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Article appeared in the Financial Times on 29 May 2016
It has been a long time since Scotland was known as a leader in steam technology, but a startup in East Kilbride reckons that should be about to change.
Buoyed by strong sales and a new round of investment that included BP and the Scottish government, Heliex Power says its system for capturing industrial waste energy heralds a “second golden age for Scottish steam”.
“The numbers that we were coming up with in market analysis were so large, in value and in quantity, that I had some difficulty believing them,” says Dan Wright, company founder and chief technology officer.
Heliex’s exuberance reflects growing international interest in new technologies aimed at tapping sources of power previously considered too technically difficult or too small to be commercially exploitable.
The trend is powered by engineering innovation and global pressure to raise energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In Heliex’s case, a new approach developed at London’s City University is used to tap the energy in relatively low temperature “wet” steam, a common byproduct of many industrial processes.
While turbine generators can efficiently generate electricity from high temperature “dry” steam, they cope badly with pressure fluctuations associated with wet steam and suffer serious erosion from the water droplets it contains.
Heliex uses instead a much more robust screw expander, a pair of rotating screws that transform the energy in the wet steam into movement that can drive a standard power generator or other machine. The company is not alone in seeking to use screw expanders to tap wet steam power.
China’s Kaishan Technologies markets a system it says can generate 30 per cent more power than a small turbine. Langson Energy of the US in April installed a 250kW “steam machine” at an ethanol plant in South Dakota.
But Heliex says it is well ahead of its competition. The company has installed 38 machines in the UK and overseas.
Revenues jumped to £2.7m in the year to March from £900,000 in 201415 and Chris Armitage, chief executive, says he expects them to double again this year and next.
It recently raised a total of £2.2m from existing shareholder BP Ventures, an arm of the international energy major, and a private equity fund owned by Irish utility ESB. Combined with a matching £2m investment from the stateowned Scottish Investment Bank, the round took to £16.4m the investment in the company, based in an East Kilbride technology park south of Glasgow, once the site of the UK’s National Engineering Laboratory.
The laboratory was where widely used “steam tables” for calculation of pressure, heat and volume were developed nearly half a century ago, itself an echo of the 18th and 19th century innovation of Scottish steam pioneers such as James Watt.
Mr Wright says the new investment will help Heliex market its system, shipped as a sel fcontained blue steel box that can be plugged into existing steam and electricity systems. In some cases it can take the place of existing equipment needed to reduce steam pressure for industrial processes, while helping to meet a factory’s electricity needs or feed power back to the grid.
A Heliex machine is already humming away happily at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, west of Glasgow, where steam from a new biomass boiler is used to generate 108kW of electricity before being fed into a district heating system.
Chris O’Reilly, a consultant involved in installing the system, says including the Heliex unit actually required a higher pressure boiler than originally planned, but that the change should pay for itself in three to five years.
The paperwork needed to secure renewable energy subsidies was more onerous than the “reasonably straightforward” inclusion of the Heliex generator, suggests Mr O’Reilly. “There’s a lot of forms to fill in,” he says.