Improving the Internal Combustion Engine

Gary S. Vasilash

Federal-Mogul has a strategy for improving the internal combustion engine by focusing on key components.

“I am pretty sure we will see the internal combustion engine as a dominant force when we are well into our retirement,” says Rainer Jueckstock, CEO of the Federal-Mogul Powertrain Segment, and co-CEO of the company that is divided into two segments, with the other being the Vehicle Components Segment, which is primarily, though not entirely, focused on the aftermarket. Jueckstock is in his early 50s, so his outlook for the viability of the internal combustion engine has a long way to go. Given that the Powertrain Segment has products including pistons, piston rings, spark plugs, ignition coils, and more, and given that of the corporation’s $6.9-billion global sales in 2011, Powertrain represented 62% of the total, Jueckstock has a reason to believe in the on-going viability of the internal combustion engine. At the end of the day, that’s his job. And he says that they’re working hard to maintain or gain a number-one or number-two position in the areas where they compete.

Jueckstock says that the approach that they’re taking is to concentrate on (1) friction reduction and (2) light-weighting. As for the first, they’re applying an array of coatings to components, including diamond-like coatings (DLC) and ceramics. “These coatings have to ensure lifetime performance,” he says, explaining that the behavior of the components have to be the same years after they’ve initially gone into service.

What’s more, technological changes to engines have an effect on some components. Consider, for example, crankshaft bearings and bearing shells. As more start-stop systems are deployed, those bearings face demands like never before. When an engine stops, the oil slowly flows off the bearing surface, so when the engine restarts, there can be momentary metal-to-metal contact. So Federal-Mogul engineers have developed a polymer coating for its IROX bearings that can handle the low- or no-lubrication conditions.

An example of light-weighting is the high-strength aluminum Advanced Elastoval II piston, which is 20% lighter than the previous piston. Much of the weight-save is a result of reducing wall thickness from 4 mm to sections as thin as 2.5 mm. They’ve deployed weight-reducing pockets and crown-reinforcing ribs. They’re using asymmetrical geometries. Overall, they’ve redesigned the entire piston, which is particularly necessitated by the fact that as engines are being downsized, combustion chamber pressures are being increased. Consequently, lightness cannot come at the expense of strength. In fact, the strength is increased.

To address the increasingly lean conditions within engines, they’re developing the Advanced Corona Ignition System (ACIS), which generates multiple streams of ions 3 to 4 mm to ignite the fuel mixture as opposed to the single 1-mm spark from a conventional spark plug.

All of this means that the amount of R&D that Federal-Mogul is conducting is increasing. This is why Jueckstock says it is necessary to have sufficient size within categories so that it can fund developments. “We have to be in R&D in more directions today. In the past, doing piston material development was sufficient,” he says, adding, “But now material development is not enough.” They must develop new designs for the pistons (e.g., the Advanced Elastoval II) as well as work on manufacturing process development (e.g., they developed a two-dimensional ultrasonic testing device for pistons).

Another factor is that “development cycles have become much shorter.” He says that it wasn’t all that long ago that an idea would be in development for six to eight years before even approaching an OEM with it. Now the development time has been cut in half—and part of this is driven by competitors who are also amping up their development process—which “requires more sophistication in our development, more predictive tools. We have to be right the first time.”

It also means a higher tolerance for risk, both on behalf of Federal-Mogul and its customers. “We are going to customers with R&D projects, an approach we didn’t do to this extent 10 years ago.”

While many companies are looking at technologies for electric vehicles and hybrids, Jueckstock says that there are plenty of opportunities for internal combustion engines, especially as the amount of natural gas increases and can become a more widespread auto fuel. He suggests that it is possible to add technologies to internal combustion engines that provide economical benefits such that it makes the business case for electric vehicles problematic.

“With investments in R&D by OEMs and suppliers in internal combustion engines, I think things will continue nicely” Jueckstock says.