Dalhousie Students Develop Chemical-Based Heating System

A space heater that works like a hand warmer. That’s the principle behind a new type of thermal energy storage being developed by a pair of graduate engineering students at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Louis Desgrosseilliers and Moe Kabbara recently formed NeoThermal Energy Storage, which is working on technology for use in home heating. Desgrosseilliers says chemical heat storage is nothing new; it’s used in hand warmers that contain a compound called sodium acetate trihydrate. When the hand warmer is activated, the clear liquid inside — also known as a salt hydrate, or hot ice — heats up as the contents turn into a crystal or solid. “We undertake a similar process, but we’re doing it in a more sophisticated and engineered system,” Desgrosseilliers said in a recent interview. Energy storage systems draw electricity from the grid during off-peak hours for use during high-demand periods, earning the customer a discount on the power bill. Conventional technology makes use of bricks and can be used to power various devices. The Dalhousie engineering spinoff aims to develop a unit that’s used as a secondary heating source. Desgrosseilliers, the company’s CEO, said he and Kabbara, chief communication officer of NeoTES, aren’t trying to replace brick-based technology. What they want to do is make thermal heat storage more widely available by developing a thermal unit that’s cheaper, more efficient and easier to use. “We are entering a new niche that we’ve identified that brick units are not well-suited for,” Desgrosseilliers said. Brick-based systems are heavier, consume more energy and must be installed by a contractor, he said. NeoTES wants to commercialize a unit that uses less energy and that the homeowner can simply plug into the wall, making the technology portable. “We’re able to do it because we’re developing a technology that can achieve similar heat-storage quantities but at much lower temperature because we use a chemical heat-storage material rather than just strictly heating up a material,” the CEO said. Desgrosseilliers, who hails from the Waterloo, Ont., area, has been working on the project for about five years as part of his doctoral studies. Kabbara, an international student from Lebanon, came on board in the last year. The pair recently set up the company and are in the process of applying for a patent for their technology. The Halifax startup received a boost last week when its project won a $50,000 prize in the Innovacorp Smart Energy Demo Challenge. Another fledgling venture, Wolfville’s Unified Software Technology, claimed a similar amount in the inaugural competition by Innovacorp, the province’s early-stage venture capital agency. NeoThermal Energy Storage will use the money to obtain space for a demonstration project at the Nova Scotia Community College Waterfront Campus. It will be partnered with Alain Joseph, a college research scientist. Desgrosseilliers said the test site will be set up in the coming weeks and be operational for several months. Some college students will also be involved in the project, he said. “We need to evaluate its actual performance in a near-field test environment so that we can understand the perimeters better and then refine our product.” The plan is to have a final prototype ready in two to three years, he said. Michael Dennis, Innovacorp’s clean technology investor manager, said the agency also provided $15,000 to Dalhousie last year to fund Desgrosseilliers’ research. “We’ve been working with Louis for awhile,” Dennis said. “We’ve provided funds through the university at one point for this project, and it’s now landed on a very specific market focus.”