By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
During our two years of writing articles for teknovation.biz, Knoxvillian Chris Rey is the first local person we have met whose company has won a coveted ARPA-E grant from the U. S. Department of Energy.
“They are very competitive, very difficult to win, and very difficult to manage,” the President of Tai-Yang Research Company (TYRC), told us. There were 2,500 applications in the round that he and 66 other companies won earlier in 2013.
The award marked a major milestone for Rey’s company that he founded in 1999 while working for DuPont. The unusual company name is actually the middle name of his daughter.
Rey is a Physicist by training who earned his doctorate at Florida State University (FSU). Through stints at Babcock & Wilcox, DuPont and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the Florida native has maintained a focus on superconductivity.
“These are unique materials that, when cooled to very low temperatures, conduct electricity without any losses,” he explains. “Devices (made with superconducting materials) are practically 100 percent efficient.”
Rey noted that the material can increase the efficiency of everyday products like motors, generators, cables and transformers from 95 percent efficiency to greater than 99 percent.
“A four to five percent gain in efficiency is a lot of money saved and a significant reduction in greenhouse emissions,” he noted.
Rey arrived in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region in 2004 when he joined the research staff at ORNL. This was about two years after he won his first Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award. He left the lab and its international nuclear fusion research and engineering project in 2012 to focus all of his energies on his company.
“If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it,” Rey says of his decision to leave ORNL. “I loved what I was doing, but it (working at ORNL during the day and at TYRC on nights and weekends) was running me ragged.”
He has been growing the company since the initial SBIR award. “Our biggest product to date has been our superconducting degaussing technology,” Rey says. It addresses a major challenge that naval ships have – the large magnetic signature created by the large steel hull of the ship that funnels and concentrates the Earth’s magnetic field lines.
“The large magnetic signature makes the ships very vulnerable to detection and detonation from magnetically sensitive mines,” Rey explains. Replacing the traditional copper wire with superconducting cable helps address the vulnerability while also dramatically reducing weight.
Things are likely to change now, thanks to the ARPA-E grant which is the largest in the company’s history. It amounts to $2.7 million over three years and has the company focused on a specific application – superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES).
Unlike capacitors which stored energy in an electric field, SMES devices store energy as a magnetic field. Superconductors, with their lossless energy flow, allow the SMES devices to store energy for very long periods of time.
“You can store a lot of energy in these devices,” Rey explains. SMES is an ideal application where “where high power rapid discharge is needed,” such as a weapons system.
“The downside is it is very expensive,” he notes, but adds that this is where TYRC is focused.
“We have a proprietary technology to make it better and cheaper,” Rey says.
TYRC operates out of two locations – Rey’s home in Knoxville and FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee. Dual locations keep Rey on the run, but he says it is the best strategy.
“Superconductivity is not a big field, so it’s beneficial to be close to the research talent,” he says of the FSU facility.
Rey says that one of his biggest hopes is to use the ARPA-E award to develop a technology that allows for multiple iterations of the same application.
“We design, fabricate, build and install one of a kind products now,” he says of TYRC’s work on complex and expensive items. “It’s a low yield, high risk business model that is difficult to sustain, but it’s what I’m good at.”
Rey is realistic about the technology area that he has chosen. He notes that it took General Electric and Westinghouse three decades to develop the only commercial superconducting product thus far – Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
In answer to my recurring question about lessons learned, Rey acknowledges that he “probably would not have” pursued superconductivity had he known then what he now understands.
“I would have done a technology that is easier to break into,” he says.
The official ARPA-E website says the program “catalyzes transformational energy technologies.” That’s where Rey and TYRC are, so maybe the decision will prove to be the correct one.