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TransTech Energy conference highlights transitional technologies

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Bolstering the nation's energy security and economic competitiveness will take more than building some wind turbines and squeezing more miles out of a gallon of gasoline.

It won't come from regulating coal out of existence, either.

What's needed, some experts say, are new technologies at every point of energy use — and acknowledgement that fossil fuels will remain important unless and until something radically new is created.

The inaugural TransTech Energy Business Development Conference that took place early this month in Morgantown embraced that realism and vision.

TransTech Energy refers to transition technologies and strategies that advance a lower-carbon, industrially competitive, clean energy economy of the future, according to the conference program.

"Hybrid fossil-renewable type systems, waste heat recovery, doing something productive with CO2 — those are great transitional energy technologies," said organizer Carl Irwin at the conference.

TransTech is about helping traditional energy makers and users become more competitive while supporting the development of innovative new companies, according to Irwin. He directs Industries of the Future-West Virginia, which supports industrial energy efficiency.

With that dual aim in mind, the conference scheduled three sessions of start-up energy company pitches to experts and investors around two plenary panels, as well as targeted talks and demonstrations and an intellectual property clinic.

The traditional, updated ...

"I'm the traditional guy," Steel of West Virginia President Tim Duke joked in the first plenary session.

That's true only in the sense that steel is a traditional industry. The Huntington facility, which employs about 500, has put in $200 million in updates under his watch. Updating is an economic necessity. Electricity cost the plant $570,000 a month in 2006, Duke said; now it's $1.1 million for the same output.

He described, in one example, new locomotives in the plant that, rather than having to be righted at a cost of $14,000 any time they would go off the tracks, right themselves, and also use 15,000 gallons less fuel each year.

"We have robot welding equipment — we're on our fourth generation," he said. "Years ago it would take over $5 million to put a robot welding line in, and we can put one in now for $1.1 million that does double the output with half the people."

With all the improvements, safety is up: from 116 lost-time injuries a year when he became president to, now, no lost-time injuries and more than 500 days without an injury.

... and entirely new ideas

On the innovation start-up side, David Mather of MTPV of Austin, Texas, described his company's technology and development.

MTPV makes semiconductor chips that turn heat into electricity. The science is similar to that for solar panels and has been around for a long time, Mather said, but has been made economically viable by the innovations of his company's founder.

MTPV's chip right now can make 1 watt per square centimeter and more, he said — a minimum of 50 times more than the best solar panel on the market.

The company is 18 months from its first commercial sale to a customer that already has signed a six-year contract, he said, but has been 16 years in development since the first thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He described the challenges at each stage — proving the science, making a prototype, getting it to commercial scale, developing a viable model for manufacturing, deciding how to market it — and spoke of the partners and funding that helped at each stage.

"We're starting in the high-temperature waste heat market — glass plants, cement plants, steel plants," he said of the company's marketing plan. "But getting into automotive, consumer electronics, we can't be experts. We'll license our (intellectual property)."

Waste heat alone, he said, is a $1 trillion market.

Needed: a "tech to market" approach

Bringing truly transitional ideas to fruition requires a "tech to market" approach, said Cheryl Martin, deputy director for commercialization and interim director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy.

ARPA-E is highly focused on transforming the nation's energy picture. Technical achievements and patents and publications are signs of promise, Martin said, "but if that's all we get, we will have failed."

Now three years old, ARPA-E has directed $600 million to about 200 projects with transformational promise, high-quality teams and realistic tech-to-market plans. Already approaching commercialization in that short time are technologies that would dramatically improve building air conditioning efficiency, compressed air energy storage and battery technology.

This inaugural TransTech conference was inspired for organizer Irwin by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's annual Industry Growth Forum, which he has attended in Denver for the past five years.  While that forum is focused on renewable, TransTech distinguishes itself by including fossil fuels and traditional manufacturing.

Irwin plans to hold a second conference in 2013.

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