Transaera, a tiny startup based in Somerville, is trying to tackle a big problem: air conditioning.
As the planet heats up, more and more people want it. According to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization based in Paris, demand for alternating current could triple by 2050, driven largely by consumers in China, India and Indonesia. And cooling technologies such as AC and electric fans account for around 20% of energy consumption in buildings, the IEA notes. This produces more carbon dioxide emissions, which accelerates warming, which in turn drives cooling demand. It’s quite the negative feedback loop.
Transaera and a handful of other startups are working on designing air conditioners that require far less energy. This month, the company plans to announce that it has raised a first round of funding of $4.5 million. One of its backers is Carrier Global Corp., the Florida-listed company whose founder is credited with inventing modern air conditioning systems in the early 20th century.
Transaera founder Sorin Grama is one of the sponsors of Boston’s clean energy startup ecosystem. In 2007, he co-founded a company called Promethean Power Systems, which developed and sold a new type of milk cooler in India that does not require a dirty diesel generator to keep milk collected from farms cold. In 2010, looking for a workspace where Promethean could build and test its prototype coolers, Grama helped start Greentown Labs in a vacant building that once housed a print shop. Greentown is now the nation’s largest incubator for clean energy companies, with about 125 tenants, including Transaera.
After extracting himself from the day-to-day operations of Promethean, Grama says he started “looking for new ideas to work on, but eventually I went back to chilling.” Grama met an MIT professor, Mircea Dincă, who was studying a kind of porous crystalline material called a metal-organic framework, or MOF. Grama and Dincă co-founded Transaera in 2018 and supported their early work with approximately $2 million in state and federal grants from agencies such as the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
Gram and Dincă decided to focus on air conditioning in part because of the Global Cooling Prize competition, which raised $3 million in prizes to inspire startups and large corporations to design radically more efficient air conditioners. (Transaera wasn’t one of two winners, but it was one of eight finalists.) One of the keys to their design was to use the MOF material as a kind of sponge, to extract the humidity – aka humidity – of the air.
Holding a small test tube of MOF powder, Ross Bonner, Chief Technology Officer of Transaera, says the powder inside has “about the same surface area as a football pitch”. MOF is a kind of desiccant – much like the silica gel used in food packaging or electronics to keep moisture out. But when the MOF absorbs water molecules, it “doesn’t hold water firmly,” says Bonner. By using the heat already flowing through the air conditioning unit, he says, it can release the water molecules trapped by the MOF material as water vapor. Steam is expelled from the device.
Grama explains that the MOF material is what makes Transaera’s air conditioner more energy efficient; today’s air conditioners require more electricity to extract water from the air and turn it into liquid. “It’s beneficial from an energy point of view, but it’s also a characteristic: without water, there are no drips, no mold and no leaks,” he says. The company’s goal is to provide the same cooling power as a traditional air conditioner, with half the power consumption, Grama says. The air conditioner also uses a refrigerant called R32 to cool the air, which is more environmentally friendly than those commonly used today. (Refrigerants are a potent greenhouse gas that can leak during use or when the unit is improperly disposed of.)
MOF powders have only been around for about 20 years, and a big part of Transaera’s “secret sauce” is how the MOF material is applied to a surface inside the air conditioner, so it can act like a sponge. “The challenge is to make the coating tough and durable enough to survive the lifetime of the device, so it doesn’t come off right away,” Grama says.
The cost and scalability of using MOF material in air conditioners in high-volume production could be an issue, says Michael Holman, vice president who focuses on energy and manufacturing at Lux Research, an engineering company. Boston-based analysis. “I know there are a lot of claims from different companies to have innovations that will solve this, but we haven’t really seen this proven yet,” Holman wrote over email.
Transaera plans to develop this technology and license it to companies that already have manufacturing facilities and distribution channels, including Carrier and Windmill, a New York startup.
Energy Impact Partners, one of the investment funds investing in Transaera, discovered the company through the Global Cooling Challenge. Ashwin Shashindranath, an EIP partner, says he was attracted to the company because its technology can be used in a variety of products – not just air conditioners for homes, but rooftop units for commercial buildings. and the built-in wall units found in hotels. .
“The air conditioning space is dominated by large companies, incumbents, who have worked on evolving technology changes over time – and nothing groundbreaking,” says Shashindranath.
With record temperatures in many parts of the world, “It’s summer when air conditioning gets the attention it needs,” says Grama. “You see investors more interested” in a sector that was once considered “kind of a backwater.”
But it will create competitors for Transaera – including Florida-based Blue Frontier, which announced $20 million in funding earlier this month. It focuses on rooftop air conditioners for large buildings, and among its investors is Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment vehicle created by Bill Gates in 2016.
Boston-based Carmichael Roberts helps choose which startups Breakthrough invests money in. As “air conditioning transitions from a luxury to a utilitarian product” in many developing economies, Roberts says there is a real need for new approaches to energy efficiency. But air conditioning is a conservative market where price matters – a lot, he adds.
“It just means it’s going to take real breakthroughs to move forward,” Roberts says.
Scott Kirsner can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.