NYC’s Radiator Labs Nabs MIT Clean Tech Prize, Vies for New US Crown

Marshall Cox moved into graduate housing at Columbia University a couple years back and immediately ran into a problem that plagues many New York City residents. His apartment was too hot. Cox couldn’t adjust his radiator because all of the heat for the building came from a single steam generator. So the only way he could get some relief was to open a window. Sometimes he got so desperate he turned off the radiator, but then he’d wake up freezing and have to crank it back up again. “The temperature could not be regulated without wasting a huge amount of energy, and even then, it wasn’t working,” says Cox, who expects to complete his Ph.D. in electrical engineering this year. “It was a horrible way to live.”

Cox’s quest to find comfort in his own home became a business plan for Radiator Labs, which invented a temperature-regulating slipcover for steam radiators. On May 1, Radiator Labs won the MIT Clean Energy Prize and took home $200,000 to help get the business off the ground. Now the company is one of six startups vying for the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, a new prize sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Cox will pitch his plan to venture capitalists and energy-industry executives at an event in Washington, DC on June 13.

Cox developed his idea with the help of a research group called the Columbia Lab for Unconventional Electronics, run by assistant professor John Kymissis, who is now serving as the Radiator Labs’ chief technology officer. They first tested the technology in the place that inspired the company—Cox’s apartment. It went so well, Cox says, the company is now planning a large pilot for the upcoming winter, which will be run in a New York apartment building that has yet to be selected.

Radiator Labs’ device was designed to address the core problem with steam heat, Cox says, which is that it’s impossible to distribute it evenly. That’s because unlike most homes, where the temperature on different floors can be controlled independently, most old apartment buildings only have one “zone,” meaning their steam units are programmed to send the same amount of heat to everyone. “Apartments that lose heat faster are heated to compensate for that,” he says. “As a result, apartments that lose heat more slowly become vastly overheated.”

Radiator Labs designed a cover that intelligently controls how much hot air flows into a room. Using electronic sensors that are attached the cover, the device releases heat into the room, via a small fan, based on how much is needed to keep the room at a steady, comfortable temperature. (See video demonstration below.) The system does need to be plugged into a power source, Cox says, but it only uses about six watts of electricity. “The increase in the energy efficiency of the steam system is vastly more than the electricity you’re using,” Cox says.

Most energy experts agree that steam heat is horribly inefficient. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority estimates that steam-based buildings use between 15 and 30 percent more … Next Page »

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