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Revolutionary engine may face uphill climb

Mass.-designed ‘split-cycle’ motor gets 65 miles per gallon, but auto industry could balk at costs

By Jay Fitzgerald
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2011

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After a decade of development, a small Massachusetts company has produced a car engine that recent tests show can produce fuel economy of 65 miles per gallon of gas and dramatically reduce carbon pollutants, even without hybrid-style electric batteries.

Now comes the tough job: selling the radical design to the world’s automakers.

Scuderi Group LLC, a family-run operation in West Springfield, hopes to license its “split-cycle engine’’ design to automakers.

Although some industry analysts have doubts about the economic feasibility of a replacement for the internal combustion design that powers most cars today, the company and its investment backers are convinced the “Scuderi engine’’ is a winner.

“The technology is performing better than we anticipated,’’ said Sal Scuderi, president of Scuderi Group, and son of the inventor of the design. “It’s a very robust engine and a very clean engine. We’re very optimistic.’’

Scuderi Group has raised about $86 million from private investors in the past decade. Computer modeling conducted this summer by the nonprofit Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio showed that the split-cycle engine can run at about 65 miles per gallon of gas and emit about 18 percent less carbon dioxide gas than fuel-efficient cars made in Europe.

“It’s been shown to work, and there’s ample documentation to prove it,’’ said Larry Rinek, a senior technology consultant at Frost and Sullivan, a California business research and consulting firm.

Scuderi’s core technology was developed by the late Carmelo Scuderi, the son of Italian immigrants and a trained engineer. It uses two separate cylinders to do the work performed by one in a conventional engine.

In a conventional engine, the piston in each cylinder conducts four strokes within a single cycle: intake, which draws down a mixture of air and fuel; compression, which compacts that mixture so it will burn when a spark is applied; power, which provides force to run the vehicle; and exhaust, which removes waste gases. For each cycle, the crankshaft revolves twice.

But in the Scuderi engine, the cylinder functions are split between two connected cylinders. One handles the intake and compression, while the other handles power and exhaust, requiring only one revolution of the crank shaft, Sal Scuderi said.

“We just separated the cycles into paired cylinders, connected by a crossover passage,’’ he said.

The net result: more power, more torque, and more fuel efficiency.

Scuderi Group, which built a prototype of its engine two years ago, has also adapted the split-cycle technology for use in potential “air hybrid’’ vehicles.

Instead of charging and storing electric power in batteries, a Scuderi air hybrid engine would compress air in a tank next to the engine, and draw on that for added power.

In all, Scuderi Group holds about 500 patents, all tied to Carmelo Scuderi’s original idea for a split-cycle engine, which he developed after retiring as a longtime thermodynamics and fluid-mechanics engineer. Carmelo Scuderi, who was granted his first split-cycle engine patent in 2001, died in 2002.

Sal Scuderi acknowledged that he and other company officials underestimated how long it would take to fully research, test, develop, and commercialize a car engine. “Five years ago, we were overly optimistic [about] where we would be,’’ he said.

But Scuderi said the company has signed confidentiality agreements with 15 auto manufacturers, whom he declined to identify, although he did say the company is in licensing talks with automakers from Europe, Japan, Korea, and the United States. The Wall Street Journal reported that engineers from Honda have visited Texas to review the technology.

A spokesman for General Motors declined to comment. A Ford spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Scuderi Group subcontracts out much of its research work and has no intention of becoming an engine manufacturer, said Sal Scuderi. Instead, it hopes to license the technology to auto companies, then pour licensing revenue back into research on how its technology can be adapted to buses, trucks, boats, ships, and recreational vehicles, he said.

Some analysts expressed doubt about the engine’s commercial prospects.

Bill Visnic, senior editor at Edmunds.com, an online automobile news site, said he has been following the Scuderi engine’s development for 10 years. There’s “no dispute’’ it’s a small technological marvel, he said.

But the Scuderi engine may not be advanced enough to justify the huge investments automakers would have to make to retrofit factories, retrain mechanics to handle future repairs, and establish warranty risks for such a new engine.

A new car engine has “got to be an out-of-the-park product that significantly advances a technology,’’ Visnic said. “If there was a business case for the Scuderi engine, I’m sure we’d all be driving Scuderi-run cars by now.’’

Frost and Sullivan’s Rinek agreed that the potential costs and complexity of the Scuderi engine are huge commercial challenges.

“I’m real concerned about the business [model] due to the costs,’’ Rinek said. “The auto-industry landscape is littered with engine designers whose dreams have been dashed.’’

Sal Scuderi said he respects such concerns, but thinks they’re overblown.

Retrofitting engine factories would be a lot easier for a Scuderi engine compared with other types of motors, such as Wankel engines or all-electric motors, he said.

“We’re absolutely confident about the future,’’ he said.