What do drinking straws and heat exchangers have in common?

Photo courtesy Tiffany Terry via Flickr

A cool idea for turning down the heat on smokestacks

Ever wonder how much heat escapes through a power plant’s smokestack? Robert Sakko did. (Answer: about 10% of the heat created by the boiler.)

The Dutch entrepreneur was just a child when he first noticed heat escaping from the stacks at an industrial facility, but the thought of all that lost heat—lost energy—stayed with him.

Today he’s the Director of Engineering at HeatMatrix, a startup whose killer app is based on another object of a child’s attention, the ubiquitous (and endlessly entertaining) drinking straw. He gave a brief but inspiring talk on Monday at Hannover Messe as part of a series entitled “Dutch Solutions.”

Full disclosure: I love the Dutch.  Every single Netherlands native I’ve ever met (well, ok, almost every one) has been warm, open and just plain nice. The Dutch also have one of the greatest traditions of industrial design in the world. But I digress….

Like many inventors, Sakko started with a question: why is the flue gas escaping from industrial boilers so hot? Why can’t that heat be captured to make the combustion process more efficient?

After all, boilers already have heat exchangers to cool the steam back into water—the heat is used to pre-warm the water before returning to the combustion chamber to become steam again. So, why not do the same with flue gas?

In a word: corrosion. Heat exchangers are typically made out of metal and when the exhaust of a coal-, oil- or gas-fired boiler is cooled to a certain point, the nastier elements in it start to eat away at the material. Enter, the drinking straw.

Sakko’s big idea is to build heat exchangers out of plastic, allowing more heat to be recovered from flue gas before it escapes forever into the atmosphere.  And here’s the cool part… it really works. Sakko says his heat exchanger cuts the amount of heat lost out the smokestack in half and it typically pays for itself in less than two years.

HeatMatrix already has customers in a variety of industries that require heat for their production processes. Chemical plants, oil and gas processing—these have been the early adopters, but more are likely to get on board. There are even some proposed regulations out there that would put a cap on flue gas temperature (I was embarrassed to learn that my former home of California has one such measure under consideration—who knew?

If those restrictions are enacted, it could put technologies like Sakko’s on the fast track to widespread adoption. If anyone reading this happens to manage private equity, you might want to give HeatMatrix a look.


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About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Content Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 150 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including energy efficiency, industrial automation and big data. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry.
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