By GREGORY ZELLER //
Technological advances and a first-ever international patent have made for a hot summer at ThermoLift, which is closing in rapidly on critical field tests for its natural gas-driven heat pump and air-conditioning unit.
In July, the Stony Brook startup was granted its first overseas patent by China, which awarded the distinction to the customized electronic-control system of ThermoLift’s core heat-pump technology.
The company is still awaiting a domestic utility patent – CEO Paul Schwartz said this week he expects it “within four to eight weeks” – and has also applied for patents in Germany, Italy, France and England.
“The most important, largest regional areas in the world,” Schwartz noted.
But the CEO and his engineering team are heralding the Chinese recognition as a major forward step for their energy-efficiency technology – not because it will pry loose further patents, according to Schwartz, but for its inherent technological validation.
“It means they did extensive research on our technology, reviewed other competing technologies and saw ours as an innovation,” he told Innovate LI.
What makes the Chinese patent “a really unique thing,” Schwartz added, is Chinese industry’s penchant for churning out slightly altered versions of existing technologies.
“China likes to imitate everybody,” he said. “Now we have recognition by the Chinese government that we have a unique technology that can’t be reproduced.
“And, of course, it gives us a lead into one of the largest economies in the world.”
The Chinese patent comes as the member of Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program, launched in 2012 by Schwartz and former Volkswagen engine and power-train engineer Peter Hofbauer, moves steadily through the genesis of its Gen 2.0 prototype.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing – nearly all of the device’s components are custom-made, and that’s going to create engineering headaches, Schwartz noted.
“There are going to be issues with manufacturing in the prototyping phase that you can’t control,” he said. “It makes you get creative and come up with alternative solutions.”
In that way, even glitches can sometimes turn to gold, which is precisely what happened when a critical heat-exchanger component failed. In earlier versions, the custom-made heat-exchanger was held together by as many as 100 fitted joints nestled between different types of metal, creating what Schwartz termed “a containment issue and a leak problem.”
By permitting a slow escape of helium critical to the device’s functionality, the leaky joints basically sapped the unit’s efficiency. That sent ThermoLift and its third-party manufacturers back to the drawing board – and led to one of the product’s biggest technological advances to date.
The new heat exchanger, which eliminates all joints, “completely isolates the helium in the water channel,” according to Seann Convey, one of ThermoLift’s senior engineers. That has the dual advantages of stopping the leaks and supercharging the Gen 2.0’s output, Convey noted.
“This offers a much better performance and will be much easier to manufacture,” the engineer said. “And it will allow us to operate at full pressure in our tests, which gives us the biggest thermodynamic advantage.”
The new heat exchanger also led directly to a major performance threshold crossed this summer: While previous tests routinely ran the directed-energy ThermoLift device for 10 or 15 consecutive minutes, engineers recently crossed the 45-minute mark before deciding to shut it down.
“We decided to stop the machine,” Schwartz noted, “as opposed to problems stopping the machine.”
It’s a major step toward the creation of a single device that can control air and water temperature throughout an entire house or commercial structure. And ThermoLift figures to be taking several more forward steps through new collaborations with academia and private industry, including a partnership with Hofstra University’s Center for Innovation.
Schwartz said his engineers are now collaborating directly with Kevin Craig, head of Hofstra’s Center for Innovation and its Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory and “a renowned leader in the mechatronics field.”
It’s not strange for a Stony Brook startup, even one so heavily involved with SBU researchers and programs, to form an alliance with Hofstra innovators, Schwartz noted.
“Stony Brook and Hofstra aren’t competing,” he said. “The expertise we found at Hofstra isn’t available at Stony Brook, and the expertise at Stony Brook isn’t at Hofstra. ThermoLift is simply taking advantage of this ecosystem to advance our technology.”
ThermoLift is also taking advantage of a professional collaboration with The Omnicon Group, a Hauppauge-based engineering-solutions provider that played a key role in that successful 45-minute test run, according to Schwartz.
“We’re following two different paths toward the same goal: very low electricity utilization for the control of our machine,” he said. “Through the assistance of Omnicon, we achieved that over-45-minute runtime. Through the assistance of Hofstra, we’re developing alternative technologies for lower-cost electronics solutions for high-volume manufacturing.”
“It’s such a unique advantage to work with people who have been in the industry for decades and have this incredible expertise,” Convey added. “It’s a real asset for us, to have these experts to collaborate with directly.”
It will still be quite some time before ThermoLift commercializes its energy-efficiency devices, but the new research collaborations should hasten both lab tests – ThermoLift will still be put through the paces at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory – and demonstration field tests, now about a year away.
“Those field demonstrations will be critical,” Schwartz noted. “They will not only help us develop the durability of the technology itself, but also help establish market acceptance and pricing considerations.
“Hardware development is measured in years,” he added. “Right now, we’re heavily focused on determining the minimal cost for the most viable product.”