Though state and academia set the stages, the high-tech blueprints for preserving natural resources are flowing from everyday citizens.
By David Adams, Times Staff Writer
Published May 28, 2007
MIAMI - It was during hurricane season in 2004 that veteran appliance repair man Michael Brown noticed a dramatic jump in his electric bill.
It didn't take him long to figure out that his clothes dryer was to blame. It was all that sweaty laundry.
But what started as a reality check on his utility bill quickly turned into a eureka moment that could soon make this 47-year-old father of four from humble origins a wealthy man.
In fact, there are a lot of eurekas being heard around Florida lately as entrepreneurs and investors look for profit in the nation's quest to reduce its energy use.
Much of the innovation seems to be coming from what began as a "high-tech corridor" along Interstate 4, but which has grown into a large triangle straddling the state from Tampa to Gainesville and across to the Kennedy Space Center.
"It's very exciting what I see happening, " said state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, whose district sits in the middle of the triangle. "It's got money, it's green and it's about creating jobs."
Some innovators are evolving mom-and-pop operations competing for state and federal grants to reach commercial viability. They include Brown's newly patented high-efficiency Hydronic Clothes Dryer, a process to turn citrus peel waste into ethanol, a methanol-powered fuel cell, and a fuel-efficient car that runs on a mix of gasoline and water.
Others - like St. Petersburg-based Progress Energy Florida, which with 1.7-million customers is the state's second-largest utility - are large companies that see the need to adapt to future trends in energy.
The one thing they all have in common is being on the cutting edge of new and more efficient forms of energy to replace, or conserve, diminishing fossil fuel resources.
The technology triangle now covers 23 counties from Hillsborough to Volusia, or roughly one-third of the state. The original idea was to bring high-tech economic development to Central Florida by pooling resources, improving work force development and encouraging matching grants for companies to conduct research at local universities.
With its background as a agricultural college, the University of Florida has led the way in biofuels and biomass. The University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida have benefited from large grants from NASA to research hydrogen fuel technology. UCF also has a long-standing solar program at the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa.
The effort has pulled together 60 development organizations in the corridor, according to Carol Ann Dykes, director of the Technology Incubator at UCF.
"The corridor has served as an amazing unifying force, " she says.
Wonks to the rescue
Brown got some early guidance from Dykes' Business Incubator, where he took a course, Excellence in Entrepreneurship. Brown more than makes up for the lack of a college degree with a natural inventor's curiosity and bundles of enthusiasm.
"I love to fix things, " he said, an ever-present baseball cap sitting backward atop his bald head.
"Show me technology and I have a field day."
Brown was convinced he had a good idea, if only he could iron out a few technical glitches and formulate a solid business plan to raise investor capital.
"I needed money to get it better. I had crude technology, but it was working, " he said.
Dykes put him in touch with another state-run program, the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program, or SATOP, which connects companies with NASA scientists who provide 40 hours of free technical advice.
Brown turned to SATOP when he realized he needed sensors that would monitor the dryer's temperature and humidity levels in order to optimize its efficiency.
In the latest tests, Brown says, his invention dries clothes 41 percent faster than existing dryers, and uses 53 percent less energy. He believes it will be the first dryer to receive an Energy Star rating from the Department of Energy, the ultimate consumer recommendation for energy efficiency.
Brown's process works by passing air over a heat-transfer liquid, called Paratherm, a specialty thermal oil which, when it heats up, has a capacity to stay hot longer than the metal heating element found in conventional dryers.
Brown points out that his dryer is also much safer as it uses a noncombustible heating system.
"The hydronic system will not ignite dust or lint because we are using a liquid source of heat, " he said.
Brown has shown his system to engineers at the leading manufacturers, including Electrolux, Bosch and Haire.
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.
- The "high-tech corridor:" Most of the new energy ideas are being generated within what began as a high-tech corridor along Interstate 4, but has grown into a large triangle straddling the state from Tampa to Gainesville and across to the Kennedy Space Center.
- Below the radar: Much of the innovation is largely uncovered by a media still only waking up to the energy revolution.
- Universities at the forefront: Some of the activity is taking place on university campuses at the three points of the triangle: the University of South Florida in Tampa, the University of Florida in Gainesville, and the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
The range of innovation:
- The new ideas being developed cover home appliances, alternative fuels and electricity for the grid.
- Some innovators are evolving mom-and-pop operations competing for state and federal grants.
- Others, like St. Petersburg-based Progress Energy Florida, are large companies that see the need to adapt to future trends in energy.
Michael Brown hydronic clothes dryer
The veteran appliance repair man from Orlando invented a system that dries clothes 41 percent faster, using 53 percent less energy. He says he believes his newly patented invention will be the first dryer to receive an Energy Star rating from the Department of Energy.
STEPHEN LUSKO aQUGEN, A GAS MADE FROM WATER
His Clearwater company believes it has discovered a hydrogen gas that, when injected into gasoline, improves fuel economy and reduces toxic emissions.
Sampuran Khalsa, solar business rebates and tax credits
The owner of Nanak's Landscaping in Orlando, the state's largest private landscaping firm, received a state check for $80, 500 after installing $160, 000 worth of solar panels.