My latest Clean Break column is about a Toronto-based company called inMotive that has developed a new type of transmission technology that can help everything from HVAC equipment to wind turbines operate more reliably and efficiently.
When Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla came up with the design of his alternating current induction motor — which truly revolutionized the way we thought about electricity — it is said he was walking in the park when a picture of the motor shot into his head like a flash of lightning.
Disruptive innovations are often associated with such flashes of brilliance. It happened this way to Anthony Wong, 38, who in 2000 was riding a streetcar in Toronto when he came up with the design for a new transmission technology, one that could make everything from fans and pumps to windmills and vehicles operate more efficiently and reliably.
An avid cyclist, Wong had for some time been thinking about how to make bicycle gear systems better.
As most cyclists know, when you want to shift to a higher or lower gear there is a mechanism that physically moves the bicycle chain left or right to a larger or smaller sprocket, which is the metal disc that grabs the chain with its teeth. During this transition from one sprocket to another there is a brief period when fewer teeth are engaging the chain. It is at this point of vulnerability that the chain can slip, lose tension, or completely fall off.
“I was thinking, how can we change gears without pushing the chain side to side? How can we keep the chain always in line with the sprockets?” Wong recalled. “Then it hit me, instead of pushing the chain side to side, why don’t we move the sprockets underneath the chain?”
In other words, cut up the toothed sprockets into smaller pieces and move individual pieces under the chain in a way that seamlessly changes the size of the sprocket. The sprocket, in essence, becomes a kind of puzzle with a wide range of pieces that allow it to morph from small to large, kind of like a kid’s Transformer toy. More importantly, the chain is always solidly engaged on the maximum number of sprocket teeth while carrying a load.
(Note to reader: It’s really something that has to be seen, so I encourage you to check out the demo video.
Now, if all of this seems terribly complicated, well, that’s because it is. Still, advancements around electronics, controllers and materials have made it possible to choreograph the movement of these sprocket pieces with high reliability and precision. It’s not easy — especially when attempted at high speeds — but it can be done.
Wong, in his late 20s and growing tired of his computer programming job, was drawn to the challenge. After a bit of soul-searching that included a motorcycle journey across the United States, he decided to dedicate himself to turning his invention – called a mechatronic variable speed drive—into a commercial product.
But he also knew he needed help, so in 2002 he recruited his friend Paul Bottero, a man with a history of building and running businesses. The two spent many evenings in Bottero’s loft scouring patent databases, and they soon realized they had more than just a potentially new type of gear system for bicycles.
“We believe we have the world’s most efficient and cost-effective variable speed device,” said Bottero.
Cars. Wind turbines. Fans. Pumps. The design had application for all sorts of industrial equipment that operate at different speeds. The most obvious market, at least to start, was heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). Consider that 45 per cent of the world’s electricity is used to operate electric motors, and nine per cent of that market – about $50 billion annually – relates to HVAC equipment.
Their first patent was filed in 2007. A year later they built their first prototype and formally established a company named Vicicog, which operates out of the MaRS Discovery District and last September renamed itself inMotive. So far the company has raised about $1 million in private financing and $1.4 million in government funding.
Investors have reason to take note. “We can get paybacks that are twice as good as our competition,” said Bottero.
He explained that inMotive’s devices are less expensive to manufacture and operate 5 per cent (at least) more efficiently than the best competing variable frequency drive on the market. When applied to motors that currently don’t operate at variable speed, energy savings can be as much as 70 per cent.
The company’s mechatronic device also doesn’t create the kind of electronic noise normally associated with variable frequency drives. Electronic noise, often referred to as harmonics, can damage sensitive equipment found in places such as hospitals, data centres and airports. Harmonics can be controlled, but that adds extra layers of cost.
“All along the way engineers have told us this isn’t going to work, that we’ll never move the sprocket segments fast enough,” said Wong.
So far, he’s proved them wrong.
As for building a better bicycle gear system, “we still plan to do it,” he said.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.