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To Cut Industrial Carbon Emissions, Things Have To Get Super Slippery

First, ketchup bottles. Now, power plants. Next, the world?

To Cut Industrial Carbon Emissions, Things Have To Get Super Slippery

Power plants are the biggest source of carbon emissions, so even relatively small bumps in their efficiency can have significant impacts in addressing climate change. Take, for instance, the industrial coating developed by Dropwise Technologies. It’s applied to one specific part of a plant. Yet it has the potential pollution-reducing benefits of thousands of solar panels and wind turbines.

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Most of the world’s electricity comes from coal and gas facilities that produce steam that turns turbines. When steam passes through a turbine, it’s captured in a water condenser, a multi-surface unit that cools the gas to a liquid. As that happens, it creates suction that pulls the steam through the turbines more quickly. Dropwise’s coating aims to reduce the amount of water on the condenser surface, so the suction effect is greatest.

The water-repellent substance could be useful for utilities as they comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s finalized Clean Power Plan, which calls on states to make big improvements in energy efficiency.

“There are a lot of ways for utilities to [reduce] their emissions,” says CEO Adam Paxson, “but most of them are net losses for the utilities. This is a huge efficiency upgrade that’s a net gain–they are actually making money.”

Well, that’s not precisely true, because nobody has retrofitted any condensers with DropWise product yet. But the startup has just partnered with Henkel, a major German corporation (and owner of the Loctite glue brand here), which should help it reach customers.

Paxson was part of the founding team at LiquidGlide, which creates incredibly slippery surfaces for the insides of ketchup and other bottles (so you’re not left with some useless glob at the bottom). But he left that startup to pursue other research and the latest idea, which he thinks can have greater social impact. If every power plant condenser got a water-repellent coating, it would reduce emissions than all the solar and wind farms out there combined, he claims.

DropWise says its process is cheaper and quicker than other power plant upgrades. It involves passing two gases into the condenser, which, under heat, react to leave a very thin coating on the inside surfaces. Paxson says controlling the temperature and pressure during the process can ensure nanometer-level accuracy.

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With the efficiency upgrades, utilities can make back their investment in two to three years, he says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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