VOL. 8 | NO. 25 | Saturday, June 13, 2015
Proton’s Weaver Wizard of Tech Innovation
ROGER HARRIS | The Ledger correspondent
On any given day, business executives, scientists and chemical engineers from across the U.S. and around the world come to East Tennessee to see for themselves the renewable energy technology developed by Lenoir City-based Proton Power Inc.
Many of them trek to Wampler’s Farm Sausage Co. in Lenoir City where Proton Power’s first commercial grade biomass renewable energy system was installed.
Proton Power President Sam Weaver has taken renewable energy technology to a new level along wit h his long-time partner, Dan Hensley.
(The Ledger/Chase Malone)
“We’ve had people from all over the planet come here,” says Wampler’s President Ted Wampler Jr. “… They all leave amazed.”
Proton Power recently won the Innovator Award at the 2015 Pinnacle Business Awards from the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, a tribute to that factors that keep the visitors amazed.
The financial and environmental benefits produced by Proton Power’s chip engines burn biomass or waste to produce inexpensive hydrogen. The gas produced by a proprietary process called Cellulose to Hydrogen Power, or CHyP, is used to power generators that produce low-cost electricity for the sausage maker.
Converting switchgrass, municipal solid waste and other biomass into hydrogen can also be used to provide heat and produce renewable gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel.
The technology is the brainchild of Proton Power President Sam Weaver, a former Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher.
Among the advantages of Proton Power’s technology is it can produce hydrogen on demand, eliminating the need for storage and distribution facilities, and it provides an environmentally-friendly solution to waste disposal, explains Weaver, who is marketing the technology worldwide.
And, perhaps, more importantly for Proton Power’s global growth potential, energy produced by the CHyP process is carbon-neutral and “cost competitive with fossil fuel,” says Weaver.
Just some of the resources that can be used as biomass input products
(The Ledger/Chase Malone)
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has awarded several Clean Tennessee Energy Grants to renewable energy projects using the gasification process.
Aries Energy, a Knoxville clean energy company, endorses the technology on its website.
“Gasification technology fosters job creation, can eliminate reliance on fossil fuels, and provides affordable and continuous base-load renewable power that can be implemented across the world.”
For businesses with significant electricity needs, such as Wampler’s Farm Sausage, Proton Power’s cutting-edge technology can mean a huge savings in capital and production costs.
The technology will eventually “take us to a zero electric bill and we should wind up with a total energy cost that’s 25 percent of what it was when you factor in what we pay for the biomass,” says Wampler.
The sausage maker, which worked with Aries Energy to install the Proton Power system in 2011, has seen a sharp drop in its utilities costs even though it has added a second shift in the packing department.
Proton Power, founded in 2005 by Weaver and partner Dan Hensley, deliberately kept a low profile in its early years while perfecting its CHyP process, which is more efficient and less costly than other systems for producing synthetic hydrogen.
Compared to other systems that produce the gas, CHyP achieves 65 percent gas output, well above the industry average of 15 percent, according to Proton Power. The heating value of hydrogen produced by CHyP is 230 BTUs per standard cubic foot of gas versus an industry average of 150 BTUs, company officials say.
Over the last few years, awareness of Proton Power has mushroomed as word has spread of the technology’s effectiveness. In February, 22 energy business officials from six Eastern European countries toured the CHyP installation at Wampler’s, including representatives from Russia and Ukraine.
Officials from the Philippines have visited Proton Power and the company has a customer in Singapore.
A little closer to home, Proton Power recently met with potential customers from Alabama and New York.
Dr. Sam Weaver keeps his company's financial information close to the vest.
(The Ledger/Chase Malone)
The company’s rapid growth and global potential is one reason that the Chamber honored the company during its annual program that recognizes the accomplishments of leading businesses in the Knoxville area.
“(Proton Power) and its technology has received global attention and is embarking on a period of significant growth both domestically and overseas,” the chamber stated in the award presentation.
Proton Power, which currently has more than $1 billion in contracts, has six locations and more than 140,000 square-feet of manufacturing space, and is building a plant to produce liquid fuel for a customer.
Weaver, 73, had retired after a lifetime of launching businesses and developing new technologies, when his long-time partner Hensley talked him into starting a new venture that eventually evolved into what is now Proton Power.
Hensley and Weaver have worked together for more than 40 years on a diverse range of technologies, including brakes for Boeing 767 and 777 and military aircraft; the first production furnaces for high strength carbon fibers, technology to make the thinnest aluminum beer cans in the world for Coors and neutron absorbers for nuclear power plants.
In addition to Proton Power, some of the companies founded include US Nuclear, American Furnace Co., Weaver Enterprises, Millennium Materials, Cool Energy, Cool Solar, Sizzle and Etorne.
With demand for renewable energy technology rising, Proton Power undoubtedly will continue to grow. Weaver notes that the company is in good shape, but is keeping the privately-owned company’s financial details close to the vest.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” he says. “I can’t say how much we will grow, but we believe we have the leading technology in the renewable energy sector. We expect some pretty attractive growth. … And we expect competitors.”
To meet the rising global interest in its technology, Proton Power has added jobs locally. Three years ago the company had eight workers. Today it has 116, including 25 engineers.
Wampler calls the Proton Power technology “a game-changer for the planet.”
In addition to using the hydrogen to producing cheap electricity, the CHyP process has extremely valuable byproducts – water and biochar – that are in demand worldwide.
“The two byproducts are something we all need,” Wampler says. “People all over are struggling for clean water and for food.”
Weaver explains the water captured during the CHyP process can be turned into drinking water, which has potential use in markets across globe.
Biochar is solid carbon. Instead of releasing carbon into the air or what is called greenhouse gas emissions, the Proton Power system captures the carbon in solid form. The biochar can be used as a soil additive to increase crop yields by up to 200 percent or more.
“We planted tomatoes and conducted our own tests and saw a 300 percent yield increase,” Wampler says.
Biochar also shows promise as a supplement for animal feed, helping increase the weight of cattle, sheep and other animals.
The bottom line, says Weaver, is the planet eventually must transition from its dependence on fossil fuels to sustainable energy production.
“We’re just happy to help enable the transition to any technology that will help us be sustainable,” he says.