This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Clean-tech motor startup gears up for electric vehicle age

A Chicago clean-energy startup is betting that growth in electrified motors will extend beyond electric cars

Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies, a Chicago-based firm, designs unique motors and other components for electric transport and appliances. While the technology is being tailored to work with the next generation of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles, company engineers also are designing motors that are compatible with electrified bikes and other devices using fuel alternatives, says CEO Heidi Lubin.

HEVT was the runner up in the 2012 Brinks Innovation Competition last month at the annual Midwest Clean Tech 2012, which was held at McCormick Place in Chicago. Finalists presented their company ideas to a panel of early-stage investors, venture capitalists, and business development executives. The competition was sponsored by Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione, a Chicago-based intellectual property law firm. HEVT also was a finalist in the Clean Energy Trust’s Clean Energy Challenge last spring in Chicago.

HEVT got its start as a spinoff from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Power Electronics and Motor Drives Laboratory in 2005. Its founder and chief technologist, Ali Emadi, is an expert in power electronics and hybrid and electric vehicle design. One of the most unique aspects of HEVT’s designs is the avoidance of rare earth materials in its compositions, which pose environmental concerns and potential problems on the business side as well, notes Ms. Lubin.

While the arrival of electric cars is grabbing headlines, HEVT is already making inroads in the electrified bike arena. The company recently received initial orders from two bike companies for electric motors and motor controllers and is working with manufacturers to gear up for production, Ms. Lubin says.

Thus far, HEVT has been funded by angel investors and a $300,000 grant it received as part of its work on a U.S. Department of Energy coalition to develop the power electronics for an electric vehicle application.

Crain’s spoke with Ms. Lubin from Las Vegas last week, where she was attending Interbike 2012, the largest bike trade show in North America.

Why did the company founders choose to focus on designing motors and motor components in particular in the clean tech sector?

Heidi Lubin

Ms. Lubin: Motors are a fundamental building block for all sorts of technologies, ranging from more efficient appliances, industrial drives, and enabling high performance and cost-effective electrified transportation. And our technology enables cleaner, greener motors to be made without rare earth materials.

Why is it a big deal that rare earth materials aren’t necessary for your company’s designs?

Rare earth materials actually aren’t that rare. They’re a class of materials pretty low on the periodic table. The issue with them is that they’re co-present with a mineral called Thorium, which is radioactive. At one point Thorium was considered to be used in nuclear power plants in lieu of uranium, and still could be at some point. So when you mine and refine these rare earth materials, there’s radioactive waste, which causes water, land and air pollution and leads to political discord.

Okay, so designing clean energy motors without the environmental impact makes sense if you want to be a green company. Are there business reasons to stay away from these materials as well?

Yes, the refining capacity is what’s rare here too. China continues to mine this and there are some who believe that China will be a net importer of rare earth in the next few years. There’s a concern that the supply and demand cycle over the next 3-10 years looks extremely volatile. When you start talking about industries where the entire supply chain depends on just-in-time manufacturing, volatility is an enormous concern, even more so than cost. For a supplier, there are massive relationship consequences for a default like that.

Our motor technology gets us clear away from all those problems. It requires less raw materials, just copper and steel, and it’s a simpler manufacturing process so we can recoup value throughout the value chain in many ways.

Can you briefly describe HEVT’s technology that’s apparently very different from the way other motors are designed?

Switched reluctance motors, the type of motor that we use, have particular performance benefits for propulsion. Those benefits include improved continuous efficiency, better reliability, and higher starting torque. Amory Lovins (a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute), called switched reluctance machines a demand side alternative to the challenge of rare earth materials.

Our team happens to be expert at this type of technology. We’re one of the only teams in the world with the expertise to design this type of motor and the software for the motor controller. There used to be problems with this technology, especially with noise vibration and harshness. Our team figured out how to solve that.

What happens to your company if the electric vehicle market doesn’t grow in a big way?

Electric transportation is much more than electric vehicles. Right now, the global electric motor market is in excess of $32 billion annually. And that’s just the high performance segment. All vehicles are having their accessories electrified. On average, there are 73 electric motors in a regular vehicle, so there’s a long trajectory of how we make our vehicles more efficient. We’re also talking about motors and components for appliances, including washing machines, and all sorts of pumps.

We want to be a leader in the EV (electric vehicle) market, but we’re not sitting around waiting for that market to take off.

This entry was posted in Green Scene. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.