San Diego Business Journal

Co.’s Stove Is Source Of ‘Alternative Energy’

TECH: Variety of Applications Seen for Thermoelectric Systems By John Cox Originally published January 5, 2017 at 12:58 p.m., updated January 5, 2017 at 12:58 p.m.
   
Tom Lillestol, left, holds a pot of water being heated by a wood stove Hi-Z Technology Inc. has outfitted with a thermoelectric generator. The U.S. EPA hopes the device will improve lives in India. Looking on are CFO and acting CEO Jill Elsner, center, and Vice President Fred Leavitt.

Tom Lillestol, left, holds a pot of water being heated by a wood stove Hi-Z Technology Inc. has outfitted with a thermoelectric generator. The U.S. EPA hopes the device will improve lives in India. Looking on are CFO and acting CEO Jill Elsner, center, and Vice President Fred Leavitt. Photo by Jaime Scott Lytle.

— Jill Elsner and Fred Leavitt were anxious to show off their company’s latest technological innovation, but they couldn’t just fire it up inside their Miramar Road offices. Breakthrough or not, it puts out a fair amount of smoke.

Technician Tom Lillestol placed the device — essentially a modified stove — on a small table, wheeled it outdoors and sparked it up. Predictably, flames began to heat a pot of water, which didn’t seem worthy of a government research grant — until something else happened.

Within three minutes, a light connected to the stove by a USB cord flickered on. Leavitt, vice president of San Diego research and development company Hi-Z Technology Inc., removed the bulb and plugged in his cellphone. It began to charge.

The demonstration wouldn’t dazzle anyone familiar with thermoelectrics and the semiconducting properties of a compound called bismuth telluride. But to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it might be a way to improve the health and everyday lives of millions of people in India.

And that’s just the start.

Wider Applications

Hi-Z is also doing work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Transportation. The company sees potential commercial applications in the areas of household heating and survivalism.

The $100,000 grant the EPA recently awarded to Hi-Z is vindication for a small company that has worked since 1988 to refine — and more recently, commercialize — a technology that has been mostly limited to car cigarette lighters and seat-coolers.

The key now, besides finding investors, is maximizing the cost-efficiency of the company’s bite-size modules capable of generating about 14 watts of electricity with no fuel other than heat itself.

“Our challenge isn’t a technical challenge,” said Elsner, Hi-Z’s CFO and acting CEO. “It’s an economic challenge.”

Old Technology

An important thing to understand about Hi-Z is how that stove turned on that light bulb.

In 1821, German physicist Thomas Johann Seebeck discovered he could create voltage by connecting two kinds of metals and exposing one side to heat and the other to cold.

What happens is electrons packed tightly on the cooler side migrate to the warmer side, creating electrical current. It works in reverse, too: Electrifying the system makes the cold side colder and the warm side warmer, hence the soothing car seats and burning-hot cigarette lighters.

For a long time, Hi-Z concentrated on increasing the efficiency of its thermoelectric materials, which led it to focus on bismuth telluride, a compound found in copper mines. The company sources the metal, together with small plastic grids that hold it in place, from China, then applies and sands aluminum circuitry in San Diego.

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