Energy start-ups vie for cash, contacts at TransTech conference - WBOY - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Energy start-ups vie for cash, contacts at TransTech conference

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Start-ups offering a sensor for severe industrial environments and a fuel emulsion technology that reduces consumption took the top prizes at the TransTech Energy Business Development Conference earlier this month in Morgantown.

Aimed at fostering technologies for transition to a cleaner, more competitive energy economy, the TransTech conference was organized by Industries of the Future-West Virginia Director Carl Irwin and took place Nov. 14-16 at Waterfront Place.

Irwin sought applications from start-up companies or projects that meet the TransTech concept — by, for example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving industrial competitiveness or enabling energy-intensive manufacturing and fossil energy companies to be more efficient.

Such innovation and entrepreneurship organizations as the INNOVA Commercialization Group of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation, TechConnectWV, the West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust and West Virginia University's Office of Technology Transfer promoted the competition, Irwin said.

Of 20 applicants, 15 were selected to pitch their ideas to a group of technical experts and investors at the conference: five each from Ohio and Pennsylvania and one each from Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia.

The one applicant from West Virginia did not make the first cut, Irwin said.

Two companies — SenSevere of Pittsburgh, Pa. and CavitroniX of Bristol, Va.— captured the reviewers' votes and took the top prizes of $12,500 each.


SenSevere has a patent-pending chemical sensor technology for real-time monitoring in extreme environments.

"Our technology can detect a wide range of things, from flammables like hydrogens and hydrocarbons to toxics like hydrogen sulfide to environmental concerns like bromides," said CEO Jason Gu.

Sensors can help facility managers keep processes within safe or environmentally acceptable parameters.

"There are tons of sensors out there but most are just mass commodity sensors," Gu said. "So, there's a methane sensor but, if I wanted one that works in an environment with other gases, it's not for that."

At the same time, customized sensors typically consist of bulky and expensive modifications to existing sensors.

"The engineering problems that have to be solved in extreme environments, the technological complexity, increases exponentially," he said. "I think for a lot of sensor technologies it's difficult to scale into that complexity — yet those extreme parts of industrial process can be the parts you want to know the most about."

He described one custom device he's seen as massive — "a phone booth" — with pipes diverted into it from various locations. "At that point, the cost and the manpower associated with getting something like that together is just so high that it's almost economically infeasible."

By contrast, the technology Gu developed while completing his 2010 Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University is now in pilot testing in a chlorine plant in West Virginia in the form of a 2-inch cube that sits directly in the location to be monitored.

SenSevere is looking for $300,000 to take it to the next level.

"We're currently at small prototype scale production runs, but we're engaged with companies that can do much larger runs for us and have the capacity open for us to do much larger runs," he said. "To go from the initial prototype to the larger manufacturing runs, there are tooling and other costs to get everything in place."

The money also would pay for rigorous certifications that SenSevere needs for monitoring severe environments.

"That would allow us to branch out and look at other industries outside of commodity chemicals," he said.


Also winning the pitch competition, CavitroniX sells water-in-fuel emulsification systems that improve the performance of oil-fired furnaces, boilers, diesel-powered generators and diesel marine engines.

The company's E2C fuel emulsion system reduces fuel oil consumption by 5 to 15 percent and soot emissions by even more.

Recent third-party testing shows that the technology reduces fuel use by 7.9 percent on average and by as much as 10.8 percent.

"We think we can push it higher than 7.9 percent," said CavitroniX President and CEO Thomas David.

"We're a retrofit," David continued. "We add on to existing equipment, so we don't have to build on the equipment or modify it; we can just put our unit in."

The short-term market is for fuel savings, he said.

"With fuel at $3.50-$4/gallon, the paybacks on our units can be quite quick. Many customers have paybacks of two years or less, and we've had individual cases where it's been a year — so that is a strong motivator."

The longer-term market will be for reduced emissions, he said.

"There are increasingly strict emissions regulations that are going to be put on a wide variety of industrial and utility plants," he said. "I think that will end up being a bigger driver for us."

CavitroniX has models available for three through-volumes of No. 2 diesel; it has been selling for about six months and has three installations in place.

The six-year-old company has three patents pending and is pursuing further development. It is targeting its initial marketing to 150,000 qualified stationary boilers in the U.S.

With the infusion of $5 million, the company would pursue the market of 48,000 oil-fired boilers in New York City as well as markets across the country. It also would enhance its manufacturing capability and would add the ability to burn No. 6 fuel oil.

The real prize: contacts

The TransTech competition was Gu's first.

"We've seen such a positive response to our sensor technology that we've never had to go out and publicize it, because a lot of it was customer pull," he said. "But quite a few people came up to me after and said, halfway through your pitch I stopped thinking about what you were saying and started thinking about how I would use the technology."

As a company in Appalachia, David said, CavitroniX appreciates the TransTech conference's efforts to build the energy industry in the region. He is in ongoing conversation with people he met in Morgantown.

Irwin felt the 20 applicants represented the scope of TransTech.

"We wanted TransTech to represent the spectrum from where the energy and manufacturing and the economy are now to this future where there's a low- or no-carbon clean energy economy," he said. "I think we got that. We had companies with multi-pollutant emissions control technologies up to solar power water treatment systems."

He hopes more West Virginia applicants will compete in future TransTech conferences.

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