The hard work’s happened, and the hard work’s about to happen for FasTec chief executive Malcolm Woods.
FasTec Ltd has spent the past 10 years researching and perfecting a starter system that will allow a three phase electric motor to run on a single phase (essentially weaker) power supply.
FasTec is a patented design that overcomes the large initial power surge required to start electric motors, (both single and 3 phase motors), from the mostly single phase sources around much of New Zealand. Three phase motors are seen in uses such as a cow yard wash down pumps, submersible water pumps, and compressors.
Along the way Fastec has also invented a better soft-start clutch, providing another means to allow an electric motor to get up to speed gradually (though still relatively quickly) instead of it stalling and burning out.
Having got all the bugs out of the FasTec (Field Aligned Starting Technique) Starter, Woods is now looking for a New Zealand manufacturer, and is about to take the products to market.
Which is a long way from a standing start 10 years ago, when Woods came across a paper by Auckland University Professor John Boys about a new technique to start 3-phase motors.
“I thought, if this is possible, it would be a very useful way to run 3-phase motors with single phase power,” Woods says. He’d recently been working in Asia and was well-versed in problems of power supply.
The first model proved that the FasTec method could work, but with limitations. There was a learning process as the design evolved and the factors integrating FasTec with motor performance were optimised. More clever design resulted in maximising the starting energy and the range of loads.
“We sorted through the parameters, it was a real learning curve,” he says. “No one had done this sort of work before.”
The FasTec starter works on any kind of single phase power source.
Usually a longer supply line causes a voltage drop, which makes it more difficult to supply the initial drawdown of up to six times the operating current required to start the motor.
For example a standard 2.2kW motor with an operating current of 10 amps may pull 50-60 amps when starting.
“With a long supply line causing dropping voltage you can have trouble supplying this in-rush current,” says Woods. “The motor may not start, and as heat is generated it may in fact just sit there and cook.”
Another aspect of an in-rush current is that much of the energy is generated as heat, and repeatedly stopping and starting a motor can result in overheating.
Because the FasTc starter uses capacitors, it is not reliant on an in-rush current, so there is no heat buildup, and therefore no problems with multiple start/stop. For something like a sump pump which comes on/off as it keeps water out of a basement for example, such a feature is very valuable says Woods.
One of the major advantages of the FasTec starter is seen where petrol or diesel powered generators are used as the power supply for an electric motor.
A 2.2kW 3-phase motor needs a 3-phase generator of (say) 10kW to provide the necessary in-rush current. Such a generator can cost up to $20,000, whereas with a $1500 Fastec starter, such a 2.2kW 3-phase motor can be started and run with a 4kW single phase generator costing (about) $2000
At the same time, the smaller generator will be working under load, which ironically makes it last longer. Such a lighter, cheaper, smaller and more fuel efficient type of set-up is perfect for things such as disaster relief says Woods.
The FasTec starter has many applications with 2-3kW 3-phase motors but the cost advantages increase with larger sized motors. Whereas a 2.2kW 3-phase electric motor is $400-$500 cheaper than its single phase alternative the cost difference gets much greater as motor size increases.
In situations where larger motors are required, or 3-phase power would have to be installed (at least $7000) the FasTec starter option becomes “a no-brainer” says Woods. A single phase motor is less reliable, less efficient and has half the life of an equivalent 3-phase motor.
However, the road to commercialisation has not been an easy one – with one particular challenge being that some prototype machines were destroyed in the Christchurch earthquakes. Woods is in discussions with a New Zealand manufacturer, and says it is quite likely they will be made here.
Fastec will also probably use a national distributor, though he realises a degree of market education will be required to get the product accepted. Though many people in outlying areas would use 3-phase motors if they could, presently they can’t because they’re only on single-phase power.
Woods is unsure of the demand, but is encouraged that an attendance at last year’s Fieldays at Mystery Creek generated 700 inquiries over its three days. “There were a lot of people expressing interest,” he says.
And though the first market will be New Zealand, the real payoff markets will be offshore, particularly in those large areas with poor power supplies.
The FasTec starter has a number of international patents, as has the FasTec Clutch, a sort of an along the way invention.
Even though motors drag a large amount of current on starting, the inertia created by whatever the motor is attempting to power may still prevent them from getting up to operating speed
So the Fastec clutch was designed to allow the motor to do a number of rotations before the load was engaged and then for the load to be slipped deliberately as it gains speed. While there are a number of soft-start type mechanisms, the FasTec Clutch is a controlled, non-grab way to start a motor.
The clutch is a separate unit and product in its own right, “but with the starter and clutch, you can cope with very significant loads from a single phase line,” he says.
Some of the product development funding has been obtained through (the then) FRST, as well as NZTE.
“We’ve kept our heads down and developed the product using specialised electrical engineers,” he says. “We wanted to get to the point where we’re utterly confident we have the bugs out, and we’ve now reached the interesting end of that.”
As is the old adage, things would’ve been done differently if, in hindsight, he knew before what he knows now.
But being such a new area, the FasTec starter has always been a work in progress. As can be imagined there is considerable intellectual property and smarts tied up in the FasTec starter, and in future development Wood s envisages software rather than hardware components to achieve the same result, especially as the starter is developed for larger 3-phase motors.
Woods realises that the next stage of commercialisation will be a completely different test of his skills.
It is commonly estimated that it costs seven to 15 times to commercialise a product as it does to develop it.
But, given the interest from power supply companies with their single phase power networks , and the interest from electrical engineers when FasTec demonstrated the starter six years ago at their annual conference, Woods expects those in the know to be genuinely keen on purchasing the starter and clutch.
In the meantime, FasTec is to confirm who and where the starter will be manufactured – all the time while setting up distribution and sales channels to take its products to market.
The hard work’s happened, the hard work’s about to begin.