Efficiency Entrepreneurs Approaching Max Tech

February 4th 2014
Lin Xia from UC Irvine

Smarter power plugs and appliances that can turn electronics on and off according to a homeowner's behavior rather than a fixed schedule. A water heater that delivers water to the different fixtures in the house at temperatures customized for the particular water use. A smarter-than-ever thermostat that knows how to set different temperatures for different rooms in a house. High-pressure water jets that can cut magnetic metal to construct high-precision, high-efficiency motors at lower cost. These are just some of the energy efficiency technologies and prototypes that are being developed and tested as part of the 2013-2014 Max Tech and Beyond Design Competition. The annual competition, which is run by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) with funding from the Department of Energy's (DOE) Building Technologies Office, challenges college students to design ultra-low-energy-use appliances and supports the education of the next generation of U.S. clean energy engineers.

Twelve teams from U.S. colleges and universities across the country are currently competing to build and test the most energy-saving prototype. Teams include a faculty lead and at least three students-undergraduate, graduate, or a mix. According to Berkeley Lab's Robert Van Buskirk, who mentors the teams: "As a Department of Energy National Research Laboratory, Berkeley Lab helps the university teams understand the importance of their work as an element of a national technology innovation strategy. We do this by helping them understand the techno-economic yardsticks by which their prototypes may be judged." Berkeley Lab staff discuss with each team their understanding of the "next best alternative" to their technology ideas and how they could beat the competition-by devising a more energy-efficient technology, a more cost-effective one, one that brings greater value to consumers, or some combination of all three.

"The Max Tech and Beyond Project also facilitates the market entry of successful prototypes developed by the teams through its Bridge to Market Program, a collaboration with UC Davis Entrepreneurship Academy," says LBNL's Karina Garbesi, Principal Investigator of the Max Tech and Beyond Project. Last year three of the competition's successful teams—from the University of Maryland (UMD), Ohio State University (OSU), and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)—attended the academy. The academy helps faculty and students understand the business startup process and provides a network to support successful business development.

Zeeshan Mohammad, a UNLV team member in 2012-2013 who attended the UC Davis Entrepreneurship Academy last September, decided to re-enter the competition this year both because of his belief in the competition and how much fun the first year was. "I enjoyed working with a group of people who were as dedicated as myself to succeeding and working hard," says Mohammad. He believes that his work on such a practical, real-life project has boosted his career prospects-and he hopes to see the voltage controller he helped prototype installed in a commercial appliance.

The Max Tech Project is also raising the profile of successful teams and prototypes by showcasing them at DOE's Solar Decathlon Expo. Two Max Tech teams exhibited in October 2013. The UMD team demonstrated their ultra-efficient two-stage heat pump clothes dryer, which won them first place in last year's Max Tech Competition. The runner-up team from OSU presented their hybrid air/water conditioner, which marries a heat pump to deliver air conditioning with a component that recovers waste heat from the air conditioning cycle to heat water.

DOE is looking forward to this year's teams presenting the results of their prototype development and testing in the spring, with the winners announced in late summer, after final reports are submitted. The competition is already fierce—much fiercer than the Broncos-Seahawks rivalry—so stay tuned! In the meantime, student teams from colleges and universities across the country are strongly encouraged to gear up for the Max Tech Competition for the 2014-2015 academic year by responding to the upcoming request for proposals, which will be available later in February.