Regulars and Shorts

Bright Ideas Reap Rewards

By Katherine Pioli

Local inventors accept the Bright Skies, Clean Air challenge.

Joel Ewell is a Salt Lake native, and a tinkerer, one with an electric engineering background to be precise. His combination of mechanical know-how and decades of breathing bad air is what generated the particular spark of ingenuity that created Idle Free Heat of which Ewell is inventor, engineer and even installation mechanic.

Consider for a moment the Idle Free campaign of the last few years. Sure, it’s taken off with a few parents, those who wait in the pickup line at school confronted by Turn the Key Be Idle Free signs. But how many more cars have we encountered in parking lots, in driveways on cold mornings, just idling away as if the inversion layer never existed? Joel Ewell sees the limited success of the Idle Free campaign. And he gets it. We want to be good, but in winter we also want to stay warm. The system he’s built finally allows for both.

Here’s how it works: After about 15 minutes of driving, around the time heat finally starts coming out of the vents, that huge block of steel that is the engine block is fully heated. While the vehicle is in motion, coolant fluid is running across that engine block keeping it from burning up. That hot coolant is used to heat the air that heats the vehicle. But once the car is turned off (remember, idle free!), the coolant no longer circulates and heat isn’t vented into the car. Ewell’s system overrides this and continues to draw coolant away from the engine block, providing heat for the cab, even without the engine on, for up to about an hour.

Ewell was once himself a serial car idler. “Even though I hated wasting fuel, I would pull up somewhere, let the fans blow until the heat ran out and then start the engine again for a few minutes,” say Ewell, who admits that the technique wasn’t the best, even for his car. After blowing numerous fuses and some fan motors due to his hot air habit, he thought, “I can do better than this.”

In the winter of 2014, during a plane ride across the country to pick up, ironically, a car, Ewell began sketching his idea. By the following year he had a working prototype installed on his wife’s car. It worked well, but when he tried finding a larger audience for his invention, the project stalled. “I approached all the school districts last year and never got a response,” recalls Ewell.

Since winning first place at the UCAIR contest, however, Idle Free Heat has received some of the attention it deserves, even finding its way onto a few school buses.

In February, Ewell personally installed Idle Free Heat systems on two Granite School District buses. It’s a pilot program that, if it works, Ewell hopes will spread to every school bus across the state of Utah because, as Ewell explains, “Schools are at the forefront of the idle free campaign.”

And even though it wasn’t his initial intention, the new technology might even save school districts money. By his calculations, the fuel wasted by idling adds up to about $40,000 to $50,000 a year for the state, money that could be put to better use.

“I tell my kids that some day every school bus will have Idle Free Heat. I’m hoping that in two years every school district in the state will have their fleets converted,” says Ewell. He’s also working on a DIY kit for the general public and envisions someday running a local manufacturing facility to make them.

“I wouldn’t be at this point without winning the UCAIR competition,” says Ewell. “It was a ground level system before, friends talking about it to other friends. The competition gave me money to focus on the project and got me in touch with really good people.”

For now, says Ewell, Idle Free Heat is staying local. “My focus,” he says, “is Utah.”

Runner-Up: Nikola Motor Company, CEO Trevor Milton

Trevor Milton is a young man, only 34 years old, with the strong build of someone who might be more used to throwing hay bales than inventing motor technology, but Milton is an ideas man and his greatest achievement, as entrepreneur and CEO of the Nikola Motor Company, was unveiled last December. That achievement is the Nikola One, the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell electric semi-truck.

Before the design and engineering team was assembled to create a prototype for the Nikola One, and well before Milton first began working through design concepts at home, the dream started with trains. Milton, whose father was a railroad man, first encountered electric power systems in locomotives. In the railroad industry, hybrid transportation technology actually goes all the way back to 1889 when William H. Patton of Pullman, Illinois filed a patent for a new kind of engine, one that used a gasoline engine to drive a generator that charged a battery cell that powered a locomotive. Modern versions of this technology are in use today around the world, in Czechoslovakia, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom. Since the early 2000s, rail companies in Canada and the United States have experimented with short distance, mostly commuter trains powered with hybrid engines; but the GG20B, a diesel hybrid locomotive developed in 2004 by Railpower Technologies, has also been successful in long-distance applications. If it works for trains, thought Milton, why not for trucks?

At first glance the cab of the Nikola One semi-truck looks like a futuristic space craft with a sleek aerodynamic nose and seamless, smooth steel sides. Spacecraft it is not, designed as all semis are to roll the long asphalt highways from coast to coast, but futuristic it is. This new zero-emission vehicle (water is the only byproduct of hydrogen-fuel) is built to transport thousands of pounds of freight across the country. With that in mind, Nikola One has overcome probably the biggest hurdle for electric vehicles, the range it can cover between charges.

According to the company, Nikola trucks can cover a surprising 800-1,200 miles on a single charge with the help of a battery pack that weighs about 4,000 pounds. But the vehicles are surprisingly light, mainly a result of not having to carry tanks of diesel, which helps them perform even more efficiently on the road.

The 18-wheel Nikola One has already attracted some interest and some skepticism. Jim Mele, editor-in-chief at Fleet Owner magazine, says that Nikola’s future looks bright, but only if they can sell enough trucks. Truckers, he adds, aren’t usually big risk takers.
Such doubts seem to be put to rest by the solid number of pre-orders for the Nikola One. In the first month that Nikola Motor Company began offering the vehicle, 7,000 trucks were reserved. These orders likely won’t drive off an assembly line and onto the street until 2019. Over the next five years Fitzgerald Glider Kits, an automotive parts maker in Tennessee will be assembling the trucks, making them not only zero-emissions but also American-made.

Drivers willing to bet their money on these new trucks are likely looking at a number of factors. The Nikola One has 1,000 horse power. That’s twice the power of an average diesel truck. The new trucks have better speed on the road (65mph uphill versus average diesel speeds of 20-40mph). They can accelerate in half the time it takes for a diesel engine. And the company claims that with fuel savings (Nikola One gets 13-15 mpg versus the average diesel 7.5 mpg) and fewer maintenance needs, operating costs will be cut in half.

UCAIR is interested in Nikola One for its environmental benefits. By achieving zero-emissions it’s apparent that the vehicle’s creators have high standards regarding pollution control. That’s even more obvious when you consider that the trucks will actually exceed all greenhouse mandates from the EPA.

Furthermore, Nikola Motor Company’s plans for their new semi could create important alternative-transportation infrastructure across the country. Nikola hopes to start building a network of hydrogen-fueling stations in 2018. Through the process of electrolysis, each station would have its own solar farm to power clean, on-site manufacturing of hydrogen fuel.

Runner-Up: ShareLift App, Aidan Weltner and Samuel Kern

Sitting in his dorm room on a snowy winter weekend, Aidan Weltner found himself in the unenviable position of being stuck on campus with his ski pass and no way to get up to the hill. “I was freshman,” recalls Weltner a student at Montana State University in Bozeman. “I knew there were upper classmen with room in their cars heading out to ski and underclassmen like myself who didn’t have any transportation.”

So, as one would expect from a young person of this digital age, Weltner decided that technology was his solution, and the app ShareLift was born.Weltner’s creative partner Samuel Kern describes it as “Uber meets couch surfing for skiers.” Download the app and you can find a list of other users who have logged on offering rides. If a driver matches your desired destination and departure time, you can request a lift. If you’re uncomfortable taking rides from strangers, you can link your profile to a social media account like Facebook and see if any of your friends, or friends of friends, are offering rides.

“A number of companies today are putting themselves in the ride share space but we intend to do true ridesharing,” says Weltner. “It’s less of a taxi service and more of a carpooling solution. Something that can be scaled to all sorts of outdoor sports travel.”

Most people who have thumbed a ride before, especially one for any sort of distance, probably know that it’s common courtesy to offer up some gas money. ShareLift will offer recommendations on a fair payment depending on time and distance traveled and passengers can opt to settle money exchanges in cash or through secured methods like Venmo or PayPal.

ShareLift, released December 2016 for Android and iOS phones, is still in developmental stages, and is currently serving only Bozeman and Salt Lake City—two places Weltner calls diehard ski towns. And while the kinks are being worked out, as the ShareLift team collects data and responds to feedback, the importance of this new tool is taking on new meaning for Weltner and his team.

“We are focusing more now on the environmental aspect of Sharelift,” he says. “Protecting the environment and skiing are not mutually exclusive goals, they can be one and the same. Taking more cars off the road means fewer greenhouse emissions.”

ShareLift is spreading the word through partnerships with the Office of Sustainability at the University of Utah and Protect Our Winters. But what might really help them take off in Salt Lake is long traffic lines and crowded parking lots—two problems plaguing the canyons this winter. And if ridesharing is a plus for skiers, it will also be beneficial for resorts, which undoubtedly want to find ways to pack more skiers onto their slopes. Someday, in a perfect world, ShareLift riders could score VIP resort parking.

Honorable mentions

Ecotrike16 —

You may have seen the creations of Dr. Andy Schoenberg, inventor and developer of the Ecotrike, displayed in the driveway of his residence on Millcreek Canyon Road. These little enclosed bumpercar-looking curiosities are hard to miss. They’re called the Ecotrike (Sunzeecar, LLC) and their strangeness isn’t their only appeal, they’re also one man’s answer to Salt Lake’s air pollution problem. The Trike is literally a scooter seat set in a light aluminum frame and encased in polycarbonate (it looks a lot like plexiglass) attached to a 5 kWHr lithium ferric phosphate battery and a 3,000-watt motor. The little thing can actually be registered as a street-legal electric motorcyle—it has LED headlights, brakes and turn signals—but the selling point for clean air buffs is the roof of the vehicle: a solar panel that provides the only fuel this trike will ever need to get zipping along the street at upwards of 50 mph (on cloudy days you can go ahead and plug in the battery). Dr. Schoenberg hopes to make the Ecotrike commercially available—with sufficient demand and rate of production he estimates the vehicle’s cost at around $7,000—and is in the market for investors.

Echelon Engine —

An estimated 70% of the total energy produced in an internal combustion engine is lost to heat. But it can also be captured and used. The Echelon team—J. Paul Ogden (president and CEO), Douglass Furr, PhD (VP engineering and founder) and Adam Goodwin, (chief mechanic)—tested their first prototypes in 2010 and received a patent for their invention in 2013. They’ve since demonstrated their technology around the world. According to the company’s website, it’s designed to work “effectively in a gasoline fueled engine” and “presents a huge advantage for applications in small aircraft and all marine uses.” No news on when the technology will be available.

Mobilight Hybrid Light Tower —

You’ve likely seen light towers like these before, the kind attached to a large, rumbling generator with enormous, extremely bright bulbs used at nightime highway construction sites, airports, stadiums, military bases and oil drilling refineries. And it’s no big surprise that their oversized generators chomp through fossil fuel like there’s no tomorrow—except for the Mobilight Hybrid Light Tower.

Mobilight International, manufacturer of light towers for over 20 years, has been experimenting with 100% solar-powered light and communications towers for most of that time. They have come up with a hybrid model that uses both solar and diesel power generation. The solar panel on these new designs charges the battery which powers the lights. If for some reason the charge drops too much, the generator is engaged and runs only as long as it takes to recharge the batteries. According to information from UCAIR, these new light towers “reduce emissions and fuel consumption by 83% compared to straight diesel generator lighting towers.”

GasPro —

Founders Jason Miller and Dr. Jaron Hansen with Lee Hansen and their Biogas Conditioning System technology, created under the company AD Tec, have been around the block (they incorporated in 2009 and completed their first installation at an Ogden dairy in 2010). What exactly they do is more than a little complicated. UCAIR probably puts it into layman’s terms the best, describing the invention as “a system that filters hydrogen sulfide and siloxane contaminants from by-product bio-methane gas at county sewage plants. When the gas is then burned, fewer PM2.5 particulates are spread into the air which may improve air quality by 5% along the Wasatch Front.” We look forward to more of these being implemented around the valley, and hopefully soon.

This article was originally published on March 1, 2017.