The Hub Lab Seeks Revolutionary New Energy Science
Posted Feb 21 2009 9:48pm
Last Spring, our friend and colleague Dr. Ed Beardsworth undertook a new assignment as the Technology Director of the Hub Lab (in parallel with his continuing role at Jane Capital). Given the Hub Lab's mission, and Ed's role in the cleantech industry as the consummate technology scout since the mid 1990s before cleantech was cleantech, it's probably a perfect fit. I sat down with Ed recently to get the background and an update about "Hub Lab". And had a chance to wrap up our discussion into a brief interview.
Ed, Can you share some of your background? You've probably seen as much of the cleantech sector as anyone.
I have a PhD in physics from Rutgers and started at Brookhaven National Labs, eventually moving into energy systems modeling. I have consulted for Nth Power, Jane Capital, and the Cleantech Group, among others. For about 10 years I ran a multi-client energy technology study reporting on new technologies at universities, national labs and later venture backed startups. For that UFTO study (which is about 600 research notes now available on Cleantech.org), I had a who's who of the top 20 or 30 US and global utilities as clients mainly in their R&D and venture capital groups. Before that I spent a number of years at EPRI in a variety of roles.
What is the Hub Lab all about?
Hub Lab's express purpose is to find and support very early stage - revolutionary - energy science and technology that has the potential to make a huge game-changing difference. It is motivated by a strong belief that the planet is headed for serious trouble, and that we need to look for dramatic and wholesale changes in ways to meet rapidly growing worldwide demand for energy and resources.
How revolutionary is revolutionary?
We mean really revolutionary. We have a very specific focus to find and support true breakthroughs. The great preponderance of investment and RD&D addresses incremental or evolutionary innovation. We look for opportunities to improve the chances of finding "new physics". We sometimes talk about looking for "the next nuclear". Imagine, in the year 1900, someone talking about a nuclear power plant. We haven't reached the "end of physics", so it's practically a given that there are big new things around the corner, whether it's in 5 years or 50. Hub Lab simply wants to speed up the search. And we're comfortable looking outside currently accepted thinking in science and engineering.
There can't be much hope of a return on investment, at least in a traditional sense. What's the thinking?
Hub Lab's backers have extensive holdings in energy and cleantech through standard investment vehicles. Hub Lab is a special set-aside, not focused on financial return, but on trying to make a difference. We look for situations where some initial funding has the potential to advance work on a new idea to a point where a better decision can be made about further support. The only strings attached to our initial grants are there to give us a fair shot at participating in those later stages if we want to.
So who exactly is the funding behind Hub Lab, and what sizes of investments are you making?
We're discreet about identifying Hub Lab's backers until we start the conversation with someone we'd consider funding. It's a high net worth /family office in Asia. Our approach is to start with a small R&D grant. This gives us a chance to get to know our grantee, and for them to make some technical progress.
What areas are you considering, or not considering?
As long as an idea addresses primary, base-load, power or electricity generation, we're ready to listen. We're open to cold fusion, 'over-unity' devices, vacuum or zero-point energy --- I can see your eyes rolling -- but we did say "new physics". I should clarify that the term 'over-unity' is a misnomer. Any extra energy has to come from somewhere, but it may be from a process we weren't previously aware of or taking into account.
A bit less far out, we also look at what we're calling "warm" fusion. Note that there are already two venture backed companies in that category. The problem here is that the hot fusion establishment has been far too good at blocking competition for research funding. But I digress.
OK, I'll bite - digress.
Well, we could have a whole separate discussion about fusion. "Warm" fusion is reasonably respectable in scientific circles but it just hasn't been able to get support. As for cold fusion, just about everyone snickers at the mention of it, but they shouldn't. Something very real is going on, even though is still unexplained and still hard to replicate. It should've gotten a much better reception from the scientific and government community than it did, and we'll see who has the last word. Watch for some new developments very soon.
What other areas are fair game for Hub Lab?
A bit closer to the ground, we like storage, but it has to be "something completely different", where the cost and performance can leapfrog existing or near term technology. Likewise, any kind of solid state heat to power technology, but again, it would have to promise of an order of magnitude improvement over existing thermoelectric devices.
I understand you've also identified areas that aren't of interest?
We're leaving all things biological (biomass, biofuels, etc.) to others. Also solar and wind -- the intermittency issue-- unless it's an amazing breakthrough. Most things fossil are not for us, nor CO2 separation, unless it ends up other than as a gas to be piped underground.
What kind of deal flow are you seeing?
It's been amazing. Just by putting out the word and networking quietly with the research and cleantech investor community, we're seeing a great many opportunities. We ask VCs to send us those deals they wish they could pursue but can't. Our quick introduction often includes the comment that we're one group you can talk to about your perpetual motion story. ("We will listen!") At the same time, there's a sizable fringe population of folks with grandiose ideas, visions and paranoid delusions, and we try to avoid them by keeping a low profile (no web presence, for example). Separating wheat from chaff is the main challenge. We are finding serious established scientists who are pushing the boundaries--those are our best candidates. We'd also like to broaden our reach around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe.
You've funded several deals already. What can you tell us about them?
Our first one is a challenge to the second law of thermodynamics. It turns out, that while no violations have ever been observed (such claims thus far aren't generally accepted), the second law is a bit murky theoretically, and one can imagine situations where it might not hold. Our scientists think they may be able to demonstrate the harvesting of useful work from ambient heat, but without a temperature difference. An experimental observation like that would be truly revolutionary.
Another project takes as a starting point the well established concepts of the energy in the vacuum, aka zero point energy, and the Casimir effect. An alternative formulation of quantum mechanics predicts that an atom placed in a nano-cavity will have its atomic properties altered, which further suggests a possible way to harvest zero point energy.
We can't say much about two more projects. They both are completely different ways to do solar power conversion -- with no semiconductors.
Are you having fun yet?
Nobody should be allowed to have this much fun, but I'm OK with it.