A small lab in Pittsboro could change the way we consume energy, save businesses money, and possibly even save the lives of American soldiers.
3DFS is a technology company that designs, manufactures and implements a new and more efficient way to transfer energy. Its nine employees work out of a 10,000-square-foot lab and manufacturing site.
Founded in 2010, the company grew out of a need many do not see: the inefficient use of electricity.
“Electricity today is not transferred with any intelligence,” said Chris Doerfler, the company’s co-founder. Our current practices result in more wasted electricity than consumed electricity. According to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in 2016, of the 37.5 quads of electricity that were generated, only 12.6 were actually used; 24.6 quads were wasted. One quad means one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) BTUs.
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When you plug your phone or your computer into the wall, electrons are traveling through the wires in order to give your device energy. But these electrons encounter resistance, said Stefan Jeglinski, a physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. When you touch your phone or your computer and it’s hot, that is the result of the electrons meeting resistance. That is wasted energy, or in technical terms, electrons being thermally dissipated.
Another way electricity is wasted is through the electrons getting caught in the wires. This results in a phenomenon called “dirty power.” When power is dirty, motors will act too fast, or too slow, or act jittery. You can also experience this when you try to play a musical instrument and there is distortion in how the notes come out. That’s a result of energy being consumed inefficiently.
While no one likes wasting money on energy they’re not using, inefficient energy transfer is a more serious problem for businesses, especially data centers.
That’s where 3DFS comes in. The company’s VectorQ system can measure the energy being used to see whether it is being smoothly transferred. Whenever electrons are getting caught, 3DFS technology corrects the energy transfer to keep everything stable.
Michael Heuberger, the CEO at Freudenberg IT, which runs data centers in the Triangle, tested 3DFS’s technology at one of its testing facilities.
The results gave him goosebumps, he said. “It was almost unbelievable,” Heuberger said. “We could save up to 20 percent, 30 percent of power.”
The system also lets him save on air conditioning – a big cost at data centers because the AC is needed to keep the computers from overheating and shutting down. Less heat, less need for the AC.
The system also means the data centers can use smaller copper cables, which means more savings.
“It even runs quieter,” Heuberger said with a laugh. Heuberger now uses 3DFS’ technology in his data centers.
Help for the military
Energy efficiency is also crucial for smooth military operations abroad.
Troops typically have used diesel generators to provide electricity in the field. The fuel is trucked in, and the long line of trucks is protected by military personnel moving along a single road for hundreds of miles.
“You can imagine how vulnerable these fuel re-supply convoys are,” Doerfler said. “In the Afghanistan war, four out of five deaths were fuel re-supply related.”
To reduce that fuel use, the military has been slowly moving to microgrids, which allow energy systems to be managed better and more efficiently. A study released last year by Pew Charitable Trusts reported that the military could save $1 billion by shifting away from diesel generators to microgrids.
In 2011, 3DFS received a Small Business Innovation Grant Research Grant with the Marines and tested its technology on a micro-grid in Virginia. With the technology fully implemented, Doerfler said, fuel savings were 59.4. With this technology the military could “cut those fuel supply trips in half,” he said.
While the micro-grid project did not continue, 3DFS is currently working with the military on other technology projects, Doerfler said.
3DFS’ technology was developed by a number of scientists including two who work at the company: Vladislav Oleynik, who has two Ph.Ds in computer science and mathematics from the Leningrad State Nuclear Physics Institute, and Gennadiy Albul, who is a research scientist with expertise in electrical engineering. Doerfler met Oleynik through his son during another entrepreneurial project.
So far the company’s work has been funded “through bootstrapping and those who make up the nucleus of our workforce,” Doerfler said. “We haven’t accepted any venture funding to date and are free to control the direction of the company.”
The technology is expensive – a single VectorQ for commercial use currently costs $100,000, though there are savings for buying in bulk – so the company is initially trying to sell data center operators, manufacturers and the U.S. military on its product.
“They receive an instant payback in security and stability,” Doerfler said.