Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Silicon Valley Firm Pinnacle Working on Classically Insane Opposed-Piston Engine

Silicon Valley Firm Pinnacle Working on Classically Insane Opposed-Piston Engine: "

That’s right, your prayers have been answered: Someone in Silicon Valley is finally developing an opposed-piston, sleeve-valve, variable-cycle engine for passenger-car use.

Yeah, OK, we weren’t praying for that, either. But it’s here, or at least claimed to be coming. In the grand tradition of Things Being Hyped That Might Not Actually Exist, it has a press release, fancy-looking sketches—which we’ve taken the liberty of borrowing—and several millions of dollars in private investment. And yes, it sports both sleeve valves—an efficiency-boosting technology long fraught with production complications—and a variable-cycle design that allows it to switch between Otto- and Diesel-cycle combustion on the fly. We even included engines with such oddities in our feature, The 10 Most Unusual Engines of All Time, thinking that no one would have the chutzpah to try this sort of stuff again.

The firm in question, Pinnacle Engines of San Carlos, California, recently announced a commitment to developing what it says is an “ultra-efficient” engine by 2013. Few specifics have been released, but Pinnacle claims that its four-stroke powerplant will incorporate variable valve timing, direct injection, turbocharging, and a proprietary variable-compression-ratio technology. It will run on most fuels, including gasoline, diesel, and propane. Fuel economy is said to be up to 50 percent better than a conventional engine of similar displacement, and the company is touting more than 500 hours of dynamometer tuning.

Whoa, Slow Down There, Maestro

Note for the uninitiated: In the world of big-league engine development, 500 hours on the dyno is a figurative eyeblink.

Pinnacle has dubbed the engine’s combustion process the Cleeves Cycle, after the company’s founder, California semiconductor engineer James “Monty” Cleeves. (According to the New York Times, Cleeves invented the engine’s sleeve-valve system.) There’s no word on whether the engine’s combustion cycle has anything in common with Mercedes-Benz’s DiesOtto technology, which also uses a variable compression ratio. There is also no word on what the company thinks of the EcoMotors OPOC, a similar, independently funded experimental powerplant that has received far more publicity.

Because California venture capitalists will apparently throw money at anything but their state’s budget problem, a group of investors has committed $13.5 million to Pinnacle’s cause. An unnamed Asian vehicle manufacturer is claimed to be involved in a development and licensing agreement. The Times says this company produces scooters—stop for a moment and ponder how all that tech is going to be made affordable on a scooter—but that an automotive application is on the way.

Sound fun? Of course it does; that’s the point. What we have here is the engineering equivalent of a unicorn, or maybe something more fanciful—say, a unicorn being ridden by a sasquatch while frolicking underneath a double rainbow and playing Free’s “All Right Now” on a gold-plated Stradivarius. In other words, it’s a fabulous idea that everyone would like to see realized, but it’s also ferociously unlikely. At least in the promised form.

We kid, but out of love. Engines take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop properly. The opposed-piston engine is an intriguing beast, but if Pinnacle’s wonder finds its way into a mass-produced car in our lifetime, we’ll eat our hats.


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