Vortex Power Systems: generating clean energy from wasted heat
When we first met Neil Hawkes, Vortex’s CTO, at an industry event, we quickly got into a conversation about dust devils (well-formed and short-lived whirlwinds). Neil had this crazy idea that by using low-grade waste heat to recreate this natural phenomenon, it was possible to generate clean electricity. This was a concept Neil was working on together with Professor Richard Flay, from the University of Auckland.
We have to admit we thought the idea was slightly outrageous until we delved a little deeper to better understand the underlying science, the scale of the problem it could solve, and the super smart people behind the idea who could make it happen.
At the time, Neil and Richard weren’t looking for a huge capital investment- they wanted enough to prove the concept worked. Like all deep-tech innovations, there’s always a risk that the investment might not pay off, but it’s important to ask, ‘What if it does?’
With Vortex, we knew there was an equal opportunity – it would either work or it wouldn’t. And if it works, then it has the potential to utilise a source of waste heat that is currently thrown away. Suffice it to say, we were interested enough in the technology, the global significance of the problem it could solve, and the talented team, to get involved.
Here’s why we invested in Vortex Power Systems (VPS).
Thermal processes are an inherent part of our industrial economy. From electricity to food production, these are processes used in a wide range of applications, and as our population grows, so does the demand for these processes.
As an example, the demand for electricity is set to double by 2050 to 60,000 Twh. Currently, 80% of electricity is generated using fossil fuels, geothermal, and nuclear power. Similarly, industrial cases such as steel making, and concrete production are expected to increase. Underlying this demand is the rising global population and the increased industrialisation of emerging markets.
But here’s the issue – thermal processes are very inefficient and produce a high amount of wasted heat that is typically unusable.
Although, in some instances, “high grade” waste heat (with temperatures over 80o)can be recovered, most thermal processes will still have anywhere between 50 –70% of the input energy wasted in the form of unrecoverable, or unusable, low-grade waste heat.
Intrinsically linked to increasing demand for thermal processes is an increase in energy consumption. But because of the inefficiency of these processes, it also means there’s increased waste heat, which means more fuels will be burned and greenhouse gas emissions will increase.
While approximately 50% of the world’s total energy consumption is lost as waste heat (enough energy to power more than 3b households, or an amount equivalent to the annual power consumption of the US, China, and India), currently, no solutions exist to recapture energy from low-waste heat.
In summary, globally, we need more power – for our own homes, and as emerging markets continue to industrialise, they also need more energy and power. But we need this energy to be clean, green, consistent, and cost-effective.
VPS is developing a proprietary system that captures and converts this low-grade waste heat from industrial processes into clean electricity.
Problem solved? Not quite, but the technology has potential.
The technology utilises low-grade wasted heat (in the form of water vapour) to fuel a man-made atmospheric buoyancy vortex. The circulating wind currents produced by this vortex at the base of the unit power a horizontal turbine to generate electricity, thereby creating usable power from an otherwise wasted energy source.
By transforming a portion of this waste heat into an energy source, VPS’s system has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase the supply of clean, green energy, reduce the cost of electricity, and provide opportunities to recycle electricity back to the infrastructure partners.
Being able to generate electricity with otherwise wasted heat, a thermal powerplant can produce the same amount of electricity with less fuel –resulting in lower carbon emissions.
Recognising the potential
One of the pieces of advice we find ourselves sharing with founders is to be pragmatic about their expectations. During our discussions, our team quickly worked out that Neil and Richard are pragmatic in the truest sense– they didn’t come asking for $1m to prove the technology; instead, they presented a proof-of-concept plan that utilised the smallest amount of capital to reach the first milestone. It was a plan that could actually be funded.
The other advice for founders, aside from building trusting relationships, is to make sure they partner with someone who can add a lot more value than just cash. Neil and Richard recognised the power of networks and experience, knowing this is the difference between taking technology out of a lab and successful commercialisation that has the potential to solve a global problem.
The market opportunity
Vortex’s first application is using existing thermal power plants to increase output by an estimated 7.5%.
Working as an add-on to existing on-site infrastructure that produces waste heat, it’s estimated the Vortex technology has the capacity to produce more than US$50b of power annually to support the world’s increasing demand for electricity – which equates to providing power to another 130million homes globally without increasing carbon emissions.
VPS’s technology delivers the following value for customers/ users:
Energy input cost saving - Zero additional energy input:
By utilising a source of waste heat, customers can generate additional electricity without needing to purchase additional energy inputs. This efficiency gain could result in either:
- reducing the amount of energy input costs to achieve the same energy outputs OR
- generating up to 7.5% more electricity without increasing energy input costs. This additional electricity could be monetised or supplement existing energy requirements and could yield a payback in less than 5 years.
Savings in operating expenses - Cooling cost reduction:
Currently, low-grade waste heat is cooled using cooling towers at the customer site before it is fully disposed of. By utilising the waste heat through the VPS vortex, the waste heat is also cooled during the process. This results in reducing the energy requirements for the cooling tower and could reduce cooling-associated operating costs by up to 5%.
Capital expenditure minimisation- A retrofittable solution as an alternative to new-build:
The VPS solution is designed as an add-on to existing plants which generate waste heat. At scale, this enables capex minimisation:
- A potential of 10x reduction in overall capex by building a modular VPS vortex solution compared to building a new plant to generate the equivalent amount of electricity;
- An incremental amount of land use (i.e. a 20m diameter vortex base for a 1MW sized plant - ~ 1-3% of the land of a large power plant) reduces capex costs associated with additional land.
This is deep-tech venture capital at its best – supporting smart people with outrageous visions of the future.
 IEA warns of 'huge challenge ahead' as it details pathways to net zero power ,transport and heat | Current News (current-news.co.uk)