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

10/4/11Follow @wroush

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combustion occurring in the in-between space at the moment of greatest compression. Without the cylinder heads, the engine is lighter, and the dual-piston action means compression ratios are higher, so it gets more bang for the buck.

The concept of putting two pistons in the same cylinder is pretty old—manufacturers like Junkers and Fairbanks-Morse started using opposed-piston designs to power aircraft and submarines as long ago as the 1930s. But until Pinnacle came along, all opposed-piston engines (including the Ecomotors engine, and a diesel opposed-piston job from Achates Power in San Diego) were two-stroke engines, meaning there’s one powered stroke for each two movements of the piston. Diesels, motorcycle engines, leaf-blower engines, and other two-stroke engines are powerful but dirty. The problem is that the intake and exhaust functions happen simultaneously in the brief moment when the piston is at the bottom of the cylinder, which makes it difficult keep the burnt exhaust and the incoming air-fuel mixture from getting mixed up.

The Cleeves Cycle engine, by contrast, is a spark-ignited four-stroke engine, just like most conventional gasoline engines. The whole thing hinges on a clever sleeve-valve design that Cleeves says first occurred to him back in the 1970s. (While Cleeves always had a day job helping to improve semiconductor manufacturing methods for companies like Fairchild, Candescent, Cypress, Matrix, and Kovio, he says he spent most evenings in his garage at home, “wrenching on classic cars and hot rods.”)

In Cleeves’ arrangement, metal sleeves move independently on the left and right sides of the cylinder, activated by rocker arms on the camshafts. The cycle starts with Stroke 1; as the pistons move apart, the right sleeve slides open to expose the intake port, and fresh air and fuel are sucked into the cylinder. On Stroke 2 the right sleeve closes, the pistons move together, and the fuel-air mixture is compressed. At the very end of this stroke a spark ignites combustion. In Stroke 3, the only powered stroke, the pistons are pushed apart again; at the end of this stroke, the left sleeve opens and exposes the exhaust port. On Stroke 4, the pistons come together again, carried either by momentum from a flywheel or by power from adjoining cylinders. This squeezes the burnt exhaust out, clearing the way for the next cycle. (If you don’t have it all in your mind’s eye quite yet, just stare at this animated illustration on Pinnacle’s website for a few minutes.)

Under the four-stroke opposed-piston design, “There’s very little mixing of fresh charge with spent charge, the intake air temperature is very well controlled, and doesn’t get heated by residuals from the previous cycle,” explains Cleeves. On top of that, the geometry of the combustion chamber means the exploding vapor expands through a larger volume than in a traditional four-stroke engine.  It’s “basic thermodynamics that with bigger expansion ratios you get more efficiency,” Cleeves says. In essence, the Pinnacle engine extracts more work from the same amount of combusting fuel before the exhaust is vented.

And there’s one more advantage to the opposed-piston design. Simply by changing the spacing between the two pistons, Pinnacle can adjust the compression and expansion ratios to accommodate different fuels. Diesel fuel requires a higher compression ratio than gasoline; ethanol higher still.

While he had his sleeve-valve inspiration early on, however, Cleeves says it took him another 30 years to come up with “the other seven or eight systems that have to be pulled together to make an engine that plays.” It’s all in the omnibus patent Cleeves filed in 2006, just before founding Pinnacle.

The company now has 16 employees, including 10 engineers. The core team works from a modest office and garage space in San Carlos, which is sandwiched mid-peninsula between Redwood City and San Mateo, while a few others are based nearly full-time in India. Hoge says Pinnacle’s venture funding will carry it well into 2013, by which time, it’s hoped, the Indian partner will have a product on the market. That, in turn, is envisioned as the stepping stone to … 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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