Three, Sixty: With Kevin O’Toole
This is an extract from Issue 21 of SDG Alpha, my newsletter that casts an Irish lens on the world of Impact Investment, Innovation, and Sustainability. In each issue, I pose three questions on the theme of sustainability to an impact entrepreneur or innovator, to get a better understanding in sixty seconds of how they’re working to achieve the SDG targets. For this issue, I was delighted to chat with Kevin O’Toole, co-founder of Exergyn, a creative clean-tech company developing unique shape memory alloys (SMAs) that can replace harmful refrigerants while simultaneously generating energy — we covered the news of Exergyn’s €35M investment round in Issue 20 of the newsletter.
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On a personal level, what impacts of the climate crisis are you most concerned about?
Personally, it’s the unknown geopolitical instability and its impact on the next generation as a result of the changes brought about by the climate crises. As a father of three young girls, I worry that they are going to find themselves in a much more difficult world, where the mass displacement of people is going to lead to a plethora of global conflicts. At present, I don’t see any sign that the general population has woken up to the threat, and I worry that when that happens, it will be too late.
Which of the UN SDGs did you start Exergyn to address?
We address Affordable & Clean Energy, and Climate Action primarily. The fundamental technology we are developing is a platform that can be used in the HVACR, Automotive, Aerospace, and Power Generation Sectors. If we look at HVAC applications for example, which are our primary target at the present, our system allows for clean affordable heating and cooling for the first time. Whilst heat pumps are being heralded as a step in the right direction, what is usually not mentioned is that they operate using extremely toxic gases known as refrigerants. These refrigerants do the cooling (and heating) work in these systems but tend to leak either during operation or during disposal. As a result, they get into the atmosphere, and once there, have the unfortunate capability to retain heat and stay there for a long time. This ultimately exacerbates global warming. So much so, that the Rocky Mountain Institute in the USA has stated that refrigerant management is the number one thing that we as a civilisation need to get a handle on if we are to mitigate the worst effects of global warming.
Refrigerants impact is measured by an index known as the Global Warming Potential (GWP), where 1 GWP is the equivalent impact of CO2 in the same volume. R134a, a common refrigerant used in AC systems has a GWP of 1430! This means it is 1430 times worse for the planet than CO2. The net result is that whilst heat pumps have a green and clean reputation, the hidden impacts of their adoption are vast. Regulators are aware of this and have moved to reduce the permissible GWPs of refrigerants, phasing some of them out completely by 2035. The issue here is that the new generation of refrigerants are less efficient and come with their own issues, such as flammability, or toxicity, and still have GWPs in the 100’s. These are not viable long-term solutions either. This is where Exergyn steps in. The core of all our technologies is a solid-state replacement for refrigerants, one that doesn’t leak, as it’s a metal, and one which exhibits a GWP of zero. This allows for truly clean cooling for the first time. Its mass adoption will remove refrigerants from the atmosphere, which will have a significant net positive impact on global temperature rise.
How does your business model enable the transition to a low carbon, or more sustainable future?
Our technology enables zero GWP heat pumping. It is also adaptable and deployable across a multitude of applications in HVACR, from the very cold — such as refrigeration — to the warmer applications such as hot water heating and space heating. As such, and since it is inherently sustainable as a function of its zero GWP and high efficiency, it can replace the likes of gas boilers, or refrigerant-based cooling systems. Our business model is not to become the next HVAC giant, but rather a supplier of the solid-state core to the HVACR OEMS — much like the Intel Inside model that Intel uses to get their processors into computers worldwide. This approach will enable the mass deployment of our technology at the fastest rate, and align the OEMs with our mission. We see this as a potential win-win-win. A win for Exergyn, a win for the OEMS facing much tighter regulations in the very near future, and a win for the environment.