By on March 18, 2010

It seems political forces are pushing us towards EVs long before EVs are ready for prime time. “California has enormous power over the future of vehicles in this country,” and California regulators want to dump carbon, Tom Baloga, of BMW of North America told a packed audience at a session on EVs at an MIT energy conference March 6th. Thus, we have the Tesla, and the Fisker Karma, and the Leaf and the Volt are due out this year, and I don’t know anyone who wants to buy one, do you?

But for all their limitations, EVs have one major advantage: electricity is cheap compared to gasoline. But a new development may change that equation. A company called Transonic Combustion, based in Camarillo, CA has developed a supercritical fuel injection system that could boost the fuel economy of ICE by 50-75%, and it is working with two unnamed Asian OEMs, as well as one Euro, and one US to get these things onto cars in showrooms for model year 2014. In fact, a Prius-equivalent in-size-and-mass diesel test car achieved 64 mpg highway (EPA cycle), making the 48 mpg highway (EPA) Prius look thirsty by comparison (your mileage may vary!). The VC firms Venrock and Khosla Ventures have invested.

A “supercritical” state has unusual properties that enable short ignition delay, faster, more uniform and complete combustion that minimizes crevice burn and partial combustion near the cylinder walls, and that reduces the heat losses that waste copious energy in conventional engines. The system can also run with the air intake open at speeds where it would normally be throttled, thinning the air/fuel mix down to 80:1. The result of all this: cruising steadily at 50 mph yielded nearly 100 mpg in the test car, Mike Rocke, Transonic’s VP of business development told Technology Review.

The fuel, which can be any of a number of hydrocarbons (gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, vegetable oil, heptane, and ethanol have all been used successfully) must be heated and pressurized prior to injection into the combustion chamber. The necessary high technology would add about $1,500 to the cost of an engine, according to the company, but it is simple and light weight compared to the batteries and software that make a hybrid.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that some amazing fuel cell or battery development won’t come along and take the wind back out of internal combustion’s sails. But it’s also conceivable, even if that happens, that some other development in ICE might boost gas mileage well into triple digits. The bottom line: predicting technological developments is dicey. Politicians listen up: if you want to reduce carbon emissions, tax carbon. If you want to throttle the river of oil money flowing to OPEC, tax oil. But don’t try to micromanage technological development because you are likely to waste money on the wrong technology. I’m talking to you, Metropolitan Washington Council ofGovernments: If you want to encourage fuel efficiency with the HOV lanes, let single passenger cars on the HOV lanes during rush hour based on fuel mileage, or perhaps carbon mileage, but end that stupid break for hybrids. Some of them, like the Chevy Silverado, get pathetic mileage.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

42 Comments on “Supercritical Fuel Injection Development Promises More Efficient Combustion...”

  • avatar

    If I was wealthy, I’d throw down for a Fisker Karma as a daily driver.

    And then I’d buy a Viper ACR-X to take to the track on weekends. Am I doing it right?

  • avatar

    That’s a big if for most of us

  • avatar

    There’s only one problem with any R&D solution – NIH.

    Not Invented Here. The ‘Big whatever’ pay a licensing fee? Over their dead bodies.

    Porsche pissed away millions trying to invent a balancer for the I4, rather than pay Mitsubishi ~$8 per engine license fee.
    In the end Porsche gave up and paid to use the counter-rotaters, but this kind of thing happens all the time.

    If this is a really functional idea, Detroit will either try to get around the patents, or they will simply steal the tech and let the lawyers sort it out.

  • avatar

    I’m skeptical.

    Not to say that they may not have something here. But there’s not too much efficiency left from current diesel designs before you bump into the efficiency limits of the Carnot cycle.

    This sounds too much like magic spark plugs and the like that have been touted so highly by some, and then turned out to be practically worthless.

  • avatar

    More details on the concept here

  • avatar

    Transonic’s development sounds much like HCCI, which is forecast to improve fuel econmy by maybe 10-12%, if I recall correctly.

    Sure, 10-12% isn’t bad but it’s also not a game-changing improvement. Running a vehicle on electricity really means running a vehicle on coal, natural gas, solar, hyrdo, nuclear, what-have-you, and that is game-changing. And BEVs never waste energy idling, no added expense for start-stop or a hybrid drive.

    I do know people who are interested. At the right price, my wife is interested. Almost any multi-car suburban family could probably swap one ICE vehicle for a BEV of modest range. We certainly could. They’re just a little too costly at this point but that will change.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    The linked article claims a 10% increase in efficiency! Not 75!
    Until this thing is tested by independent third parties, anecdotal claims are worthless, especially at a steady 50 mph.
    BTW: there are over 50k (each) signed up on lists for both the Volt and Leaf.

  • avatar

    Will electricity remain cheap as a “fuel” if everyone switches to electric cars? I think not.
    Also, in its current forms, electric cars are way too expensive to buy. And they don’t have the range without some advancements in battery technology. Is an electric pickup truck practical for towing?

    • 0 avatar

      Electric seems to have worked out pretty well for towing freight trains…

      Electric motors develop 100% of their torque at 0 RPM, and require no elaborate clutch or fluid coupling to apply their power to the driven wheels. They can be designed to pull a stump up a tree, or accelerate very rapidly, or go very fast. The deal breaker for BEVs is, has always been, and most likely always be, not RANGE, but REFUELING TIME.

    • 0 avatar

      Freight trains are moved by electric motors that use electricity generated from diesel fuel. Good old petrol. There are no batteries involved.

    • 0 avatar

      Electricity will remain as ‘cheap’ as anything, because it’s generation is extremely fungible. It doesn’t matter if it’s generated by coal, nuclear, natural gas, solar, hydro, wind, geothermal, sock puppets, baby seals, toddler-mounted dynamos, whatever. If it gets on the grid, it’s exactly the same to the end user. That allows a lot of flexibility.

  • avatar

    I watched the video and looked into this a little more. The video is from two years ago. The company has made little, if any, progress since then.

    I’m now even more skeptical. Looks to me like their talk produces as much hot air as their technology.

  • avatar

    PN: 50k + 50k is not going to change the world. These are the earliest of the early adopters.

    @KixStart: what’s the right price? Anywhere near the Leaf’s what is it, $25k?

  • avatar

    Electricity, for all its limitations, doesn’t require large amounts of foreign troops, regime changes, or a massive transfer of American wealth to guarantee its supply.

    • 0 avatar

      Where is the lithium for the latest batteries? Not in the US for the most part.

      Electricity just moves the problem to another place and maybe another substance.

    • 0 avatar

      Lithium is in the US in large quantities. The Chinese chose to undercut the cost so the mines closed. High demand will open them and start up the Cat equipment to mine it.. Not a problem.
      Anyone who buys photovoltaic panels will buy an EV. Those panels have absolutely NO financial justification. Just a feel good application. Which is fine by me as long as they spend their own money.

    • 0 avatar

      We have petroleum in large quantities in the US too. Some folks have forbidden obtaining it.

  • avatar

    A top notch power plant – gas turbine combined cycle power plant – can hit 60% efficiency. One of my work chotskies is an Inconel 625 heat recovery component from a building size standby generator power section. If you can get as efficient as the best fixed plants, it is roughly 2x where we are now with cars. But power plants don’t have to worry about weight or size either – while cost is obviously a common concern. Interesting question – should we discount the efficiency of BEVs or hybrids to reflect the (at least) 40% plus transmission losses? Greenies wouldn’t like that very much.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    Politicians listen up: if you want to reduce carbon emissions, tax carbon. If you want to throttle the river of oil money flowing to OPEC, tax oil.

    Screw carbon tax, an oil tax is so much better:
    * reduces demand for oil, thus taking money away from famelcuckers, gauche Russian bouchedags, African limb-hackers and tubby tinpot pinkos
    * addresses ‘low-hanging fruit’ carbon emissions (for those who believe in manbearpig)
    * revenue could offset military spending on CENTCOM
    * targeting gasoline instead of diesel/kerosene would not be inflationary on shipping consumer goods since real commercial transport is heavy-fuel, only poseurs have gas-powered trucks
    * use gasoline tax to fund infrastructure for quick-recharge (480v 3-phase) ‘pumps’ and hydrogen/LPG generation (from natgas on-site) at fillup stations

    Frankly, I think that a baseline level of liability insurance should be priced into every gallon of gas at a federal level, with the insurance contracts blind-auctioned off as blocks. Bye bye uninsured motorists, and you only pay for the insurance you use since it’s directly related to the amount of fuel you use.

  • avatar

    My wife is super critical. Does that count?

  • avatar

    I have no interest in a Volt – ever – but the Leaf, maybe.

    But when it comes down to a real buying decision, I’d still probably opt for an ICE car at half the price of the Leaf’s $28k guesstimate.

  • avatar

    To the skeptics: having Venrock and Khosla invest in your high tech start-up is like getting your scientific article into Science, Nature, or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s been well-vetted.

    Regarding the geopolitical benefits of electricity: Sure, it would be great if we could have an EV that had a range o f 300-plus miles and a charging time of less than five minutes. But I’d be surprised if we had anything close ten years from now. But if this technology works as described, in ten years a majority of the cars on the road could be using this technology, making a huge dent in our oil dependency.

    • 0 avatar

      To the skeptics: having Venrock and Khosla invest in your high tech start-up is like getting your scientific article into Science, Nature, or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s been well-vetted.

      Not true. At least as to Vinod Khosla. The people at Khosla Ventures are not particularly good. Khosla has invested in several duds, including one that I was involved with (to my shame). He also put a lot of money into ethanol, investments that turned out to be a waste.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    All due respect to these guys, but people have been heating/pressurizing fuel before injection for probably 100 years, and witnessed the resulting burn-efficiency improvements. These guys may have made it concept ready, even implementation ready if they’re lucky, and deserve credit for that much, but generally speaking, there’s nothing new under the sun. I’m sure everybody has some type of fuel pre-treatment going on in their labs, gas and diesel. I’m sure this process is book-ended, for function and cost, already.

    10% improvement? If I’m an OEM, how about I spend that cash on weight removal, which has a certain fuel economy payoff, and wait for my fuel pre-treatment concepts another 10 years or so, when they’re ripe, and my ECM technology and calibration/control is fully mature and ready for it?

    The government needs to get out of all of this. No need to tax anything, as the CO2 scare is being proven a scam. And if we’re worried about oil imports, then just don’t import, and drill here. However, you’ll soon make enemies of the Canadians and the Mexicans (I can just picture some Canuckistan jihadists attacking the Pentagon, if we cut off flow from those tar sands in Alberta!)

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I got kinda lost. Would a spark ignition gas engine still use ignition or would it use the super heated fuel to ignite without a spark? Anything that significantly gets us out from under foreign oil is welcome. Any current news from these guys?

    • 0 avatar

      Their technology uses the heat of compression to ignite the fuel, just like a diesel. But they say they can use other fuels as well.

      The current news from these guys is the same as the old news. “We will have a prototype car on the road soon. Three carmaker OEMs are interested. We will start making the product in 3 or 4 years.”

      Tomorrow. That’s what they said two years ago. That’s what they say today. That’s what they will say two years from now. Because tomorrow never comes.

  • avatar

    There is a standardized way to measure fuel efficiency and compare results: the Federal Test Procedure (FTP), that results in the familiar EPA MPG. One can argue how this translates to real world, but at least it is standard. Where is the data? I’m not interested in steady 50 MPH data; I get over 50 MPG in my gas compact car at 50 now.

    In my long career at an automaker the Research guys always said we would be running lean in gas engines 5 years in the future. Like a carrot in front of a donkey, always 5 years in the future. While the fuel efficiency is real, on order of 8%, at least two realities keep getting in the way:
    1) Three way catalysts do not convert NOx lean, whereas at stoic you get over 99% efficiency, and the emission laws assume this kind of level. There is a reduction in feedgas NOx if you go lean enough, say greater than 20:1. And there are now NOx traps for Diesels, but they still can’t make PZEV emissions with a Diesel.

    2) You can’t make torque lean. Even if you could run 80:1 as advertised, the peak torque this lean would be on order of 25% of peak (slightly rich of stoic A/F) torque, which is a nearly deceleration level. Most modern engines have the fuel turned completely off in thise low torque modes (infinite A/F). Unless you made the engine very large, which reduces efficiency, any accel and many steady cruises would require richer mixtures than say 20:1, getting you into the high feedgas NOX, while still zero cat efficiency region. You can’t sell cars that don’t meet NOx. The same EPA test that measures fuel also measures NOx; where is the data? Doing one without the other is meaningless!

    So every couple of years, after certain managers who learned this reality retired, the research guys would rediscover lean.

    Many of them proposed unique fuel systems as part of the answer, by the way.

    Regarding unburned fuel, Hydrocarbons, which are unburned fuel, are measured in part per million even before the catalyst. There is well under 1% of fuel that is not burned in a modern gasoline engine.

    Regarding venture capital. First, it is amazing how many people outside the industry think we in Detroit are stupid. They are quickly educated, of course, so one may ask why they hang around. Well in today’s environment there is tons of government money ready to fund the modern equivalent of magic carburetors or cow magnets. And the government hacks are even more ignorant than the venture capital guys. So you can get pretty far with a good power point presentation, some hollywood (or Redmond) bimbo supporters, and buzzwords, no matter how little sense the proposal makes. Just look at the Tesla!

    • 0 avatar

      First, it is amazing how many people outside the industry think we in Detroit are stupid.

      The distinction “outside the industry” is critical. Inside the auto industry, whether in Stuttgart, Munich, Maranello, Toyota City, or wherever there’s a car company, they appreciate the level of talent in Motown. Chances are, if a company is somehow in the auto biz, they have a facility in SEMI. Hell, even Tesla has an engineering shop in Pontiac.

  • avatar

    Is this in the same vein as Orbital engine technologies air injection system?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “California has enormous power over the future of vehicles in this country,”

    California is bankrupt and is going to have no power over anything.

    • 0 avatar

      Was it in Candide that there were philosophes who floated on air?

      Just because Cali is broke doesn’t mean that the unelected apparatchiks on CARB have to face reality. They have their authority and they’re going to use it.

      Better get used to petty bureaucratic despots like CARB proliferating as the Democrats increase the size and scope of all levels of government.

  • avatar

    Orbital actually had a pretty good idea and made some engines. Not sure where they are now, but they never went mainstream autos.

    They made a two stroke engine clean by using direct injection (DI), which is now going mainstream in four stroke engines. Non-DI two stroke engines blew about 30% of their fuel right out the exhaust during the all too long period when both the intake and exhaust orifices were open. Other than this nasty problem, two strokes are inherantly efficient relative to four strokes, so their ideas had a lot of potential.

    I believe the other problem with two-strokes, that was not solved, was that there was a large hole in the side of the cylinder that has to be traversed by a piston. Not a pretty picture, which is why lawn mower engines are rated in tens of hours, not 100k-250k miles.

    There are numberous examples of hyped up fuel economy demonstrations and fawning, poly sci major, politicians. An early example was the 80 mpg Moody Mercury Capri with a Perkins Diesel. See 1979 Time article here:,9171,916788,00.html

    Moody and crew drove it to DC using what we now call “hyper-miler” techniques; the congressman came out and actually signed the hood in paint; and it was all over the TV news. When tested on the EPA procedure if failed ALL of the emission standards and got only slightly better fuel than the current cars. About what you would expect from a 17 second 0-60 Diesel. The press, of course, never reported this. No updates from Time either to my knowledge.

    A more recent example was a Discovery Channel show I show about two years ago. There is indeed a car that runs on air. The narrator said that although the air pressure needs to be created from a power souce, the inventor was working on a model where the car itself pressurizes it own tank. He actually said in a questioning tone: perpetual motion? I kid you not; the Discovery Channel!

    Here is the video:

    The youtube comments are spot on, but you can be sure there was not a correction. It has been very frustrating working in the auto industry when the masses and press are so ignorant. Very frustrating.

    I’m not all doom and gloom, by the way. I love mild hybrids like Prius, Escape, Fusion, and to a lesser extent current Insight, which lacks regen braking. Mild hybrids get on order of 30% real MPG for $3000-$6000. Not cheap, but unlike a lot of the rest of the crap out there they actually work.

    Other than this try downsizing car, downsizing HP, combine trips, carpool, walk and bike. There are no miracle 100% fuel economy improvements to be had…the laws of physics rule. Nothing amazes me more than people driving to the gym.

    • 0 avatar

      why lawn mower engines are rated in tens of hours, not 100k-250k miles.

      Most lawn mower engines are traditional 4 stroke machines, like the Briggs & Strattons or Kohlers that are commonplace. Lawn Boy is about the only mower mfg that uses a two-stroke, and they’re durable enough that a lot of commercial lawn companies use them.

    • 0 avatar

      Nothing amazes me more than people driving to the gym.

      Driving 30 minutes to ride a mountain bike on a trail is even worse. That’s why I like road bikes. Well, that, and the fact that you can go a lot faster on 23mm slicks than you can on 2.5″ knobbies.

    • 0 avatar
      Brendon from Canada

      @Ronnie: re driving for MTB riding; how is this any different then driving 30 minutes to say play baseball, soccer, football, basketball, etc, etc? I think it’s more a question of enjoyment then exercise, is it not? Could be different in your location, but I can’t say that I know anyone that rides trails that does it strictly for the exercise – that’s just an added benefit… Furthering the argument, why wouldn’t one simply walk outside and go for a run, rather then cycling? ;-)

    • 0 avatar

      “I believe the other problem with two-strokes, that was not solved, was that there was a large hole in the side of the cylinder that has to be traversed by a piston. Not a pretty picture, which is why lawn mower engines are rated in tens of hours, not 100k-250k miles.”

      Not so. Saab (and others) used two strokes in automobiles until emissions requirements ruled them out (1968 in USA). Their durability was decent despite being geared at 14mph/1000rpm. The tendency of the piston rings to enter the exhaust port is solved by a) dividing the large exhaust port into several smaller ones and b) installing pins in the ring grooves to keep the ends of the rings away from the port(s).

    • 0 avatar
      Mark out West

      Insofar as durable two-strokes, the Electromotive Division of GM developed various two-stroke diesels that have been in production since the late 1920s. They have the traditional two-stroke intake ports down low on the cylinder liner, and 4 exhaust valves overhead. Crankcase is turbocharged which aids tremendously in scavenging the exhaust.

      These engines routinely go over a million miles with fairly routine maintenance.

  • avatar

    I haven’t read any other comments, but this is complete BS. The inefficiency of Otto Cycle engines today isn’t due to them not completely burning all their fuel. They due that really well. If they had 50% to go, your catalytic converter would need a radiator as big as your engine’s. What a bunch of snake-oil salsemen.

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you. I was going to give a long-winded lecture here and you said it simply. I studied chemistry, physics and thermodynamics in school. MBA’s can be scammed pretty easily by those with a good “story” looking for sucker investors.

  • avatar
    Samuel Kingsley

    They did mention the ability to raise the compression ratio of gasoline engine to 21 by modifying fuel properties like ignition delay to control knock . Is that the trick , although moving the efficiency from 20% now to 50% seems to be a little far fetched ..

Read all comments

Recent Comments

  • Jeff S: True Tesla has committed themselves to those EV play toys and is making millions off them. As for wind energy...
  • Daniel J: To my point above: I know many folks moving to SUVs and Trucks due to potholes and bad roads. Fix the...
  • Jeff S: @EBFlex–Those damn liberals came up with personal computers eliminating millions of jobs that could...
  • Daniel J: What I’m seeing around here is dangerous potholes. 40-65mph roads with large potholes that can force...
  • stuki: “Smart money would buy a Lexus instead” But “Smart” don’t fall for nonsense as...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber