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Science and Technology




Exploradio - The battery's new brain
A young entreprenuer in Akron is building a better way to control the flow of power in and out of clean energy batteries
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Courtney Gras is co-founder and president of Design Flux Technologies. The company was awarded an Ohio Third Frontier grant to help market its battery management system. Gras is an electrical engineering student at the University of Akron.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair
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The batteries that store power in electric cars, electric lift trucks, or solar arrays can be … finicky.  Without proper care, batteries can drain rather than store power - they can fail, or even catch fire.

In this week’s Exploradio, we meet a young entrepreneur whose product teaches batteries to behave.

Exploradio - The battery's new brain

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Building a battery's brain
Courtney Gras has spent a lot of time lately at her workbench in the engineering workshop on the outskirts of campus.  She’s building circuit boards for her battery management system.   But she doesn’t mind soldering tiny electrical components -

“We have a lot of fun tools that we get to play with so it’s very hands on once you get beyond the design portion.”

She’s co-founder and president of Design Flux Technologies, and the cell phone-sized devices she’s making are the company’s prototype battery brain.  Gras demonstrates with a nearby battery -

“And it sits on there throughout the battery’s entire use, so no matter where it goes, what it does, whether in an electric vehicle, our product stays with the battery.  What our product does is it protects the battery and really optimizes its performance throughout its lifetime.  So we’re making the battery last longer and perform optimally.”

Gras says the reason the battery needs a brain is because chemical differences in some of the hundreds of cells that make up the battery can slowly drain the power of the overall system.  

“So because of those chemical differences over time one of the cells or a couple of the cells can maybe not get as charged  or discharged as the others just because the chemistry inside is different.”

A burgeoning market
Bad cells can shorten the life of the battery, or worse.  That’s why electric cars like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf have battery management systems.  Gras and her company are looking at a similar niche using patented software developed at the University of Akron.      

“Our target application right now are electric vehicles specifically in the materials handling market.  So we’re talking about tow motors that use big batteries.”

She’s eager for her company to gain a foothold.

“There’s potential for maybe a $5 billion market just in electric vehicles if we were to capture the whole thing.”

Design Flux got a boost in April from Ohio’s Third Frontier program.  The company won a $100,000 grant that will go toward equipment to build more prototypes.  Third Frontier Commission director, Lisa Delp, says the recognition that comes with the award will also help the company -

“To be part of the capital continuum, to get warm introductions into those sources of capital…  It’s a vast network of a lot of different components and once you’re in, you’re kind of ‘in’.”

The youngest entrepreneur in the room
There’s one other factor, besides the business plan, that impressed Delp -

“I believe they are the youngest team to get an award in this program.”

Courtney Gras is 23 years old.  She was 22 when she co-founded Design Flux.  Gras credits homeschooling for fostering her entrepreneurial spirit -

“I’ve gotten used to be the younger person in the room and learning to talk to people and deal with people and I think that’s one of the things homeschooling helped me with.”

Gras is still a year and a half away from finishing her degree in electrical engineering at the University of Akron.   But she says the year she took off to build her company removed  some of the pressure of a post-graduation job search.

“Come to school exit with your own job  -  that’s what we like to do.”

Gras will continue to work with her professors and use the University’s labs, not just as a student, but as president of a promising tech company.

 

I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio.


Related Links & Resources
DesignFlux Technologies

Ohio's Third Frontier program


Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio - Where does it hurt?
Monday, April 30, 2012

Exploradio - Back to dust to dust
Monday, April 23, 2012

Listener Comments:

That is great! Way to go Courtney!


Posted by: Jennifer (Florida) on May 15, 2012 7:05AM
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