Adam Burwell likes to summarize his corporate philosophy with three P’s: People, Planet and Profit. The 29-year-old student is teaming up with one of his professors to launch a business venture the pair hopes will help the planet and change the solar energy industry. On Monday, they’ll show their design in a regional semifinal that could project them to an international stage.
Burwell moved to Klamath Falls for his wife’s rural nursing studies and to alter his own career path two years ago. He abandoned his construction management efforts at Portland State University and enrolled at Oregon Institute of Technology to study renewable energy engineering.
It was at OIT where he first heard Dr. Feng Shi give a lecture about low-cost, concentrated solar power. It was a spark that ignited a fire once Burwell began Feng’s biofuels and biomass course. Feng said he was impressed by Burwell.
“Adam took up a leadership role in his class project,” Feng said.
He approached Burwell with a business proposal and SolenSphere was formed in January of this year.
Their design brings together two technologies: photovoltaic solar cells and solar thermal.
Sunlight shines into a satellite-shaped dish made of recycled materials, condensing the light and reflecting it to a smaller, opposing mirror. The smaller mirror focuses a beam of light onto a three-layered solar cell from Spectrolab, which turns the light into electricity.
All that light also produces a lot of heat. Typical rooftop solar cells made of silicon lose efficiency as they get hotter, rendering them 10 to 18 percent effective. The three-layered solar cells used by SolenSphere yield 39 percent efficiency and the excess heat is collected for other practical uses, such as solar water heating.
The entire system sits on a tracking mechanism that follows the sun throughout the day, providing constant energy.
“We’re addressing the essential issues of solar energy,” Feng said. He hopes a system like this will raise energy efficiency, drop the cost of solar powered systems, and stabilize inconsistent energy output.
It’s a system that leaves little waste and a design the SolenSphere team hopes could put it on an international stage.
The team, which includes other OIT students led by Burwell, submitted a business plan to the Clean Tech Open, one of the world’s largest clean technology competitions. They advanced to the semifinals and will present their project in Portland Monday.
“We’re very confident about our innovation, product and team,” Feng said. “We have a young, energetic, skillful team with a strong passion.”
Before the judges
The SolenSphere team spent the summer with business mentors provided by Clean Tech Open and will display its product in a trade show-style setting. They then move to present their idea in 10 minutes to a panel of judges comprising academics, engineers, entrepreneurs and investors. If they make it to the top three, they’ll earn a $20,000 prize and a trip to the international competition in San Jose, Calif.
“The amount of guidance provided by the Clean Tech Open has prepared us for this high stakes, high reward competition,” Burwell said. “It’s helped us distill our business idea down.”
Burwell hopes this business idea will translate into local jobs. One of his investors has stipulated that SolenSphere must create jobs in Klamath Falls.
“We’re hoping for 300 jobs in five years,” Burwell said. If they can turn a profit in three years, they’ll be right on track.
Feng is excited. “We might change the landscape of solar energy,” he said.