Revolutionary discovery in thermoelectrics
In the 1990s, a small company in Utah was researching a technology once heralded as the solution to the world’s energy problems: cold fusion. Certain experiments seemed to demonstrate that using a form of nuclear fusion could potentially release an almost limitless amount of thermal energy. The concept was subsequently widely discredited (it’s currently enjoying a renaissance, having been rebranded as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions – LENR), but a number of respected scientists still believed there was some truth in the original results.
The Utah company brought together two world-class scientists who held such views but while investigating the claims, they realised that if they were able to generate such a large amount of thermal energy, for it to be useful, the world would need a more efficient means of converting that heat into electricity. To cut a long story short, while researching the potential for thermoelectric energy conversion, they stumbled upon some amazing results, producing efficiencies several times greater than those found in the thermoelectric literature.
From Chapter 13 of the CRC Thermoelectrics Handbook, published in 2005, which consists of an outline of Eneco's technology. Co-author Dr. Yan Kucherov is pictured left next to fellow inventor Dr. Victor Sevastyanenko
It took some time for them to work out what they’d actually done – they had doped the thermoelectric material in such a way that it massively increased the rate at which electrons passed from one side of the chip to the other. Realising that cold fusion would take many years and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, the company’s focus shifted to commercialising this thermoelectric discovery which itself could prove a revolutionary technology. Eventually, the results were verified by the likes of NIST (the National Institute of Standards & Technology in the US) and the drive began to deliver commercial products for power generation.
Like many of the other thermoelectric research efforts and start-ups that began in the 1990s and 2000s, the road to commercialization proved troublesome. Despite some slow but steady progress, the company ultimately ran out of funds and went into bankruptcy in 2008.
A contest to acquire the intellectual property then ensued between several parties, and eventually an agreement was reached with the Trustee in bankruptcy, and approved by the US bankruptcy courts, under which MicroPower acquired the IP towards the end of 2008.
So, in 2009, an experienced and qualified team was assembled to carry on the work, and in October of that year, a deal was struck with Texas State University to enable the company to carry out its engineering development work at Texas State’s material sciences building in San Marcos. This gave MicroPower access to top quality equipment and experts not available elsewhere, as well as providing a low-cost base designed for commercialization projects of this nature. Work began in Texas in early 2010, and, in 2013, MicroPower moved into the newly-built off-campus Science, Technology and Research (STAR) Park a few miles down the road.
Moving from R&D to Manufacturing
Despite financial constraints and technical challenges to overcome in developing commercial products, huge progress has been made towards this goal, with chips and modules first delivered to customers for testing in 2015. In total, some $65m has been invested in the technology, including the facilities and equipment made available to MicroPower by Texas State University.
The investment has paid off and the company has completed a series of key technological and commercial steps. On the technology front, significant advancements in module performance and longevity have resulted in product solutions that are impressing customers, technology partners and independent researchers. The word is spreading that MicroPower meets its datasheet parameters consistently, a statement that could not be made for all players in the market today. Independent evaluations by highly regarded experts in the industry such as the US Army Research Laboratory, the US Air Force and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have confirmed the high performance.
An official endorsement by the US Department of Defense refers to the technology as “the best in class.” The expanding customer base is pleased with the product performance, level of technical support and engineering advice they receive with every order.
MicroPower is rapidly becoming recognized as a reliable source for delivering innovative thermoelectric solutions that until recently were deemed to be difficult if not impossible to achieve.
The transition from R&D to production manufacturing is taking shape. The first production line is completely designed with every piece of equipment pre-planned and selected. Many collaborative projects are under way with equipment and raw material suppliers to ensure the unique manufacturing processes will be implemented with optimum efficiency. Design for manufacturing (DFM), design for yield (DFY) and design to cost (DTC) principles are diligently applied at every stage for planning a fully-automated production line capable of manufacturing modules capable of generating more than 10 megawatts of electric power annually.
First revenues were realized in 2016 and have grown steadily each year as the actively engaged customer base has expanded from one or two to more than a half a dozen, expected to reach 15-20 within a year. Today, the company is engaged with several strategic product development efforts, placing its focus on delivering thermoelectric solutions in the portable power and industrial waste heat recovery sectors, as well as exploring co-generation opportunities in the fuel cell sector.