Science

How Do You Put a Plane Engine in a Car?


DENVER—Suppose you have an idea for a cleaner, simpler and more energy-efficient internal combustion engine for trucks and cars. It was inspired by the engine design for Nazi Germany’s World War II bombers, the last of which—the Amerika—was being built to bomb the United States when the war ended.

You scale the engine down so it can fit in a car or a truck and you give your car company an obscure name—Achates Power—derived from Greek and Roman mythology. Then you realize this will be a hard sell. It can take years, even decades, to develop new technology for the automotive industry, which might, some day, switch over to electric engines.

Where do you go to get help?

Achates, located in San Diego, Calif., went to the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which is currently celebrating 10 years of providing funds and technical and marketing assistance to companies with promising clean energy ideas.

While most government agencies are regarded as being risk-averse, ARPA-E has spent $2 billion to help launch 76 new companies. ARPA-E’s projects have found $2.9 billion in private-sector funding and developed ideas that resulted in 350 new U.S. patents.

“This is about low carbon dioxide and low emissions engines,” explained David Crompton, president and CEO of Achates, at an ARPA-E “summit meeting” of experts and investors here this week. He described his design as an engine without a cylinder head that creates diesel-like combustion of fuel to push two pistons in opposite directions simultaneously.

Called the “opposed-piston engine,” it is supposed to be 30% more efficient than a conventional diesel engine, 50% more efficient than gasoline engines with 60% fewer parts. Using a small grant from ARPA-E, the company sold its idea to the Department of Defense, which has invested $14 million in a version of the engine that’s being developed to power advanced versions of its medium-sized Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Achates says it has attracted more than $160 million in investments from venture capital firms and members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which includes many of the world’s major oil companies.

“We have very patient investors,” explained Crompton, who said there are six different development programs underway for different sizes of the engine, including designs for heavy-duty trucks and pickup trucks. A second ARPA-E grant this year helped Achates attract Nissan and the University of Michigan Energy Institute to design a small one-cylinder engine to power a hybrid-electric car.

A second company aiming to shake up the transportation field after three grants from ARPA-E is Sila Nanotechnologies, a firm in Alameda, Calif., that is developing a silicon-based substance that it claims will improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries in electric cars by about 20%.

Gene Berdichevsky, a co-founder and CEO of the company, said the idea, which will give electric vehicles a longer range and shorter recharging times, has attracted Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz. It has acquired a minority stake in Sila.

Berdichevsky said the company’s effort, underway since 2012, should help other companies understand that the effort to scale up new automotive technologies “is going to take longer than you think.” Still, he added, “You can find some partners that will surprise you.”

Just where and how fast these discoveries will rise in the transportation sector is still an open question. Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, also spoke at the conference. He thinks the ultimate answer will be electrification of cars and trucks. He added that when that transformation might happen remains an open question.

“Transportation is not going in the right direction,” Toor explained, noting the traditional method for states “was let’s project future traffic growth and then figure out how many lanes to add.”

“The current situation doesn’t get us to where we want to go,” he added.

One major goal he hopes to see is a reduction in traffic congestion. He worries that other looming scientific developments, such as autonomous vehicles, might tempt drivers to drive their cars to events and then instruct them to drift driverless on the streets, rather than paying parking fees.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.


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