Summit County man mimics nature to improve solar panel energy efficiency
August 16, 2013
Fin Doyle walked through the snowboard-lined Bomber Industries lobby, passed the buzz of machinery in the workshop and stepped up a small aluminum ladder onto a second-story wooden deck.
Then he ascended a second ladder into the attic, crossed a wooden-plank walkway surrounded by insulation and popped out of a trap door onto the building's roof.
In front of Doyle stood an invention two years in the making, an invention he hopes will revolutionize the renewable energy industry. The mostly metal contraption is about 5 feet tall. Its base is mounted to the roof, but the top portion is rotated toward the sun, glistening as it takes in the heat of the rays.
Doyle, who owns Bomber Industries, used capital from the longtime Silverthorne-based snowsports business to create a new venture, Sulas Industries, which is developing a product that replaces the mechanized tracking systems used to power solar panels as they follow the sun with a non-mechanical system that simulates nature.
"Flowers use a process called heliotropism to follow the sun. Basically, it's cellular hydraulics in the plant," Doyle said. "I took that concept and mechanized it, and created what we now call the HelioDrive."
The HelioDrive tracks the sun without using computers, sensors or electricity through biomimicry — a form of science that uses elements of nature to solve human problems.
"It's a really neat concept. Basically we steal from Mother Nature because she does it best," Doyle said.
The entrepreneur said the project he's developing is a simple and cost-effective way to improve the efficiency of solar-panel tracking devices by taking away their motors and computer systems and replacing it with his HelioDrive.
"Tracking systems are very complicated in my opinion. They are run by computers. They use electric motors and use electricity. They are expensive and use a lot of maintenance," Doyle said.
"My friends tease me that I'm a little bit of an anti-computer guy. Even though I own a half dozen computers and I'm surrounded by electronics, I don't trust electronics from a reliability standpoint."
The HelioDrive collects heat from the sun through a receiver that contains paraffin wax.
"Paraffin wax has one incredible attribute. It expands quite a bit in volume as it melts," Doyle said.
A concentrator on the HelioDrive intensifies the heat of the sun to melt the wax. As the wax melts and expands, it pushes on a piston — causing the contraption to rotate. Every time the sun catches up to the receiver, it melts the wax and drives the system from east to west, Doyle said.
The HelioDrive is patent pending, and has qualified Doyle as a finalist in the Cleantech Open.
Cleantech's mission is to find, fund and foster entrepreneurs with big ideas that address urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges through a selective judging process.
Dale Zink, Cleantech's Colorado director, said he's impressed with Doyle's HelioDrive for its energy efficiency.
"His product is new and unique because it doesn't use any additional power or have to be managed in any additional way, which is really a unique approach," Zink said.
Once semifinalists like Doyle are chosen for the Cleantech Open, they go through an intensive mentoring process.
"It's really a jump-start into getting their business up and running like they should be," Zink said.
Doyle said he's eager to be part of the process.
"The concept is to take engineers like myself who have a neat idea but aren't sure how to commercialize it, and they educate us. It's pretty cool," he said.
Doyle will be participating in the regional competition in October, which could qualify him for the national competition in California in November. The winner receives $200,000.
"If we make it to the nationals it will be a good plug for Summit County," Doyle said.
No matter what the outcome, Cleantech spokesperson Zink said each finalist will meet thousands of people to help network and push their business forward.
Doyle is eager to break into the renewable energy industry.
"From our research, the (solar panel) tracking industry will be a $1.3 billion industry by 2016. It's a very lucrative industry to be in," he said.
The inventor is also looking for added capitol to develop his product.
"We are self-funding this now. But, of course, there is a limit to what we can do," he said. "So we are actively pursuing investors."
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