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November 21, 2022

With $9M federal contract, diesel engine developer LiquidPiston eyes more engineers, space

PHOTOS | CONTRIBUTED Alec Shkolnik is the CEO of Bloomfield-based LiquidPiston, which is developing an efficient combustion engine for the Department of Defense.

LiquidPiston, a Connecticut technology company that’s been working diligently to develop a super-efficient version of a diesel engine for some 20 years, just scored a significant new contract with the Department of Defense (DoD).

The $9 million contract demonstrates “engagement and traction with our beachhead customer,” according to CEO Alec Shkolnik. “This contract shows that the Army is willing to put some skin in the game to help transition this technology.”

LiquidPiston has signed on to build and demonstrate an advanced, heavy-fueled combustion engine that uses up to 30% less fuel than comparable gasoline-powered engines in the same power class and reduces size and weight by up to 10 times over diesel engines with comparable power output.

This allows for use in situations where size and weight are crucial, like unmanned aerial systems (UAS) used with increasing frequency in combat or other dangerous situations.

The solution is aimed at overcoming range and payload challenges by increasing portability and efficiency, and keeping maintenance needs low.

“We’re trying to make engines better on virtually all parameters,” said Shkolnik.

LiquidPiston employees on the company’s Bloomfield shop floor, which has recently doubled to 12,000 square feet to make room for a machining and manufacturing center.

Part of the long-term aim in increasing fuel efficiency is to reduce the military’s need for refueling in dangerous situations.

“Looking at recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Shkolnik, “half of our casualties in those conflicts were supporting fuel and water logistics. You can imagine that a fuel convoy is a really good target for somebody.”

Another key metric is the DoD’s mandate to operate on a single fuel.

“The current UAS engines are not designed for military fuels. This causes performance and reliability issues with the component technologies,” said Mike Kweon of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, which is partnering with LiquidPiston on the project.

Yet another target for the technology: supporting vertical takeoff and landing, thereby reducing the need for runway infrastructure.

IP focus

While the DoD is a cornerstone customer for the Connecticut company, LiquidPiston believes military applications are only the start of what the engine could do. Hybrid-electric vehicles for the commercial market are another key target.

“Hybrid solutions that combine engines and electric propulsion are the path of the future here,” said Shkolnik.

What the contract will mean for LiquidPiston is more employment and a physical expansion of the company’s Bloomfield space on Blue Hills Avenue. LiquidPiston has already doubled its footprint to 12,000 square feet and signed a five-year lease that will allow it to expand to 16,000 square feet.

The larger premises will house a machining and manufacturing center, allowing for prototype development to prove out the technology. But the company will not be producing engines at scale.

Shkolnik emphasizes that LiquidPiston will remain a technology company focusing on intellectual property. Once the engine is matured, it will seek licensing agreements for others to undertake production.

LiquidPiston is in the market for more engineers. The company expects to hire another 10 people in the coming year, bringing total employment to around 40.

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