Innovation finalists: the energy driving Ireland’s brightest and best
This week we look at the three finalists who made the grade in the energy and environment category for this year’s ‘Irish Times’ InterTradeIreland Innovation awards
John Ward, executive president and co-founder of REDT Energy: “You need to be able to charge up the battery as quickly as you discharge it.” Photograph: Conor McCabe
Ambisense chief executive Stephen McNulty and chief technology officer Fiachra Collins: “It started with the idea of developing a landfill monitoring system.” Photograph: Conor McCabe
Surface Power HONE marketing director Greg Byrne and chief executive John Quinn: “The nano-engine effectively replaces the boiler in a heating system.” Photograph: Conor McCabe
LFG is one of the main sources of global air pollution and a major component of global warming, but current industry practice to manage the issue is regarded as being highly inefficient with its dependency on handheld analysers and unwieldy fixed position analysers.
The most common solutions to prevent LFG migrating offsite as a source of pollution are flaring, burning the gas onsite to remove harmful components and control odours or using an LFG utilisation plant to convert the gas into renewable energy.
This latter option is clearly the most preferable as it provides additional revenue to the landfill industry. In fact, in the UK alone the waste management sector earns around £400 million (€550 million) annually from LFG-fired energy production.
But it is not as simple as just sinking pipes into the site and drawing off gas to a plant. You’ve got to find it first. The process of LFG production is highly variable due to the nature of decomposition of the waste. In a landfill, different waste streams degrade at different rates, producing highly fluctuating levels of methane. As a consequence, landfill operators need to regularly monitor the gas at dispersed locations around the site.
This process is best performed by a distributed network of autonomous instruments through which large datasets can be built up in a short amount of time that describe the behaviour of the gas across the entire site. That’s where the Ambisense device comes in.
The company began life as an EPA EU Strive-funded project developed in the National Centre for Sensor Research (NCSR) in DCU. “It started with the idea of developing a monitoring system for landfill sites”, says chief executive Stephen McNulty. “They went to the EPA and got funding for it under the Strive programme and built the first unit five years ago. This was a very early prototype and was quite expensive. Dr Fiachra Collins worked on it after that and brought the cost of the product down to a level where it was commercially viable.”
The next stage was to commercialise the invention and Enterprise Ireland supported that process. “As part of that the company had to go out to industry and get someone with relevant experience and that’s when I came on board. After that we went through the Enterprise Ireland High Potential Start Up programme and secured external funding as well. We hired our first two employees in January and have moved to new premises in the Innovation Campus in Glasnevin.”
The company is already enjoying a strong sales performance. “What’s strange about this company is that it already had paying customers before it spun out of DCU. The product was developed partly through working with real customers and we have already built up a strong reputation with local authorities around Ireland as a result. Also, we got our first customer in the UK towards the end of last year.”
Waste-to-energy and active landfill monitoring are not the only applications for the technology. Because LFG continues to be produced up to 30 years after the closure of the landfill, long-term site management systems have to be put in place to manage the gas from a compliance perspective, long after it is no longer commercially viable to maintain staff on site. The Ambisense technology allows landfill owners to remotely manage these sites without the need to employ staff to do so. In addition, landfill owners now have to demonstrate zero environmental risk before they can transfer a site back to the local authority and the Ambisense technology can play a key role in this.
Future plans for the company include adapting the technology for other markets including shale oil extraction and contaminated land risk assessment. “We will continue research and development work to expand the range of applications for the product in other sectors and in the longer term we will look at moving into other gases and even into water quality monitoring,” says McNulty.
This means that renewable sources have to be backed up with costly reserve generation capacity which can come online at a moment’s notice. However, a solution to this problem may be at hand in the form of a revolutionary new electricity storage technology developed by Irish company REDT.
The company’s distributed flow battery storage technology offers a highly efficient and scalable solution that stores and releases energy efficiently across a range of applications including conventional distributed generation, renewable energy and grid support. Like a standard battery it takes excess energy when it is not required and stores it for release when it is.
The origins of the innovation go back to 2002, according to REDT co-founder John Ward. “I had just finished work on the construction of my first wind park back then and we looked at the factors that were preventing it delivering full output most of the time. We asked if there was something that could be put between the grid and the wind park that could give you full reliable power all the time; it didn’t exist at the time.”
Battery technology was simply not good enough. “Battery technology couldn’t deliver a solution,” says Ward. “They couldn’t take a charge quickly enough. A standard battery would blow up if you to try to charge it as fast as is required. What is needed is an energy storage system that performs like pumped hydro in terms of being there when you need it.”
Years of research followed and Ward and his co-founders came across vanadium redox flow technology in 2008. Vanadium is a naturally occurring element widely used in the steel and other industries. It has particular chemical properties which lend it to electrical energy storage applications. The chemistry involved and the construction of the batteries allow for almost unlimited storage capacity as well as very rapid charging and discharging.
“The lead acid battery in a car takes 40 minutes to discharge and six hours to charge up. You need to be able to charge up the battery as quickly as you discharge it and that’s what we have achieved with our technology.”
The technology was proven in 2012 and the first system was installed in Portugal the following year. The first commercial product from the company was a 5kw unit launched in 2014. This offers sufficient storage capacity to meet the needs of a very large house or an average dairy farm in Ireland. “This is the mark one product - the Model T if you like,” Ward says. “We have since added around nine innovations to the technology and commenced production of 10kw and 60kw products.”
Market response has been very encouraging with several installations already carried out in the west of Ireland and more planned for southern Europe, Scotland and elsewhere. These are mainly to offer back-up for intermittent power sources such as solar and wind but Ward also sees great potential in replacing diesel generation.
“The Malaysian government spends $220 million annually on diesel to provide power to its schools network,” he says. “In Myanmar they are installing 3,000 mobile phone masts which are all going to be powered by diesel generators. We can cut these costs by up to 70 per cent. For example, in the case of a mobile phone mast it would cost roughly $27,000 a year to run a diesel generator. Using a combination of solar and our technology we could cut this to just $8,500.”
The company is growing rapidly due to ongoing innovation and anticipated sales growth. “In 100 years’ time people will look back and ask why we were burning fossil fuels to generate electrical power,” Ward saus. “The best innovation is the thing you invent because you need it and that’s what we have done.”
“The solar panels which are available at present use the conservatory effect,” says Surface Power HONE chief executive John Quinn. “The same technology has been on the market since the 1890s and it hasn’t changed since. It is really only a sunny climate product. Our product has been tested and proven to work in Ireland and New Zealand, the two countries with the lowest sunlight levels in the OECD.”
The system works by using a highly efficient energy collector which harvests photons of light and transmits them to the patented Surface Power nano-engine, a heat engine which uses nanotechnology to store blocks of harvested protons and build temperatures to levels usable in heating systems. “The nano-engine effectively replaces the boiler in a heating system,” Quinn explains.
The Surface Power technology offers benefits in two key areas. In the first instance it is highly efficient.
Other renewable systems such as thermal heat pumps and other traditional solar systems rely on electrical pumps to work. In the case of thermal heat pumps the ratio of energy output to energy input is 4:1 - in other words, for every 4kwh produced 1kwh must be put in to drive the pump. With the Surface Power system that ratio rises to a huge 300:1.
Also, the system runs all year round. “There are three segments to the day”, says Quinn. “Daytime, dusk to midnight and midnight to dawn. You can only harvest energy during the daytime segment. Our heat engine technology allows the system to run at a much higher temperature than other systems, meaning that it can work throughout the year instead of only those times with longer periods of daylight.”
Impressive as this all sounds it is the actual savings on energy bills which are the acid test for a home or business owner. These too are compelling. A brand new family home built to the latest energy rating standards would be expected to have an annual home heating oil bill of around €900. With the Surface Power HONE system installed alongside it, this would reduce to €140.
Installation costs in a new build home are minimal in terms of the overall cost of the house but retrofitting in an existing home is a bit more expensive. However, the payback time for the investment still averages between seven and nine years making it a very attractive option in the long term. In a commercial setting the payback is just six years.
The system has been in development for more than 10 years, according to Quinn.
“I was involved in the energy area at a regulatory level in Brussels back then and I saw the direction things were going. We knew that regulation was going to increase the opportunity for renewable technology but that it was going to take a while to happen. We figured we had about 10 years to do it and we were right.”
The company now has more than 1,000 installations in several countries which are proving the technology to the market and has just signed a deal for a 1.6Mw commercial installation in Ireland.
“We have spent 10 years perfecting the technology and proving it; 2015 will be the year when we roll it out to the market. Our business plan hasn’t changed that much since we started out. We are taking a top-down approach to rolling out the technology and are working with a lot of the utilities. They see themselves as being in the energy business and not just in sales of a particular energy commodity, and they see our system as an important way of engaging and retaining customers.”