Brian Hageman has devoted a good part of his life to building nuclear power plants. Now he is ready to commercialize a new type of engine that could drastically reduce the need for electricity — and save money in the process.
Hageman is president and chief executive of Deluge, a Phoenix-based company that is preparing to bring its thermal hydraulic engine to the marketplace.
Ten manufactured prototypes of the engine, which convert heat energy to mechanical energy without combustion, will be used to drive pumps at an old oil field on the Kansas-Missouri border beginning next month. The technology is ready for more extensive use after being tested last year at a U.S. Department of Energy research center at the old Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming.
Hageman also sees a bright future for his patented engines in the desalination of sea water and compression of Freon for air conditioning. Both use large amounts of electricity and would benefit from lower energy costs.
He has even proposed a grand vision to the U.S. Department of the Interior to take water from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, remove the salt and pump the fresh liquid uphill to the Valley to provide a new source of water to thirsty Arizona by 2020.
"This technology is the key to making it economical," he said.
The thermal hydraulic engine works on the principle that fluids expand when they are warmed, which creates a change in volume that can be used to displace a piston.
A working fluid — carbon dioxide that has been liquefied under high pressure inside a cylinder — is heated by circulating hot water through a heat exchanger. The liquid carbon dioxide expands as it is heated and pushes on a piston, creating the power to operate a pump. Cold water can then be pumped into the heat exchanger, causing the carbon dioxide to contract, pulling the piston back to its original position and preparing the cycle to begin again.
The hot water can be produced by solar, geothermal or other environmentally benign heat source without the use of electricity.
Hageman developed his first thermal hydraulic engine in his garage in 1984. It wasn’t much of a device, but he did prove it would move a shaft.
He formed Deluge in 1996 to commercialize the technology after a 10-year career as an engineer for the Bechtel Corp. on nuclear and other energy projects. His work gave him experience in highpressure design and construction, which helped him to design his engine.
"I was a typical entrepreneur and decided to pursue my dream," he said of his decision to start his own company.
Initially, Hageman thought the system would work best for pumping groundwater for agriculture (thus the name Deluge), and he got a permit to test his first unit at the University of Arizona experimental farm in the town of Maricopa. But he met a group of Wyoming business representatives at a trade show who asked him to develop a similar system to pump oil. And, with oil prices soaring, that appears to be the most commercially promising use for the technology, he said.
Because electricity can account for 30 percent or more of the cost of operating an oil well, the power-saving technology could allow the reopening of old oil fields that are too expensive to pump using conventional engines, he said.
In tests by the Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center at Teapot Dome, a prototype Deluge engine operated a single well for 30 days using geothermal hot water.
In a report, the center said the technology could offer "significant" benefits for oil and gas production, especially because CO2 and hot and cold water are commonly found or can be produced in oil fields.
Also the engine’s "relatively small profile compared to typical field pumping units may provide a cost-effective alternative where limited space or esthetic concerns must be considered," the report said.
For the next step, production prototypes are being built by Prince Manufacturing Corp. in South Dakota for the Missouri project. Water will be heated using natural gas from the wells, which Hageman said will represent a minimal cost for energy. He figures the operating cost will be only 10 percent to 20 percent of a traditional well.
The operation also promises to bring Deluge its first revenue. Since its start, the company has been funded with about $8 million in "angel" investments from venture capitalists willing to bet the technology will pay off someday.
The company also plans to produce two prototype engines for water desalinization that could be tested this summer at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Water Quality Improvement Center in Yuma.
Large amounts of electricity are needed to pump salty water through reverse osmosis membranes, and a reduction in energy cost is the key to making the process economically viable. Using solar energy panels to heat the water allows the system to operate with one-tenth of the power of electric motors typically used for desalinization, Hageman said.
Pat Phelan, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Arizona State University, who has tested a Deluge desalination engine using brackish water, said the process appears to be technically feasible although more testing is needed to determine its commercial viability. Still, the early results are encouraging, he said.
"What we found out is that the engine would work with lower-temperature water than what Deluge normally uses — as low as 125 degrees Fahrenheit — and it was still able to push water through the membrane," Phelan said. "That (temperature) is easily achievable with solar technology."
More information on the engine is available at www.delugeinc.com.