November 12, 2010
A West Coast metal fabricator, Laser Cutting Northwest developed a product called the regenerator, which generates electricity from exhausted air. One application includes dust collectors for laser cutting systems. Installed into the shop’s own systems, the regenerator produces enough electricity to power a third of the shop lights.
Who is John Galt? Anyone who’s read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is familiar with the question and probably will give a glint of a knowing smile. In the book, the question is an expression of helplessness and despair about the current state of affairs. As the plot unfolds, we find that John Galt is actually an engineer who developed a motor that runs on static electricity, a technology that could change the way we power the world.
As the pragmatic president of Laser Cutting Northwest (LCNW), Pete Agtuca’s vision isn’t so grandiose as Rand’s fiction, but he and his team of engineers and technicians may have developed something big all the same. They’ve maximized efficiency with a generator that produces more watts at lower rotations per minute.
Agtuca (see Figure 1) long had been on a quest to reduce energy consumption at his 30-employee, 30,000-square-foot metal fabrication shop, LCNW. In 2006 the voters of Washington State passed an act that directed the state’s utilities to get a portion of their power from renewable resources. The ultimate effect, Agtuca found, was that power rates were going to increase from 6 to 18 cents a kilowatt (kW). The contract metal fabricator has several Amada cutting lasers, a MultiCam high-speed router, waterjets, press brakes, and welding cells—and together they add up to quite a power bill.
“We were using a lot of energy,” said John Shoemaker, vice president. “Our power bill was roughly $12,000 a month.”
So the company invested in high-efficiency lighting as well as variable-speed motors for the compressors, and even sealed up all the cracks in the building walls. But all this, unfortunately, wasn’t making much of a dent in the power bill.
At this point Agtuca and his team noticed the shop’s Donaldson® dust collectors that filter particulates produced as the lasers cut metal. The collectors blew exhaust constantly to the outside. Just then the epiphany came. They found that air moved at a constant 73 MPH. If any landscape had wind blowing constantly at that speed, “there wouldn’t be a tree standing,” Agtuca said. That air is a source of constant, predictable kinetic energy. Would there be a way to harness it?
At this point LCNW called on a physicist, an electrical engineer, and an industrial engineer from the University of Washington. Their problem: Conventional generators don’t produce any significant electricity until they reach several thousand rotations per minute. Building something small and efficient with a conventional generator, retrofitted directly onto the dust collector, just isn’t practical.
After several years the team developed a system that generates significant electricity at just 200 RPM. It includes a sound-abatement replacement of the dust collector’s muffler and this new regenerator, which captures the exhaust energy and increases the dust collector’s efficiency, resulting in overall power generation of 2,500 watts an hour (see Figure 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4). That’s enough to power a third of the shop lights.
After seeing the results at their own shop, Agtuca and Shoemaker recognized a major opportunity. In July 2007 (lucky 7/7/07, in fact), they spun off the project into a separate company called 3 Phase Energy Systems. What began as an internal project, aimed at reducing LCNW’s energy consumption, eventually may become the company’s most successful product line.
A standard generator is wired in what’s called a delta configuration that starts producing significant electricity at several thousand rotations per minute.
“Unless it’s operating at a specified RPM, it’s not producing a significant amount of energy,” said Shoemaker. “Ours is wired in a star configuration, and we have wired it so that at 200 RPM it’s producing significant power. Because we have a known wind speed that is consistent and predictable, we can engineer the generator to match that wind speed.”
Also, the delta configuration on a standard motor generator has the windings on the outside with two magnets rotating on a shaft. Say that conventional generator has a shaft diameter of 0.625 in. and, with the two magnets attached, a diameter rotation of 1 in. Multiply 1 in. by pi (3.14) and you get a 3.14-in. circumference, or the distance traveled over one rotation.
“We have 40 magnets instead of two,” Agtuca said. “And instead of the magnets rotating inside the copper coil, we have the copper coil between the magnets.” So, say the copper coil has a 10-in. diameter. Multiply it by pi (3.14), and you get a circumference of 31.4 in. Though the numbers are simplified just to illustrate the point, this dramatic increase in travel per rotation, from 3.14 to 31.4 in., is the key to generating significant energy at low RPMs.
When launching 3 Phase Energy Systems, Agtuca again contacted the University of Washington, this time the business school, to commission a study. It revealed some eye-opening marketing opportunities. There are more than 200,000 exhaust systems in the West alone. Most industrial sectors use them, from metal fabrication to wood shops to pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Considering this, it might seem like a no-brainer for Agtuca to charge ahead with immediate expansion. But one major hurdle stands in the way: the economy. Potential customers are impressed with what they’ve seen, but companies aren’t loosening the purse strings just yet. But company managers see big growth on the horizon, as the economy continues its gradual recovery.
“We’re bracing ourselves,” Agtuca said. “As we go into the first half of next year, and we start meeting these orders that we’re forecasting, we’ll need an assembly and testing facility, because there’s already not enough room in our current facility for what we do now.”
The growth plan takes into account various opportunities. The most immediate will come from the dust collector regenerator, which is ready for commercialization this year. The device is placed on top of the collector, in the path of the exhausted air, which rotates the turbine and moves the generator.
Before putting on the system, installers take a series of measurements on the dust collector, including static pressure, motor load, airflow, and energy consumption. They use this as a baseline, so that any energy the regenerator produces isn’t consuming additional energy. “It actually does the opposite,” Shoemaker said, “because by removing the muffler, we’re freeing up energy, and it improves the efficiency of the [dust collector] motor.” So the benefits are twofold. The regenerator captures the energy, and it increases the dust collector’s efficiency by decreasing the load on the collector’s motor.
In its current permutation, this isn’t what you’d call “pure green” technology. The regenerator takes wasted energy that came from the power utility, which may have generated its power using fossil fuels. Still, it does use that energy again—hence the term regenerator.
“The greenest watt is the watt never used,” Agtuca said. “The next greenest is the watt used twice.”
Most generators use gears to get rotation to the required RPMs, but with that gearing-up comes reduced torque. With 3 Phase Energy Systems’ generator, torque matters more than speed. As long as the generator receives enough torque to ramp up to the desired RPMs, you’re in business. Another plus is that a system running off a high-torque energy source is easier to control. Each pedal stroke on a bicycle in low gear (with high torque) produces only a small, incremental change in speed, so the exact MPH in theory can be precisely controlled in small increments. The same is true for the regenerator.
The company’s unit is built for high-torque, low-flow applications. These new fundamentals of electricity generation may lead to myriad applications.
“Once you have the mechanical motion, it doesn’t matter if it’s wind, water, or weight,” Shoemaker explained.
The company has several additional products in development. One may provide an alternative source of hydroelectricity, what Agtuca calls “microhydro” power. The company is working with the city of Leavenworth, Wash., to install a low-flow, microhydroelectric generator at its wastewater treatment plant. This application involves fluid flowing 300 to 1,200 gallons per minute. That’s an extremely small amount of water by hydroelectric standards, but it turns out to be just right for 3 Phase’s technology. The wastewater treatment plant has water flow with predictable pressure, which means it could provide consistent, high torque for the generator. “We see a lot of pressure in this application, and pressure is power,” Agtuca said.
Agtuca isn’t the fictional John Galt. He and his team haven’t built a product that will change the world, at least not by itself. The regenerator, like any real-world technology, has limitations—torque and flow requirements, for instance. But it does have obvious potential, most of which may come through collaboration with other green technology companies.
Company managers have seen significant interest among various parties. In July, for instance, the company put together a distribution agreement with their primary machine tool supplier, Amada. “We primarily have Amada equipment on the floor, so we had that relationship already,” Shoemaker said. “It just made sense to take it to the next level.”
Bigger things may lie ahead. In October Agtuca visited a facility that may become a dedicated plant for the 3 Phase product line. Today both the fabrication job shop and 3 Phase operate under one roof (see Figure 4). “We just realized we need to keep the businesses separate,” said Shoemaker. At this writing, a dedicated plant is the long-term goal.
Agtuca compares the green energy movement today to that of the early- to mid-1990s dot-com era, when hosts of young people launched companies in their garages. Many failed, while some collaborated and merged with other companies. He sees the same happening with green.
For this reason, managers are talking with a number of other companies that tout complementary technologies rooted in generating energy from rotational motion. “I see the market developing through collaborative efforts between those using a number of different technologies that complement each other, to solve our nation’s energy crisis,” Agtuca said.
The new company won’t solve the energy problem on its own, but it may fit nicely as one small piece of the puzzle.
According to 3 Phase Energy Systems President Peter Agtuca, 1,000 3-kW regenerators add up to significant efficiencies. Altogether, these units annually will:
The 3 Phase Energy Systems team seems to be driven by a passion to reduce dependence on foreign oil, to be kind to the environment, and to create jobs. But fueling it all is a conservative, for-profit, diversified business.
“We’ve made it this far by living below our means, by not extending or overleveraging,” said Pete Agtuca, company president.
At this point Agtuca manages what has become a collection of small companies, together employing about 30, operating out of a 30,000-square-foot shop in Auburn, Wash., south of Seattle, a facility the company bought in 2005. “We’re not tenants anymore,” he said.
During the 1980s Agtuca worked for FedEx in logistics, managing how packages transferred from aircraft to ground trucks. During his years there he saw a problem that needed solving. Packages need to be “containerized”—essentially, put into a specialized container for placement on a cargo plane. At the time most packages were containerized at the tarmac, and it was here that a few packages could get lost in the shuffle. So in 1992 Agtuca launched Pacific Air Cargo Transfer Systems, which still exists. Operating out of his garage and outsourcing everything but final assembly, he developed specialized containers that could be used anywhere, not just at the airport tarmac.
“FedEx is a great company,” Agtuca said, “and at the time they had about 99.7 percent on-time delivery. But if you’re that 0.3 percent, you’re not having a good day. That’s who we targeted.”
The company’s first customer happened to be Microsoft, which in the early 1990s had software to ship with printed instruction manuals. The company would containerize its software boxes at the manufacturing site, and no human would touch individual software boxes again until they reached the final destination.
Eventually Agtuca expanded beyond his garage and bought lasers, press brakes, and other fabrication equipment to make more of the containers in-house. This fabrication capability led to the launch of Laser Cutting Northwest, a job shop. As Agtuca and his team developed a regenerator for its dust collectors, they found they had a marketable product on their hands, most of which could be made with the metal fabrication equipment the company already had. This, in turn, led to the launch of 3 Phase Energy Systems in 2007.
Sustaining a new business these days takes gumption, but that gumption has resulted in a regenerator that could be a primary driver for growth in the months and years ahead.
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