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3 winners of DOE’s “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator” Challenge: hydrogen-assisted lean-burn engines, graphene for Li-air and -sulfur batteries, and titanium process

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced three winning startup companies—based on a public vote and an expert review—out of the 14 participating in the US Department of Energy (DOE) “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator” challenge. (Earlier post.)

Initially, 36 start-up companies elected to participate in this first-of-its-kind effort. Of those 36 companies, 14 signed option agreements allowing them to license advanced technologies developed and patented by one of the DOE 17 National Laboratories and the Y-12 National Security Complex. The three winning companies are:

  • Umpqua Energy, a startup company based in Medford, Oregon, is using an Argonne National Laboratory technology to develop a system that allows a gasoline engine to operate in an extreme lean burn mode in order to increase gasoline mileage. One negative side effect of a lean burn engine, whether powered by gasoline or diesel fuel, is an increase in the amount of emissions released to the environment.

    Umpqua Energy’s EVOPAC system combines an advanced hydrogen-injection system using a plasma reformer with a DeNOx Catalyst. The plasma reformer, installed into the engine compartment, convert fuel into hydrogen. The hydrogen is then injected into the combustion chambers and ignites the fuel earlier in the engine’s process, causing more power in the downward stroke. The hydrogen causes the fuel to burn more completely, resulting in greater fuel efficiency, less emissions, and more power.

    The DeNOx Catalyst attaches to the tailpipe and has been proven to reduce NOx emissions by 85%. Combined with hydrogen injection, the complete EVOPAC system provides the most complete emission reduction system yet, according to Umpqua.

    Tests have demonstrated reductions in fuel usage in hydrogen-injection systems compared with conventional combustion engines. The introduction of hydrogen into the engine virtually eliminates fuel emissions while greatly reducing the emissions of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.

  • Vorbeck Materials, a startup company based in Jessup, Maryland, is using a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)-developed method for developing graphene for better lithium air and lithium sulfur batteries.

    In 2007, Vorbeck signed a worldwide license agreement with Princeton University for a patented method from the the Aksay Labs for manufacturing graphene at commercial scale. Developments by PNNL (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) and Princeton of lithium air batteries incorporating graphene as a cathode material set the highest energy storage capacity ever recorded, 15,000 mAh g-1. Vorbeck, in collaboration with PNNL and Princeton, is working to rapidly bring this new technology to market.

    Vorbeck is partnering with Hardwire LLC to integrate the new batteries into hybrid military vehicles and is collaborating with companies to incorporate the new technology in toys, tools, and commercial vehicles.

  • IPAT, a startup company based in Nevada, Iowa, is using gas atomization technology developed at Ames Laboratory to make titanium powder with processes that are ten times more efficient than traditional powder-making methods—significantly lowering the cost of the powder to manufacturers. The powder form of titanium is easier to work with than having to cast the metal, particularly given titanium’s tendency to react with the materials used to form molds.

    Titanium’s strength, light weight, biocompatibility and resistance to corrosion make it ideal for use in a variety of parts—from components for artificial limbs to military vehicle components, biomedical implants, aerospace fasteners and chemical plant valves.

The winners of this year’s competition will be featured at the 2012 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit at the end of the month. The US Department of Energy (DOE) is now kicking off a second year of “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator.”

The three runners-up in this first-year competition are:

  • 7AC Technologies, based in Woburn, Massachusetts, is developing Liquid Desiccant HVAC systems for Commercial and Industrial buildings using technology from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. These Liquid Desiccant HVAC systems deliver a 50 - 75% reduction in energy usage over conventional HVAC units. The system consists of a membrane conditioner responsible for drying and cooling the air and a heat-driven regenerator. The liquid desiccant design allows for the utilization of solar or waste heat sources, paving the way for net-zero energy retrofits to existing buildings with costs comparable to conventional HVAC.

  • California Lithium Battery (CaLBattery), based in Los Angeles, California, is developing a low-cost, advanced lithium-ion battery that employs a novel silicon graphene composite material that will substantially improve battery cycle life. When combined with other advanced battery materials, it could effectively lower battery life cycle cost by up to 70%. Over the next year, CALBattery will be working with Argonne National Laboratory to combine their patented silicon-graphene anode material process together with other advanced ANL cathode and electrolyte battery materials.

  • Element One, based in Boulder, Colorado, has created the only available coatings that change color when detecting hydrogen and other hazardous gas leaks, either reversibly or non-reversibly, to provide both current and historical information about leaks. Element One’s patented gas indicators and sensors use catalyzed thin films or nanoparticles of a transition metal oxide to create very low cost sensors for use in industrial and consumer environments, greatly reducing the potential for undetected leaks and their cost and safety implications. This technology is also being integrated for use in refineries, industry gas and fuel cells systems and was developed using technology from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.



It sounds like IPAT has the best investment potential, based on the applicability of its product for a wide range of products. Titanium's long history of being an expensive metal will help IPAT charge high prices for its powder, but it can still undercut the market price for traditional titanium. If it is 10 times more efficient than other titanium powder producers, it sounds like they will have really good margins going forward (for a while, until competitors come up with comparable processes).


More on IPAT (interesting!) http://energy.gov/americas-next-top-energy-innovator/iowa-powder-atomization-technologies-inc


Excellent vehicle to push government's lab discoveries to the market place. This worthwhile process should be repeated every year and should get pro-active government financial support to accelerate national mass production of at least 5 new products. Priority could be given to products that would create local jobs and reduce crude oil imports.


IM interrested to buy the hydrogen injection done with a plasma reformer from Umpqua Energy. Nothing beat hydrogen in all labo testing done since years. They have always the best scores in mpg and pollution.


There is a lot of technology in national labs available for licencing at reasonable rates, but few businesses know about this. It is one of the easiest ways to save on research and avoid patent disputes.


gorr, the hydrogen is not the fuel their burning this time, just an additive to help reduce emissions in a lean burn engine. You still have the issues of where do you get the H2 from.


I'm a motorsport fan, and I've been hearing a lot about IPAT and similar technologies for a while. The benefit of their technology can be spread to many industries, and from what I can gather, their process is already quite developed, and on the cusp of widespread adoption.

My only complaint is that I want the DOE to stop messing around with the shoot-the-moon strategy, and focus on getting people into fuel-efficient vehicles today. If DOE want public support, bring the technology to the masses, instead of expecting Joe Public to see the nuances and implications of obscure technological development.


@ DaveD, soon hydrogen will be on sale everywhere like pharmacies, walmarts and also included in bic lighthers. Also hydrogen will be part of zeppelins flying cars and suvs. Many will also put hydrogen in medications and soft drinks like coca-cola and toothpastes and shampoos, etc. The sun is made of hydrogen and it don't lack energy. Petrol burn just because it's hydrogen plus carbon, only the hydrogen part provide energy.



ROFL There you go with your zeppelins! With hydrogen yet again, instead of helium. How many people want to fly around in a giant bomb?


"...silicon graphene composite material that will substantially improve battery cycle life."

Nanotech is an enabler that can lead to other breakthroughs, it may not work for everything, but when it comes to electro chemistry, there might be some winners.


Samsung Yokohama Research has found ways to improve lithium batteries overall performance by up to 300% while increasing life cycles and quick charges without damaging the cells. More ways will soon (every few months or so) be found to mass produce higher performance, lower cost EV batteries. Affordable BEVs with 300+ miles (500+ Km) range between charges will be mass produced by the end of the current decade.


Lithium sulfur looks interesting, Stanford has made some advances, they need to get the number of charge cycles way up, but that could be possible.

I think if they can get 150-200 mile range in a mid sized sedan in a small, light and less expensive package, we could see some changes. Employers, coffee shops, cafes and others could install regular and quick chargers to extend range and relieve range anxiety.

If we can get commuters using PHEV and EV cars, we can reduce oil imports, clean the air and reduce commuting costs. If we want to make more progress, we work with the people using the most fuel, that would be commuters, delivery companies and long haul trucking.


SJC...that is the on-going idea but many existing very powerful liquid fuel industries will use their huge accumulated wealth to fight the transition, specially in an election year. Many million $$$ will go to the party more likely to give them post-election support. We all know will benefit?

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