Promethient Heats Up: Tech company targets automobile heating/cooling devices

Could a Traverse City-based technology company help shape the future of the automotive industry? Thanks to a local startup called Promethient, the answer might just be “Yes.”

Myers

According to Bill Myers, CEO of Promethient, the company is currently working with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) within the automotive industry, all with the goal of getting its technology into cars. That technology, branded as Thermavance, has the potential to fundamentally change temperature control in vehicles.

“The way that we heat and cool the passenger compartment in most cars is by heating or cooling the air,” Myers explained. “That relies on a physics process called convective heat transfer, which is not very efficient compared to what we use, which is conductive heat transfer. Basically, with our system, you are physically touching something that is hot or cold, and therefore, it is a more efficient way of heating and cooling the human body than doing it through the air.”

Promethient’s Thermavance technology combines graphene – a one-atom-thick layer of graphite, known for its incredible tensile strength, flexibility, and efficient heat conductivity – with thermoelectric heat pump devices. The resulting material can be sewn into virtually anything – be it a car seat, a garment, or a piece of military equipment – and then heated or cooled electrically. The result is what Promethient calls “human-scaled climate control”: a way of giving each individual the ability to manage their own temperature by way of conduction.

The applications go beyond just the automotive industry. Thermavance could be implemented in gear to keep firefighters cool while fighting fires. It could be added to home or office furniture, to increase comfort on a person-by-person basis. It could be used to prevent athletes from overheating during strenuous physical activity. Promethient is looking at each of these applications, as well as many others.

Myers says automotive is the focus for Promethient at this time. In cars, the Thermavance technology could be applied not only to seats, but also to steering wheels, armrests, center consoles, and even lithium ion battery packs to help maximize efficiency.

Myers points to two major benefits of using Thermavance in cars.

First, the technology would provide more flexibility in how temperature is controlled within a vehicle’s passenger compartment. Each person in the car could configure different temperature settings to suit their preferences.

“You could have the driver with their seat on heat, and the passenger with their seat on cool,” Myers said. “It will be very individualized based on who is sitting in the seat and what’s required to keep them comfortable.”

The second benefit of Promethient’s technology applies more exclusively to a growing segment of the automotive marketplace: electric cars. In 2018, plug-in electric vehicles represented 2.1% of the auto industry market share, up from 1.2% the year before. As the market grows, the focus on increasing the range of those vehicles – how far they can travel on a single battery charge – is growing.

Currently, electric vehicle range varies – not just from car to car, but also from drive to drive. Faster speeds, more hills, and lower outdoor temperatures are all factors that can affect the battery’s efficiency and reduce the range of a charge. At maximum efficiency, Tesla claims a 370-mile range for the 2019 Model S (about the distance to Chicago from Traverse City), while the 2019 Chevy Bolt EV offers a 238-mile range.

One obstacle in the way of drivers achieving these projected ranges is temperature. At most times of the year, maintaining a comfortable temperature inside the passenger cabin of a car requires either heat or air conditioning. In electric vehicles, those extra functions drain the battery.

“In electric vehicles, a very large portion of the battery capacity is used to heat and cool the passenger compartment,” Myers said. “With our system, you can use less energy to heat or cool a person in the car, and if you can do that, that means you’re not using up all the battery capacity on heating and cooling. Instead, you can use that battery capacity on range for the electric vehicle.”

While Promethient isn’t ready to share yet which automotive OEM it has been working with – or whether that OEM has a link to the electric car industry – Myers does think that new developments will be taking shape at the company soon.

“We have focused on one automotive OEM at this point,” Myers said. “Practically speaking, we’re a small company with just a few people to move the business forward, so we need to focus our resources where they are going to have the most opportunity of blossoming into business opportunities. We believe we are quite close to getting to the point where they would be willing enter what I would call a ‘production engineering’ phase, in order to get the technology ready for production.”

Even if all goes well, though, Myers says it could be a few years still before drivers start seeing Thermavance technology in new cars.

“It’s not a short-term thing,” Myers noted. “If you move at the speed of light, it still takes three years to get into production in the automotive world.”

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