Clean-Tech to Market: Young Companies Utilize Georgia Tech Research to Help Ease Global Environmental Impact

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At the Georgia Institute of Technology, young companies arising from the Institute’s $500 million-per-year research program are developing cleaner, more-sustainable technologies. Focusing mainly on cleaner production or more efficient use of energy,

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Written by Rick Robinson

As pump prices gyrate and global temperatures rise, the world’s dependence on hydrocarbon fossil fuels looks increasingly precarious. Elevated greenhouse gas levels and a string of particularly destructive storms have created new interest in ways to reduce impacts on the world’s environment and slow climate change.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, young companies arising from the Institute’s $500 million-per-year research program are developing cleaner, more-sustainable technologies. Focusing mainly on cleaner production or more efficient use of energy, these ventures are converting research discoveries into applications with broad benefits.

“Clean technologies have very significant environmental and economic promise,” says Stephen Fleming, vice provost of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, and director of its Commercialization Services Division. “Several companies based on Georgia Tech research are producing clean-tech products today here in Georgia or are knocking at that door, and numerous others show real promise.”

Commercialization Services identifies, evaluates and promotes Georgia Tech research discoveries that show commercial potential. Most such discoveries fall into two categories: those that may be licensed to established corporations, and those few – about one in 10 – that can provide foundations for new companies.

The VentureLab program of the Georgia Research Alliance supports development of those companies through grants and other assistance that helps them get started. Here are some highlights of Georgia Tech’s “green” companies:

Suniva: High-Efficiency Crystalline-Silicon Photovoltaic Cells

Suniva Inc. began manufacturing high-efficiency crystalline-silicon photovoltaic cells in October 2008 at a 73,000-square-foot facility in Norcross, Ga. Suniva is the Southeast’s first maker of solar cells, and it has plans to expand quickly.

Using technology based on the research of Georgia Tech Regents’ professor Ajeet Rohatgi, the company is presently manufacturing its ARTisun™ solar cells at a rate of 32 megawatts (MW) annually – which would produce enough electricity to supply about 6,300 homes, Rohatgi says.

Suniva plans to triple its annual output to nearly 100 MW. The company currently employs about 70 people and expects to add more staff as it grows.

Suniva uses a patented technology it calls Star™ to extract maximum performance from wafers of mono-crystalline silicon, a material often used for solar power generation.

A solar cell contains several layers, and every layer plays a role in the cell’s overall efficiency. Rohatgi has studied solar cells in depth for some 30 years, learning how to optimize each layer to get maximum output – at the least cost.

“We want to be right at the sweet spot,” explains Rohatgi, who is both Suniva’s founder and chief technology officer. “We want cells that are highly efficient but low in cost, and that can generate power at a cost comparable to the power you buy from the electric company.”

Rohatgi’s solar-cell research has received significant funding over many years from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Suniva is a shining example of how government support for research can lead to very real job creation,” notes Robert Knotts, director of federal relations for Georgia Tech. “It’s a strong reminder of why we should invest in research.”

Suniva’s current solar-cell output falls in the 17- to 18-percent efficiency range, which Rohatgi classifies as high, especially among lower-cost cells. But the company is continuing to improve its technology, and recently the National Renewable Energy Laboratory certified a new Suniva cell and cell structure at 20 percent efficiency.

Suniva is a graduate of Georgia Tech’s Commercialization Services, which evaluates the commercial potential of technology developed at Georgia Tech and helps faculty members and other research staff form companies based on their research. In early 2008, Suniva joined the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), Georgia Tech’s science and technology incubator. It graduated from that program in April 2009.

To date, Suniva has received total funding of $55.5 million from several venture capital organizations, including Menlo Park, Calif.-based New Enterprise Associates (NEA). Even more significant, Suniva now has contracts worth more than $1 billion through 2013.

Rohatgi, who runs the University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaic Research and Education in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, gained one important advantage early on: first-class management.

“With the help of NEA and Commercialization Services, Suniva has assembled a great management team with enormous experience in running technology manufacturing companies,” he says. “Being able to put together such a well-established team played a big role in my decision to start the company.”

Suniva’s chairman and CEO, John W. Baumstark, is a technology-industry veteran with wide experience that includes serving as CEO of DWL before its acquisition by IBM and as chief operating officer of TRADEX Technologies before and during its acquisition by Ariba Inc. for $5.6 billion in 2000.

The company’s vice president of manufacturing, Stephen P. Shea, ran BP Solar’s manufacturing line for many years. Daniel L. Meier, vice president of research and development, has worked for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and has managed R&D for two other companies.

“In the next two to three years, we expect the quality-price balance of our product will put us at grid parity at a dollar per watt,” Baumstark says. That means power from Suniva cells would cost about the same as buying power from an electric company.

Climate Forecast Applications Network: Long-Range Weather and Climate Forecasts

Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN) is using cutting-edge computer models to develop weather and climate forecasts on time scales from days to decades. The three-year-old company caters to clients needing forecast products beyond the traditional five-day forecasts provided by the National Weather Service, such as energy and insurance companies.

CFAN’s capabilities include proprietary extended-range hurricane forecasting. They’ve been providing this service for an energy-sector company for two years. CFAN’s forecasts help that company manage both its energy-production and energy-trading activities in advance of a storm.

Last summer, CFAN correctly informed this energy-sector client that Hurricane Ike would strike Houston directly. What’s more, CFAN did so a week before the storm hit land, several days ahead of other forecasters.

“Our clients took a direct hit on this one,” says Judith Curry, professor and chair of the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and a CFAN principal. “They used our forecasts for all their storm-related logistics, including evacuation.”

Companies in the retail sector also have a strong stake in accurate hurricane forecasts, she explains. For example, building supply companies want to move plywood and other materials to the correct hurricane target area. Sending it to the wrong spot can mean a financial loss.

Other CFAN clients include the insurance sector, which wants weather models that anticipate storm and flooding risks over the next 10 to 30 years. Insurance companies seek such data, Curry says, because they believe that ongoing climate change will alter future weather patterns.

CFAN’s secret?

“Let’s just say we have a proprietary multi-model statistical dynamical method that includes European weather models,” says Peter J. Webster, a School of Earth and Atmospheric Science professor who is also a CFAN principal. “We give a customized forecast product to each client. They come to us with a particular problem requiring particular forecasting, and we come up with a product just for them.”

Like most Georgia Tech companies, CFAN has its roots in a research project. Webster was developing flood forecasts for the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, an organization that works to prevent loss of life from storm-related flooding in such vulnerable countries as Bangladesh.

That work brought the team to the attention of Ben Hill, a technology advisor for Georgia Tech Commercialization Services. He told them their research might have the right stuff to be the basis of a new company.

Today CFAN has a scientific staff of eight, income approaching seven figures and good prospects.

The company has also worked with the World Bank, helping the Caribbean adapt to climate change. At issue: finding ways for those regions to deal with rising sea levels, more hurricanes and less rainfall.

Says Curry: “The whole issue of climate services is becoming potentially a growth area as companies, resources managers and agencies grapple with climate variability and change.”

RideCell: Making Existing Urban Transportation More Efficient

RideCell aims to make existing urban transportation more efficient by making it more accessible.

This young company covers both the private and public sides of the street. It uses technology that’s already in the hands of millions – mobile phones and global positioning system (GPS) chips – to offer on-demand car pooling that’s safe as well as flexible. It can also supply mobile-phone users with the kind of information – including schedules and actual in-route arrival times – that increases the usability of public transit systems like MARTA and localized systems such as Georgia Tech’s Stinger buses.

“Think of it as accessing all modes of transit via your mobile phone, in real time,” says RideCell CEO Dave Kaufman. “We want to make car pooling, van pooling and MARTA much more attractive and reliable options than they are now.”

In today’s Atlanta, he explains, 71 percent of people ride in single-occupancy vehicles, while only 10 percent of 2.5 million commuters car pool. The top reason that people continue using their private vehicles is flexibility. If they need to work late, or leave early to pick up a sick child, they don’t want to be tied to a car pooling schedule.

RideCell’s service, based on technology developed by Stephen L. Dickerson, an emeritus professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering, can make car pooling almost as convenient as that personal car, says company chief technology officer Aarjav Trivedi. A user can input travel time, destination and other preferences into a RideCell-enabled mobile phone, then watch as the system shoots back a range of ride options that offers smoking and even gender-preference choices.

The first concern people raise for a system like this involves security, Trivedi acknowledges.

“It’s not as simple as just matching people up – developing trust is key,” he says. “Everyone wants to be sure the ride they’re getting is a safe one.”
RideCell’s solution, he says, is “limited networks of trust” based on existing social networks. A corporate or university directory would represent one such existing network. Georgia Tech faculty and staff, for example, could agree to ride with other Georgia Tech employees.

A multi-layered registration process would ensure that only bona fide staff would find their way into the RideCell system. Various kinds of vehicle and/or driver identification, from license-plate numbers and online photos to on-vehicle decals, might heighten security.

RideCell even uses the mobile phone’s Bluetooth capability to automate authentication between driver and rider. And GPS-tracking technology could detect when a vehicle went off course, which might signal trouble.

Once established, individual networks of trust could combine forces. For example, Georgia Tech employees could agree to share ride information with employees from nearby Coca-Cola.

RideCell is still working on its software, and not every mobile phone can host the company’s system – although text messaging enables coverage of most of the mobile market. In addition, RideCell has made its product available to in-car GPS platforms including Dash Express.

RideCell’s software even includes an integrated-billing function. The system adjusts subscriber accounts for transportation in either private vehicles or van pools – riders get billed, drivers get a credit.

“And that’s just the beginning,” says company founder Dickerson. “This technology can be extended to high-occupancy toll lanes and even traffic metering, which could save billions in infrastructure build-out.”

RideCell is already moving into the real world of convenient car pooling. The company is setting up a system trial involving some 150 Georgia Tech faculty, students and staff. It’s hoped that the trial, performed in cooperation with Georgia Tech Parking and Transportation, will help iron out software glitches and provide a major step toward wider deployment.

Why would people give up their beloved private vehicles to car pool or take MARTA?

Trivedi says there are several motivations. One is that gasoline prices can be expected to go back up – maybe not tomorrow but soon. A second is that “many people really do want to be green.” A third is that some want to limit wear and tear on their cars – or avoid having to own a car at all.

“And some people simply like riding with other people,” he adds.

Qoil: Getting the Most Service from Motor Oil & Protecting Engines

Many ventures aim to conserve oil, but few specifically target engine oil.

Qoil uses a patent-pending electrochemical sensor to continually evaluate the condition of lubricating oil. Its technology can provide data on not only the motor oil but also on the engine it’s protecting.

“Historically, it’s been cheaper just to change your oil every 3,000 miles than to take a chance on damaging your engine,” says Frank Mess, CEO of Qoil (pronounced “coil”). “The net result is that hundreds of millions of barrels of oil or more are wasted every year as perfectly good motor oil is thrown out.”

Currently, he explains, vehicle-fleet owners who want to evaluate engine oil must have samples extracted and sent to a lab. It’s a bit like what diabetics had to go through before portable blood testing equipment, he says. It’s laborious, and periodic lab results are generally a poor substitute for on-the-spot information.

Qoil’s technology provides real-time electrochemical analysis of engine oil by placing sensors in the oil flow. The result is that owners can extract maximum life from their increasingly expensive motor oil. And, by monitoring for early signs of engine damage, the Qoil approach can help head off expensive repairs.

Based on the research of Steven Danyluk, the Morris M. Bryan Jr. Chair in Mechanical Engineering for Advanced Manufacturing Systems at Georgia Tech, Qoil’s sensors initially make the most sense for fleet vehicles, Mess says. But private vehicles could also benefit as the technology becomes more widespread and affordable. The company is also working with potential customers in other industrial segments who need to protect high-value engines and gearboxes.

Qoil now has 24 prototype oil-monitoring systems operational on commercial vehicles in the field. These installations use a bypass flow loop, in which oil flows past the sensor and back into the engine. Ultimately, Mess says, the sensor will likely be threaded straight into an engine port.

Signals from the sensor are processed and transmitted to Qoil’s analysis system in Atlanta, where the company uses internally developed algorithms to analyze the data and produce detailed reports on oil and engine health.

“We’ve had significant success in monitoring the chemical degradation of the oil as a function of time, as well as successes in detecting early failure symptoms that prevented expensive equipment failures,” Mess says.

In addition to VentureLab seed funding, Qoil has received a first round of venture capital. Qoil sensors are currently being manufactured in-house, but the company has engaged external partners as it prepares to ramp up production.

The company is a member of the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC).

Other companies growing at Georgia Tech include:

Vehicle Monitoring Technology (VMT) monitors vehicle activity and vehicle emissions in conjunction with driver behavior to promote safety, better air quality and energy efficiency. Its technologies are based on the research of Randall Guensler, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Jennifer Ogle, now at Clemson University. Guensler and Ogle are also principals in the company.

VMT is currently providing monitoring services for vehicle activity and emissions in various U.S. localities. The company specializes in several areas including technology development for instrumented vehicle-data collection and analyzing the impact of pricing schemes, such as HOV toll lanes, on traffic and emissions.

C2 Biofuels is an outgrowth of a Georgia Tech Strategic Energy Institute (SEI) project that seeks to develop fuel-ethanol production from biomass material available in large quantities in the Southeast, including Southern yellow pine.

C2 Biofuels is supported by Sam Shelton of SEI and the Georgia Tech School of Mechanical Engineering and Bill Bulpitt of SEI. In addition, a team at the Georgia Tech School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the University of Georgia is helping to evaluate and develop processes and technologies.

The startup is led by Roger Reisert, a Georgia Tech alumnus who has designed, built and operated refineries. Reisert says the company plans to build and begin operation of a pilot plant in 2009. The schedule also calls for a larger demonstration plant, to be built in 2010, and a commercial plant by 2012.

The goal: to deliver fuel-grade cellulosic ethanol to service stations at $1.70 a gallon.

Applied Nanomaterials is working on nanoscale generators that could power very small devices and bio-sensors. The company is based on the work of Zhong Lin Wang, a professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering.

Innovolt uses patented technology to enhance energy management and energy efficiency, especially in the area of power protection and the prevention of equipment damage from energy surges. The technology is based on the work of Deepak Divan, a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The company graduated from ATDC in May 2009.

LumoFlex is developing organic photovoltaic materials that could result in substantial power savings and flexible form factors in a number of products. The company derives from research by Seth Marder and Joe Perry of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Bernard Kippelen and Greg Durgin of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Virtual Aerosurface Technologies develops tiny devices that, installed in aircraft wings or wind turbines, emit “microjets” of air that adjust lift and drag to improve control and save fuel. These microjet devices are based on the work of Ari Glezer of the School of Mechanical Engineering.

Bach Energy seeks to extract biofuels from municipal solid waste via a gasification process. The technology is based on the research of Art Ragauskas, a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

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