Peoria’s EcoThermics Corporation is poised to make a quantum leap in the heating and cooling industry with its Eco2fficient Thermal Pump.
Since the formation of Peoria NEXT nearly eight years ago, the city has become home to a number of dynamic companies with the potential to revolutionize their respective industries. Housed at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, EcoThermics Corporation is one such firm. It has developed technologies that can make our homes and workplaces more comfortable, our energy bills more affordable, and our heating and cooling systems more environmentally friendly.
While most systems in the heating and cooling industry involve units that emit greenhouse gases and rely on toxic chemicals for refrigerants, EcoThermics has developed a versatile system which naturally sequesters CO2 from the environment and uses no toxic chemicals. The company’s Eco2fficient Thermal Pump is able to produce heating and cooling simultaneously, while significantly reducing energy costs and consumption in the process.
Considering today’s harsh economic climate, one might question the timing of launching a start-up. But while many industries are suffering major cutbacks, “the global energy market is huge,” according to EcoThermics CEO Merle Rocke. With a substantial push from the federal government to incentivize the reduction of carbon emissions and our nation’s reliance on foreign oil, the future for green energy technologies looks bright. Now may in fact be the perfect time for such a start-up.
Getting Off the Ground
EcoThermics has great aspirations. They believe this new technology will conquer some of the great challenges of the industry—and, perhaps, help “save the world” in the process.
EcoThermics Corporation grew out of its Champaign-based predecessor, WhiteMoss, Inc., which had developed a high-pressure CO2 compressor for the U.S. Army. To begin the commercialization process, WhiteMoss sought out Merle Rocke, one of the founders of Caterpillar Logistics Services, who brought international experience and a history of success to the table. Rocke came on board in October 2007, and the company officially became EcoThermics Corporation in November.
Rocke assembled a strong, experienced leadership team, a powerful network of business and technical advisors and consultants, and joint technology development partners. Of the management team, Tom Lewicki, CFO; Marc Albertin, Director of Innovation; and Dr. Rod Hugelman, Chief Scientist, transferred from WhiteMoss to EcoThermics. Tammie Leichtenberg, Director of Corporate Services, came on board in March 2008, and Roy Bullivant, Director of Product Development, joined the team in February 2009.
Following the initial prototype development for the Army while located at University of Illinois’ EnterpriseWorks in Champaign, the company moved its headquarters to Peoria. The primary drivers were to take advantage of Peoria’s active angel investor network, the experienced manufacturing base, and excellent opportunities for technology-based start-ups at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center. To get the company off the ground, EcoThermics needed to secure funding. Through grants and angel investors, the company was able to close out its first round of funding in January 2009. With the help of The Heartland Partnership, Peoria NEXT and Congressman Ray LaHood, EcoThermics was able to obtain partnerships, secure funding and accelerate the product development process.
EcoThermics’ Thermal Pump may prove indispensible in disaster-relief efforts. When a natural disaster strikes, the Red Cross and other support organizations often set up temporary relief centers for victims. In many instances, an entire area’s electricity may be wiped out, which means that in hot or cold outdoor temperatures, traditional electric heating and cooling systems will not work. EcoThermics’ Thermal Pump could be the perfect solution since it can be powered by a variety of alternative energy sources (diesel generator sets, tractor hydraulic systems, etc.).
Traditional air conditioning systems use compressors located outside buildings to pump toxic hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants to air handlers inside, while traditional furnaces burn fossil fuels and use large amounts of electricity. Neither system, of course, can provide hot and cold water or air at the same time; for example, to cool your home or refrigerate your food while heating your domestic hot water or swimming pool. Traditional systems use synthetic refrigerants, which are highly concentrated, long-term greenhouse gases that contribute significantly to environmental problems like global warming. And not only are these systems inefficient, they can be quite noisy.
To address these problems, EcoThermics has developed a new type of high-pressure CO2 compressor that offers both economic and environmental advantages over traditional systems. The compact and quiet Eco2fficient Thermal Pump is energy efficient, cutting utility costs by up to half. It uses a natural refrigerant in place of toxic HFCs, and, finally, it can produce both hot and cold simultaneously.
“Our secret sauce,” according to chief scientist Dr. Rodney Hugelman, “is our compressor.” As the graphic shows, the compressor and heat exchangers, made of heavy steel or a lightweight aluminum alloy, are housed inside a 30” cubic cabinet. With a variable capacity of one to seven tons, it can be installed in any setting—residential, commercial or industrial. (To put this in perspective, most home units have a three-ton capacity.) While the size of traditional heating and cooling systems increases with the size of the building, EcoThermics’ Thermal Pump comes in just one standard size. In larger buildings, multiple units would be strategically placed closer to the point of use, reducing the energy loss that occurs through long ductwork.
To increase efficiency even more, forced-air systems that use ductwork can be replaced altogether by fluid loops and radiant heating and cooling systems, several versions of which are already available. This type of temperature control allows heating and cooling to radiate through floors, ceilings and walls, which has proven particularly useful for hospitals because it reduces the number of pathogens that blow through the air.
A Sustainable System
One advantage of EcoThermics’ Thermal Pump is its ability to provide both heating and cooling simultaneously—anything from below freezing to above 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Why is this useful? Homeowners would need just a single system for heating and cooling their entire house, for one. And in large buildings, there are often times when it makes sense to set different rooms at different temperatures. If a home has an indoor pool, for example, it may be necessary to maintain that room at a constant temperature of 78 degrees—yet one would probably not want the entire house at that temperature.
When Merle Rocke signed on with the company, WhiteMoss had already filed seven patents for its technology. These were absorbed by EcoThermics, which has since more than doubled that number. The company now holds a total of 15 patents.
Rocke explained that the process of applying for patent protection is quite extensive. Inventors who seek patents generally work with patent attorneys to prepare their applications. Rocke said that “the patent application consists of a specification and drawings completely describing the invention, and claims that define the scope of the invention, and which are looked to when determining if the patent is infringed.” This alone may take months or years to develop and finalize.
In some cases, if the U.S. patent office is backlogged with applications, it may take up to three years for a patent examiner knowledgeable in the area to even read an application. After reading the application and performing a search of previous patents, the examiner either allows or rejects the application. If rejected, the applicant has the opportunity to “amend the claims to try and distinguish his invention over the prior art,” according to Rocke. The examiner then either agrees with the amended application or issues a final rejection. Once a patent examiner makes the first office action, the patent process accelerates considerably. It may take as little as six months for a patent to be issued after the initial review.
Rocke also noted that, in the United States, patent applications are published 18 months after they are filed. For those who are concerned about the secrecy of their inventions, it can be requested that an application not be published. However, this is only possible if the applicant does not plan to pursue foreign filings based on their U.S. application.
The maintenance costs of the system promise to be drastically less than traditional furnaces and air conditioners. With no expensive traditional refrigerant evacuating or refilling, EcoThermics’ technology creates little worry for home or business owners. While the initial cost of the unit will exceed that of traditional systems, immediate savings in energy efficiency and reduced total cost of ownership shorten the payback period, making this an attractive investment. And ideally, as the majority of the population makes the switch to eco-friendly heating and cooling units, prices will continue to go down.
Those who have already invested in sustainable and eco-friendly energy sources can plug in an Eco2fficient Thermal Pump for an even greater impact. The pump is most efficient when paired with renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal. EcoThermics has been working with a leader in the industry to produce this even greater economic and environmentally friendly system.
According to Marc Albertin, EcoThermics’ director of innovation, small CO2 compressors are being introduced in Europe in automotive and bus mass transit for heating and cooling functions and in select Coca Cola vending machines designed to be eco-friendly. In Japan, a CO2 unit has been introduced and subsidized by the government, but is limited to heating water.
Currently, the largest market for a system like EcoThermics’ is in Europe, where higher standards for the heating and cooling industry are already in place, and HFCs are banned in some countries. But the writing is on the wall here in the U.S. as well. The vastness of the global green-energy market to which Rocke attests is difficult to overestimate.
EcoThermics is currently conducting lab testing in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio with plans to begin field testing later this year. After research in the field is complete, the company will move to place its technology into existing distribution channels and hope to put the Thermal Pump on the market next year. After exceeding initial angel investor funding targets, the company anticipates a bright future focused on commercialization of its product. While it’s merely speculation at this point, EcoThermics hopes to employ a growing number of people in central Illinois once the Thermal Pump has gone to market. iBi