Pinnacle Looks Beyond Detroit as the Market for Its Opposed-Piston Engine

10/4/11Follow @wroush

When Ecomotors International set out to change the way car and truck engines are built, it set up shop in Livonia, MI, a suburb of Detroit, in hopes of eventually licensing its technology to the big U.S. automakers. It was a calculated risk. As radical as Ecomotors’ opposed-piston engine design may be, at least the company’s founder, Peter Hofbauer, has unquestionable auto-industry credentials—he’s the guy who helped Volkswagen build its first mass-production diesel engine.

Pinnacle Engines isn’t even bothering with Detroit. The San Carlos, CA, startup, which recently won the backing of the world’s largest venture capital firm, is also developing an opposed-piston engine, one that promises to marry the fuel efficiency of diesel technology with the lower cost structure of gasoline-burning engines. But Pinnacle’s founder, James Montague “Monty” Cleeves, is a veteran of the semiconductor industry; for him, designing engines and tinkering with cars was always an avocation, not a profession. He’s pretty convinced that Detroit will never listen to his ideas—so Pinnacle is looking farther east for its first commercialization opportunities. Much farther east. To India, in fact.

“This ought to be music to Detroit’s ears, but to them I’m just some whacko in California,” says Cleeves. “This is Silicon Valley, and what does Silicon Valley know about making engines? Folks in Asia have almost zero ‘not-invented-here’ issues, whereas it’s pretty prevalent all over the U.S.”

Pinnacle won its first funding in 2007 and has been testing prototype engines based on its patented “Cleeves Cycle” since the spring of 2009. This year, Pinnacle struck a joint development agreement with an Indian scooter manufacturer—it can’t yet reveal which one—that could see the technology move to the test track by next year and into commercial production by 2013.

But to buy a Pinnacle-powered scooter, you’ll have to go to Mumbai or Bangalore. With gas prices here stable at around $3.50 per gallon, “I don’t know what it’s going to take to get somebody in the U.S. excited” about fundamental improvements to the venerable internal combustion engine, Cleeves says. “But most of Asia is sensitive enough about fuel economy that they get it.” For many families in India, a two-wheeler is the main mode of transportation, and a scooter engine that consumes 25 to 50 percent less fuel, as Pinnacle promises, could be a big boon for the household budget.

Cleeves says his engine can also be scaled up for larger vehicles, and can easily be modified to run on diesel, ethanol, or even compressed natural gas, which means it could also turn up in light commercial vehicles or even cars in India or China. But the startup, which has raised $13.5 million from venture giant New Enterprise Associates (NEA) as well as Bessemer Venture Partners and Infield Capital, doesn’t see its engine as a cure for petroleum addiction. Instead, Cleeves describes it as a bridge technology, incrementally improving the efficiency and lowering the emissions of internal combustion engines as a warming world weans itself from carbon-spewing technologies.

“It’s going to take a long while for Detroit to adopt new technologies,” says Pinnacle CEO Ron Hoge, a veteran of diesel engine maker Cummins. “They may surprise us—it may happen faster than we think. But it’s not even important to us on a business level, because the opportunities we are uncovering in Asia are going to be massive and much more accelerated and have a bigger impact on world consumption of petroleum.”

The basic concept of an opposed-piston engine is so simple that it’s remarkable how long automakers have been ignoring it. In a traditional engine, each piston sits in its own cylinder, and combustion occurs inside the cylinder head, where intake and exhaust valves regulate the inflow of air and vaporized fuel and the outflow of exhaust. In an opposed-piston engine, there’s no cylinder head: two pistons move toward and away from one another inside the same cylinder, with … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Arnold Shore

    Re “there’s no cylinder head”: True, but there’s two crankshafts. And compression ration can be whatever you want in a conventional engine; it’s set for the expected octane ratings in the available fuel.

    So why the hype if the advantages are real????

  • Blaen

    Arnold:

    That’s not true. With a normal engine, changing compression ratios dynamically is not possible. With the engine described, it can change compression ratios at will.

  • http://gregarious.com.au Eric

    I wonder why Pinnacle isn’t going the whole way and building a prototype car? The engine is the hard part, the rest of it (body, chassis, trim) is very simple in comparison.

  • Andreas R

    Saab developed a variable compression engine and implemented working prototypes which combined with a turbo gave high efficiency and octane tolerance.

    Ironically, GM scrapped the idea when they bought Saab.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saab_Variable_Compression_engine

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxR-3Un6WkU

  • evo

    Slightly off-topic but hey… SAAB had a variable compression engine ( http://www.saabnet.com/tsn/press/000318.html ) Even been tested in 9-5′s and than GM ditched it. Probably because size mattered to them… more than efficiency (and in the end power…)

    Ah.. somebody beat me to it ;)

  • Sean

    Sounds like a Michael Moore documentary waiting to happen – anyone contacted the fellow, seriously?

  • Mike Love

    I think if you view the animation : http://pinnacle-engines.com/technology.html of its functioning you’ll see it all better. It’s incorrect to say “no cylinder head” it has valve mechanisms regulating flow…its simply integral to the main case/combustion chamber. It’s more of an engine inside out design. The key advantage as I see it is the higher Compression Ratio vs Stroke Length. This engine achieves the same CR with half the conventional stroke. This means less mechanical stress, higher RPM possibilities, better vibrational characteristics since its inherently self balancing in each bore, etc. It also may be possible to affect dynamic CR is by changing the valve timings, without the necessity of changing the base volumes swept per stroke. Otherwise it would require the central case/combustion chamber volume be changed to suit the fuel and applicaton.

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  • Larry Steiner

    Radical New Design? Variable compression ratio may be of advantage but Fairbanks Morse built OP engines for years. It’s not really that radical or new.

  • http://metalenergyblog.com Wesley Evans

    That was very well written and thanks very much for the info! I’ve been searching for quite some time but it’s hard to find quality content. Keep up the good work!

  • http://yourgogreensource.com/blog Ian

    Best of luck with your endeavors in Asia. If only the big auto makers in North America didn’t have that not invented here hang up the tax payers might not have had to bail them out a few years back

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