By GREGORY ZELLER //
As you might imagine, ThermoLift’s natural gas-driven heat pump and air conditioning unit, a directed-energy device based on Vuilleumier Cycle thermodynamics, has many parts. Much like the innovation economy.
For either to function, disparate parts – displacers and pumps and heat exchangers, researchers, engineers and angel investors – must work together.
ThermoLift’s device, which aims to cut overall energy costs in half for average customers, is all about synergy. That’s true both figuratively – a single appliance to replace a building’s heating, cooling and hot-water systems – and literally: The Gen 2.0 prototype has been constructed in stages, some assembly required.
ThermoLift is using 3D printing with multiple materials, a process known as additive manufacturing, to construct its Gen 2.0 prototype. That includes the device’s heat exchanger, a four-part aluminum assembly and a “critical component” of the device, according to ThermoLift CEO Paul Schwartz.
With Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee standing by for prototype testing and company principals hungry for new data, ThermoLift decided to have the four parts printed simultaneously, and contracted with additive-manufacturing facilities in Florida, California and upstate New York to get the job done.
When they were ready, the four parts needed to be welded together, and fast.
“We needed high-quality work in a very short window of opportunity,” Schwartz noted. “EB Industries came to the rescue.”
The Farmingdale-based precision-welding company was just what ThermoLift ordered: a local partner with electron-beam tech and “aerospace-quality expertise,” Schwartz noted.
“This heat exchanger uses water on the inside and helium gases on the outside, at high pressure,” he added. “We need to be sure the seal between the helium and water barrier is reliable.”
While the eventual mass-manufacturing of ThermoLift’s finalized device will incorporate completely different techniques, work on the prototypes is exacting work. Not only must designers tweak the science and engineers hit the marks, but assembly teams must be careful not to waste the expensive parts produced through 3D printing – no small consideration for a boot-strapping startup.
“We need to make sure these limited parts aren’t wasted because of an inferior welding process,” Schwartz noted. “So we needed somebody who could be spot-on and deliver.”
Assembling the four heat-exchanger pieces was a challenging task, according to James Fox, EB Industries’ engineering manager. Not only were the 3D-printed components slightly porous, but the company’s electron beam is fixed, meaning the ThermoLift parts had to be constantly manipulated throughout the welding process.
Slyly, Fox wouldn’t reveal how EB Industries solved the porous-aluminum problem. But overcoming the fixed-beam conundrum, even for the ThermoLift device’s inside welds, wasn’t too hard – just a little “high school trigonometry,” the engineering manager noted.
EB Industries also assisted the development of ThermoLift’s Gen 1.0 model and is hard at work electron-beaming an electrified end plate to the Gen 2.0. And it’s not the only Long Island company ushering ThermoLift toward mass-market energy efficiency.
In a separate collaboration, ThermoLift has contracted Deer Park-based Hi-Temp Brazing and its aluminum “dip brazing” expertise, which uses an aluminum/silicon filler, heated beyond 900 degrees Fahrenheit, to marry parts to one another.
Hi-Temp Brazing’s techniques successfully combined several key components – a great example, Schwartz noted, of the Long Island innovation community pulling together.
“The Long Island infrastructure continues to have successful resources in many areas of advanced manufacturing processes,” Schwartz noted. “While brazing may not be at the forefront of most Long Islanders’ daily lives, it is alive and well in Deer Park and helping to advance our thermal heat pump project toward commercialization.”
After the Gen 2.0 unit undergoes final machining at Fala Technologies, a longtime engineering partner in upstate Kingston, it will head to Oak Ridge National Lab for its critical field tests.
ThermoLift is only slightly off its planned schedule – “fabrication of custom components is a complex dance,” Schwartz noted – but it’s close, and the Gen 2.0 prototype should be in Tennessee by March.
But it wouldn’t be, Schwartz added, without the timely contributions of expert partners from within the Island’s innovation ecosystem.
“They were the right companies to do the work for us,” he said. “And with very short notice and a very heavy workload from their other customers, they put in overtime to meet our timetable.”
Fox said being able to answer ThermoLift’s specific call was a prime example of the increasing synergy within the Island’s innovation economy, and how such collaborations can advance both participants.
“They’re the experts on heat exchangers, but we know about welding,” Fox said. “You can design whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s manufacturable. What we do is part of the design that makes it manufacturable.”
The alliance also gives EB Industries an almost proud-parent affinity for ThermoLift’s heat and cooling unit, so while he’s pleased with the precision welding his firm provided for the advanced prototype, “I’ll be more pleased when I see them fire up that machine,” Fox added.