Renewable and Alternative Fuels on the Rise in Kentucky

Renewable and alternative fuels are on the rise in Kentucky, thanks to innovative energy companies, strong research assets and state support.

By
Dan Hieb
On Wednesday, April 17, 2013 - 10:08

Kentucky is building a reputation as a leader in energy innovation, particularly when it comes to renewables and alternative fuels. Startups and established companies alike are benefiting from the state's productive combination of research assets and generous financial assistance.

Driving Innovation

One of the state's major research assets is the Kentucky-Argonne Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center, which focuses on battery technologies for electric vehicles. The center was established by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and the Argonne National Laboratory in 2010. The Lexington-based center is an open-access lab with 40 offices available.

Acting Director Dr. Tony Hancock says one of the center's main draws is its partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. Researchers in Kentucky can access Argonne's expertise, equipment and technology in person or by video conference.

Hancock says that the center is focused on increasing the storage capacity of automotive batteries. Later research may include the suitability of used electric-vehicle batteries for grid storage. Whatever the center's projects, Hancock is confident that Kentucky will remain a key location for his industry.

“Our political leaders have vision for energy research, we have two major universities that are graduating a technically skilled workforce, and it's an appealing place to live and raise a family. It's just a good mix,” he says.

 

nGimat was one of the first companies to establish operations in Kentucky in part due to the presence of the new Kentucky-Argonne Battery Lab.

The company’s NanoSpraySM Combustion Processing technology for coatings and nanopowders, along with the Nanomiser Device, was invented by nGimat's founder, Dr. Andrew Hunt.

nGimat has multiple U.S. patents and patent applications pending covering its raw materials, processes, equipment, composition of matter, intermediate products and final products.   

Coating for Efficiency

Lexington-based Topasol LLC is another piece of Kentucky's energy pie. The company specializes in coatings for energy-related and other applications.

Topasol has already developed anti-reflective nanocoatings that help to increase the output of solar cells. Current projects include carbon-based coatings and membranes for energy storage technologies like batteries and supercapacitors.

In the future, the company hopes to apply its energy-related technologies to other fields, such as the automotive and aerospace industries.

“Kentucky has great opportunities for companies like ours to grow,” says Dr. Uschi Graham, Topasol president. “Aside from low energy costs and easy access to manufacturing, the research campuses in Louisville and Lexington provide avenues for collaborating with companies that are focused on similar areas.”

The state encourages development of new energy enterprise through a number of programs, such as Kentucky New Energy Ventures Fund, which provides seed stage capital to support the development and commercialization of alternative fuel and renewable energy products, processes and services.

Louisville-based Advanced Energy Materials received matching funds of $150,000 through the state's Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer program (SBIR/STTR) to support developing nanomaterials for use in the anodes of automotive batteries and large-scale lithium ion batteries, as well as in solar cells and other photocatalyst applications.

Putting Wasted Energy to Work

In Somerset, Wellhead Energy Systems is innovating in an entirely different way. The company uses specially designed generators to convert stranded energy assets – such as natural gas that has remained in a well because it unusable for either physical or economic reasons -- into grid electricity.

President and CEO Dave Weddle estimates that Kentucky has more than 6,000 stranded natural gas wells alone, enough to produce about 60 megawatts of power. One of the company's banner projects is a partnership with Jackson Energy Cooperative. A Wellhead generator is helping the rural cooperative provide reliable power to about 250 customers who previously suffered regular brownouts.

To date, Wellhead has received $3.25 million in equity investments and tax incentives from state initiatives. But Weddle has been especially impressed by the personal attention he's received from state officials.

“From the day we opened our doors, we've had excellent support,” he says. “The governor himself came to present us with our first $500,000 in state funding. I think it shows that from the highest office in the state, they truly do believe in what energy companies are doing.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Hieb is a veteran journalist who has worked as an editor for The Tennessean, The Nashville Business Journal, The St.