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Advanced Engine Technologies, Inc. President Carroll Shelby and COO John Luft with a cutaway of the OX2 engine and a full-scale example. The company hopes that its lightweight but powerful engine will find its way into future hybrid vehicles.

Revolutionizing the Internal Combustion Engine

A fundamental of an engine is its block, which is part and parcel of the more-or-less rectangular architecture of the unit. But the people at Advanced Engine Technologies have devised something that resembles a barrel, not a block. Could it be the next big thing?

John Luft, COO of Advanced Engine Technologies, Inc. (AET; Los Angeles), is immodest when describing his company's OX2 engine. "It's the first fundamental change to internal combustion engines, probably since their inception." The object of his bold if modified claim is an aluminum drum that has a diameter of 12.8 in., weighs 125 lb., and looks like an industrial electric motor. In reality it's an eight-cylinder engine that can generate 150 ft-lbs. of torque at just 400 rpm.

The brainchild of an Australian inventor, the OX2 could deliver many of the items on automakers' wish lists. It has only six major components and doesn't rely on exotic materials, which should make it comparatively simple and inexpensive to manufacture. The OX2 also has one-third fewer moving parts than a conventional piston engine, and can generate high torque at low rpms, which reduces wear and the need for maintenance. As if that isn't enough, Luft claims it can run on a variety of fuels including gasoline, CNG, LPG, methanol, ethanol and even hydrogen. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, its small footprint and low weight should increase packaging freedom and fuel economy.

POTENTIAL. So is this the real deal? Well, the performance of the initial OX2 prototypes was enough to persuade automotive icon Carroll Shelby, creator of the Shelby Cobra and a man with more than a passing familiarity with engines, to sign on to lead the development. Even GM is interested enough to have signed a letter of intent that calls for AET to provide it with testing results. This is despite the fact that the OX2 won't be able to generate enough horsepower in the foreseeable future to be used as the sole power source for an automobile. Instead, says Luft, "The engine's first point of entry into automotive will be hybrid vehicles."

In fact, that's the thrust of the deal with GM, to evaluate the OX2 with an eye toward future hybrid applications. At one-quarter of the size of a small-block V-8 and with a tremendous power-to-weight ratio, the engine may be the perfect candidate for hybrids. But while the OX2 excels at generating low-end torque, its design makes achieving higher rpm problematic. Therefore, the latest testing goal is to achieve 1,000 rpm, at which point it should develop about 60 hp.

LIMITATIONS. AET plans to have a production model ready within 18 months, but not for powering a vehicle. Rather, it will be a stationary generator designed to replace the massive diesel units serving as back-up power supplies for buildings. Once the initial bugs have been worked out there, the company hopes to move on to the more demanding automotive market. The current strategy is to license production of the OX2 to a manufacturer, but Luft says that AET has not ruled out the possibility of setting up its own plant.

Of course, the road to replacing conventional internal combustion engines is littered with clever designs, from the Wankel to the Orbital. All of which faced what Luft calls AET's "biggest challenge," namely "that the automotive industry has billions invested in the current engines" and is loathe to get behind radically different designs. Which is why he thinks hybrids–which need consistent, clean power from a lightweight powerplant–may open some doors. If the OX2 can meet that test, it may very well find a niche for itself among its more traditional counterparts.