Five Greentech Startups Thinking Outside The Box

The busy green tech industry is teeming with companies focused on alternative energy. Some of the biggest new sources of energy they are trying to tap into include solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass and fuel cells. Most companies harnessing each power source are pursuing somewhat similar technologies – such as photovoltaic cells in solar, turbines in wind and hydroelectric – and then innovate from there.

There are also many companies, however, that also focus on green technology and alternative energy but in different ways. Here are five you may not have heard of that are worth keeping an eye on. They are developing new ways to capture and store energy, light up our world, and power our vehicles.

New Energy Technologies

New Energy Technologies has two interesting projects under development: Motion Power and Solar Window. Motion Power aims to harness lost inertia from braking cars at places like toll booths, drive-thrus and traffic lights. The company is backed by the stealthy Quercus Trust, a VC and investment firm that focuses primarily on green tech.

The technology sits on the road where drivers often brake. As a car passes over the device, it pushes down mechanical treadles, allowing the device to help slow down its momentum and harvest some of its kinetic energy in the process. The company calls this an “external regenerative brake” that can convert wasted energy that usually turns into brake heat into electricity that can be used to power road signs, street lights and emergency power storage systems.

According to the company’s calculations, capturing kinetic energy one time a day from the approximately 6,000,000 trucks and 250,000,000 cars on U.S. roads could produce enough electricity to power 250,000 homes.

New Energy Technologies is also experimenting with solar energy. Its Solar Window is being developed to spray ordinary glass with solar cells that can turn windows into small-scale energy producers. Many photovoltaic cells require metal to help conduct energy, but New Energy Technologies has developed a prototype that uses transparent compounds to serve the same function. Unlike most solar films, which require high temperatures to be applied, the spray can be used at room temperature.

Lilliputian Systems

Lilliputian Systems, as the name implies, is concerned with making big changes using tiny technology in consumer electronics such as phones and laptops. The company was born in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Lab and hopes to replace lithium-ion batteries with miniature fuel cells. The cells will be powered by butane and sit on a chip to power a device.

The device produces electricity by converting the butane into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. When the two are exposed to air and electrolytes, it turns into electricity, keeping your gadgets powered indefinitely. The process’ byproducts are water vapor and carbon dioxide. The company claims the fuel cells are safe, and has convinced the Federal Aviation Administration of this enough to approve the use of Lilliputian fuel cells on airplanes.

The company claims the generators will be six times more efficient than electronics that require a wall charger. Lilliputian is backed by more than $90 million from investors that include Atlas Ventures, Kleiner Perkins and Rockport Capital.

Beacon Power

Beacon Power is focused not on energy production, but on energy storage. Like Lilliputian, Beacon thinks it can do better than existing battery technologies, and uses flywheels to store energy for later use.

Flywheels are like mechanical batteries, turning electricity into kinetic energy that keeps a wheel spinning inside a vacuum chamber until the energy is needed again. When this happens, the flywheel spins more slowly and electricity flows back out of the device. The company claims its flywheel chambers can be used for years with minimal maintenance and, unlike batteries, their storage capacity remains stable over time.

The U.S. Department of Energy has funded Beacon several times and says the company’s flywheels are up to ten times faster at responding to grid frequency changes than energy sources powered by fossil fuels. The company recently began building a 20-megawatt capacity energy storage plant in Stephentown, NY.

Topanga Technologies

Topanga is working on developing high-efficiency lighting whose color quality, output and longevity are better than those of LEDs, halogens and fluorescents.

The company produces plasma lights in warm, cool and white temperatures, and aims to brighten the commercial sector, selling to cities, large companies and building managers. By Topanga’s estimates, most fixtures pay for themselves in savings within three years and require very little maintenance.

Each lamp has an estimated lifespan of about 50,000 hours, or about 10 years. This is equal to the lifespan of most LEDs, and significantly higher than CFLs’ 12,000-hour and halogen’s 3,000-hour lifespans.

These plasma lights can be dimmed down to 20% of their maximum brightness and can give off up to 130 lumens per watt. The company is backed by investors that include Khosla Ventures and Nth Power.

Xtreme Green

Xtreme Green makes electric sports vehicles, including motorcycles, scooters and ATVs, with snowmobiles, and electric watercraft like jet skis under development. The company also produces curb-jumping three-wheeled patrol vehicles and motorcycles for police forces.

Although the company is best known for its X Rider electric motorcycle, its recreational vehicle line makes it somewhat unique in the electric vehicle space.

As environmental concerns about emissions grow, more lakes and wildlife areas no longer permit gas engines on the water. Xtreme Green’s watercraft are usually permitted, however. The company’s Jetboard runs on lithium batteries that let you play on the water for nearly two hours.