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ENERGY THAT’S GOOD TO GO Written by Doug McInnis


f Keith Blackburn ’87 has his way, hybrid cars and subway cars will soon have something in common—both will use their stopping power to make them go. Hybrid automobiles already do this. They use regenerative brak-

ing systems to slow down, converting motion energy into electri- cal energy. This energy helps recharge the battery that powers the car. Subway cars use similar regenerative braking systems, but the electrical energy they produce is bled off as heat because there’s no practical way to store it. That may change. Keith and several other New York entrepreneurs

have developed a device they call the wayside energy storage system that would capture transit car braking energy and use it to power urban transit systems. The device could slash transit-system energy costs by up to 20 percent, he says. “If we can do this, it would also take a load off power systems, and help cut global warming.” In the past, technical problems kept transit systems from re-us-

ing this energy. Batteries charged too slowly to capture the massive surge of energy produced by a slowing train. “A train may slow down in 20 seconds,” he says. “You can’t charge a battery in 20 seconds.” Another storage device—called a capacitor—charged quickly, but lacked much storage capacity. Then came the invention of ultracapacitors, which hold thou-

sands of times more energy than their predecessors. “High-capacity ultracapacitors have only been around a few years,” says Keith, who believes they offer the solution to transit-system energy losses.

If the group’s device is successful, the potential market includes subways,

light rail and trolleys. “The real value is in the inner city where trains stop frequently,” Keith says. “Every time they come into a station, they’re putting on the brakes.” But there are other possible markets. “We’ve also heard from a couple of wind turbine companies.” After earning an engineering degree at Harvey Mudd, Keith worked for a

Los Angeles company that handled defense contracts, among other things. Seventeen years ago, he decided he needed a change. “I was seeking a change in environment—country living where there’s no traffic and plenty of water. I also felt morally motivated to steer clear of product development in- tended for use by our military and intelligence agencies for offensive purpos- es.” He landed in rural western New York working for a transit company. His road since has been bumpy; transit manufacturers run on a boom-bust cycle. His first transit employer went bankrupt and he has worked for four others. Keith and his colleagues were all transit-company engineers when they

decided to form their startup, Electrical Power worX. Although they still had jobs, they faced an uncertain future; Keith’s employer had already slashed its New York payrolls by more than 90 percent. Now they may have an option if their day jobs disappear. In today’s econ-

omy, one of the fastest ways to get a job is to create it. Says Keith, “We had some ideas we wanted to pursue. And we wanted to have more control over our destiny.”

F A L L /WI N T E R 2 0 1 0 H a r v e y Mu d d C o l l e g e 2 5

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