You helped start the company Afthon and currently serve as chief executive officer. Tell us how it began.
Going to grad school, I wanted to make sure whatever I did would be relevant to the rest of the world, so I focused on power generation using aerospace engines. My adviser, Professor Frank Lu, has been working in this area for a couple of decades. At that time, back in November 2013, one of the things that motivated us was the flare gas in North Dakota's Bakken Shale, which was being wasted.
What is flare gas?
At oil fields in the shale formations, there's typically natural gas that sits on top of the oil and builds pressure. To get to the oil, they have to get the natural gas out first. In places where there's no pipeline, they simply waste the gas to get to the oil. Dr. Lu and I talked about the potential of harnessing that wasted gas energy with our engines to produce electricity for the oil fields.
How did you get in this area of research?
After graduating from UT Austin in physics and astronomy in 2011, I came here for my master's degree, which I finished in 2012. I began my Ph.D. in 2013, working on further developing pressure gain (detonation) combustion power generators. Solving the flare gas problem is what motivated us to try this power generator. A previous grad student had done a single engine cycle proof-of-concept power generation experiment, but my doctoral work took the next step to establish viability of continuous separation of this device and also to quantify the efficiency of the overall system. We think this technology can really solve this problem because it's a different way to burn fuels more efficiently.
Could the technology work in developing parts of the world?
Yes, we are calling it "Fire 2.0." The core of it is that we're able to burn the same types of fuels and we're able to burn them more efficiently. It means you'll be able to get more useful energy out of the fuel, and that could have a big impact in places that have rolling blackouts because there's not enough energy to go around.
You've been in technology and commercialization competitions and won $25,000 in funding from VentureWell and $50,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation. What's next?
Now we're working to raise funds from angel investors. We've pivoted our market, moving away from a power generator which runs on flare gas. We've taken a step back to look at the core combustion technology, looking at what can we commercially do with it. We can burn hotter, so what can we do with a hotter flame? Where do you need to melt stuff? This led us to industrial glass melting. In addition, we are looking into spacecraft propulsion applications such as keeping satellites in orbit.