When it comes to generating electricity, things have pretty much stayed the same way since the 19th century. Sure, we now have coal, gas and even nuclear powered electricity generators, not to mention a wealth of renewable energy sources, but the principles have remained the same for centuries.

Almost all of our electrical power is produced by turbines, which in turn drive a generator. The turbines themselves can be powered by any number of sources, such as wind, water, steam, or burning gas. Most of our electricity is delivered by ‘heat engines’, which convert thermal energy into mechanical energy. For example, in most major power plants, coal (or other fossil fuels) are burned to boil water. This then produces steam which powers the turbines and drives the generator, giving us electricity.

Two innovators from the Seattle-area are hoping to turn 100 years of tradition on its head, however, revolutionising the way the world produces energy. Tony Pan and Max Mankin are the co-founders of Modern Electron, a start-up dedicated to producing affordable and reliable electricity for everyone.

Shunning the conventional heat-to-mechanical-to-electrical-energy route of old, the pair has developed a new and patented technology to skip out the middle man. Instead, they plan to generate electricity directly from heat, using special materials called ‘thermionic’ energy converters. These are advanced nanomaterials that, when heated up, produce a flow of electrons. The hotter the material is, the more electrons are released and the greater the electric current produced.

Cutting out the wasted energy

Traditional steam-driven turbines produce a lot of waste energy as the fuel can only heat the water to boiling point. Any additional heat produced by burning fuel is wasted. Tony and Max’s idea is to cut out this stage altogether and simply heat up the thermionic materials. Not only will their method slash the amount of fuel burned, it will utilise the much hotter flame temperature of the fuel and produce electricity much more efficiently.

Tony, the company’s CEO, has a background in invention, with more than 200 patents and patents pending under his belt. His expertise spans everything from technologies in energy, nanotechnology and even biomedical devices. As well as an impressive CV boasting degrees from Stanford, Harvard and a national fellowship from the Hertz foundation, he was listed by Forbes as one of their 2015 cohort of ‘30 under 30’ in science.

His partner-in-crime and CTO of the company, Max Mankin, adds nearly a decade of experience in designing and making semiconductors and nanomaterials to the mix. In 2016, he joined co-founder Tony on Forbes’ ‘30 under 30’ list.

Growing the business

The company was set up at the tail-end of 2015, and by spring 2016, Tony and Max had already generated more than $10 million in support from investors. Their revolutionary technology is protected by 14 current patents, with over 20 more on the way, both in the United States and across the world.

Still a young company, Mankin, Pan and their team of engineers are dedicated to hitting the lab for the foreseeable future. Over the next couple of years, they will be refining the technology, investing in research and development and looking into the scalability of their nanomaterials.

While it is unlikely we will be seeing any of the super-efficient, modular generators installed near us any time soon, the team remain confident their technology represents the future of electricity.

Electricity pylons” by Ian Britton is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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