Eastside company awaits aha moment
Seattle Times business reporter
Ramgen Power Systems
What it does: Develops compression technology for commercial use.
Founder: Shawn Lawlor, Ramgen's chairman and chief technology officer. He started the company in 1992 to research the viability of applying supersonic "ramjet" technology to stationary rotors.
Chief executive: Doug Jewett, 65, former Seattle city attorney
Employees: 36, including 30 in the Bellevue area
Projected 2012 revenue: $21.6 million (derived from Department of Energy and Dresser Rand funding).
Supply chain: Agreements with 335 parts and equipment manufacturers, engineering firms, suppliers and service providers
Doug Jewett watched the Curiosity's ground crew celebrate the Mars vehicle's landing last month, and it reminded him of his company's earthly engineering challenges.
Jewett, chief executive of the Bellevue-based Ramgen Power Systems, an energy research company, hopes he will soon feel that same sense of triumph.
"We will have our aha moment," he said.
Since 2009, Ramgen has received $50 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help alleviate climate change by harnessing the compression created from sonic booms.
Two machines were the result of these funds: A compressor designed to liquefy carbon dioxide in order to divert it underground and away from the atmosphere, and a mobile turbine engine intended to provide electricity on a small-scale substation level.
Both use the natural compression of supersonic shock waves in an effort to operate more efficiently than traditional counterparts.
Houston-based Dresser Rand, which sells machinery for the oil and gas industry, contributed $35 million to these projects. Tests that will determine Jewett's aha moment began recently on the engine in Redmond, and will start in mid-September on the compressor at a facility in upstate New York.
"Instead of talking decades or years or even months, now we're talking weeks," Jewett said.
By the end of the November, Jewett expects to learn whether his company can pop the cork off the Champagne bottle and move to a commercialization phase, or remain at the drawing board.
"After we've got the test results that we're looking for, [Dresser Rand] is looking at a 12- to 18-month timeline to put one of these in the field and operating," he said. "They have the capacity to rapidly commercialize the technology."
Ramgen didn't get here on its own. In addition to $50 million, the DOE gave Ramgen access to the DOE's supercomputer at the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory to speed up the testing on its compressor and engine.
This was made possible, Jewett said, because Energy Secretary Steven Chu directed his agency to help Ramgen after reading Ramgen's research.
In June, Suzy Tichenor, a director at Oak Ridge, testified before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment highlighting Ramgen's work with the supercomputer, called Jaguar.
"Ramgen is a 'poster child' for the dramatic advances a company can achieve in its modeling and simulation abilities," Tichenor said. "[They] reduced what used to be months of work to a mere 8 hours."
Ramgen's compressor is part of a larger initiative by the federal government to promote carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process in which carbon emissions from power plants are captured before floating into the atmosphere. The gas is compressed into a liquid, and injected underground.
Congress has directed almost $6 billion to CCS research projects since 2008, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. DOE's Office of Fossil Energy estimates that CCS will account for 19 percent of the U.S.'s reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.
Jewett said Ramgen's compressor is twice as energy efficient as ones currently compressing heavy molecular gases, like carbon dioxide. Inside the machine is a rotor that spins at the speed of sound. As the rotor reaches a supersonic speed, a resulting shock wave creates a rapid increase in pressure.
"One second you're here and the next second you've passed through the shock wave and you're highly compressed," said Jewett. "You go to 1,500 pounds per square inch. That's not to be fooled with, it'll cut you in half."
Ramgen's other project -- the natural-gas turbine engine -- uses that same technology to compress air before it mixes with fuel and is burned.
Jewett is excited about this project because, from a previous career, he understands how useful its application could be.
Before entering the R&D field, Jewett was in city government, as Seattle city attorney from 1978 to 1990. In his periodic work with Seattle City Light, he saw the potential of a mini power plant in a populated area.
"Combined heat and power is where you're making electric power off an engine, then you're taking the heat of the exhaust and capturing that energy, so that you get into the 90 percent efficiency use of fossil fuel," he said.
There have been hurdles in the development of these technologies. After receiving $20 million of DOE funds in August 2009, Ramgen originally planned to test the compressor by January 2011. But that deadline passed. In response, Dresser Rand increased its initial investment in the Eastside company to speed up its research.
"Dresser Rand put another $3.5 million in since then, in part to make up for the delay," Jewett said. That pushed its investment in the compressor to more than $27.5 million, and it added $7 million more to development of the turbine engine.
Dresser Rand's turbo products, which include compressors, accounted for 53 percent of its sales in 2011.
Among other applications, these products are used in enhanced oil recovery, a process in which fluid, often liquefied carbon dioxide, is pumped into crude-oil reservoirs to displace and push out the oil.
The first commercial use of the Ramgen compressor might be in the oil business. "Whether the first application is a commercial power plant or it's a pipeline carrying CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, I wouldn't want to predict the most likely application that it would go on," Jewett said. "The price of CO2 is going up. It's going from how do you get rid of this to how much can you sell it for."
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule in March that should help Ramgen.
The agency submitted a plan to limit the allowable amount of carbon dioxide new power plants could emit. New coal plants could meet these standards, the EPA said, through the use of CCS
In a statement earlier this year, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson noted current laws place "no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to put into our skies -- and the health and economic threats of a changing climate continue to grow."
The Natural Resources Defense Council, commenting on this politically charged rule in June, was cautiously optimistic about CCS's potential to help the environment. The council's key concern is the possibility of carbon seeping back up through the ground or out of a pipeline and into the atmosphere.
The group's written comment to the EPA said the agency must ensure that the pipelines and carbon-storage sites are monitored to detect any carbon-dioxide leakage.
Henrik Lund, professor in renewable-energy technology at Denmark's Aalborg University, is also wary of the storage aspect. He said storing carbon dioxide underground incurs long-term monitoring costs -- ones that won't be necessary with other "sustainable energy systems."
"A better compressor is, of course, good, but I don't think it will change that point," he said.
Jewett wants to keep Ramgen away from policy debates. Like most sizable firms receiving federal money, however, Ramgen lobbies Congress.
Its federal lobbying expenditures averaged about $100,000 per year between 2000 and 2007. In 2008, these costs spiked to more than $150,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They dropped back to $80,000 annually from 2009 to 2011.
Dresser Rand's lobbying costs also peaked in 2008 at $120,000.
Jewett said his company will be at its most prosperous if it can live on an island away from political divisions.
"We try not to go out of our way to poke anyone in the eye on either side and let the value speak for itself.
Whether it will speak well will be known in couple of months as results filter in from Ramgen's tests on its multimillion-dollar machines.
Karl Baker: 206-464-2046 or firstname.lastname@example.org