7 Startups Building Green Car Tech for a Pre-Electric World

Quiet Khosla Ventures-backed startup Transonic Combustion has garnered attention over the last few days after revealing the geeky details of its scheme for a more efficient fuel-injection system. The company, which presented at the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Summit last week, represents only one of a raft of startups working on technology that could help boost the fuel efficiency and reduce the emissions of the world’s vehicle fleet long before electric cars go mainstream.

This type of tech doesn’t have the glitz of an electric sports car — it’s meant to go under the hood, unseen, in models that look and feel much the same as the same old gas and diesel vehicles now on the road. But considering that conventional vehicles will likely make up the bulk of automakers’ lineup for years to come, the array of MPG boosters now in the works could help them meet tightening fuel economy and emission requirements for their fleet. Whether and how much car companies¬†end up betting on young ventures for this tech remains to be seen, but these seven startups aim to seize that opportunity in coming months and years.

Company Founded Backers Technology Strategy/Timeline
Achates Power 2004 Sequoia Capital, Rockport Capital Partners, Interwest Partners, Madrone Capital, Triangle Peak Partners High-efficiency two-stroke diesel engine that has higher power density (more power, less weight) and lower emissions than currently available options. Testing a 4.2 liter, 4-cylinder engine “that rivals conventional engines nearly twice its size.” Plans to license tech to big manufacturers and automakers, (charging a $50 million licensing fee plus 5 percent of revenue, according to a company presentation last year).
Alphabet Energy 2009 U.S. Department of Energy, Army, Air Force Thermoelectrics for waste heat recovery (materials that “generate electricity when you make one side hot and the other side cold”) at a cost 50x cheaper than existing materials. Targeting heavy industries (e.g. aluminum and cement production), as well as auto market. First product on the market within 2-3 years.
EcoMotors 2008 Khosla Ventures Diesel engine with stackable modules. One of the engine modules can be shut off when it isn’t needed. Deliver a diesel engine that can do 100 MPG by 2011. Focusing on developing markets.
IRIS Engines 2005 Funding from competitions sponsored by DFJ Mercury, Dow Chemical, ConocoPhillips and NASA Two-stroke gasoline engine at costs comparable to today’s typical four-stroke engines, with up to twice the efficiency. Internal structure mimics the iris of an eye, allowing the diameter to expand and contract. Aims to raise some $14 million in investment by mid 2010 to fund development. Plans to pursue licensing agreements with original equipment manufacturers starting around 2012.
NxtGen Emission Controls 2004 Altira, Yaletown Venture Partners, Growthworks Capital, BC Advantage Funds, Polygon Financial Investments, ITOCHU Corp. Systems for retrofitting diesel engines to convert fuel and exhaust into syngas, which burns cleaner than diesel and at a lower temperature. Launched first product (syngas generators for lab use or engine testing) in 2009. Other products were in field testing last year.
Transonic Combustion 2006 Khosla Ventures, Venrock, Rustic Canyon Partners, Saints Capital Supercritical fuel injection system that runs on high-compression diesel engines. Minimizes waste heat. Proprietary software lets system adjust injection based on engine load. Aims to close final funding round by end of 2010, set up manufacturing in 2013 and deploy tech in production vehicles in 2014. Currently working with three major automakers.
Levant Power 2008 Angel investors GenShock shock absorbers harvest kinetic energy when a vehicle hits a bump. Levant claims fuel efficiency gains of 2-10 percent depending on vehicle and application. Nationwide commercial rollout sometime after 2010. Potential target markets include U.S. military and truck makers.

Image courtesy of Transonic Combustion.
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