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Achates Takes Page From Past to Create Futuristic Engine

Achates Power Inc. is working to adapt its innovative diesel engine technology for use in U.S. Army vehicles.

The San Diego company and partner AVL Powertrain Engineering Inc. are now fine-tuning designs under a recently received, $4.9 million contract.

The deal, which concludes in 2015, also calls on the pair to build the engine.

What the customer wants, in two words, is “power density.” The Army is looking for an improvement over current systems, said Peter Schihl, a senior technical expert with the Army’s ground vehicle command.

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“Conventional engines don’t achieve the kind of efficiency we do,” explained David Johnson, CEO of Achates Power.

Achates Power wants to update an old idea — an opposed-piston, two-stroke diesel engine — for modern use.

Such engines were popular in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, but designs were shelved after that.

With two pistons sharing a cylinder, the Achates Power engine does not need a cylinder head.

Cylinder heads normally add to the cost of an engine and contribute to heat loss, Achates Power said.

Backed by venture capital, Achates Power is trying to add 70 years’ worth of improvements to the mid-20th century design, Johnson said. Among other things, the company is working to make the engine cleaner.

15 U.S. Patents

Achates Power claims 1,200 design improvements for its engine, and now has 15 U.S. patents, as well as a dozen foreign patents, Johnson said.

Serial entrepreneur James Lemke co-founded the company in 2004.

Since then, Achates Power has worked to put the engine on commercial vehicles. It’s making progress, Johnson reported, but he added that nondisclosure agreements prevent him from talking about those applications.

Company investors include Sequoia Capital Partners, RockPort Capital Partners, Madrone Capital Partners, InterWest Partners and Triangle Peak Partners.

Johnson said that Achates Power has taken on staff with the recent Army win. It has added seven employees in the past four months, and now has a head count of 50. The Business Journal reported that the company had 53 employees at the end of 2011.

The first goal for Achates Power and AVL is a design. Once that “gateway” is behind them, Achates Power and AVL plan to contact suppliers to make parts for the first engine, Johnson said. AVL will assemble the engine and Achates Power plans to test it in its lab.

Based in Austria, AVL develops, simulates and tests powertrains. It has 5,250 employees worldwide.

The privately held company reported 2012 revenue of 1 billion Euros ($1.3 billion at recent exchange rates).

The military customer is the U.S. Army’s Michigan-based Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.

Called Tardec for short, the command is the Defense Department’s main ground systems integrator.

Schihl, who works in Tardec’s Ground Vehicle Power and Mobility Laboratory, said the Army is looking for engine technology that improves overall propulsion system power density.

The Army defines “power density” as the sprocket or wheel power divided by the volume of the entire propulsion system.

That is the engine plus major subsystems such as the air induction system, the transmission, exhaust system, cooling system, final drives and fuel tank.

Critical Fuel Efficiency

The value of a fuel-efficient engine is “just tremendous” to the military, Johnson said. He estimated that the price of fuel on the battlefield is $200 per gallon.

Conceivably, the Achates Power military engine could burn any type of fuel, but it will be optimized for diesel-like fuels including JP-8, Johnson said.

Though the engine’s architecture may be old-school, time may have given Achates Power an edge on finessing its design.

Johnson noted that Hugo Junkers, the aviation designer of the early 20th century who worked on opposed-piston engines, didn’t have the benefit of computers, parallel processing and lasers to refine his handiwork.


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