Khosla, Gates Are Betting On EcoMotors’ Engine Technology to Transform Autos Into Cleaner, Cheaper, and More Powerful Machines
Don Runkle has a bit of news for everyone. It’s engines, not batteries, that will make automobiles cleaner and more efficient. “We unabashedly say that we have the best solution,” says Runkle, the CEO of Allen Park, MI-based engine developer EcoMotors International.
The startup, which brought in $23 million in Series B financing this summer from Menlo Park, CA-based Khosla Ventures and Seattle billionaire Bill Gates, has designed an opposing piston, opposing cylinder engine that users fewer parts than traditional motors do and generates more power from each stroke of the engine, CEO Runkle says. He says the “opoc” engine is smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the motors already out there, and a more viable option than switching automobile fleets over to electrical power.
“You’re hearing lots of stuff on cleantech right now that is more efficient, but they miss the other three,” Runkle says, noting the size, weight, and expense of hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles has slowed the widespread adoption of the technology.
The EcoMotors technology comes from Peter Hofbauer, who helped develop and commercialize Volkswagen’s first diesel engine. He started working on the opoc engine in 2003, first for military applications, and the startup was officially launched in 2008 with $10.5 million in funding from Khosla Ventures. EcoMotors’ other two top executives, Runkle and president and COO John Coletti, also have experience developing engines at big automakers. Most of the firm’s development work is done at a facility in Livonia, MI.
EcoMotors’ opoc engine is built with opposing pistons, opposing cylinders, and a single crank in the middle. Together, the components work to create a combustion power event with every revolution, unlike existing 4-stroke engines that combust every other turn, Runkle says. (Check out this video from founder Hofbauer for a more in-depth explanation of the technology.) The arrangement results in lower friction and heat rejection, and the the engine has a higher power density—meaning power per size and weight—than anything else out there. “The holy grail of engines is power density,” says Runkle, who joined the company last year.
The company is developing a the sixth generation of the opoc engine module, which is long and narrow, and perfectly balanced on both sides, enabling multiple modules to be stacked for a most sophisticated engine. An automobile with two of the opoc units stacked could better adjust to fluctuating power needs in traffic, Runkle says. For example, a dual-opoc engine could shut off the power of one of the units while the car is moving at a lower speed, and fire up the second one as the car speeds up. This could be even further extended when paired with an electric motor—what Runkle calls a “tribrid system”—which could be the only part of the engine system running as the car rolls at speeds of 1 or 2 miles per hour. All this would happen under the hood automatically, without any additional steps needed by the driver. “It will be seamless; that’s the breakthrough,” Runkle says.
The company says its technology can help make automobiles meet the new corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) standards put out by the government, by increasing automobile efficiency by 15 to 50 percent. The 15 percent increase comes in with a single opoc engine in a car, but stacking with another engine module, as described above, could add another 30 percent, Runkle says. “When you need half the power, we turn one engine off,” he says. “It’s true modular displacement, which is what the EPA always wanted.”
The engine can be configured to run on gasoline, diesel, or even hydrogen. On a grander scale, Runkle says the EcoMotors technology is ultimately cleaner than plug-in electric automobiles, because it produces more efficient power without having to tap grid electricity—much of which comes from burning coal. In fact, EcoMotors’ big focus overall is a smooth transition for the adoption of its technology, by using the same parts that go into today’s engine, and fewer of them at that, Runkle says. That makes the opoc engine cheaper than conventional engines, let alone today’s other cleantech auto parts. And the engines could hit the road immediately, with no need to build the network of battery charging stations electric plug-in vehicles would require.
The big focus now is to continue testing the engine to prove that it performs that way the company says it will in terms of horsepower, efficiency, and emissions—at any point of operation, Runkle says.
EcoMotors ultimately plans to license its engine architecture to automobile makers so they can develop the engine to work within their own products. At present, most automakers work off of the same, basic 4-stroke engine architecture. “What we’re saying is you should switch architectures,” Runkle says.
And while automobiles are the application that people typically think of when they hear engines, EcoMotors isn’t limiting itself to the auto space, Runkle says. So you might see EcoMotors engines turn up in generators, boats, airplanes, and tractors. “We’re looking to be an engine company, not an automotive engine company, just an engine company,” he says. “If it has an engine we should have you as a customer. Detroit is a great place to build an engine company.”