New CEO Takes Flux Drive’s Magnetic Energy-Saver Out For a Spin

2/28/12Follow @curtwoodward

It’s easy to forget that Washington’s economy, for all of its prowess in software, is driven mostly by manufacturing—namely Boeing, still easily the state’s largest private employer. But there’s plenty of opportunity in things a little less grand than, say, a jetliner.

Consider Flux Drive, an angel-funded company based in Sumner, WA. Founded by mechanical engineer and inventor Chip Corbin, the company says its product can dramatically drive down electricity bills by wringing much more efficiency out of a simple electric motor.

Those motors are everywhere—powering ventilation systems, pumps, blowers, conveyer belts, and more. But they typically only have one speed, making it hard to slow down whatever machine the motor is driving without wasting energy.

Flux Drive thinks it’s found a solution, based on advanced magnetic materials, that is much more reliable than current options. There’s early interest, with big names like Boeing and the U.S. Navy giving the technology a spin.

That’s where John Keenan comes in. The former shipping-industry executive was recently hired as Flux Drive’s new CEO, bringing sales, marketing, fundraising, and management skills to the fledgling company and allowing Corbin to focus on the technical details of building the product line. “Let’s get this garage band out on the road,” Keenan says with a smile.

To get an idea of the basic problem Flux Drive is trying to solve, consider a blower that moves air around in a big office ventilation system. As we mentioned, the motor powering that blower typically operates only at top speed, even though the volume of air being pushed around will vary during the day.

So air systems might employ valves or dampers to slow the air flow, but that wastes a lot of energy. There are also electronic systems that adjust the speed of the motor itself—but Flux Drive’s inventor and president, Chip Corbin, says those setups can be too sensitive and complex to run in gritty industrial environments—especially when the motor itself is taken out of a nice sterile office and placed on a seafaring ship, for instance.

Flux Drive’s solution uses magnetic fields to transmit the motor’s torque, and smoothly speed up or slow down the drive shaft to whatever speed is required. Flux Drive uses advanced “permanent” magnets, which are composed of rare-earth materials and last for decades.

Before I dive into a detailed description of how it works, check out this video of a Flux Drive in action. From left to right on the screen, you’ll see a motor, followed by the Flux Drive’s black and gold-colored cylinders. Those are connected to the drive shaft on the right, which it appears is hooked up to a blower of some kind just off screen on the upper right.

Listen to the audio too, if you can—once the switch is flipped to speed up the Flux Drive, you can hear more air roaring out of the blower and see the shaft spinning faster. When they hit the switch again, the Flux Drive separates and things start slowing down.

The Flux Drive itself has two main parts. Its powerful magnets are fitted into a hollow metal cylinder, which looks something like an old-style coffee can. The second part—a smaller, solid cylinder fitted with metal bars—slips just inside the magnet can without touching its sides.

The magnetic force produced when those two parts get close to each other is powerful enough to transfer the motor’s spinning motion to the blower’s fan with almost no “slip,” or loss in torque. When the smaller rotor is pushed fully inside the magnet can, the force is at its strongest, and the blower runs at full speed. To slow the blower down, pull the rotor back out of the magnet can, and the force decreases smoothly.

This saves energy because it allows the motor to continue running at top speed, where it’s most efficient. And even though it’s operating at a high speed, it can draw less power, because it’s not being asked to push against dampers in an air system or slow down its rotation.

So why hasn’t this been done before? Corbin says it’s largely due to recent advances in permanent magnets. As those magnets have gotten more durable and powerful, it’s opened up new ways of employing them in industrial uses—and Flux Drive thinks it’s got a big head start using them here.

Flux Drive says companies can get the installation cost repaid in lower electricity bills within a couple of years, if not sooner—and some local utilities actually give big subsidies to install such energy-saving equipment.

Flux Drive is funded by local early stage investors, including the Alliance of Angels and Northwest Energy Angels. Keenan says the company is looking for additional financing now, which could match the $1.5 million reported last summer. There are 34 of the units already installed, including operations at the aquariums in Seattle and Vancouver, BC, along with the Boeing location and the trial with the Navy, which is part of a multi-stage contract that Flux Drive hopes could lead to multimillion-dollar sales on military ships.

“We’re in the sweet spot that President Obama talks about a lot,” Keenan says. “We’re green. We’re a manufacturing company. We’re creating jobs, and we’re sustainable. We’re doing something that will benefit not only the end user, but will ultimately benefit us, from an energy consumption standpoint, for a long time.”

For now, Flux Drive manufactures its products in Sumner, either in its own facility or with a partner that can work on units for larger-horsepower motors. That won’t always last—if Flux Drive finds success, it’ll eventually have to find partners to help produce the drives at higher numbers.

That’s where a strong aerospace sector actually could be a pain for a small upstart. With that industry on an upswing, a lot of the manufacturing resources in the region can get gobbled up pretty quick, Keenan says.

“The challenges we have are growth—how we’re going to grow manufacturing capability when you have such roaring companies right now like Boeing. When you look at the all of the sub-industries that are here, built, designed, and in support of aerospace … it’s difficult for a startup like us to get into aligned with the right manufacturers or the right machine shops,” Keenan says.

But first things first. As Flux Drive seeks to grow its order book, it can look ahead to the manufacturing crunch as one of those problem that many entrepreneurs would like to have.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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