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Updated: August 24, 2020

Bloomfield bearing pioneer sets sights on wasted energy market

Photo | Contributed Giri Agrawal (right), president and founder of Bloomfield’s R&D Dynamics, is a pioneer in the world of air-foil bearings used to cycle air inside aircraft cabins. He and his son, vice president Sunil Agrawal (left), are hoping those bearings will be a competitive differentiator in R&D’s new waste heat recovery system, ThermoGen.

Technology is becoming increasingly energy efficient, but the fact remains that plenty of devices, from a simple light bulb to an industrial boiler, emit waste heat into the environment.

“We have a lot of wasted energy and it’s ejected as waste heat,” explains Joel Rinebold, energy director at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT) in East Hartford. “The problem to solve is ‘how do we get value out of that waste heat?’ ”

Bloomfield’s R&D Dynamics, a bearing and turbomachinery manufacturer that has made its bones in the aerospace and commercial sectors over the past 30 years, is aiming to be at least part of the answer.

R&D has launched a waste-heat recovery product line called ThermoGen, which it is marketing to industrial facilities, colleges, and other producers of uncaptured waste heat in Connecticut and beyond.

The company has already secured its first official sale. A pending $1-billion fuel-cell-powered data center in New Britain plans to use seven of R&D’s 200-kilowatt systems, which use waste heat to vaporize an organic liquid chemical that has a low boiling point. That gas then spins a turbine that produces electricity.

The process, known as organic rankine cycle, is similar to spinning a turbine with water heated to steam, but is more economical for waste heat at lower temperatures (as low as 170 degrees).

R&D Dynamics founder and President Giri Agrawal has sky-high hopes for the new product, which he says could grow his privately held company’s annual revenue tenfold (it currently generates about $10 million to $20 million per year).

“This could be the biggest product for us,” Agrawal, 83, said in a recent interview. “This could bring a lot of money to Connecticut.”

Agrawal, whose son Sunil Agrawal is R&D’s vice president and his father’s presumed successor, is an accomplished mechanical engineer who helped pioneer new air-foil bearing designs while at Hamilton Sundstrand, a United Technologies Corp. company that has since become part of Raytheon.

R&D’s bearings are used in systems that cycle air inside airplane cabins, and are also a key component of its compressors, blowers and alternators that are used in wastewater treatment, food processing, HVAC systems, fuel cells and a variety of other processes and products.

Those same kinds of bearings are a key component in the ThermoGen system, and Agrawal sees it as a competitive advantage over systems that use oil bearings.

Still, there are reasons to doubt Agrawal’s latest project, since similar heat-recovery technology has been around for decades and hasn’t yet caught on to a significant extent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In addition, R&D is entering a somewhat unfamiliar market where it will face established competitors such as Ormat Technologies, whose heat-recovery systems are dominant in the geothermal sector.

Photo | Contributed
Sam Rajendran, project manager for the ThermoGen line, at the state Capitol, where lawmakers in 2018 granted the heat-recovery technology renewable energy incentives.

ThermoGen project manager Sam Rajendran said there are plenty of facilities that could earn a healthy return on their energy costs by purchasing a ThermoGen system, but he’s unaware of any examples of organic rankine cycle systems operating at industrial facilities in Connecticut.

CCAT’s Rinebold, who R&D Dynamics has hired to issue a report on ThermoGen’s merits, says that’s not because the technology isn’t proven. It’s because it’s challenging to make the systems cost-effective, particularly for lower-temperature waste heat from smaller industrial sources. Payback periods for similar technology have been fairly long, and maintenance costs have been high.

“I’m pained to say this: It’s a beautiful technology that has been discussed and vetted for years, maybe decades, but it has not been cost-effective,” Rinebold said. “The real barrier is ‘who can make the machine that’s lower cost, more durable and more reliable?’ ”

Rinebold said R&D could be the answer, in part because of the company’s proprietary bearings, which it says enables higher efficiency, lower costs, and less maintenance.

“I think these guys have the right machine,” Rinebold said. “R&D Dynamics has what appears to me, after considerable time researching this, solved the problem.”

A taxpayer bet

Connecticut taxpayers should hope he’s right, since they have already bet on the company’s expansion, in the form of a $2.3-million Manufacturing Assistance Act loan issued in 2015, half of which will be forgiven if R&D creates 38 new jobs within eight years.

The company is likely to miss that mark, as it has 70 employees at its 85,000-square-foot Bloomfield facility, up by about five since the contract began. Rajendran said R&D has asked the state to extend some of the targets.

He said part of the challenge in selling the systems is that waste heat is a new market for the company.

“It’s a learning cycle for us to understand this market,” Rajendran said. “Once this catches on, I think it’s going to be great.”

In addition, prospective R&D customers have said they want to see an example of the unit in action.

“Smaller customers may not understand,” he said. “They want to see something operating in the field.”

That could happen sooner than later if R&D secures a few deals, but if it doesn’t, ThermoGen’s first real test run could be the New Britain data center project, which is in development but hasn’t targeted an exact debut date.

Another assist from CT could help

Photo | Contributed
R&D’s 200-kilowatt ThermoGen system. This unit is inside R&D’s 85,000-square-foot Bloomfield headquarters. A major fuel cell project planned for New Britain intends to use seven of the units.

Besides R&D’s 2015 state loan, Connecticut did the company a second favor three years later, when lawmakers added organic rankine cycle heat recovery systems to the state’s eligible list of “Class I” renewable technology.

That allows ThermoGen to receive more lucrative incentives that are usually reserved for the cleanest power generators, like solar panels, and the cost is ultimately shouldered by electric ratepayers in a state that has some of the highest energy prices in the nation.

ThermoGen only counts as a Class I renewable if it is attached to a non-electricity generating heat source, or to a renewable electricity generator like solar, wind or fuel cells.

If ThermoGen is drawing its heat from a fossil fuel generator — such as a manufacturer’s on-site turbine — it counts as Class III renewable technology, which produces less valuable credits.

There’s a significant number of on-site turbines at industrial and commercial facilities around the state — more than 1,000, by Rinebold’s count — but the Class III incentives make ThermoGen a tougher sell, even though Agrawal says the economics of the systems pencil out regardless.

Tapping CCAT’s technical expertise, R&D wants to convince lawmakers that its system should receive Class I status for using waste heat from fossil fuel generation sources.

“I’d like to see it classified as a Class I anywhere, anyhow, because I like the idea of being able to have any additional power used,” Rinebold said. “It won’t use additional fuel or produce any additional emissions.”

If R&D can convince policymakers, Rinebold estimates that it would mean a market opportunity of up to 50 megawatts for heat recovery systems like ThermoGen.

It’s not going to change the world, but it is significant, especially because organic rankine cycle, unlike wind and solar, is not dependent on weather conditions and can therefore generate power the vast majority of the time.

“It’s not something that will replace big generators, but what it could do is give everyone a 10% energy savings,” Rinebold said. “It would reduce damage to the environment and we’d get the jobs out of this.”

There are approximately 200 local suppliers involved in producing ThermoGen technology, according to Rajendran, so there would be an economic ripple effect if production ramps up.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which has sought to walk a fine line when it comes to incentivizing fossil fuel generation, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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