Omnitek, in San Marcos, Calif., signed a deal last month to supply natural gas filters to Indian automaker Tata Motors, a sure sign for the local firm that its own, personal recession was over.
Omnitek is one of a pair of companies founded and run by Werner Funk, a German immigrant and engine expert: Nology Engineering Inc., which specializes in tweaking race car engines to improve their speed and performance; and Omnitek Engineering Corp., which builds natural gas engines and designs natural gas conversion kits.
With recent finds of natural gas reserves pushing prices through the floor, Funk thinks the cleaner-burning fuel is a natural alternative to burning diesel fuel. After tough times during the recession and sluggish recovery of the last two years, Omnitek recently signed a deal with Indian automaker Tata, and it's recently opened the domestic market for its conversions. Better times are ahead.
"When you improve the combustion efficiency, you pollute less, or you get more power, it's your choice," Funk said.
Funk was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, a mid-sized city 175 miles west of Munich on the French border. He worked for Mercedes but immigrated to America in 1978.
"I started from the beginning, cleaning, washing dishes and cooking pizza and changing oil in cars. I moved my way up that way," Funk said. "It was difficult in the beginning. I didn't speak any English, (and) I didn't want to live in Michigan where all the cars are made."
Instead he lived in Wisconsin, where he bounced around before a business trip brought him to San Diego in 1986. He loved the area so much that he moved two years later.
In 1989, he started his first company, a firm that produced engine controllers that reduced pollution.
"At the time the fleets -- even government fleets -- weren't interested in spending money to not pollute," he said.
So the company flopped and he went back to a regular job. In 1994, he tried again, this time focusing its technology on making cars go faster.
"Everyone wants to go faster," he said.
The company was a success, and he was soon working with racing teams from around the world.
In 2001, he began approaching customers about running cleaner engines, but they only knew him as a performance expert. So he founded Omnitek with the goal of focusing on natural gas engines.
"We believe natural gas is the future," Funk said.
Natural gas burns cleaner than oil, so there's less smoke, less particulate, and less greenhouse gas production, he said. And thanks to drilling advances, developers found vast new reserves in the United States and around the world, sending natural gas prices to unheard-of lows. A diesel-gallon equivalent of compressed natural gas in Southern California sells for between $1.90 and $2.25, about half the $4.17 price for a gallon for diesel. Funk said natural gas engines get 10 percent less mileage per gallon-equivalent, but 10 percent less mileage for 50 percent less price is worth it, in Funk's view.
Early on, Funk worked with partners in Thailand and other countries to convert diesel engines on buses and trucks. Converting thousands of buses to compressed natural gas had the effect of substantially cleaner air, Funk said.
Other cities, like those in Peru and Burma, worked with Omnitek to do conversions because they control large domestic natural gas reserves.
Both Omnitek and Nology made money until a recession struck. Many of Funk's partners shut down and others laid off dozens of skilled mechanics. The companies struggled through 2009 and 2010 before seeing some rebound in 2011, and he hopes to be profitable again this year, with partnerships like the one with Tata helping things along.
Omnitek also has a monopoly, for the moment, on the newly created American market, Funk said. For years, a lack of certification standards for natural gas conversions meant American truck fleet owners wouldn't buy his product. But last year the Environmental Protection Agency released standards and a new market was born. Omnitek is designing two kits for two models of diesel engines, and it plans to churn out one every three to four months. The company assembles the kits in San Marcos and then sells them to truck stops and mechanics around the country.
Installing the kit is fairly simple, Funk said.
Diesel engines get taken apart and rebuilt two to three times over their 20-year lifetimes. For an extra $3,000, a truck owner can use that opportunity to convert the engine to natural gas.
With the domestic market growing, Funk expects he'll expand his staff of 10, adding more people over the next year.
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