expect to sustain ourselves doing engineering services, and once engines are in production, we’ll get royalty revenue from every engine sold,” Fromm said.
Johnson says Achates is focused initially on the U.S. and global markets for commercial engines, an estimated $51 billion market. The next target he sees is the combined market for gasoline and diesel-powered engines, which is now at more than $300 billion and accelerating to an estimated $526 billion in 2020. That should be enough to get a startup company out of first gear.
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