Tyson gears up for test drive of emerging, emissions-busting engine

Tyson's initial test for the Achates Power engine will be on a route between Arizona and California.

Can an engine design once used in submarines and World War II fighter plans help reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions related to commercial truck fleets?

Tyson Foods, which owns one of the largest private refrigerated truck fleets in the United States, will give the technology a spin on a route from Arizona to California next year, thanks to a project funded by a $7 million grant from the California Air Resources Board.

The team is led by CALSTART and focuses on engineering from San Diego-based Achates Power, which says its Class 8 truck can cut NOx pollution by 90 percent compared with more widely used engine types alongside a 15 percent to 20 percent improvement in fuel efficiency. The engine is also engineered to emit 10 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) than the 2027 federal greenhouse gas requirement.

The test is more intriguing within the context of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s surprising mid-November disclosure that it plans to tighten up rules for regulating NOx emissions through the Cleaner Trucks Initiative. The standard was last updated in 2001. According to EPA data, NOx emissions dropped by 40 percent between 2007 and 2017 but "there is more work to be done." Under the current framework, heavy-duty trucks will account for about one-third of all NOx emissions from the transportation sector by 2025. The new rules are anticipated in early 2020.

Rob Lyall, vice president of Tyson Foods Transportation, said his team heard about Achates in the course of its ongoing strategy to reduce fleet emissions — it has been part of the EPA’s SmartWay program since 2005 as part of an ongoing effort to reduce fuel consumption. "At the outset, we felt it was intriguing technology, and we liked that it was already being used in other spaces," Lyall told me during a briefing about the planned pilot.

The company has about 2,800 tractors and 7,300 trailers on the road for hauling everything from feed to meat destined for grocery stores and food service organizations, according to a spokesman.

An opposed piston internal combustion engine uses cylinders that have pistons at both ends. Originally developed in the late 1800s, it was widely used in World War II in airplanes and can be found in submarines, freighters and trains.

Achates Power is one of several companies that has been testing variants of the design for "lighter" engines, particularly for the Class 8 trucks such as tractor trailers or dump trucks. The company was founded in 2004, and is involved in a number of high-profile research and development projects including a $14 million project by the National Advanced Mobility Consortium focused on new military combat vehicles that recently turned into a $47.4 million contract in collaboration with engine-maker Cummins. (The timeline of that work is here.)

Of more interest to commercial fleet owners and managers, however, will be the $9 million grant that Achates received from the Advanced Research Project Agency — Energy (ARPA-E) in 2015, and currently running into early 2019. In the impact statement for the project, which also included the Argonne National Laboratory and Delphi Powertrain, the researchers suggest that one major efficiency benefit for an opposed piston engine comes from its ability to reduce heat transfer. The assessment notes: "Compression ignition OP engines are inherently more efficient than conventional gasoline spark-ignited four-stroke engines, with potential for up to 50 percent higher thermal efficiency, while providing comparable power and torque. They also show the potential to meet future tailpipe emissions standards."

Tyson Foods will test the Achates technology on one of its steadiest routes using a Peterbilt 579 tractor, Lyall said. While the exact performance indicators it will study are still being determined, the team will look closely at miles per gallon metrics and maintenance expenses. "Our target is to be comparable from a horsepower and torque perspective."

This isn’t the only new transportation technology Tyson Foods plans to experiment with next year. In early 2019, the company plans to test an electric tractor for hauling and moving trailers around in its Northwest Arkansas distribution center. The equipment was developed by Kalmar Global, a Helsinki, Finland, company that sells everything from forklifts to ship-to-shore cranes for lifting containers off freighters.

Tyson Foods has nine distribution centers that would be considered candidates for this technology, Lyall said.

While Tyson Foods doesn’t have a specific target for reducing NOx, in early 2018, the company set an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. That goal was verified by the Science Based Targets Initiative in September.