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Opposed-piston engine: New breakthrough with old tech?

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    • Town/City: Tauranga
    • Bike: BMW R100GS

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    Rank: Round the World Adventure Globetrotter

    An opposed-piston engine packages two pistons in each cylinder and produces more power density than a conventional single-piston-per-cylinder engine.

    While Tesla, General Motors, Nissan, BMW and other automakers doggedly push to bring battery-powered vehicles into the mainstream, Achates Power engineers are betting that an old technology could drastically improve fuel economy and reduce the size of future internal combustion engines.

    The company was launched in 2004 by James Lemke, a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” with an initial investment from John Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam. Based in San Diego, Achates earlier this year opened an engineering centre in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

    The US Department of Energy made a US$9 million (NZ$13m) grant to Achates, Delphi Automotive and Argonne National Laboratory. Together the three recipients will invest another US$4m to develop a 3-cylinder, 3-litre opposed-piston petrol compression engine that could improve fuel efficiency by 50 per cent or more on large passenger vans, pickup trucks, SUVs and minivans.

    So what is an opposed-piston engine and how does it work?

    Instead of one piston per cylinder, which requires four cycles per firing, opposed-pistons engines have two pistons per cylinder, both connected by levers with a single crankshaft. With two pistons per cylinder, working in opposite reciprocating action, there’s no need for cylinder heads, which means less heat is lost in the combustion process.

    The advantage is the engine can produce equal performance for less displacement and less emissions from pressure inside the cylinder than a four-stroke engine. Combined with petrol compression injection there is an opportunity improve fuel economy significantly and reduce emissions of nitrous oxides and particulate matter.

    The 30-month programme will draw on Achates’ expertise, Delphi’s experience with petrol compression injection systems and Argonne’s know-how on single-cylinder engines.

    This opens new technical and commercial territory for the 11-year-old company.

    “Most of our work to date has been with diesels and some natural gas engine, and those tend to be larger engines aimed at large commercial vehicles,” said Larry Fromm, Achates vice president for business and strategy development. “This project involves engines for passenger vehicles such as shuttle vans, pickup trucks, minivans and SUVs.”

    So why haven’t automakers and truck manufacturers already beaten a path to Achates’ door?

    The short answer is that most of its work so far has been focused on research and development. This is the company’s third joint development programme.

    Earlier this year Achates received US$14m for development on a new generation of engines to power future combat and tactical vehicles for the Army in partnership with Cummins, the engine-making giant.

    In 2013 Fairbanks Morse Engine, a manufacturer of industrial and marine engines, and Achates began work to reduce emissions and fuel consumption of Fairbanks Morse proprietary diesel and dual-fuel opposed-piston engines.

    While Volkswagen’s emission-cheating scandal, not to mention falling gas prices, may reinforce American car buyers’ reluctance to give diesels a chance, the commercial trucking industry is the likely initial market for this technology.

    The project with Delphi and Argonne is important because it could lead to sales in the light-vehicle market. The end product will not be a diesel, but a 3-litre petrol compression ignition engine.

    “GCI provides diesel-like efficiency in a gasoline (petrol) engine, without typical diesel and after-treatment cost penalties,” said Achates CEO David Johnson.

    In 2012, the US National Highway Safety Administration determined that by model year 2021, each manufacturer will need to achieve a combined fleet-average fuel economy of between 5.8 and 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres. Not long ago, industry observers expected hybrids and electric vehicles to drive compliance with those targets.

    But with fuel prices trending toward US$2 a gallon (US52 cents a litre or NZ76 cents at current currency rates) or lower in much of the US that premise is shaky. Even the Energy Information Administration, an arm of the US Energy Department, projects that in 2035 about 95 per cent of light vehicles will still be powered by internal combustion engines.

    Fromm and Fabien Redon, Achates vice president of technology development, said company’s existing work force of 85 people will handle most of the new programme’s work, which will be divided between San Diego and Farmington Hills.

    “But we will probably hire some contractor-supported work,” Redon said.

    While the privately-held company doesn’t disclose financial results, it has attracted about US$100m in venture capital from investors who are willing to stick it out for the long term.

    “You do need patient investors, but we are making great progress in terms of technology development and customer traction,” said Fromm. “We are working with clients in India, Japan, China, Europe and the US.”


    • Bike: CT110, Husky TE 250, DRZ250, CB500X

    Topics Created: 6
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    Rank: 1200cc Rider

    Always wondered if there would be a revival of the Napier Deltic design as it seemed so obvious an viable design for Diesel engines, especially with modern technology.

    Paul Crash Carter

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    yep see the Deltic diesel used on UK rail since the 50s

    Paul Crash Carter

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    Peter Jones

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    Commer TS3 truck engines – they also made a TS4 but it never got into prduction due to Rootes being taken over by Chrysler so all (truck diesel) engines had to be Cummins after that.

    Phoenix Inflight

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    It can be shown mathematically that the efficiency of a combustion engine is related to the compression ratio minus friction. Hence diesels are more efficient that petrol engines and the development of the GDI engine. Since it now has two cranks and presumably the compression ratio is still limited by fuel, its hard to see how it is a true breakthrough. Usually these design variations are about shifting the compromises around….or fakes to lure investors. Split cycle engine anyone. Apparently the guy made a pile of money out of gullible investors before scarpering….

    Peter Jones

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    The napier deltic was developed from the Junkers Jumo bomber engine, which first flew in 1929. “The Jumo 204 (originally designated Jumo 4) was test flown in early 1929 installed in a Junkers G 24.[2]

    The Jumo Fo3 and 204 were licensed to Napier & Son, who built a small number as the Napier Culverin just prior to the war. Late in the war, they mounted three Culverins in a triangle layout to produce the Napier Deltic, which was for some time one of the most powerful and compact diesel engines in the world.”

    Folker Liebenow

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    If you hadn’t established this link, I would have, thanks Peter Jones. There’s not a lot new under the sun.

    Jason Clark

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    Good god its a ts3

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