Even so, leaders at Sorrento Valley-based
Achates Power has been at work on a cleaner, next-generation engine since its founding by inventor James Lemke in 2004. The business is developing several variations using a unique opposed-piston design.
The opposed-piston engine from Achates Power is not a typical diesel. It does not have cylinder heads. Rather, each cylinder contains two pistons, at either end of the cylinder, that turn two crankshafts. A very deliberate part of Achates’ development process is to make its engines burn cleaner than conventional diesel engines.
By now the company has more than 300 patents and patent applications. The company is similar to its Sorrento Mesa neighbor, Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), in that it develops technology that it licenses to others, said Larry Fromm, Achates Power’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer.
In the case of Achates Power, the licensed technology includes designs, patents, control software, development tools and testing tools.
“We don’t plan to manufacture engines in volume,” Fromm said. That work is for others to do.
An Alternative For Big Rigs
One of Achates Power’s projects is a 10.6-liter diesel engine for big-rig trucks. The business has built four of them for testing. One went into the Peterbilt 579 truck that Walmart plans to test. The three others are in labs.
The engine was developed as part of the $16.7 million Heavy-Duty Diesel Demonstration Program, which is funded by the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and the Sacramento Metro Air Management District. The project is being coordinated by Calstart, a nonprofit clean transportation consortium based in Pasadena.
The Heavy-Duty Diesel Demonstration Program engines also use an ultralow nitrogen oxides after-treatment system developed by the San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute.
Program goals include making carbon dioxide emissions as low as possible. The current engine emits 7% below the current standard, Fromm said.
“We already beat the 2027 standard by a big margin,” he said.
A second goal is to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOx. In this category, emissions comply with pending 2027 requirements of both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California regulators.
Internal combustion engines are expected to endure in long-haul trucking. It is hard to beat a diesel engine if one wants to carry loads a couple of thousand miles, Fromm said. Areas of the world that are still growing — outside the United States, Europe and Japan — will likely use liquid-fueled engines for a long time, he said.
“The necessary transition to more sustainable transportation is uncertain, with numerous tradeoffs to be made. It is clear that some geographies and some applications will transition sooner, and it will be a while until we replace the 100 million internal combustion engines that are sold each year,” said David Crompton, CEO of Achates Power.
“Improving the efficiency and cleanliness of engines, then, can make a substantial contribution towards our transportation goals. With the Heavy Duty Demonstration Program, we’ve demonstrated the ability to generate very, very low levels of criteria emissions while also substantially reducing CO2 emissions — all in a cost effective and robust package that can speed adoption.”
The engine could be commercially available by 2027. Fromm said it takes six years to design and field an engine.
U.S. Army Project
Separately, with engine-maker Cummins Inc., Achated Power is developing its Advanced Combat Engine for the U.S. Army. The initial project — which has the same opposed piston design — is a 1,000 horsepower model that could drive a vehicle the size of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
In late 2020, the Army awarded a $5 million contract for continued development of the engine. The engine will be integrated into a Bradley Fighting Vehicle this year, and could be in production by 2024.
Once the engine design is refined, the Army is considering development of 750 horsepower and 1,500 horsepower versions. The latter could power an Abrams tank.
Achates does not disclose its revenue. It derives it from several sources, including customer contracts (such as that with the U.S. Army), license fees and grants (from agencies such as the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Department of Energy). A third party source, Zoominfo, estimates Achates Power has revenue of $21 million. The business has 40 employees.
Investors in the company have included the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, whose members include large oil companies, as well as Sequoia Capital Partners, RockPort Capital Partners, Madrone Capital Partners, InterWest Partners and Triangle Peak Partners.