How an Iris Can Inspire Efficient Gas Engine Tech

Startup IRIS Engines has a new take on an old technology: develop a more efficient internal combustion engine that mimics the iris of an eye. By switching up the internal structure in such a way — allowing its diameter to expand and contract — the company says it can build a powerful two-stroke gasoline engine at costs comparable to today’s typical four-stroke engines, with up to twice the efficiency.

Chief executive Levi Tillemann-Dick, who currently makes up half of the Washington D.C.-based startup’s full-time staff (one of his 10 siblings, president and chief technology officer Corban Tillemann-Dick, is the other half) told me he sees the nascent markets for hybrids, plug-in hybrids and extended-range electric vehicles as a key opportunity for the company.

“These vehicles are often used as platforms for new technologies,” Tillemann-Dick explained, and a very small, efficient and power-dense engine like the one IRIS is developing could help increase the range and overall efficiency of a car like the Chevy Volt (currently, General Motors (s GM) says the model’s gas-powered  “range extender” affords up to 300 miles beyond the 40 miles of all-electric range).

Secret Sauce:
The key element of the IRIS engine design (the brainchild of the IRIS executives’ father, Timber Dick, who died in 2008) is a system of valves and vents that allows the combustion chamber to expand in diameter, rather than length. IRIS claims this expanding diameter means 70 percent of the surface area of the engine chamber can “react productively” to combustion, which is to say, by moving.

In a conventional engine, the company claims only about a quarter of the chamber’s surface area is productive — the rest is passive. You can think of it as reacting wastefully, by heating. (Another startup, Clean Tech Open finalist Alphabet Energy is tackling waste-heat recovery for automotive and other applications).

Growing Competition:
IRIS, previously known as Tendix Development, represents just one of a growing number of ventures chasing after tech for a more efficient internal combustion engine. Khosla Ventures-backed EcoMotors, for example, is working on a two-stroke diesel engine, and sports car maker Lotus unveiled a 1.2-liter range extender engine-and-generator set at last fall’s Frankfurt Auto Show.

Tillemann-Dick contrasted IRIS’s “somewhat radical design” with what he calls “Lazarus projects — things that have died for some reason, and now one engineer or a group of engineers think they can make it work this time.” IRIS anticipates plenty of competition, however, from advanced vehicle technologies. For example, “If someone came up with an absolutely terrific battery,” Tillemann-Dick said, “that could be a competitor.”

Dash for Cash:
Many hurdles lie ahead for IRIS at this early stage. Tillemann-Dick said IRIS has “prototyped some of the subsystems,” but it still needs to spend “a significant amount of time and money integrating them.” To fund further development over the next two years or so, he said IRIS aims to raise some $14 million in investment over the next six months.

Upon completing development (in collaboration with engine development and testing firm AVL), Tillemann-Dick said IRIS expects to spend about six months to a year working on licensing agreements with original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs. So in an optimistic scenario, the startup’s first revenue wouldn’t come in until around 2013 or later.

If the design pans out (some questions remain unanswered about how to minimize friction at higher temperatures and cycling speeds) and delivers the efficiency IRIS believes is possible, Tillemann-Dick said, “Everybody from Ford to Honda to BMW will sit up and take notice.”

The Track Record:
Big talk from a small startup? Well, yeah. But IRIS has hit the ground running, with awards in several business plan and technology competitions (the total comes to more than $100,000, from sponsors including venture firm DFJ Mercury, Dow Chemical, ConocoPhillips and NASA). In addition to its contest winnings, IRIS has worked out a deal with the law firm Perkins Coie, which Tillemann-Dick said “has put in a substantial amount of work — hundreds of thousands of dollars worth — on the contingency that we will pay them back when we get funded.”

For their advisers, the Tillemann-Dick brothers have won over (among others) former Daimler-Chrysler executive Eric Ridenour, and Daniel Yergin, the founder and chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates who chaired the Department of Energy’s Task Force on Strategic Energy Research and Development.

Road Ahead:
These votes of confidence may help open doors for the company, but even if the technology works as IRIS expects, it could take a lot of convincing for an OEM to make the investment to test out and ultimately adopt the startup’s tech. “It’s the same infrastructure, fuel and techniques,” Tillemann-Dick said, but, “integrating a new powertrain always requires a substantial amount of work.”

Making that bet on an unproven startup wouldn’t be an obvious decision for most automakers. As Tillemann-Dick noted, the industry has traditionally avoided “switching horses until they’re absolutely forced to.”

These days, he sees that pattern changing. But IRIS plans to cover its bases. It’s in talks with some undisclosed companies now about deals outside of the licensing model. And Tillemann-Dick said IRIS will likely pursue other applications such as generators, unmanned aerial military vehicles and racing, where players are “more willing to take risks on cutting edge technology.”

Graphics courtesy of IRIS Engines