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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote a follow-up to my story on efforts to reinvent the internal combustion engine:

As I wrote in Thursday’s Times, several start-ups backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firms are developing a new type of internal combustion engine that promises a striking boost in fuel economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It sounds a bit too good to be true, but the companies have had their claims verified by independent firms, and some of them have signed licensing deals with major engine manufacturers.

The start-ups that I profiled – Achates Power, EcoMotors and Pinnacle Engines – all are building variations on what is called an opposed piston engine. Such engines do away with heavy cylinder heads that serve as combustion chambers in conventional engines. Instead, the space between two opposing pistons forms the combustion chamber where fuel is ignited.

That makes opposed piston engines lighter and cheaper to make. And because opposed piston engines have a greater power density, they waste less energy as heat and thus operate more efficiently.

“The technology is viable,” said Dean Tomazic, vice president of FEV, an engineering company in Auburn, Mich., that has tested opposed piston engines to verify their developers’ claims. “It is obviously a completely different concept compared to conventional engines.”

Athough such engines were used in the mid-20th century as power plants for ships and World War II-era fighter planes, they were long considered too expensive and impractical for automotive use.

Pinnacle, based in San Carlos, Calif., is developing a four-stroke, gasoline opposed piston engine. One of Pinnacle’s key innovations is a sleeve valve invented by the company’s founder, Monty Cleeves, that helps ensure that energy is used for propulsion rather than wasted as heat.

Mr. Cleeves said that Pinnacle’s engine could run on a variety of fuels, including compressed natural gas and ethanol without a loss of performance experienced in conventional engines.

He has kept the start-up in stealth mode for nearly four years, operating from a small unmarked office and garage a few miles from where Tesla Motors developed its electric Roadster sports car.

Earlier this month, Mr. Cleeves gave me a peek at a prototype of the Cleeves Cycle engine being tested at engine factory in my hometown of Berkeley, Calif. (Who knew?)

Pinnacle has signed a deal to license its technology to a major Asian scooter maker that it declined to identify. The one-cylinder, 15-horsepower engine connected to a maze of wires and tubes dangling from the ceiling of Hasselgren Engineering is larger than the model planned for production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a slew of Silicon Valley-backed startups developing new kinds of internal combustion engines that are more fuel efficient and less polluting:

BERKELEY, CALIF. – In this city where Toyota Priuses clog the roads and battery-powered Tesla Roadsters and Chevrolet Volts can be spotted at the organic farmers market, the engine factory in a gritty industrial neighborhood near San Francisco Bay is a throwback to the automotive past.

Or a harbinger of the future. In the middle of a metal building, stacked with hulking racecar engines from the internal combustion engine’s golden age, sits a small contraption hooked to a forest of red, white and green wires and tubes that hang from the ceiling and snake around the floor.

In a control room at Hasselgren Engineering, a technician flips a switch and the device roars to life as a large computer screen displays the performance of this new type of engine, which its developer, Pinnacle Engines, says will be up to 50 percent more efficient than today’s power plants.

As the first mass-produced electric cars hit the streets, Pinnacle is just one of several start-ups backed by prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists aiming to reinvent the century-old internal combustion engine. The big promise: vast improvements in fuel economy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions at a lower cost.

“While the buzz is all about electrics, the people who will actually adopt electrics are not a majority of the market,” said Monty Cleeves, who has kept Pinnacle under wraps since he founded the company in 2007. “The impact we will have over the next 15 to 20 years will be much larger than the impact of the electrics.”

Not long ago, the idea that entrepreneurs could attract tens of millions of dollars in venture capital to develop a new kind of engine would have seemed ludicrous. The big automakers have kept engine development to themselves, steadily improving the performance of a profitable technology that has served them well for more than a 100 years.

“Our engines are built into the DNA of our vehicles,” said Brett Hinds, engine design manager for Ford in Dearborn, Mich. “We at Ford are still committed to thinking of engines as part of our fundamentals.”

But the upheaval in the global car industry, new fuel efficiency standards for commercial vehicles, climate change concerns and the rise of China and India as automotive markets have opened the door to start-ups like Pinnacle

“Many automotive houses don’t buy engines from outside, but in the truck market people do,” said Rohini Chakravarthy, a partner at NEA, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif., that has invested in Pinnacle. “In Asia, there’s tremendous demand, and you’re not going up against the same level of incumbents.”

Pinnacle executives, for instance, said they had signed a deal to license their engine technology to a major Asian scooter manufacturer, which they declined to identify, for production in early 2013.

EcoMotors, a Detroit area start-up backed by Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates, has signed a development agreement with Navistar, the heavy truck and engine manufacturer, and a Chinese company it would not name. Achates Power, a San Diego engine start-up, is in talks with automakers, according to its chief executive, David Johnson, who said he also had met with potential customers in China and India.

All three companies are developing variations on an opposed piston engine, a technology used in airplanes and ships in the mid-20th century, but long considered too expensive and unworkable for automobiles.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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