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Exploradio: New renewable energy
An innovative use of what's normally a green-house gas may become part of Ohio's renewable energy future
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Phil Brennan, Co-Founder & CEO peers through the condenser heat exchanger of the protoype of the ECHOGEN Heat Engine.
Courtesy of Echogen Power Systems
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Regulations of Ohio’s oil and gas industry grabbed most of the headlines in last month’s passage of sweeping new energy legislation.  But Governor Kasich didn’t visit a drilling platform for the signing ceremony; he set up his desk in the basement of a small Akron startup.

In this week’s Exploradio, we explore a new type of renewable energy in Ohio.

Exploradio: A new renewable

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Akron test run

Steam from the city’s heating plant is normally used to heat buildings in downtown Akron.  But today the excess steam is piped into a crisp white box the size of a moving van parked next to the plant.  The box is Echogen’s new 250 kW waste-heat engine, on its first real test run outside the lab. The engine takes any type of waste heat, like what goes up a factory smoke stack and turns it into electricity. 

A few blocks away at Echogen’s headquarters, CEO and founder Phil Brennan believes his new waste-heat engine may even overturn the coal industry’s centuries-old reliance on steam to spin turbines. 

“Our goal ultimately is to displace steam as the power-generation fluid of choice.”

It’s an ambitious goal for technology barely off the drawing board.

Brennan started Echogen five years ago, licensing the original design from a NASA prototype. 

Super critical CO2

His new technology works through the innovative use of a common material -  CO2 .  Except in Echogen’s engine, the CO2 is pressurized and heated to the point where the gas becomes a stable liquid called super critical carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide has been used in other applications.  In Europe it’s been used in refrigeration, and in air conditioning systems for cars in Europe because it’s a safe refrigerant.  It’s used very successfully as a heat pump in Japan.  But Brennan says his company is the first to use super critical carbon dioxide to generate electricity.

In just five years Brennan and his team took their waste heat engine from the concept phase to field testing.  But it hasn't been easy.  He says there is a bridge between theory and practice and it’s been a painful and repeated lesson for Echogen.

The engine works by flowing the super critical CO2 through a waste-heat exchanger that sits inside a smoke stack.  The CO2 heats up inside the engine, spins a turbine, and cranks out electricity.

The Valley of Death

Brennan is anxious to get his product to market - 

“We’ve been living in what the venture capitalists call the ‘Valley of Death’ for a while. The sun has been beating on us but someone has been giving us water and with just a couple of successes, the financial picture looks very different.”

One success was the new energy bill that designates waste-heat energy from smoke stacks, steel smelters, brick kilns and even diesel engines as renewable energy in Ohio, a move backed by environmentalists. 

The change allows Echogen’s potential customers not only to generate power, but to also sell renewable credits to utilities that use them to meet green-energy standards.

Still, the units aren’t cheap.  Echogen is developing a 7-megawatt engine – enough to power 3,000 homes for a year.  Brennan says it will sell for around 15 million dollars.  The potential waste heat market worldwide, he says, is in the billions. 

The governor’s visit a few weeks ago shined a spotlight on the Akron start-up, but CEO Brennan is under no illusions of guaranteed success.  He says the proof is in the pudding, "and we haven’t yet eaten it.”

But there will be plenty of people at Echogen to sample that pudding.  The company plans to double its workforce to 80 people by the end of next year.

 

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

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