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How materials you’ve never heard of could clean up air conditioning

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In recent months, researchers at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and the University of Cambridge performed a simple experiment that could have huge implications for cooling and refrigeration.

They placed plastic crystals of neopentyl glycol (a common chemical used to produce paints and lubricants) into a chamber, added oil, and cranked down a piston. As the fluid compressed and applied pressure, the temperature of the crystals rose by around 40 ˚C.

It was the largest temperature shift ever recorded from materials placed under pressure. And alleviating the pressure has the opposite effect: cooling the crystals dramatically.

In a Nature Communications paper published last year, the research team said the results highlight a promising approach to replacing traditional refrigerants, potentially delivering “environmentally friendly cooling without compromising performance.” Such advances are crucial, since increasing wealth, growing populations, and rising temperatures could triple energy demands from indoor cooling by 2050 without major technological improvements, the International Energy Agency projects.

The temperature change in the materials was comparable to those that occur in the hydrofluorocarbons that drive cooling in standard air conditioning systems and refrigerators. Hydrofluorocarbons, however, are powerful greenhouse gases.

The work is based on a long-known phenomenon, familiar if you’ve ever stretched a balloon and touched it to your lips, in which certain materials produce heat when placed under pressure or stressed. Putting these so-called caloric materials near magnetic and electrical fields also does the trick in some cases, as do certain combinations of these forces.  

Scientists have been developing magnetic refrigerators based on these principles for decades, though they tend to require large, powerful, and expensive magnets. But considerable strides are being made, according to a review paper in Science on Thursday, written by Xavier Moya and N.D. Mathur, materials scientists at the University of Cambridge who worked on the experiments described above.

Research teams are pinpointing numerous caloric materials that undergo large temperature shifts and putting them to work in prototype heating and cooling devices, according to the Science paper. Materials and devices that can release and transfer large amounts of heat using electricity, strain, and pressure—approaches that only really took off starting a little more than a decade ago—are already catching up with the performance achieved through decades of work in magnet-based cooling devices.

In addition to reducing the need for hydrofluorocarbons, the hope is the technology could eventually be more energy efficient than standard cooling devices, given the heat released relative to the amount of energy needed to drive the change. A critical change here is that the materials remain in a solid state, while traditional refrigerants, like hydroflurocarbons, work by shifting between gas and liquid phases.

Triggering a phase change

Here’s how the technology works:

Many materials exhibit small temperature changes under certain forces. But researchers have been hunting for materials that undergo large shifts, ideally from as little added energy as possible. Among other materials, certain metal alloys have shown promising results under strain; some ceramics and polymers respond well to electrical fields; and inorganic salts and rubber look promising for pressure.

The forces or fields line up the atoms or molecules within the materials in more orderly ways, bringing about a phase change similar to what occurs when free-flowing water molecules turn into compact ice crystals. (A key difference: the phase change occurs while the materials remain in a solid state, just resulting in a more rigid one.) This process releases enough latent heat to account for the energy difference between the two states. When the materials revert back as the forces are released, it produces a temperature decrease that can then be exploited for cooling.

This isn’t very different from how cooling devices work today: they decompress hydrofluorocarbons to the point that they switch from a liquid to a gas. But this solid-state cooling approach can be far more energy efficient, at least in part because you don’t have to move the molecules nearly as far to bring about the phase change, says Jun Cui, a senior scientist with Ames Laboratory.

Moving into the market

The key to delivering competitive commercial devices is identifying affordable materials that undergo large temperature shifts, easily revert back, withstand extended cycles of these changes without breaking down (commercial refrigerators can run for millions of cycles), and aren’t expensive.

Certain materials and use cases are getting close to reaching the commercial market, says Ichiro Takeuchi, a materials scientist at the University of Maryland. He launched a company to produce cooling devices from materials that respond to stress about a decade ago, called Maryland Energy & Sensor Technology.

His research group developed a prototype cooling device that compresses and releases tubes made from nickel titanium to induce heating and cooling. Water running through the tubes absorbs and dissipates heat during the initial phase, and the process then runs in reverse to chill water that can be used to cool a container or living space.

The prototype cooling device developed by Ichiro Takeuchi’s research group.
COURTESY: ICHIRO TAKEUCHI

The company plans to produce a wine cooler, which doesn’t require the same cooling power as a large refrigerator or window AC unit, as an initial product, using an unspecified but less expensive material.

Moya, one of the authors of the Science paper, cofounded his own startup about a year and half ago. Barocal, based in Cambridge, England, has developed a prototype heat pump relying on plastic crystals that are “related to neopentyl glycol but better,” he says.

All told, a dozen or so startups have been formed to commercialize the technology, and a number of existing companies, including Chinese home appliances giant Haier and Astronautics Corporation of America, have explored its potential as well.

Cui expects we’ll see some of the first commercial products based on materials that change temperature in response to force and stress within the next five to 10 years, but he says it will likely take years longer for prices to become competitive with standard cooling products.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Primer, the fintech helping merchants consolidate the payments stack, raises £14M Series A

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Primer, the U.K. fintech that wants to help merchants consolidate their payments stack and easily support new payment methods in the future, has raised £14 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Accel, who I understand were quite proactive in persuading Primer to take the VC firm’s money.

The young company wasn’t actively fund-raising, having quietly raised £3.8 million in funding announced in May. Instead, the team was heads down building out the product and wooing potential customers by holding technical workshops and in-depth interviews over Zoom with 100 merchants — activity that didn’t go unnoticed.

Also participating in the Series A are existing investors: Balderton, SpeedInvest and Seedcamp, who were joined in the round by new backer RTP Global. Sonali De Rycker, partner at Accel, will join Primer’s board.

Founded by ex-PayPal employees – via PayPal’s acquisition of Braintree — Primer wants to offer one payments API to (hopefully) rule them all, with the explicit aim of bringing greater transparency to a merchant’s payment stack.

The thinking is that larger merchants, especially those that operate in more than one geography, have to support an array of payment methods, which brings with it significant technical overhead, a poor user experience, and lack of transparency.

Primer, now described as a “low code” platform, carries out a lot of that heavy-lifting on behalf of merchants and while remaining steadfastly payment method agnostic. By doing so, the idea is to reduce friction when adopting new payment methods as they come to market, and be able to provide better insights into things like how well each checkout option is performing.

As well as payment-service-providers (PSPs), the platform has connectors for fraud providers, chargeback services, subscription billing engines, BI tools, loyalty and rewards platforms. Both payments and non-payments services can be “seamlessly connected to the checkout experience and payments flow via workflows, enabling merchants to unify their fraud migration efforts, build sophisticated transaction routing, and solve complex flows – all with no code,” explains Primer.

Primer says the additional funding will be used for international business development and scaling its team. Billed as a remote-first company, Primer has 23 employees across six countries, and says it has already picked up traction across mid-market and large enterprise e-commerce merchants across Europe.

Comments Paul Anthony, Primer’s co-founder and head of product and engineering: “During our time at PayPal, we saw first-hand the technical burden online merchants face trying to offer the best payments experiences to their customers globally. Our low-code approach enables merchants’ payments teams to manage and expand their payments ecosystems, and maintain sophisticated payments logic with a familiar workflow UI”.

Meanwhile, the new investment brings Primer’s total funding to £17.8 million, and comes only a few weeks after the initial launch of the company’s platform.

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Gillmor Gang: Electrical Banana

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Thanks I’m giving for the start of the first big online season. Yes, the pandemic has put in place a gigantic move to the digital for our immediate and accelerated future. We all know how this plays out in the required state of things pre-vaccine. But there’s an undercurrent not so hidden there of a dynamic answer to my wife’s stubborn question: Where’s my Jetpack?

She’s a child of the 60s, a post-Beatles time of imploding dreams and dashed expectations. James Bond got to fly a Jetpack, but the telltale burned gasoline exhaust made the effect an artifact of what wasn’t going to happen. In an electric decade and noise-canceling AirPods, maybe it’s more likely to surface than not, but if so, what’s the next Jetpack?

My vote is for the electric newsletter, a notification engine that knows what I’m tracking, projects the trends circulating my core peers, and invests proactively in the products we want to accelerate. It’s a self healing economy, a research coordinator, a humor and media rewarder. On the Gang, we use a blend of live streaming, backchannel notifications, and everything up to but not including a newsletter.

From its earliest days, Twitter promised a future where RSS authority would be mined in a social context. What I mean by that is RSS delivered the ability, the chair in the sky opportunity Louis C.K. described, the chance to explore the world alongside the artists formerly known as accredited journalists. It was always a tough sell for the displaced gatekeepers, but flash forward to today and you can see they’re all bloggers and podcasters now.

The moment the meritocracy window opened, the definition of success moved to the readers, the viewers, the social enterprise as Marc Benioff insisted. Software as a service mined those social signals as fuel for what the iPhone delivered in the mobile wave. Now the mobile economy is expanding to the silicon on the desktop. M1 seems like an evolution, but its entry point on consumer laptops is designed to produce network effects in the same way Office 97 boosted Windows 95 into orbit.

So where is this electric newsletter if it’s so important? As a vehicle for finding stuff I didn’t know I cared about, newsletters suffer from too many of them with too few business models driving them. Subscriptions derive revenue but reduce the network effects of advertising supported subsidy of firewalls. You get reach but quantity explodes. Context glut is not a pretty thing, either.

Our early attempts at constructing a Gang newsletter spawned the realtimeTelegram feed; its group-shared notification stream valuable as much for what we skipped as when we dipped in to it. As a framing device for the Gillmor Gang recording sessions, we could anticipate both what we wanted to talk about and what we wanted to avoid. Trump fatigue gets burned off in Telegram, while science and innovation get drilled down on and fleshed out in advance.

Adding a Twitter feed (follow @gillmorgang) pushes Likes and retweets into the mix. The live recording stream generates Facebook Watch Parties and additional comments. An edited version here on TechCrunch adds this related commentary. But where’s the newsletter for all these live pieces?

Perhaps the answer goes back to the Jetpack? It may not be the Jetpack we are looking for, but rather the components that make up this stream as a service. A Jetpack offers the dream of instant teleportation without the traffic jams or being polite about your Uber driver’s musical taste. Zoom already offers some of that promise, where saving the commute opens up hours in your day. Zoom-enabled shopping and delivery management will go a long way.

As Donovan presciently proclaimed, Electrical Banana gonna to be the very next phase. My electric newsletter is the perfect definition of a pipe dream. It’s not so much as when it’s going to get here as what.

__________________

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary, and Steve Gillmor . Recorded live Friday, November 20, 2020.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang

For more, subscribe to the Gillmor Gang Newsletter and join the backchannel here on Telegram.

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook … and here’s our sister show G3 on Facebook.

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Firstminute Capital launches second $111 fund, featuring a whos-who of founders as LPs

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London HQ’d Firstminute Capital has announced its second early-stage venture fund of $111m (£87m). Founded and cornerstoned in 2016 by Brent Hoberman CBE (best known as co-founder of lastminute.com and MADE.com), together with Spencer Crawley (formerly of Goldman Sachs), this new fund comes after the first fund of $100M, giving Firstminute $211M assets under management, investing across Europe and the US at the seed stage.

Firstminute’s team of 18 is based in London, Stockholm and Berlin and now has plans to open an office in LA next year.

Of note is the fact that its LPs now number 70 founders of billion-dollar businesses as investors, and that Firstminute is being so open. VCs typically do not reveal much information about LPs. Hoberman has clearly also leveraged his position as founder of the Founders Forum group which runs events and activities for European tech founders.

The fact that so many founders – largely drawn from the ranks of European startups – have invested is unusual, certainly for European VC funds. It includes 16 founders of $10bn+ “decacorn” technology businesses, including Palantir, Wayfair, Ocado, MongoDB, Zalando, Supercell and Check Point, as well as founders from Huda Beauty, Graphcore and Rappi. Included are board members and CEOs from large technology companies.

RIT Capital Partners is the fund’s anchor investor. This is their first such position in a European venture capital firm. They previously backed leading US funds including Sequoia, Benchmark, Thrive and Iconiq. Additional institutional investors include the Chinese technology giant Tencent, FMCG conglomerate Henkel, London-based venture fund Atomico and four Californian multi-stage firms.

The existing Fund I portfolio consists of 56 companies that have collectively raised approximately $0.5bn in funding.

Firstminute says half of its current portfolio companies have UK headquarters, with the remaining half split between continental Europe and North America. Two-thirds of the businesses are B2B and one third are B2C.

Hoberman said in a statement: “European technology is reaching escape velocity, and it’s fantastic to enable so many global serial entrepreneurs to give their experience to the next generation: we have over 70 unicorn founders joining us on this journey so far, and more to come as we approach final close. Seed venture investing is attracting ever higher quality backers which will help more founders succeed.”

Crawley, firstminute Co-founder & General Partner, said: “Our healthcare systems, workplaces and educational establishments face fresh complexities. The service economy is having to re-imagine itself. The gap between financial markets and the real economy is growing wider (with the young most at risk). Start-ups are not a panacea, but emerging technology companies have a key role to play in today’s recovery strategy, both in their mindset and the products they will create.”

I asked Hoberman to what extent was the internationalization of the fund‘s geographical footprint related to Brexit?

“Some investors have asked us about the risks of Brexit to a UK-based fund and it’s been great to highlight the international nature of our approach,” he said. “The potential threats of a bad Brexit deal ensured we moved faster to cover more geographies.”

I also asked him what advantages or disadvantages does having so many founders as LPs confer on the fund?

“Operators understand the rollercoaster of the founder journey well. They know the path to success is rarely linear. They have lived the scaling journey with all its challenges. They can impart this wisdom to the next generation.

“These founders know about blitzscaling, board management, prioritization, fundraising, internationalization and above all the role of talent and teams. This knowledge can make the difference between failure and extraordinary success.

“Furthermore successful founders often have world-class network, useful for hiring, internationalization and business development deals,” he said.

Firstminute also announced some team changes. Arek Wylegalski, formerly of Index Ventures, has joined as a partner for Fund II. Arek was a Venture Partner with the firm during Fund I. Lina Wenner, formerly of BCG, has been promoted to Associate Partner, and Camilla Mazzolini, Clara Lindh Bergendorff and Sam Endacott have been promoted to Principals. Min Nolan, Head of Platform & Operations, and Anais Benazet, Head of Community, lead the portfolio support function, whilst Henry Lane-Fox, Steve Crossan and Tommy Stadlen continue to invest as venture partners.

The backers of firstminute capital funds include the founders and/or executives from the companies listed below:

firstminute LPs – Founders of $10bn+ companies, include:

Joe Lonsdale (Palantir Technologies), Robert Gentz (Zalando), Niraj Shah (Wayfair), Tim Steiner (Ocado), Marius Nacht (Check Point), Kevin Ryan (MongoDB), Ilkka Paananen (Supercell), Adyen, Autonomy, Airtel.

firstminute LPs – Founders of $1bn+ companies, include:

Sebastian Mejia (Rappi), Ross Mason (MuleSoft), Pete Flint (Trulia), Martin Migoya (Globant), Vikrant Bhargava (PartyGaming), Martin Varsavsky (Jazztel, Fon, Eolia), Fabrice Grinda (OLX), Steve Fredette (Toast), Rafi Gidron (Chromatis), Simon Nixon (Moneysupermarket), Lars Hinrichs (XING), Johan Brand (Kahoot), Huda Kattan (Huda Beauty), Tom Chapman & Ruth Chapman (Matchesfashion), Nigel Toon (Graphcore), Carl Pei (OnePlus), Hanzade Dogan (Hepsiburada), Barry Smith (Skyscanner), Sir Charles Dunstone (Carphone Warehouse), Hamish Shephard (HelloFresh), Alexander Rittweger (Payback), Marketshare, King.com, BlaBlaCar, Qunar, Net-a-Porter, Fox Kids Europe, Webhelp, Betfair, Datamonitor, Tradex Technologies, Zoopla.

firstminute LPs – Current or Former CEOs and Chairs, include:

Eric Schmidt (former Chairman and CEO, Google), Michael Lynton (Chairman, Snap and Warner Music Group, former CEO and Chairman, Sony), Sir Paul Ruddock (Co-founder & former CEO of Lansdowne Partners, Chairman Oxford University Endowment), Lord Mervyn Davies (Chairman of Corsair Capital, former Minister and Standard Chartered CEO & Chairman), Linda Fayne Levinson (former Chairwoman of Hertz), Jeremy Coller (Founder, Chairman and CIO Coller Capital), David Giampaolo (Chairman, Gousto), Ian Gallienne (CEO, Sienna Capital), Alexander de Carvalho (Co-founder & CIO of Public.io, Heineken NED), Babatunde Soyoye (Co-founder and Managing Partner, Helios Investment Partners), Nextdoor, PicsArt, Booking.com, Nordeus, Kinnevik AB, JCDecaux Holdings.

firstminute LPs – Institutional Investors, include:

RIT Capital Partners, Tencent, Atomico, Henkel, Felicis Ventures, The Raine Group, LionTree Partners, Lombard Odier.

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