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March 12, 2018 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Joining “Innovation Crossroads” was a “no brainer” for Mitch Ishmael

innovation-crossroads(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a four-part series spotlighting the “Innovation Crossroads” initiative at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Founders of the three companies that relocated to the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region to grow their energy-focused start-ups.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

For Mitch Ishmael, Co-Founder of Active Energy Systems, becoming one of the start-ups in the inaugural “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) was the proverbial “no brainer.” In fact, one might say it was destined to happen.

Ishmael grew-up in Farragut where he attended Farragut High School and had the first of several ORNL connections. During his senior year, Ishmael enrolled in a program that allowed him to spend class time working at the National Transportation Research Center, where he did some coding and was able to visualize one of the research group’s algorithms.

“It was gratifying to start applying what I was learning in school,” Ishmael said. Later, as an undergraduate at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, he made two more trips to the lab where he “gained a strong understanding of the work at ORNL.” As if there needed to be more ties, the last ones came when he decided to pursue a doctorate at Cornell University.

“I knew I wanted to work in energy,” Ishmael explains, noting that “it is the challenge of our generation.” When he unexpectedly had to change his focus from materials science to chemical engineering, it just so happened that his new advisor had done some work at the lab.

Clearly, a substantive relationship with ORNL seems to have been predestined, and the connection was finalized when his parents sent Ishmael a note about plans for IC and its focus on growing energy start-ups.

“They knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Ishmael says.  Now, he’s back home, working with distinguished scientists to address one of the world’s most critical energy challenges – efficient, inexpensive and reliable energy storage.

“Everyone thinks batteries,” Ishmael says of energy storage when, in fact, 95 percent of the nation’s current stored energy comes from pumped hydro, which is a plentiful resource in some geographic areas but scarce in others. Active Energy Systems is focused on using a more ubiquitous resource – waste heat – to help address the energy storage challenge on a global scale.

“Our technology combines a novel power cycle (that uses waste heat) with our engineered thermal storage system,” Ishmael says. To describe the process, he highlights two words – pump during the storage (charging) process and engine during the energy retrieval (discharging) process.

“Charging our system means operating our power cycle as a heat pump and freezing the storage material,” he explains. “When you want to generate electricity, you use the available waste heat (down to 120 °F) to run the power cycle as a heat engine. The frozen material is melted in the process.”

Active Energy Systems’ specific innovations are around the power cycle and storage system.

Who is the likely customer?

“We thought it was the utility industry,” Ishmael said. Now, less than a year into IC, he says it is companies that use a lot of electricity and generate a significant quantity of waste heat like data centers.

The two-year program ends in May 2019, and Ishmael says he is laser-focused on using the resources available from ORNL as efficiently as possible. His goal is to build a minimum viable product that will allow the start-up to gain real feedback and buy-in from prospective customers.

Ishmael and his Co-Founder have self-funded Active Energy Systems thus far including filing a provisional patent on their core technology.

NEXT: Yellowstone Energy founded by two MIT graduates.

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