Interview With Solarflux CEO & CTO On Solving The Problem Of Lack Of Fuels In Rural Areas With Solar

A few days ago I got to sit down with Solarflux CEO Naoise Irwin and CTO John Fangman, who is also the inventor of Solarflux’s FOCUS parabolic dish concentrator, which converts 72% of solar energy into usable heat. The company also just announced a new tool called CASPER.

Diving into the interview, John and Naoise shared some background information on the technology and what inspired them to create it. Naoise explained that an MIT physicist from India approached him, John, and their other co-founder Professor Sudhakar Neti, chief technical advisor for Solarflux. The woman wanted help in creating some kind of solution for those living in rural areas in India as well as around the world who don’t have access to basic fuels for cooking and boiling water.

“They rely on woods that they harvest locally, biomass, cow dung in many cases, that they collect. It takes a lot of time to go out and harvest all of this fuel. And then they burn that fuel in their homes or by their homes. They breathe it and it causes respiratory problems. It’s fairly well documented that it causes major problems in terms of health and the environment. The local environment is getting deforested which is also a negative in terms of the climate.”

Naoise noted that in these rural areas where people don’t have access to fuels, there’s often abundant sunshine.

“Is there a solution out there that could help provide a ready source of fuel using just the available sunlight? This woman approached John and Sudhakar and the project kicked off to try to figure out what would be the best possible solution.”

He told me that over the past couple of years, they looked at a lot of research and criteria, which included looking at technologies that could be manufactured locally in the countries where the affected people are living. This would help create jobs in those countries. They wanted to focus on solutions that could be created using the current technologies available in the countries affected while also getting them installed and keeping them maintained with low cost and not too much labor.

“All of these criteria came together and the solution that seemed to be the best fit is our product today — the FOCUS, which is made from aluminum and steel. It can be relatively quickly installed and is formed with metal — a technology that exists in many countries — stamping of metals, casting.

“It was then realized that in order to really get this technology into the hands of the people who it was really intended for, the best path was to commercialize it. That way you can drive up the volume, drive down the cost, and make it accessible to a wider audience. That is the path we are currently on, is to try to commercialize the technology. There’s been a lot of development that’s gone into it. We have a test device and have gotten good performance.”

Naoise pointed out that energy consumption in the world will grow significantly in the future — 50% from today’s level was his forecast.

“We already have a big problem with carbon emissions and we really need a lot of sustainable solutions. If we look at the energy that’s consumed, about half of the energy that’s consumed today in the world is consumed as heat. What are the sustainable solutions for heat consumption? There are really not that many great solutions out there. So this is where we think there’s a huge opportunity to provide a great solution with FOCUS.”

He explained that looking at the statistics — growing heat consumption — what is needed is a sustainable solar solution that can help companies reduce their carbon emissions without sacrificing energy. Other uses for the technology include industrial processes, desalination — a critical necessity for areas that have mostly saltwater in abundance and/or need ways to clean the water they use.

“We think there’s a huge opportunity for the technology to play a really valuable role. Existing solutions are out there and the main one is parabolic troughs. That would be a system you could deploy locally to provide heat — solar-generated heat. That has a lot of drawbacks compared to our product. It’s less efficient, more costly to install, and takes up a lot more space.”

John Fangman, who invented the FOCUS, added, “Imagine you have a dairy factory. Dairy takes in milk from cows, pasteurizes the milk to kill various pathogens so you don’t get ill. Then it bottles the milk.

“To sterilize it, you need to heat up the milk, so you’re going to be burning natural gas in a boiler to provide the steam to pasteurize the milk. Instead of using natural gas, you could use solar heat from our technology. Or, either you migrate some percentage of your natural gas consumption over to solar-based heat.

“What our system does is that it tracks the sun. There’s a fluid that circulates through the receiver and all that energy gets absorbed into the fluid and the heat gets transferred into the system.”

John explained that they have a dish being used to pasteurize milk and it was working very well until the area was hit with a 160 mile per hour typhoon — which is similar to a category 5 hurricane. Naoise explained that the dish is engineered to be fairly wind resistant but these types of storms wreak havoc even on the best technology. John pointed out that at those wind speeds, there are more things to worry about than a solar dish — entire houses are blown away.

Future Plans

Naoise told me that they have been in talks with a few other companies about deploying a FOCUS parabolic dish. A large bottling company, a couple of food processing companies, and few others in various countries are interested in the product.

“Industrial process heat is probably our number one target market. You can just put these dishes in alongside a factory and have a heat exchanger that transfers the heat into their existing system. It’s fairly easy to seamlessly install and integrate with a plant. There’s a lot of other applications that are really cool but require extra equipment. For example, desalination needs some further development.”

I asked him how far along he was in that and he told me that they have a concept for a system that can be powered by solar thermal. It’s cost efficient and will consume thermal energy. John noted that proof of concept has been completed, and Naoise pointed out that this wasn’t new tech.

“There are people who have developed systems like this, so we’re looking into either using a version with their systems or building one of our own.

“There’s a lot of places in the world that have very, very big needs in terms of clean water. Israel relies heavily on desalinated water.”

This isn’t all we talked about. There will be a part two. Stay tuned.


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