Cutting Edge MEMS Technology From Microstaq To Change The HVAC Market

Posted on October 30th, 2010 by

Mark Luckevich, Chief Technology Officer for Microstaq, discusses how his company’s breakthrough technology will change the HVAC market.

Full Transcription:


Ben Lack:I’m with Mark Luckevich, Chief Technology Officer of Microstaq. Thanks for giving us some of your time today.

Mark Luckevich:Okay, great to be here.

Ben Lack:Could you start off by giving us a little bit of history on the company?

Mark Luckevich: Well, Microstaq is an energy efficiency company. We design, develop and manufacture MEMs silicone ELF systems. We were founded in 2000, spent the first several years developing. We were a research company. We were developing this new MEMs of ELF technology and then more recently we’ve developed products that provide energy efficiency in the air-conditioning and refrigeration markets.

Ben Lack:And what is the technology that you’ve developed actually do?

Mark Luckevich:Well, like I said, it’s a microvalve. The thing that’s specific about our microvalve is that it has macro-flow capabilities and macro-pressure capabilities. So what that kind of means is that it’s in a small package, but it can have many, many different applications.

Ben Lack:And this is going to be located where in the air conditioning unit?

Mark Luckevich:Well, specifically, in the air conditioner, all air conditioners or refrigeration systems have a metering device, a valve and these are50-year-old technology. They’re generally mechanical, and they don’t do a very good job of metering the refrigerants. So our product is an electronically controlled device that allows a controller to run software and determine how best to meter the refrigerant in the air conditioner and doing so, it gains 20% or more energy efficiency.

Ben Lack:And is the technology one-size-fits all or does the technology that you’ve developed have to be customized for each different type of unit that might be out there?

Mark Luckevich:The microvalve itself is a one-size-fits all. It’s an all-silicone device that essentially you could think of it replacing solenoids and in that way it’s a disruptive technology. It can indeed replace solenoid valves. Looking at air conditioning systems, that particular MEMs valve cannot do all the systems. So what we’ve done is developed a two-stage valve, and we use that to control a second stage. So that particular device, in controlled electronics that go along with it. It’s the same for everything. But what we do is the second stage can be made into different sizes. But since it’s a proportional controlled device, you don’t need as many part numbers. So where residential air conditioning may have 10 different mechanical valves for controlling the different size air conditioners, we may only have three. So it does reduce the number of parts that a manufacturer would need for a scalability of air conditioning systems.

Ben Lack:And is the technology for the residential market or could you also apply this to the commercial side as well?

Mark Luckevich:It’s really applicable to anything that runs refrigerant in a gas compression cycle. And our channels to market covers both residential and commercial and they cover both OEM and retrofit. It’s really kind of one of the exciting qualities of our technology is that it’s very, very similar to what’s in there today. So you can cut out the old valve a serviceman who would be replacing your mechanical valve if it failed, could replace the mechanical valve directly with the macro-valve silicone expansion valve, add in our controller electronics, and so on an older air conditioner, you can improve the energy efficiency just by using our product.

Ben Lack:So just to recap, the big issue is that there’s not very much data going on within the system itself. So not only are you guys helpingwith the data collection but you’re also helping with the controlling with the system as well. Is that a fairly…

Mark Luckevich:That’s right. As I said air conditioners generally have a 50-year-old technology. It’s a coil heat exchanger in a compressor. There’s been a lot of improvement in the compressor efficiency, but beyond that it’s been limited. So we’re providing I guess an enabler. So you add more controller electronics and now really as they’re looking at air conditioning systems, they’re adding variable speed compressors, variable speed fans. So all of these things with now are electronically controlled metering device can be put into a single electronic controller. That allows diagnostics and easier failure-mode detection for the serviceman, things like that.

Ben Lack:What’s the reliability?

Mark Luckevich:The silicone valve itself doesn’t wear out. It’s actually very unique in that way it’s a single crystalline silicone, and unlike metal which fatigues when it’s used over time, the silicone doesn’t fatigue. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t break it. You can over pressurize it. You can overpower it and things like that. But from a standard operating conditions, it should last longer than the other components within the system.

Ben Lack:Is it safe to say that if this was put into a new air conditioning unit that it would be able to last the life of the unit itself?

Mark Luckevich:That’s the way it’s being designed, yes. That it will exceed the life. Typically, air conditioners are built for a 15-year lifespan, and the first thing to go is generally the compressor. We’re designing our valve, testing our valve to ensure that it won’t be the first thing to fail. It’ll exceed that. And like I said, the silicone we have high confidence in, but there’s other mechanical parts. There’s actually two moving parts. There’s the first stage, second stage and things can wear out.

Ben Lack:And where is the product manufactured?

Mark Luckevich:We’re headquartered in Austin, TX, but we’re a fabless semiconductor company so we outsource our production overseas. And we have a FAB, like a company which would manufacture ICs and electronic components that is now doing MEMs manufacturing. So they’re manufacturing our silicone device. And then we have another partner that’s doing the machining and packaging of the silicone into the final product.

Ben Lack:And is the go-to market strategy to target the manufacturers of the air conditioning equipment directly or is there another strategy for pushing the product?

Mark Luckevich:Like I said, we really could sell to just about anybody, but our channels to market are focused on retrofit. And there are companies out there today that specialize in this. They’re called ESCOs, environmental service companies. So they go into building audits and they have a network of contractors. So we’re working closely with ESCOs. So they would go through and do schools, government buildings and things like that. So they’re kind of our channel to market for the retrofit market. We’re also working directly with customers. So a grocery store chain, for example, comes to Microstaq, says, “We want to retrofit all of our grocery stores.” So we would then work with them use either their contractor or hire our own contractor to go in and do retrofits of the grocery stores. And then, of course, like I said, we would sell directly to OEMs, and they would buy our valves and put them in their new products and get improved energy efficiencies in their new products.

Ben Lack:This is cool.

Mark Luckevich:Yes, we’re very excited about this technology. And, really, the exciting part about it is it’s a valve and there’s many, many applications for valves. This first application’s getting such a significant energy saving for this market is fantastic, but looking out into the future, we’re even more excited about automotive, aerospace. There’s many, many other applications for our valve technology. So we’re kind of scratching the surface of MEMs flow control.

Ben Lack:And is that, if you had to forecast the next couple of years, is the focus really going to be on the air conditioning market or do you see Microstaq moving into other applications?

Mark Luckevich:I definitely focus on air conditioning, refrigeration over the next couple of years. We need to build our business and get the market penetration. We do have competitors. Any company that builds the legacy valve for air conditioning refrigeration are our competitors, and they don’t want lose market share. So we need to establish our presence in the market. So it’s really maybe three to five years beyond that where I see Microstaq coming up with new products and new technologies for other markets outside of air conditioning and refrigeration.

Ben Lack:So you seem very passionate about what you’re working on. I’m curious to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Mark Luckevich:Well, I guess it’s an opportunity to be a game changer. You know, I work for large companies in automotive and aerospace, but you know you’re game changing but you’re part of a big machine moving towards some new products. But it’s more, I guess, the best way, commodity items, you know, and making it cheaper and making it better. And the R & D that’s going on in some of those bigger companies have really been cut back in the last three to five, maybe even 10 years. So this was an opportunity that I came across to really come up with a new technology, and like I said, disruptive something like cell phones replacing land lines. This was something that could make a huge difference in how we do flow controls. So very, very exciting.

Ben Lack:Well, Mark, thanks for being with us.

Mark Luckevich:Thank you.

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