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Evari turns to rocket science to solve heat pump problems

Off a highway in the woods of New Hampshire, a small group of engineers has been quietly working on advanced heat pumps inspired by rockets and satellites alike.

Evari stood out on Tuesday with its core technology related to rocket turbomachinery. The goal is to add tens of miles to the range of electric vehicles while taking natural gas out of the home-heating business.

Heat pumps use electricity to transfer heat energy from one place to another, and they tend to be much more efficient than traditional heating. In the case of home heating, they extract heat from the outside air and transport it indoors to keep the occupants warm. In refrigerators, they remove heat from internal compartments to keep food cool. Global heat pump sales have been growing at double-digit rates in recent years, but this is not enough to put the world on track to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the IEA said.

Today, air source heat pumps have not been adopted in much of the world because they do not work well when temperatures drop. Most of these places still rely on natural gas or heating oil, and convincing people to switch to natural gas or heating oil requires a plug-and-play solution that is cheaper to run than an existing furnace or boiler and can be used in extreme temperature. The basic technology inside a car or house hasn’t changed in more than a century, and it still doesn’t work properly in cold temperatures.

“Let’s say it’s minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit in Minnesota and you have a forced base water heater,” Walker said. “No heat pump on the market can do this at any temperature, let alone very cold temperatures.”

However, this is exactly the type of system Evari ultimately aims for. Its turbomachines excel when large temperature differences need to be overcome. That could mean extracting heat from frigid Minnesota nights to heat a home, but it could also mean dumping heat from a refrigerated container on an electric truck into hot Miami afternoons. Evari has yet to reveal its target market, but Walker did say its first target is transportation.

What’s more, researchers found that most heat pumps use refrigerants that are either potent greenhouse gases or can break down into permanent chemicals.

Evari’s turbine-powered heat pumps use refrigerants such as propane, which have extremely low global warming potential. It also doesn’t require oil for lubrication. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but it’s difficult to design an oil that works well at both ends of the spectrum and works well with heat pump refrigerants. Evari co-founder and CEO Steve Walker told TechCrunch that oil-free heat pumps can work more efficiently over a wider temperature range.

If Evari can bring its heat pump to market at a cost that is competitive with existing products, it will disrupt many industries. Heat pumps are used not only to heat and cool homes and vehicles, but also to generate heat for industrial processes, dehumidify buildings, refrigerate food in grocery stores, and more.

Walker, who funded the early stages of development out of his own pocket, received a small windfall from the sale of a startup he founded that turned waste wood into fuel. As a result, Evari has addressed most of its technical risks, Walker said. So even though the company announced a $7.5 million seed round today, it’s further along than most seed-stage companies. The round was led by Clean Energy Ventures, with participation from angel investors Farvatn Venture and Clean Energy Venture Group.

Walker said the manufacturing process for Evari compressors may be more expensive than existing designs, but should be cheaper overall because they require less material. “For example, for the same amount of cooling or heating output, the proportion of copper and rare earth materials is less than 5 percent,” he said. The startup’s turbocompressors range in size from as small as a dime to slightly larger than a quarter. Although they spin at hundreds of thousands of revolutions per minute, they are virtually silent and vibration-free, he added.

By trading material costs for some additional manufacturing overhead, Evari’s approach to lightweight materials could insulate the company from rising geopolitical tensions over critical minerals. Much of it is mined or processed in China or circulated through Chinese-owned companies, and the U.S. government has made it a priority to decouple as much of the country’s mineral supply chain as possible.

At the same time, U.S. industrial policy began to tilt toward domestic manufacturing. The Biden administration announced in February that it would allocate $63 million from the Defense Production Act specifically to promote heat pump manufacturing.

For Evari, the timing couldn’t be better. It finds itself at the intersection of three popular trends. Now it just needs to get its ultra-high-speed compressor into production in time to ride the wave of heat pump adoption.

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