New heat-waste energy engine debuts in Akron

Jul 25, 2012

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. For Ohio Public Radio, WKSU's Jeff St.Clair explores a new type of renewable energy in Ohio.

Steam hisses around us as engineer Sean Lyons describes his role with Echogen Power Systems.

SL: I take the engine itself, it’s a predesigned system, and I go out to the field and I fit it up to the existing heat source—whether it’s water or air-cooled condensers or anything like that..... It sounds like it stopped…

Steam from here at the city’s heating plant is normally used to heat buildings in downtown Akron.  That’s not needed today, so the excess is piped into a crisp white box the size of a moving van parked next to the plant. The box is Echogen’s new 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, or, as in this case, excess steam, and turns it into electricity.  That’s the moment Lyons is waiting for today. 

SL:When you see the needle peg… Exactly.

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.

PB: 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.  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.  The CO2 heats up inside the engine, spins a turbine, and cranks out electricity.  Brennan says his company is the first to use super critical carbon dioxide to generate electricity.

PB: Here is our lab-scale system.  Essentially we use it as a test bed because there is a bridge between theory and practice and it’s been a painful and repeated lesson for us over our time here.

Brennan is anxious to get his product to market.

PB: 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.

PB: To this point we’ve done of a great job of positioning ourselves to get there, but 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.