Achates Power, the US-based developer of Opposed-Piston technology for internal combustion engines, has been working to enhance fuel efficiency, and reduce emissions and cost of IC engines. Its new technology helps OEMs achieve the current and future fuel efficiency and emission standards, including EPA 2010, Euro 6 and Tier 3/LEV 3, without extra cost or complexity. With two pistons for each cylinder working in opposite reciprocating action, these engines do not have cylinder heads that reject heat. The company has 12 concurrent customers whose contracts cover five different engine applications: Passenger vehicle, Light commercial vehicle, Heavy commercial vehicle, Military and, Marine/stationary power. David Johnson, President and CEO, Achates Power, told T Murrali of AutoParts Asia that, “now we have a more industrial and automotive board than before. We have won many contracts this year, keeping us growing. So, things are looking good.” Edited excerpts:
Q: What is the latest in Achates Power?
A: Achates started as a venture capital-funded firm. Since 2011-12, we have been into a deep commercialisation phase and working with major OEMs around the world. We have been interacting with Vice-Presidents and Chief Technical officers of powertrains to get their insights, perspectives and experience, which have been guiding our strategy to develop the commercialisation trajectory. We are very fortunate to have Gary Convis, the highest ranking American on the Toyota team, on board for nearly a decade, who has also worked at the JV plant between GM and Toyota in California. That is now the Tesla plant. About two years ago we also brought in Frank Macher. Now we have a more industrial and automotive board than ever before; it’s an important milestone for the company.
Q: You have been on converting sceptics to subscribers. How is it now, how does the present scenario speed up your growth?
A: There are many ingredients to convince a person or a company; the primary ingredient is data. It’s all about what the engine can produce in terms of power, torque, emissions and fuel consumption. By working with customers around the world, we have been able to demonstrate in our dynamometers with their CAD data how our engines would fit their vehicles with the required transmissions. That’s the foundation of our sales to any company interested in our technology.
The next is our track record; most companies will start by asking us to do a small project so that they can judge our response and the data that result from it. Success here would determine our getting a bigger project. That’s why US Army business has been going strong; we won our first contract (the next generation combat engine) with the army in 2012. In this project we designed, built and demonstrated on dynamometer, a three-cylinder engine to their specification. It was a $5-million project, very successful, and got us more follow-on business.
Q: What were the benefits to your customer in this project?
A: There were three key benefits: high-powered density, low heat rejection and good fuel efficiency with durability. The differentiator between our engines and conventional types is power density and low heat rejection.
Q: What is the power density ratio?
A: The power density for that project was 70 HP per litre of displacement that includes the swept volume; the trapped volume is another ratio of higher power density. We had a heat rejection target which we achieved comfortably. Because of this we won the follow-on project, the advanced combat engine programme.
Q: Can you throw some more light on heat rejection?
A: The US Army asked us to quantify the heat coming out of the engine to the coolant and the oil as a ratio to the quantity of heat that comes out of the engine at work; more work and less heat – that ratio should be as low as possible. The target for us was 70 percent i.e. for 100 HP, 70 percent was heat, and we beat that by a long margin for them to come in with us. We brought Cummins on board as our partner for the advanced combat engine programme. They changed the matrix and made it even tougher for heat rejection, 45 percent of engine power. We won $19 million for that business over three years, and we changed the engine from single cylinder to three cylinders.
Subsequently, we have won a $47-million contract for the same with Cummins which is now the primary contractor to the US Army, with us supporting them. Cummins is going to develop 1000 HP four-cylinder engines for combat vehicles. This track record of success will enable us to talk to other customers about the development of our technology, the capability of our team and the value addition we can provide.
Q: How many customers do you have now? Last year you had 12.
A: A similar number now, maybe a little higher. We have won many contracts this year, keeping us growing. So, things are looking good.
Q: At what phase are these projects, development or commercial?
A: We started off as a research company trying to solve challenges and develop solutions for our customers around the world. Right now we are in the product development phase, working with customers to design and develop prototype engines for production. The industrialisation phase is just around the corner with customers very close to production; you will see it shortly in the marketplace.
Q: Will you be hand-holding them for some time?
A: It depends on the customer. Some customers are very competent in engineering and manufacturing, obviously they need less support. For example, Cummins, that needs us mainly in the engineering stage where intricate details are involved.
Q: What is your role in integrating the engine to the vehicle?
A: We start that very upfront. One of the first things the customer wants to know is how the engine will fit in his vehicle. We have a plan to create a full-size pickup truck with our engine in it. This engine we started designing about a year-and-a-half ago, based on a grant we received from the US Department of Energy, ARPAE (Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy). We were asked to do a new project to create a light-duty engine that would run on gasoline compression-ignition. We are building that prototype now to fit into the Ford F-150. So, you have to design the engine to fit into the vehicle; it’s good engineering work. Having done that, we make sure the thermodynamics and mechanical functions deliver the required durability, fuel efficiency, low emissions and other parameters which are important to our customers.
Q: Lubricant makers work on offering uniform drain intervals for all kinds of oils. How well prepared is Achates to handle this?
A: We integrate very well with our suppliers and their developing technologies. For example, for the gasoline-compression engine our partner is Delphi for the fuel injection system as well as other components around the engine. We are able to integrate their advanced technologies into our engine to make it more efficient, clean and cost-effective. This is the type of synergy we look at. We are also working on after-treatment for the engine in the same way at our test cell in Santiago; the integration has given us excellent results.
Q: That’s interesting as lot of thought is going on for after-treatment in this industry. From Euro-IV to VI, technologies are being developed by some countries to do away with SCR or EGR considering emission requirements. How effective is the Achates engine in eliminating certain after-treatment processes like DPF, ECR and DPR?
A: Our engine has a very favourable exhaust flow in toto. We see good benefits in temperatures and flow rates over the full operating map of the engine; the rate of the exhaust gas is narrower, and our temperatures are not that high or low as in conventional engines. High temperatures at the exhaust cause the after-treatment to degrade in performance. That’s why regulations like BS-VI, Euro-VI or EPA have a durability requirement. While engineering the after-treatment system you have to think about the degradation factor; the more it degrades, the bigger the after-treatment system, the costlier it will be. What degrades it is temperature and since our temperatures are lower, we will need less to start with; that’s a cost reduction opportunity.
At the lower range, the temperature is problematic for after-treatment because it is a catalyst. It needs to get to an operating temperature to work properly. When you have low temperatures, it’s less effective. In the low range, with our engine, the low temperatures are higher, so we don’t see a fall in efficiency. Our tailpipe emissions are low for the operating zone of the engine; so, we can give you a better operating system.
Q: In after-treatment, the complete delivery system depends on the wheel-base and the length of the vehicle. If the length is more, heat dissipation is higher. Since you have an optimised graph, would this be counter-productive for a shorter wheel-based engine?
A: It’s really a packaging problem on the vehicle; it depends on the vehicle architecture. What we see is the benefit to the engine regardless of the vehicle size. In all engines you have to make the after-treatment as close and small as you can as the size is related to cost.
Q: What about unburnt fuel coming out of the engine into the exhaust?
A: With standards like BS-VI there is little chance of having unburnt fuel. One thing we have made sure in Achates is to have an engine and combustion system that supports total combustion. You must have close to 99 percent efficiency and that is what we have demonstrated in our engine with Opposed Pistons; you can’t achieve this with a single piston conventional engine.
We have two piston crowns that form our combustion chamber; they are shaped to be complementary to each other. We have a combination of swirl and tumble of air-fuel in the chamber with very high energy of air when the fuel is injected; this gives complete combustion. The system architecture ensures that combustion is not done at the surface of the pistons but away from it, separated by an air chamber zone, called the region, from the cylinder walls so that the combustion is not quenched. This further enables complete combustion.
Q: With electro-mobility in place, your sceptics seem to be coming back. On one side developments in diesel engines are going on while on the other side you are coming up with new things; the third dimension to this is e-mobility. The probabilities for the new technologies seem bleak, in my view. How do you see it?
A: I’ll try to change your view. The public discourse on the future of transportation has to take e-mobility into account; but the issues on costs, charging, and the ability to go long distances at a stretch etc have to be solved. The reality is far from that. There is certainly a role for electrification, but pure battery electrics will take some time before they achieve high volumes.
Q: The cost of batteries is coming down. One kW hour from a lithium battery cost $670 ten years ago, now it is $230 and is expected to reach $100 by 2025. So, disruption is happening at a much faster pace in the e-mobility space.
A: But the issues remain. For example, electric golf carts are ideal on the golf course. They are lightweight, go smoothly, work for around four hours and go back to the same place each night; so, no problem. But class-A trucks with electrification? Can you compare a 40-tonne truck with a one tonne passenger car? Electrification has to start first with cars before it comes to trucks. What is the penetration rate for electrification in small cars? Just 10-to-15 percent; maybe in 20 years it would get to 50 percent. So, it would take some time to cover trucks.
Of course, there are applications of class-A trucks where it could make sense like in shipping yards or ports where the distance travelled is short and limited. Tesla is not making any money on the actual vehicles they sell; the only way they make any money is by selling the credits to people who understand electric vehicles.
Q: What are the significant improvements you have made in the laboratory that would benefit your customers?
A: We started the company running only on diesel fuel but the most exciting development we had last year was our work with gasoline-compression engines. People are aware that though diesel may not be in favour at this moment everywhere in the world, it’s still a very energy-dense fuel that can provide clean transportation. However, gasoline is a resource we can use and the results from testing the gasoline-compression engine in the lab have been spectacular: high efficiencies, low emissions and very good combustion control. We are looking forward to running multi-cylinder engines on that. All these innovations have been captured in our patents portfolio, 200 so far and another 200 pending. It’s a rich body of solutions to the challenges of the Opposed Piston engines. Earlier it was only with diesel fuel; now it’s with diesel, gasoline and natural gas.
In normal engine development you are always pushing the limits, whether you’re in Formula-1 or a Nano. You are always trying to achieve more in terms of durability, lower cost, better performance, lower emissions; as we developed we have also been pushing the limits. The example is for the military where we have achieved the combination of low heat rejection, low fuel consumption and high power density. As we push the limits, we learn, invent and create better solutions to be offered.
Q: What are your immediate plans?
A: We are on a good trajectory, and we plan to continue that. We have had meetings with companies in China; some exciting projects are likely to come up. We are around the world developing business, growing the company, and helping the world understand and use our technology.