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Energy Department Grant Puts Gas-Fueled Engine on Agenda

A Sorrento Valley company may one day put a new type of engine — a relic of World War II with a radical update — under the hoods of the cars that ply Southern California’s freeways.

With $9 million from the U.S. Department of Energy beginning to roll in, Achates Power Inc. has set out on a three-year project to build a gasoline-fueled engine for sport utility vehicles and light trucks.

It’s a departure for Achates. The business has largely been working with diesel engines over its 12-year history.

The gas-powered engine will have neither sparkplugs nor cylinder heads. It will burn fuel like a diesel engine, igniting the gasoline with the heat and high pressure of compression. Each of its three cylinders will have twin pistons — one at either end of the cylinder bore — turning crankshafts at opposite ends of the engine.

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The opposed-piston gasoline compression ignition engine goes by an ungainly acronym — OPGCI — but it promises to run cleaner and much more efficiently than its conventional counterparts.

Making a gasoline engine behave like a diesel is “not so easy to do,” said David Johnson, CEO of Achates Power.

Achates is getting some high-power help for the project.

Partners Argonne National Laboratory and Delphi Automotive bring their research into efficient combustion to the table. The Illinois-based national laboratory has worked on gasoline compression technology for almost 10 years.

Achates specializes in efficient, opposed-piston architecture.

“We really look at it as marriage, a marriage of two very good ideas,” Johnson said.

Engineers think a gasoline engine with the new architecture will be highly efficient — efficient enough to meet 2025 fuel-economy and emission standards. The proposed CAFE 2025 standard calls for an average 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks.

Since 2004, Achates has designed or built opposed-piston engines that burn diesel fuel, natural gas or jet fuel. The engines range from 50 to 5,000 horsepower.

The Achates engine takes its design inspiration from the German Junkers diesel aircraft engines of the 1930s and 1940s. With 75 years of advances in scientific instrumentation, Achates has been able to fine-tune the basic design.

The engine completes its ignition cycle in two strokes, rather than the four strokes common in gasoline-powered auto engines.

To make a two-stroke OPGCI engine work, engineers need to achieve the right mixture of fresh air and exhaust gas in the cylinder at the right temperature, Johnson said. The development team can vary the amount of exhaust gas that stays in the chamber and the temperature.

To fund the project, Achates is supplementing the Energy Department’s $9 million with $4 million of its own money.

The privately held business has venture backing from Sequoia Capital Partners, RockPort Capital Partners, Madrone Capital Partners, InterWest Partners and Triangle Peak Partners. Founder James Lemke also received an investment from the late John Walton (a member of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s founding family).

Achates will do two-thirds to three-quarters of the work on the new OPGCI engine in San Diego, Johnson said.

Once the design is refined, Achates engineers think they can shrink the engine concept to two cylinders — making it appropriate for midsize cars or small SUVs — or enlarge it to four cylinders, making it appropriate for heavy-duty pickup trucks.

Achates’ other projects include a partnership with Cummins Inc. to produce a single-cylinder combat engine. The U.S. Army wants to use it in future tanklike fighting vehicles. The partners are working on the project under a $13.8 million Pentagon contract.

Patent Power

Achates Power has 105 patents from around the world, and has applied for 160 additional patents.

The innovative business has been growing. It is approaching 100 employees, with 75 in San Diego. The business has a branch office in suburban Detroit. Revenue tripled year-over-year to more than $10 million in 2015. Achates outgrew its first Sorrento Valley building and has expanded into two nearby buildings, Johnson said. The business has added a third engine “test cell” to the two it previously had.

The company’s latest project — combining opposed pistons with gasoline compression ignition — may raise gasoline engines to a new level of efficiency, the business has said in statements since the win was announced in December.

“We think this combination of technologies is really earth-shattering,” Johnson said.


CEO: David Johnson

Revenue: Greater than $10 million in 2015; greater than $3 million in 2014

No. of local employees: 75

Investors: The investor group includes Sequoia Capital Partners, RockPort Capital Partners, Madrone Capital Partners, InterWest Partners and Triangle Peak Partners

Headquarters: Sorrento Valley

Year founded: 2004

What makes the company innovative: Achates is applying its opposed-piston engine technology to create a very efficient gasoline engine for sport utility vehicles and light trucks


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