Bright Idea

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Finding better batteries for electric cars has been the holy grail in the alternative energy industry for a while, yet they remain impractical given their limited range and forbidding price tags. Seattle-based Clarian Labs is going about the quest in a different way: Instead of trying to improve on storage technology, it is making what is essentially a fuel-powered “battery” that could power anything from electric cars to small electronic devices.

Originally developed as a power source for the Department of Defense’s Humanoid Robot Program, Clarian’s technology is a rotary-piston motor—consisting of only two moving parts—that uses an electromagnetic pull to transform hydrocarbons into electricity. The compact and self-contained nature of the engine makes the technology battery-like—it can be shrunk to fit in the palm of one's hand and requires no outside power generation. The company puts it this way: “Think of the rotary generator as a powerful self-contained hybrid electromechanical battery.”

The size adaptability allows the motor to be used in things as large as passenger vehicles—as, say a range extender in an electric car—or as small as a smartphone.

The idea may seem strange: Why pursue energy projects based on unsustainable fuels? The reality is that current technology is inadequate for complete reliance on batteries to power large machines such as automobiles.

Hydrocarbon-based biofuels have more than 20 to 30 times greater energy density—you get more energy from every fuel unit you put in—than traditional lithium batteries. Thus, Clarian is relying on the energy richness of hydrocarbons—gasoline, kerosene, propane, etc.—in an energy-efficient and scalable rotary motor to generate electricity.

The five-person incubator company is led by Chad Maglaque, who has more than 20 years of product management experience with Microsoft and other Fortune 500 companies.

In 2010, Clarian Power, owned by the same group as Clarian Labs, won General Electric’s Consumer Innovation Award in the Ecomagination Challenge with its SmartBox Solar Module, a plug-in solar panel for homeowners. Like Clarian’s rotary motor, the solar module remains in development and is not yet ready for sale.

A cutaway view of a generator prototype

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