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 … Next Page »

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32 responses to “Khosla, Gates Are Betting On EcoMotors’ Engine Technology to Transform Autos Into Cleaner, Cheaper, and More Powerful Machines”

  1. Somna says:

    Now if only they would make a plugin hybrid using this engine.

  2. DrB says:

    They would do much better by developing their engine as a generator rather than trying to drive wheels. The bits missing in this piece are the fact that you can use electric motors to reclaim kinetic energy from the vehicle, you can drive the wheels directly – no need for a heavy gearbox – and you get typically around 80%+ energy efficiency from an electric drive. (And you can RECLAIM 80% of the energy used during accelleration when you brake)
    Internal combustion engines aren’t very good at driving vehicles because of the torque/speed characteristics – hence the need for a multi-stage gearbox – they do work much better when driving a dynamo because they can run at a constant speed and just vary the torque, meaning you can tune the engine to run at optimal efficiency.

    IMHO the best short term solutions (whilst we wait for better batteries) is to have all electric drive with batteries topped up from a generator – it works out more efficient than conventional motors but you can still top it up with fuel at a garage.

  3. Ken Ryan says:

    A small, light, and very aerodynamic IC-powered vehicle won the Automotive X-Prize. Battery packs and energy regeneration add unnecessary weight to a vehicle; weight is the enemy of energy efficiency.

  4. Jonathan Snow says:

    The electrically-boosted turbo is a great idea, but would work on conventional engines as well. So at least part of the gain has nothing to do with the opoc design.

    So prove it: Build a car.

  5. DrB says:

    Electric motors have a much higher power to weight ratio that IC engines and multi stage gearboxes are heavy. The regenerative capability of electric also works best in urban environments where you are constantly stopping and starting.

    IF you can make a battery that is as good at storing energy as gasoline then an all electric would beat the best IC any day. The problem is that batteries aren’t good enough yet, and the refuelling infrastructure isn’t in place even if they were. The big advantage of using an IC generator driving electric motors is that you can refuel anywhere so people won’t have an issue about buying them.

    If the cars are designed well enough you could potentially swap out your generator for a different power source if it becomes more viable – by decoupling the power source from the drive this becomes much easier in terms of design. I would like to see car makers producing electric drive vehicles with modular plug in power generators like this so you don’t have to change your car when better fuel source/storage tech comes online

    Just an idea!

  6. crhilton says:

    It sounds like overblown hype from the company. But it also sounds like a very cool step forward in ICE design.

    If they can improve efficiency by about 30% by having two of these inline that’d be fantastic. It probably would meet CAFE standards for several years and reduce our energy demands a little bit.

    As others have said, if you have the high density battery that’s as efficient at storage as current batteries this ICE becomes much less competitive.

    But that doesn’t matter. Just because this engine isn’t the savior of the world doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic step forward.

    I hope to see these in cars in the near future.

  7. Tim says:

    To what other people have written… many many years ago locomotives decoupled their drive trains… Why do we still have direct drive ICE systems boggles my mind. ICE engines run the most efficiently at a fixed speed… Why this isn’t driving a generator that’s charging a bank of batteries and/or supplying power to DC motors in each hub? I think part of it is that we’ve been making cars the same way for ~100 years and people have a hard time thinking outside the box. On a side note… I’m pretty sure my Subaru has an opposing cylinder engine…

  8. emilecantin says:

    There’s one thing that bothers me with Mr. Runkle’s thinking. He states that his solution is ultimately cleaner than grid electricity because it is produced with coal.

    While that’s true in certain parts of the world, I think that it is a completely different problem that should be addressed separately. For example, his statement doesn’t apply to Quebec, where we use hydroelectricity since a heck of a long time, and to the European countries that use nuclear power.

    I think we should concentrate on getting rid of fossile energies, trying to use them more efficiently will only delay the inevitable exhaustion of these resources while diverting efforts in research.

  9. steve says:

    If it is HP/Weight issue, put it into a motorcycle! You can prove the concept by having cheap ones ripping around town.
    Perhaps Formula 1 would want more power for weight.

  10. guest says:

    Gosh, how original … a boxermotor

  11. DrB says:

    The only thing to be said for generating power in vehicle rather than charging over the grid is the issue of transmission losses in the grid – but then you also have the cost of transporting fuel everywhere. In an ideal world most of the grid would be superconducting but that aint going to happen for a while.

    Anyone know which is more efficient to distribute across a country – fuel or electrical power?

  12. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater says:

    “So prove it: Build a car.”

    Forget building a car, how about building a crate motor that will fit properly within the small-block Chevy formfactor? If you can fit in that formfactor and bolt into the standard engine mount placement, that would be a huge win.

  13. Jim Frost says:

    “The only thing to be said for generating power in vehicle rather than charging over the grid is the issue of transmission losses in the grid”

    That’s not true, there are still the issues of energy capacity and refuel time. Batteries are still nowhere near the energy density of fossil fuels, and that means really limited range at anything like realistic cost, weight, and performance.

    Consider: My wife’s VW Passat with its 2.8l engine can go almost 400 miles at 80mph on 90lbs of fuel. Electric vehicles are having trouble going one quarter that distance with a couple of hundred pounds of batteries and 40% of the speed.

    That would not matter very much if the electric vehicle could be refueled quickly, and refueling stations were prevalent, but neither is true of electric … and there is little chance of either becoming true any time soon. Even if we fix capacity (which I think likely in the next couple of decades) it is difficult to provide the amperage necessary — especially *safely* — to fill the batteries rapidly.

    Near-term successful electrics are going to have to (continue to) be hybrids. I think plug-in hybrids are likely to be an excellent compromise, giving the ability to do most or all of a typical commute without ever running the IC engine, refueling at low amperages overnight, but still providing the ability to do long distances with minimal and quick refueling. Buffering the power with batteries means smaller engines can do the job without significant performance compromises, and fuel efficiency makes huge gains.

    If or when we get batteries capable of running 500+mi on a charge (i.e. enough for a good long drive), and refueling in a matter of maybe 15 minutes, then we can think about all-electric being broadly useful. Until then we must consider compromises.

    I am constantly surprised at the dearth of serial hybrids, which would seem to be an excellent all-around solution and considerably easier to engineer than e.g. a Prius’ mixed drivetrain.

    Oh yea, about the opoc engine, a Wankel has superb power to weight and significantly reduced complexity versus piston engines. Hmm.

    jim frost

  14. rick says:

    This engine is a great idea, but I’d like to see it compared with the Wankel engine, which is extremely efficient and low emissions, and is completely free of vibration! New technology developed by Freedom Motors ( makes these engines extremely viable – lightweight, extremely low emission, even lower parts count, multifuel, high power-to-weight ratio, modular just like this engine, and proven in a whole line of Mazda automobiles. Paul Moller solved the problems and has made this quite possibly the best choice – especially for hybrids and small engines.

  15. Andy says:

    Look at angel labs for their internal combustion engine of new design that features multiple firings in one cycle, producing enormous torque in a small area. With 40 times higher power to weight ratio, low parts count, low maintenance, high mechanical efficiency, and low pollution.

  16. Ormond Otvos says:

    Nissan announced a 50% improvement in power density today, already being produced. That means 150 mile range in its current Leaf.

    The need for low amperage is fake. You just have a replaceable battery pack.

    You can also charge low power density batteries or supercapacitors, which are very high output.

    Similarly, the power grid can easily adapt to such “dump charging” methods, since you don’t need long cables if you’re next to the storage batteries you dump charge from.

    Buses are already running on this system.

    The point on regeneration ability is significant. Batteries or energy storage capacity (air over hydraulic comes to mind, in use by the Army already).

    Hybrids are here to stay, and the big obstacle is people who think they’re still in the wasteful 60’s of muscle car adrenaline. Get used to austerity, people. The binge is over, the hangover is here.

  17. Bill Dale says:

    Uggh! ICEs are inherently ineffiecient with their reciprocating parts and hundreds of metal-to-metal moving parts– reciprocating parts lose inertia every time they need to change direction, and waste enormous energy creating products other than rotational motion: vibration, noise, heat, & pollution. EVs are in their infancy and maturing much faster than ICE cars ever could– that boxer engine can never have the efficiency, simplicity and quietness of an EV with a single moving part, no high-speed friction metal-to-metal as in any piston power plant, and no gallons of various fluids (oils and coolants that need to circulate constantly.) Let them try to “improve” their silly ICE– it will never achieve the efficiency of quiet, simple electrons.

  18. It seems that solutions on both battery weight, capacity and recharging are on the horizon.

  19. Jim Frost says:

    “The need for low amperage is fake. You just have a replaceable battery pack.”

    Replaceable packs work fine in some cases, like looped paths (buses) and small-area driving (taxis) … you’re not far from the battery supply, and the vehicle and battery supply are all managed by the same entity.

    It falls apart at the consumer level. First, you have to deal with the fact that not all battery users are going to be doing round trips. You need to rebalance your system. Now consider Columbus Day when millions of people in major Northeast cities decide to go up north to leaf-peep. Suddenly you have a few million cars heading out to the sticks, travelling a hundred plus miles in each direction, and they’re going to need batteries to get home.

    What problems present themselves in this scenario, which repeats itself annually?

    Well, those stations up north that might normally see only a handful of battery swaps per day might now need to do hundreds of them within a few hours. Those batteries have to come from somewhere, and they have to be topped up and maintained in bulk prior to the demand peak.

    That is an exceptionally expensive proposition. So expensive that you can be sure it will never happen.

    And then there’s the problem of battery “newness.” Battery swaps mean that you’ve got to deal with the fact that there are used-to-near-death batteries in the system, and there’s every incentive for the battery provider to try to get as much mileage (so to speak) out of each battery pack as possible (to increase profitability). It won’t take long before you’re pretty likely to get a sacked or near-sacked battery. When that happens the distance you’re going to get out of the battery drops off very fast (look at the drop-off curves for aging LiIon batteries, they’re *precipitous*), making range prediction swap-to-swap quite difficult.

    Customers are going to notice this and they’re not going to like it.

    So: Battery swap is not generally viable. You must come up with some other way. In the near term that “other way” is clearly a hybrid. In the long term — who knows? Maybe there really will be a “Mr. Fusion.”

    jim frost

  20. Mark says:

    I think one blindspot is this: we desparately need to clean the air we breathe, especially in cities. Smoking cigarettes is becoming less popular, and I think ICE engines should go that way too. When you are behind an ICE engine you ARE smoking!

  21. John McManus says:

    HEY THATS OLD !!!.

    Commer of England had a 2 stroke Diesel like this 40 years ago. They made it for a few years then dropped it. It was a very noisy engine, even at low RPM,

    I would put my mony on the MYT engine as it has the best power /weight ratio of any engine designed yet.

  22. Daniel says:

    I would agree with John McManus. If it has to be an ICE box, then I would also go for the MYT (Massive Yet Tiny engine). Check out the page for the full story.

  23. thingstodo says:

    No real information in this article. ‘more efficient’ is not a big leap given the poor efficiency of a regular ICE engine. A power stroke each rev is a bit different, but Wankel engines have three power strokes per rev, and their part count is quite low as well. The problem there is the seals, I believe. There goes the power-to-weight ‘holy grail’ that was mentioned above. EcoMotors? Let’s see some numbers to back up the statements. This is not news, it’s an ad. All claims, no numbers.

  24. Richard V says:

    Let’s think critically, here, and not just parrot some startup’s brochure. Reporting that the engine could be “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,” smacks of a lack of editorial scrutiny. In areas where plugin hybrids are being introduced, clean fossil-free energy is the norm, not the exception. Coal forms an ever-smaller portion of the mix. To accept and repeat the claim that gasoline is clean, just because it is relatively more clean-burning than coal, is absurd. Where is the editorial oversight and the critical thinking?