Predicting the future is a risky business. Lincoln Steffens, muckraking journalist and admirer of the Soviet Union said, regarding the then young USSR, “I have been over into the future, and it works.” Steffens apparently wrote that before he actually visited the workers paradise in the early 1920s. A decade later he regretted that endorsement.
Music writer Jon Landau’s prediction was a bit more accurate. “Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square Theater, I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name was Bruce Springsteen.” Landau was soon to edge The Boss’ original manager, Mike Appel, out of the picture, took over management of Springsteen’s career and production of his music, and did everything in his power to make his prophecy a self-fulfilling one.
Earlier this week I believe that I saw the future of transportation and stationary power and its name is OPOC. That stands for “opposed piston opposed cylinder”, a new engine architecture being developed for production and licensing by EcoMotors, a Troy, Michigan startup.
Yes, there are lots of “revolutionary” engine designs, most of them hype, and those that aren’t just hype rarely reach working prototype stage, let alone production. The OPOC, though, comes with a pedigree and a management team that brings substantial and credible automotive experience.
OPOC is the brainchild of Prof. Peter Hofbauer, former head of powertrain development for Volkswagen and designer of VW’s first diesel engine. Some call him the father of the modern high speed diesel. Dr. Hofbauer is Chief Technology Officer at Ecomotors. CEO of Ecomotors is Don Runkle, longtime GM engineer and executive. Runkle held the positions of chief engineer of Chevrolet, chief engineer of powertrain and racing at the Buick Division, director of Advanced Vehicle Engineering, vice president of GM’s Advanced Engineering Staff and GM’s North American VP in charge of the Warren Tech Center. President and Chief Operating Officer is John Colleti, ex of Ford, where he was responsible for the hugely successful (and fairly profitable) SVT high performance program.
According to EcoMotors, their leadership team has more than 230 years of collective experience in the automotive and power generation industries, has been awarded over 150 patents, and has managed more than 30 powertrain programs and more than two dozen new vehicle launches. Between them the company’s leaders have won four engine of the year awards.
The engine startup made the news recently when Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla anted up $23.5 million for EcoMotors’ round B funding. Khosla had previously invested in the company and it operates as part of his Khosla Ventures group. EcoMotors plans on both building engines for non-automotive applications, to prove the engine’s competence, and license the architecture to automakers to develop their own engines based on the OPOC layout. The payoff is potentially huge. There are over 100 million internal combustion engines sold every year in the world. About half of those are cars and light trucks. Some are for heavy trucks and buses, while the remainders are used for everything from power generation to lawn equipment. That’s a $350 billion/year market in total, and EcoMotors is convinced that the OPOC is suitable for just about every ICE application.
Gates’ involvement got big headlines, but it’s Khosla’s backing of the project that gives it particular credibility. Khosla, a founder of Sun Microsystems, is fond of backing what he projects will be disruptive technologies capable of entering the mainstream in a variety of developed and developing markets, with sustainable and profitable non-subsidized prices. He’s known as a major investor in alternative technology, with investments in cellulosic ethanol and batteries, so the fact that he has endorsed, with his money, an internal combustion engine says that there is yet life in the old bird. Of course the OPOC is a bird of a different feather.
EcoMotors says that though they expect another round of venture funding, they now have sufficient funds to fully develop and engineer the OPOC engine to ready-for-production status, and maybe into early production planning.
Earlier funding, about $50 came in the form of defense contracts with DARPA. Two engines were successfully developed but the US government stopped funding for the program. Another $18 million was committed by Zhongding Holding Group and Global Optima of China to fund development of engines for their own production.
It’s easier to understand how the OPOC concept works from a model or animation than with a description. In basic form it’s a horizontally opposed two cylinder engine. Each opposing cylinder has two pistons, opposing pistons that are connected to the same crankshaft but out of phase so that they move in opposite directions to each other, compressing the air between them and allowing it to expand as the crankshaft spins. So there are two cylinders, each with two opposing pistons. All the reciprocating forces cancel each other out, there is no force on the crankcase, all the force is direct to the crankshaft and the stresses on the crankshaft are simple. So far there have been some piston failures, and casting problems but they haven’t broken a crank yet.
By going with a two stroke design, they eliminate complicated valves and associated machinery, as well as the need for a separate and expensive cylinder head. A comparably powered OPOC engine has 1/6 the number of parts as a conventional V8. The OPOC achieves close to 4 stroke levels of gas scavenging by lots of fluid dynamics modeling, careful port design, and the electrically controlled turbocharger. It’s a standard Borg Warner turbo with an electric motor connected to the turbine shafts. From idle, it gets the turbo to speed, reducing turbo lag. More importantly it allows control of back pressure, improving gas exchange. Once the turbo is up to speed, the motor acts as a generator, and that current is supplied to the electrical system.
The folks at EcoMotors are very big on two cycle engines. As Runkle said, if you could choose, why build a complicated 4 stroke engine that wastes half the strokes? The OPOC has power on every down stroke. The drawback to a two-cycle engine, of course is that they are dirty. The lack of precision valves and the ability of a 4 stroke to pump air means that two cycle engines don’t have as complete a burn nor do they scavenge the exhaust gases well. A typical two stroke leaves a lot of exhaust gas in the cylinder as well as spewing some unburned fuel out the exhaust. EcoMotors says that their design has all of the advantages of a two-stroke engine with none of the drawbacks, achieving 90% gas scavenging, close to a four-stroke’s 95% and much better than the best two-strokes.
EcoMotors is doing the engineering and design on the engine, whose 6th generation version is currently being developed. The actual assembly and testing is being done at Roush Industries, with Roush contributing some technical expertise. When I asked EcoMotors if I could have a tour of their engine lab, they graciously arranged interviews with Don Runkle and Jonathan Hurden, EcoMotors Chief Engineer, at the Roush complex in Livonia.
I first met with Hurden, who showed me the latest engine that’s being assembled, and told me what was protected proprietary information and thus out of camera range. He described the engine, answered my questions and then took me into the test cell where the latest completed version of the OPOC engine was running on a dyno. After that, I sat down for a detailed interview with Don Runkle, where he gave me a condensed version of the pitch they give to potential customers and investors, as well as some answers to my questions.
Like his bosses, Hurden has an impressive resume, having managed powertrain development for the Rover Group, been chief engineer at BMW Group managing powertrains for Land Rover and Mini, and been managing director at Mahle Powertrain (previously Cosworth Technology).
While I was there, the castings for the newest version engine were arriving via UPS. The internals of the latest 6th gen motor are already running on the dyno in the 5th gen crankcase & block. The newer engine will have wet cylinder liners instead of the current dry sleeves.
The engine is surprisingly compact, though it looks a bit wide. Hurden says that width is deceptive. The M100 engine on the stand is a 300HP direct injected two-stroke diesel engine. It has a displacement of 2.5 liters, cylinder bores of 100mm (with very short strokes), and has dimensions of (LxWxH): 22.8 x 41.3 x 18.5 – note the short length and low height. With aluminum construction, it weighs only 300 lbs. Compare that to the 300HP engines from Cummins and Navistar that respectively weigh 1,100 and 900 lbs. and have dimensions that dwarf the OPOC. Runkle says that production OPOC engines will easily weigh less than half what similarly powered diesel and gasoline engines weigh. Though the current prototypes run on diesel fuel, the OPOC engine can run on a variety of fuels including gases and alcohols as well as gasoline.
The power and torque ratings are dyno tested with standard ancillaries.
Hurden said that combustion development was their current focus. Towards that end, a joint project with the University of Michigan College of Engineering has developed an optical version of the OPOC engine that allows high speed photography of the combustion chamber, combustion plume and exhaust gases. Hurden said that the current prototype is a “robust workhorse”, and that while he “intends to break these engines”, so far they haven’t broken a crank or thrown a rod, though he did show me a badly detonated piston. Every prototype including the first has run at least as well as predictions and so far the measured results match well with the anticipated figures. The main focus is meeting emissions but before that comes durability. The Roush technician building the engine is an alumnus of the Roush NASCAR team and he said that their motto was “break it on the dyno so it doesn’t break in use.” Right now it seems to be durable and some of the emissions targets have been met. The overall goal is the 2010 Tier 2 Bin 5 Heavy Duty Truck standard. While it can meet the standards at specific RPM levels, they are working on meeting the standards across the power band. The RPM range is currently 700-3800. Though without valves and with a short strokes this could be a high revving engine, the ultimate goal is fuel efficiency and high RPM means high piston speed and that’s the major source of friction in an engine. Lower friction = better efficiency so the redline is currently 3800 RPM, in line with other truck diesels.
Hurden expects that they will meet the emissions targets later this year. He said that with the exception of the design of the combustion chamber, no advanced technologies or costly materials were needed for development, just the normal engine development processes used, let’s say for the next LSx at GM. He alluded to problems with castings, an age old one in the auto industry. The one area where he said that EcoMotors was breaking new ground was in combustion chamber design. That the only part of the engine that they asked me not to photograph, the complex combustion chamber carved into the piston head.
All I can say is that it’s the coolest looking piston head I’ve ever seen. If it was back in the Rocket 88 and Cobra Jet days, the shape carved into the head would have inspired ad men to new heights in pursuit of an appropriate brand name.
Since they’ve registered OPOC as a trademark, I asked if they had any branding plans a la HEMI and they found the idea of an OPOC logo on the fender of a car somewhat humorous.
They made no claims for durability, but the fact that there is no complicated valve train to break, nor a cylinder head to warp or crack (the ports are circumferential to the cylinders), shows potential for good durability. More important to durability are the engine’s inherent balance, simple loading on the crankshaft and no forces on the crankcase. Loading on the crank is such that only two main bearings will suffice. That further lowers friction.
In current development, the M100 OPOC engine tuned to meet current North American emissions standards, on the dyno generates 240 HP and 487 foot-pounds of torque, so they aren’t too far away from meeting both power and emissions goals.
Hurden then took me through a maze of rooms ending up at the test cell where the gen 5.5 engine was spinning away merrily. After putting in some ear plugs we went into the dyno chamber so I could get some video for the web site. I can say without a doubt that the OPOC is the smoothest running engine I’ve ever seen run. I was tempted to ask about doing the Rolls-Royce balance a coin on top of a running engine trick, but I also have little doubt that it would have stood still. In a video of the engine, they placed a beaker of water on the running engine and there was hardly a ripple in the surface.
The OPOC may be the best balanced combustion engine ever built. It’s absolutely phenomenal. Other than the noise, the only way to tell it’s running is to look at the belt drive and pulleys.
The engine, impressive as it is, is still a development prototype. When I entered the test cell, in addition to the electrically controlled turbo mounted between the cylinders, on the floor, plumbed into the maze of exhaust pipes, was what looked like an Eaton supercharger running off an electric motor. When I asked about the blower, Hurden asked me not to photograph it since it won’t be part of the final engine. While they are fine tuning the combustion process, they need a surplus of intake air under pressure, which the Eaton blower supplies reliably. Once they get the combustion chamber shape finalized, the onboard turbo will be optimized to provide all the compressed air the engine needs.