Israeli startups Solaris Synergy and Leviathan Energy cleaned up at the Israel national Cleantech Open IDEAS competition. Held in November at Tel Aviv University’s Akirov Institute for Business and Environment, the event was a feature of Global Entrepreneurship Week.
Solaris took first prize and Leviathan captured both second and third place for its innovations in solar and wind energy, respectively. Solaris went on to rank fourth in a field of national winners from 20 countries at Cleantech Open IDEAS, an international competition intended as a "launching pad" for novel approaches to worldwide energy, environmental and economic challenges.
In its quest to make solar energy practical and affordable, the Solaris system overcomes two major hurdles: The large tracts of land needed for solar farms and the expense of the silicon material that converts light to electricity.
Solaris’ Floating Concentrating Photovoltaic (F-CPV) system sits on water rather than on land. "There is a huge amount of inland water in the world, and many confined bodies of water are located in areas with excellent solar insulation," says Fisher. The system works best in areas of strong sunlight, such as Africa, Asia, Australia, Mediterranean countries and South, Central and southern North America.
Constructed of lightweight plastic and fiberglass, the Lego-like modules fit together in grids configured to fit the shape of the host body of water – be it fresh-, salt- or wastewater. This solar-on-water platform doubles as a breathable reservoir cover that significantly reduces evaporation and eliminates harmful organic and algae growth. Each grid can generate 200 kilowatts of power.
The modules are faced with a curved mirrored film that clusters the sunlight into a thin line. Since only that five percent of the surface needs a silicon cover, Solaris uses relatively little of the costly material, explains co-founder and CEO Yossi Fisher. This has an added environmental benefit since silicon production releases contaminants into the air.
Because there is no friction between the grids and the water, it only takes one small engine to slowly rotate the grids to keep the light focused on the line of silicon material.
Showing a visitor the prototype on the roof of Solaris headquarters at Har Hotzvim Industrial Park in Jerusalem, Fisher explains that the rotation is based on a sophisticated sun-tracking algorithm programmed into a remote controller.
The controller also moderates the direction of the rotation and the speed of the engine. A central server receives data over a cellular line from the controller via an antenna, allowing the technical crew to keep a watchful eye on how the system is functioning.
Since the mirrors generate a lot of heat, and silicon converts light into energy more efficiently at cooler temperatures, Solaris developed a patented technology that uses the water underneath the grids to keep the silicon cooler than on conventional solar panels.
"We have the only cold silicon in the world and we are generating energy more than 20% more efficiently because of this," Fisher says.
The two-year-old company has a working prototype and is due to install a pilot project in 2011 under the auspices of Mekorot, Israel’s water authority. Floating Solaris grids on top of Israel’s more than 400 recycled wastewater reservoirs would enable the country to realize its goal of generating 10-20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, Fisher says.
A second pilot installation is planned at a reservoir near Marseilles in cooperation with France’s electric company, partially funded by the joint Israel-European R&D project Eureka.
Fisher hopes to be bought out eventually by a major energy firm. By definition, that will mean a company outside Israel. "In Israel, we have good industrial infrastructure, brilliant people and a government that supports businesses in the R&D stages," he says. "But when you pass the R&D phase you must pair with a corporate giant to be successful, and unfortunately there are not many such giants in Israel."
"Velocity is where the money is in terms of wind," says Dr. Daniel Farb, who accepted the prizes for both second and third place on behalf of Leviathan Energy. "If wind going one meter per second can power one light bulb, then wind going two meters per second can power eight light bulbs."
Farb utilizes principles from computational fluid dynamics to fashion a large Wind Energizer – an airfoil structure directing wind flow to the critical area of large wind turbine blades, increasing the velocity of the wind at the point at which it hits the blades. The result is a boost in output of 20 to 40%.
"There is no faster way in the world to increase the supply of renewable energy than to add [the Wind Energizer] to the 200,000 turbines already connected to the grid," he told the scientists, academicians and venture capitalists during his Cleantech IDEAS presentation.
The second winning project is the Wind Tulip, a small vertically rotating wind turbine for rooftop use that is quieter and more efficient than rooftop turbines currently in use. "Integration of power from the rooftops of buildings is a major need in the world as a renewable energy with zero footprint on the earth," he says. The Wind Tulip is aesthetically pleasing and presents no danger to people or birds.
Both products will be cost-effective and simple to install, he says, based on studies done on prototypes at the company’s demonstration wind farm at Rotem Industrial Park in Dimona. Now the challenge is to find funding to prove their effectiveness on a larger scale and commercialize them for the greater market.
Farb estimates that Leviathan needs about $3.5 million to go into mass production for the Wind Tulip, and about $1 million to implement and certify the Wind Energizer on a large scale. Inquiries have come from countries including Italy and Chile. Another company in the Leviathan group holds the patent for a hydroelectric turbine that operates in piping systems.
Doing business in Israel gives this recent immigrant from Los Angeles access to "lots of different people and skill sets," says Farb.
"It’s amazing how you can sit in Israel and do business development because people come from all over the world to find solutions to their problems here. I never would have guessed this until I moved here, but almost every week another delegation from another country is here looking for innovations in clean technology, high-tech and other scientific areas."
On the down side, he adds, "We don’t have a big home market, we have a lot of bureaucracy, and government financing isn’t as generous as in other countries. The US gives huge grants that cover 100% of expenses. There is less quantitatively available here in terms of capital."
The Open IDEAS competition gives Leviathan "more recognition and validity in terms of potential investors," says Farb, who recently met with investors at the Clean Green conference in Paris. Leviathan’s hydroelectric has won a Eureka grant, which lends it status as of one of the top technologies in Europe. "The more third-party validation you have, the more people respect what you are doing."
The men behind the winning ideas
Both Fisher and Farb started their present companies after years of experience in previous careers. Both are observant Jews who take pride in representing Israel on the international innovation scene.
The Israeli-born Fisher brought 25 years of start-up management experience to Solaris Synergy. A co-holder of 10 patents in the area of process control, Fisher earned a bachelor’s degree in electro-optics from the Jerusalem College of Technology and a master’s degree in applied physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He began his career as an electro-optics specialist at Intel and went on to serve as senior process engineer at Intel sites in Jerusalem and Santa Clara, Calif.
Before Solaris, Fisher founded several startups, most notably Eventus Industries, a developer of data analytic and process control software solutions for diverse industries, and InSyst, a developer of advanced process control software solutions primarily for the semiconductor industry. He also worked for four years as process engineering manager at South Africa Micro Electronics Systems in Pretoria.
Fisher co-founded Solaris in 2008 with chief technical officer Dr. Yuri Kokotov and chief scientist Dr. Michael Reyz, both of whom hold advanced degrees from St. Petersburg State Institute of Technology and St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University. The company was established with $300,000 in private angel investments and two R&D grants from Israel’s National Infrastructures Ministry.
Farb was a practicing ophthalmologist before moving to Israel in 2005. An author and inventor with several medical device patents to his credit and CEO of a small software company working with the pharmaceutical industry, he began working as a patent writer. Then, a visit to the Science Park at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute led to a "eureka" moment.
"I looked at their wave pool and it was behaving differently than the way they said it was supposed to, and that started me thinking about wave energy," he recalls. "I realized how I could get energy from waves by changing the shape of the waves to get the most bang for the buck in a way nobody else was doing, and I patented that idea and began to apply the principles to water and wind."
Leviathan Energy’s first company was formed in 2006 with five handpicked experts of diverse backgrounds. "Not all of my ideas are in clean tech, but those are of the most enduring value as the world is in a tough position regarding energy," Farb says. "I’m a person who loves to create and think. In Israel, it’s OK to be pioneering and think differently. That’s one of the things I love about living here."
By I.C. Meyer, www.mfa.gov.il