Entrepreneur Alexander Shkolnik, PhD, is Co-Founder and CEO of LiquidPiston, a Bloomfield, CT-based company that has developed an innovative combustion engine designed to increase thermodynamic efficiency. Shkolnik told Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about how the company began and its plans for the future.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. Did you always have an entrepreneurial drive?
ALEXANDER SHKOLNIK: I was an entrepreneur from a young age, beginning with lawn work in my neighborhood when I was 12. When I was 14, I started a computer integration business out of my parents’ home in West Hartford, CT.
I went on to earn Computer Science and Math, and Neuroscience degrees from Emory University. There I was introduced to research, studying the computational capabilities of living neurons growing in a dish, using these neurons to control a robot. From there, I headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and earned a PhD in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence.
I’m not sure if I had a single lab-mate who did not have their own company they were starting as a side project. So yes, I would say I’ve always had an entrepreneurial drive.
NAN: Your father is also involved in LiquidPiston. Can you share a little background about him?
ALEXANDER: My father, Dr. Nik Shkolnik, is an immigrant from Soviet era Ukraine. He came to the United States seeking opportunity and a better life for his family. He began with humble beginnings—bagging groceries at the Crown supermarket in West Hartford and selling ice cream as he completed a PhD Degree in Physics from the University of Connecticut.
After completing his degree, my father entered the workforce as a nuclear physicist for a large nuclear engineering firm in Connecticut, but he quickly realized that a large business was just not for him. He started his first two companies—one to develop software for engineers, and the other to develop a walking wheelchair robot, funded by DARPA.
These were the early steps in our careers, but the seeds of entrepreneurship were deeply planted.
NAN: When and why did you start the company? How did you develop the business concept?
ALEXANDER: My father spent years thinking about thermodynamics and engines. He was always bothered by the notion that today’s automotive engines only convert about 15% to 20% of the energy in fuel into useful work—the rest is wasted as heat in the exhaust or cooling system. As a physicist, he realized there was a lot of meat left on the table and thought we could improve the engine if we start with the thermodynamic cycle.
We started LiquidPiston, in 2004, during my first year at MIT. I had taken a few business classes “for fun” and I was encouraged to form a team and enter the MIT $50K competition. It was at this point that I started seriously engaging with my father on the technology. When we realized that we could have a game-changing technology on our hands, the company was born.
NAN: In 2004 LiquidPiston received a top three winner’s prize in MIT’s entrepreneurship business plan competition. In 2007, the company received a small business innovation research (SBIR) grant from U.S. Army. How is the company using those funds?
ALEXANDER: LiquidPiston used the MIT funds to incorporate the business and pay initial patent filing expenses. The company built a functional compressor prototype for the Army Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR). At that time, our cycle was embodied by a “split cycle” design with a separate compressor, combustor, and expander, each optimized for the portion of the cycle that it was doing.
Following the success of the SBIR in 2007, we received venture capital investment totaling nearly $18 million over the next eight years. During this period, we evolved the engine significantly—actually completely redesigning it in four generations of hardware.
The primary development was in understanding how to create an engine that executes the new cycle, but can also be sealed. Sealing turned out to be a key challenge in development, taking us longer to overcome than we initially thought. This is not surprising in retrospect—companies invested billions of dollars in the Wankel rotary engine to reach the same conclusion, that a rotary engine is hard to seal. We persisted, and today we are sealing significantly better than prior generation Wankel-type rotary engines.
NAN: Tell us a little more about your combustion engine design.
ALEXANDER: The engine starts with thermodynamics. We combine features of Otto (gasoline), Diesel, and Atkinson cycles to create an engine with high compression ratio, constant volume combustion, and over-expansion. These three features add up to a 74% thermodynamic efficiency (theoretical limit of efficiency for the engine). This compares to 57% theoretical efficiency for a diesel engine with the same compression ratio.
The engine itself is extremely simple. It is the inverse of the Wankel rotary engine, in that we have a peanut shaped two-lobed rotor, that nutates within a three-side housing. The rotor and shaft are the only primary moving parts in the engine. We don’t have valves or valve trains. Further, a one-rotor X engine behaves like a three-cylinder four-stroke piston engine. The engine has a true four–stroke cycle. We draw air in through an intake port, sucking air through the shaft, then through a channel in the rotor as it enters the chamber. The gas is compressed, fuel is injected (in the diesel version) or a spark is initiated (in the gasoline version), which starts the constant-volume combustion process. The rotor then expands the gas (producing work on the shaft) and finally exhausts the gas through a port in the rotor with corresponding windows in the exhaust side cover that allow the exhaust out of the engine.
NAN: According to your website, LiquidPiston’s engines are currently in development and not available for sale. Where do you see the company in the next few years? Will the engines be available to the market?
ALEXANDER: As we have found, a new engine is not easy, inexpensive, or quick to develop. Typically, a new piston engine design can take hundreds of millions of dollars to develop to production. We have working prototypes that measure good power and efficiency. We have run the engine continuously for hours at a time with air cooling, but we have not really started in full on durability testing and development or emissions compliance development.
The engine is currently in prototype stage, meaning it is designed for rapid CNC manufacture. The completed engine will be redesigned for volume production methods. All of this takes time. Our first customer is the U.S. military and we expect first production engines in about two years, though we will be field testing a hybrid electric generator for the Army M777 Howitzer platform starting in March 2019.
NAN: Your company recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). What does the agreement entail?
ALEXANDER: DARPA is the research arm of the military and, as such, I feel they understand the need for more efficient, compact power. We’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with DARPA across three phases of development from 2015 through January of 2019.
This started with a feasibility study to address sealing and combustion in our small “X-mini” engine and culminated with the development of the 30kW Compression-Ignited (CI) rotary X4 engine. This engine is demonstrated on our dyno and is ready now to be integrated into an application.
We’re in discussions with various defense contractors and currently have several proposals being evaluated by the U.S. Department of Defense to continue this work to integrate the engine into a generator/APU/UAV application.
NAN: Why did you choose to locate LiquidPiston in Bloomfield, CT?
Bloomfield provides an affordable location, with a network of supporting technology and manufacturing companies.