The internal combustion engine 2.0 emerges

A startup backed by Khosla Ventures called Transonic Combustion has raised another round of $32 million to deliver a more efficient internal combustion engine. How far away is a more efficient internal combustion 2.0?

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Today in Cleantech

The World Economic Forum has announced the winners of its Technology Pioneers contest, and for the first time, clean tech companies have won an equal number of spots alongside traditionally dominant IT companies. The list of green winners does include many that cross the boundaries of IT — take water infrastructure monitoring service provider TaKadu, networked lighting startup Digital Lumenshome energy efficiency specialist OPOWER, long-range smart grid wireless provider On-Ramp Wireless, and well-connected home energy management startup Tendril. But Thursday’s winners also included green cement manufacturer Novacem, vehicle engine efficiency booster Transonic Combustion, sewage-to-fertilizer waste recovery startup Ostara, and Nigerian renewable energy developer Quintas Renewable Energy Solutions, among others.

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Bob Lutz Joins Startup Transonic Combustion’s Board

Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors (s GM) and onetime frontman for the plug-in Chevy Volt, never seemed a likely candidate to spend his retirement laying low and playing golf. Well now we know of at least one of the projects “Maximum Bob” will be taking on: Khosla Ventures-backed startup Transonic Combustion, which is working on technology for more efficient internal combustion engines, announced on Monday that it has brought Lutz in to join its board of directors (h/t Green Car Congress).

Founded in 2006, Transonic Combustion is creating what’s called a “supercritical fuel injection system” for internal combustion engines that minimizes heat waste. The system involves heating fuel to a “supercritical” state before injecting it into the combustion chamber, allowing it to combust without the need for a spark. In order to precisely adjust this injection based on engine load, the company has developed proprietary software.

Transonic says its so-called TSCi fuel injection system can run gasoline within diesel architecture engines, and could eventually run renewable fuels. But the main promise of this technology in the short term is to help make fairly conventional vehicles much more efficient without much additional cost.

Transonic VP of Business Development Mike Rocke said earlier this year that the system should cost about the same as high-end fuel injection systems currently on the market, with about 50 percent better efficiency. Echoing recent comments by investor Vinod Khosla, Lutz predicted in a statement today:

“For the foreseeable future, the internal combustion engine will remain the dominant propulsion system for automobiles, and there is still a lot of room to improve its efficiency. Customers and manufacturers want better fuel economy, lower emissions and a great vehicle experience all at an attractive price.”

Khosla, who has invested in not only Transonic Combustion but also EcoMotors (a 2-year-old developer of efficient engines with stackable modules), said last month that technology designed to make internal combustion engine vehicles more efficient can be implemented at a cost of “hundreds of dollars” in some cases — significantly less than what it costs to develop an all-electric vehicle. Innovative tweaks to the systems and components in gas- and diesel-powered cars can have a significant impact on fuel consumption and emissions, he said, boosting mileage by as much as 30-50 percent.

Transonic has said it aims to close a final funding round by the end of 2010 and set up manufacturing in 2013. By 2014, the Camarillo, Calif.-based startup hopes to deploy its technology in production vehicles. Today the company said it’s “on course to directly supply global automotive manufacturers with its high efficiency fuel injection systems.”

As of March of this year, Transonic said it was working with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) in Asia, North America and Europe (one per market) and a fourth in the “heavy duty engine sector,” according to Green Car Congress. Adding to its board Lutz, who over the course of his career in the auto industry spent time at all of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, as well as BMW and Exide Corp. (s XIDE), could help the startup parlay those talks into larger deals for commercial deployment.

Images courtesy of Transonic Combustion and General Motors

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