Berken Energy LLC: Makers of the most efficient and cost effective solar modules in the world

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  • 06/18/10: Business Weekly
  • 12/10/09:

New Mexico Business Weekly

Friday, June 18, 2010

by Kevin Robinson — Avila NMBW Staff Media

A homegrown technology from Roswell could substantially boost energy savings at industrial complexes worldwide.

Berken Energy LLC has developed a new thermo-electric device that it says efficiently turns heat into electricity. The generators are about the size of a mini van and can generate up to 1 megawatt of electricity from waste heat at industrial sites, such as oil and gas operations, said President Ken Newman.

The company presented at Technology Ventures Corp.’s Equity Capital Symposium in May to raise $12 million in venture funding. It has $2 million in private equity commitments and is now building its first machines to fill $2 million in orders from two energy operators. “We have two companies that have signed contracts for generators, and we have more than a dozen large firms that want to buy units,” Newman said.

The generators can be scaled up or down for different applications. The U.S. Department of Defense asked Berken to provide a small unit for testing on drones. The generator would capture waste heat and then use the electricity to keep the vehicles running, Newman said. Berken’s technology is attracting international attention, in part because the southeastern New Mexico firm established a partnership with Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a Fortune 500 engineering and technology company with $11 billion in annual revenue. SAIC wants to distribute Berken’s generators to industrial operators, said Joseph Vilella, managing director for critical infrastructure solutions. “This is breakthrough technology,” Vilella said. “I don’t know of anything else like it on the market. In my mind, once fully developed, it’s a slam dunk.”

Generating electricity from heat is nothing new, but manufacturing thermo-electric generators and devices cost-effectively has eluded developers, said Bert Amick, the inventor and now chief technology officer at Berken. Amick developed a way to apply semiconductor materials, such as lead or silicon, to a thin-film substrate, or bottom material, such as glass, copper or aluminum. By using thin film, the company can cost-effectively manufacture semiconductor sheets in bulk that generate electricity from heat. The sheets can be used in generators or other devices for many purposes, and scaled up or down as needed, Amick said. “The thin film is what makes it possible,” Amick said. “Without that, it would be too costly to make even a small device.”

Berken used off-the-shelf products to design the generators, which are lined with the semiconducting thin film. The company has an industrial-scale model that costs $2 million and can produce 1 megawatt of power, and a smaller, commercial-scale unit that can produce between 250,000 and 500,000 kilowatts, and costs about one-third as much, Newman said. The generators can be used at industrial sites to capture waste heat for electricity. They also can capture solar heat and heat from geothermal sources, such as hot oil from an oil well, to produce electric power.

The company’s first target market, however, is computer data centers, which produce a lot of waste heat and consume massive amounts of power. Recent studies conducted for Advanced Micro Devices Inc. show that the cost of electricity at data centers has surpassed capital costs for technology and equipment. Thousands of data centers operate globally, offering a large and growing market for Berken. TVC counseled Berken to start by focusing on data centers to draw investor attention, said TVC Director of Project Development Suzanne Roberts. “It’s a place to enter the market,” Roberts said. “They can still go in many directions later, but by focusing on a single market with a lot of potential, they generated a lot of excitement at the equity capital symposium.” SAIC will help Berken sell its generators to data centers. “We want to be the distribution partner and the integrator to set up the generators for customers,” Vilella said.

The Dutch engineering firm Deerns also wants to market Berken’s generators to data centers in Europe.

To date, Berken has invested about $10 million to develop its technology and to set up a 36,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Roswell. “We’re now ready to produce,” Newman said. “We have the equipment and enough supplies to make some generators and start selling our product. We’re seeking venture capital to accelerate the process.

The company employs seven. It’s hiring four more and plans to ramp up as new orders come in.

By Mike Bush, Editor

ROSWELL — Berken Energy expects to begin production of its film that makes electricity from heat in mid-2010, the company’s president said. “We’ll do a prototype demonstration for those contracts we’ve signed,” Berken President Ken Newman said. “We expect to be in production in 2010. Modifications will take 2-3 months.”

The company currently has six full-time employees, with three positions unfilled, but Newman said in an ideal situation, Berken could eventually employ “on the low side of 175 people.”

Berken’s basic product is a thin film “similar to a semiconductor or transistor” that, depending on the specific product, is attached to a “substrate” or bottom material such as glass, copper, aluminum and some polymer films, Newman said. It can even be bonded to stainless steel or titanium for some high-temperature applications. “We capture heat and we turn that heat into electricity,” Newman said.

He said the company expects to produce enough film each year to produce 20 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 20,000 homes. “In three years, we expect that number to be closer to 100 or 200 megawatts, and in five years about a gigawatt,” he said, adding, “That depends on market acceptance and competitiveness. These aren’t guarantees.”

Newman’s partner, Bert Amick, vice president of Berken, has a “long, long-storied history” of working with thin-film vacuum deposition, Newman said. “He had a team of contractors and they would … basically help rocket scientist with their thin-film challenges,” Newman said, adding Amick has patents on things from superconductors to the thin explosive film that deploys airbags and exploding film the Department of Defense uses for kinetic defense. “Bert and his guys had noticed some properties as they had been doing different projects throughout the years, and came up with this idea,” Newman said. The concept of producing heat from electricity goes back to early-19th-century scientists Thomas Johann Seebeck and Jean-Charles Peltier, he added. “All we have done is we have changed the way people view those products in the fact that we re-engineered and redesigned different elements and the structures around them,” he said

One product is photothermalvoltaic (PTV) film, which uses heat from the sun, for which Berken Energy has commercial and residential applications, Newman said. The Berken film can be attached to more conventional photovoltaic (PV) panels and increases their efficiency a lot, according to Newman. PV panels use light, which is only about 20 percent of the sun’s energy, which means it wastes the other 80 percent, which is heat energy, Newman noted. “Their products capture the light, our products capture the heat, so when you combine them together, it’s a more robust product, more efficient product,” he added. Heat actually is a problem for PV cells, he said. In warmer climates, such as New Mexico, Arizona, southern Nevada and California, PV panels can get so hot their chemistry is distorted, making them ineffective. “So our product on the back acts like a heat sink,” he said. “It sucks the heat out of it … It makes it a little more efficient, and then we increase the output because we’re capturing the electrical output.”

PV panels can produce electricity only about five hours a day, Newman said, and then they stop working — during the late afternoon, what the electric companies call the peak demand period, between 3 and 7 p.m. “Peak usage time is usually when the solar’s not around,” he said “It goes down at like 3 o’clock.” Newman said the output of Berken’s PTV film matches the peak demand. “So we can actually put our power out when utilities need it,” he added. The Berken film can convert heat from any source to power, Newman said. It can capture heat from geothermal sources such as hot oil from an oil well or waste heat produced by commercial dryers — such as those at Leprino Foods’ cheese plant, Xcel Energy’s power plants and Navajo Refinery. The film also can capture waste heat from data centers, Newman said, adding Berken is now working with Science Applications International Corp., a Fortune 500 company that wants to use Berken air exchangers in its data centers. “There are different apparatuses, so one of them is in a frame … and it goes behind the photovoltaics of the solar panel, and so it has several uses there and the others are in an exchanger, whether it is a heat exchanger or an air exchanger,” Newman said.

Berken also is working with several groups on residential applications, he said. “We have one that is going into a passive and radiant heat system collecting infrared from the sun,” he added. Such a system might use a blower to blow warm air from an attic into the house as a passive heating system, or water would be pumped through tubes in the attic, providing heat. “And now they want to wrap the (Berken) product and capture (the heat) and create power, so it’s very exciting to that industry,” Newman said, adding he had talked to “the largest retrofitter in the country” and Berken is looking at putting products in ceilings, walls and insulation. “There are different applications that we’re looking at,” Newman said, adding, “Those are not developed. That’s new stuff right there, that’s drawing-board stuff, and we have people that are going to pay for that. “We have people who want to take the flexible version of this and put it on their tents, put it on their sails for their sailboats and put it on the roofs of their RVs,” he said. “We have all kinds of applications on the (drawing) board, but we’re very small. We just launched out patents and our products to the world and now people are coming from all walks of life with ideas to take advantage of this product.”

The geothermal application is exciting because the utility companies view the Berken application as a “baseload” product, similar to hydro, nuclear and coal in that it operates around 95 percent of the time, compared to 30-35 percent for wind and solar. Efficiency determines how much power actually is produced, compared to the plant’s rating. That means a wind or solar farm with a rating of 1 megawatt would produce an average of only about 300-350 kilowatts of power. Berken’ GeoThermalVoltaic product also produces power from geothermal sources at lower temperatures than traditional geothermal producers, Newman said. Currently, less than 1 percent of U.S. land produces enough geothermal energy that it can be used to produce electricity, whereas there place in all 50 states where GTV film can produce power.

Berken also produces air and water exchangers to gather waste heat from industrial plants and use it to make electricity. For instance, data centers have thousands and thousands of blade servers and other computer equipment, Newman said, and it all produces heat. “Forty percent of the power they use is just to cool the computers down,” he said. Air exchangers can capture that heat and turn it into electricity. Air and water exchangers also can be used in food plants, steel mills and oil and chemical refineries, he added. “We’re working on products with incinerators with airports right now, so we will be capturing the heat from those incinerators and big dryers they use to dry food,” he said. “We’ll be doing that at airports and using that power to help light LED lights at the airport and give extra de-icing on the runways.”

Newman said he also is in discussions with Xcel Energy, NV Energy and Duke Energy to harness waste heat at their power plants, he added. “They have a lot of waste heat come out of their power plants because they’re either (using) nuclear or burning natural gas or burning coal,” he said. “Most of the time there’s heat all over these power plants.”

Newman said one problem he has had in keeping employees is that many he has hired have been younger people who are used to larger cities and don’t fit into Roswell. “We want to try to get more people from the area,” he added. “They’re here and they like it here."




Berken Technology Proof Points:

  • Science Well Understood
  • Currently Being Manufactured
  • Demonstrates Long-Term Reliability
  • Scalable to Large-Area Production