Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Microstaq's tiny valves mean big energy saving


Making air conditioners more energy efficient through the use of semiconductor-based valves would not only reduce the average air conditioning bill by some 20 to 30 percent, but would save the equivalent of 1.2 billion barrels of oil annually. That’s according to the Microstaq team, which are showing off their tiny valves at the Demo conference this week. And like the new “Harry Potter” movie, such energy-saving air conditioners will hit the market in the summer of next year.

Microstaq is a manufacturer of microelectromechanical machines (MEMS), silicon-based chips that combine that digital information with the analog world (such as the microphone inside your cell phone that translate your voice into digital signals for wireless networks). The Microstaq MEM is a tiny, computer-controlled valve that aims to replace the larger and more expensive expansion valves used in air conditioning and refrigeration (shown at left). It’s more accurate than non-electrical valves and can keep the temperature better regulated, leading to the efficiencies.

Microstaq has attached the chip to a larger casing, so the MEM is easy to drop into place without re-engineering the entire air conditioning unit (shown at bottom). The 8-year-old company, which to date has raised $12.5 million, says it has signed deals with three of the top five U.S. air conditioning makers but cannot name them. It also plans to go after the industrial refrigeration market. Sandeep Kumar, Microstaq’s CEO, says the cost of the chip will be equivalent to the cost of the valves already in use today, which are about $15.

He doesn’t expect to see these valves in residential refrigeration systems anytime soon, because they are currently cooled with capillary tubes that cost about $3 — making the chip-based solution way more expensive — unless a government mandate changes things.

In the meantime, the firm is also working to put its valves inside automobile transmissions in a bid to improve fuel efficiency and lower the costs of providing a smooth-shifting manual transmission. The medical diagnostics market can also use the devices to reduce the size and cost of machines that test blood. Other uses, such as those that involve insertion in the body, are possible as well, but would require FDA approval.

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