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February 20, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Proton Power could be Weaver’s most impactful start-up

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a six-part series about Knoxville entrepreneur Sam Weaver.)

Sam Weaver easily qualified as a serial entrepreneur in the region by the time he left the Dyson Group in 2005. Shortly after leaving, he incorporated Proton Power.

Throughout his more than 40 years of starting at least 10 companies, Weaver has focused on impactful technologies. His latest endeavor, however, could be his most significant to date. It can address the world’s energy needs, particularly in developing nations, while also raising the standard of living.

To illustrate the impact, Weaver cites two statistics.

“Only 20 percent of the world demand (for energy) is being met,” he says. “It will take six Watts Bar nuclear sites coming online every day forever to meet the world’s energy demand. “You can do it all with biomass if you want to.”

Weaver also notes that the median annual income worldwide is $850 per capita because of the lack of energy.

“What if you’re able to do something about that,” he asks? “What would that mean?”

Weaver believes that a solution is Proton Power’s patented process called CHyP (Cellulose to Hydrogen Power). It takes cellulose-based feedstock – switchgrass, sawdust or even junk mail – and creates hydrogen more efficiently than existing approaches. The hydrogen is then used to replace energy provided in other ways, and a byproduct called biochar is even usable as a soil supplement that increases crop yields.

“We’ve got to go to a sustainable future,” Weaver believes, adding that the CHyP approach “is a shovel ready technology” to achieve that future.

“It’s time has come,” he says.

One believer is Ted Wampler, Jr., President of Wampler’s Farm Sausage Company in Lenoir City, a company that has been recognized for its commitment to alternative energy through two solar installations.

Now, as Proton Power’s first customer, Wampler was quoted in a recent Knoxville News Sentinel article as saying that “it’s a game-changer for us, but it’s also a planet-changer.” Wampler’s company is installing a 500kW CHyP system.

Proton Power offers the following cost comparisons for its technology.

  • On a heat basis, the hydrogen derived from cellulose gasification is equivalent to wholesale gasoline priced at $0.82/gallon.
  • Heat from the same process can be produced for about $0.51/therm ($0.18/therm if feedstock is a waste material such as sawdust) compared with about $0.42/therm for wholesale natural gas and $1.70/therm for wholesale propane.
  • Electricity (requiring a generator) can be produced for between $0.03/kWh and $0.07/kWh, depending on feedstock price.

The company is putting the finishing touches on a 23,000 square foot spec building in Roane Regional Business and Technology Park that will be its production facility for the CHyP units.

“The new facility is capable of producing equipment for 100 megawatts a year of new CHyP installations,” Weaver says, adding that the Proton Power technology is that customers can create hydrogen on demand.

If his estimates of overall demand are accurate, that’s several hundred jobs at the new facility.

NEXT: The interview with Weaver produced a list of lessons he has learned over more than four decades of entrepreneurial pursuits.

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