ThermoLift: Pumping Up a Better Heat Source

Typically, air-source heat pumps have been a realistic option for people who live in warmer climates. That’s because the performance of these heat pumps drops precipitously when the temperature goes below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

ThermoLift - Paul Schwartz and Steve Winick
ThermoLift CEO and President Paul Schwartz (left)
stands with Steve Winick, ThermoLift board member,
next to the company’s heat pump prototype. ThermoLift
is developing an all-climate air-source heat pump, which
runs on natural gas and doesn’t require a refrigerant.
The system is expected to reduce fuel consumption by
up to 50 percent in heating and cooling applications.

That soon may change, though, thanks to a Long Island company developing an all-climate air-source heat pump, which has the potential to replace current residential and commercial heating, cooling and hot-water systems across the nation and globally.

ThermoLift was cofounded by Paul Schwartz in 2012. The startup, based at Stony Brook University, is a client company in the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program. CEBIP is one of six clean-energy business incubators around the State funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

The ultra-efficient heat pump, which runs on natural gas and doesn’t require a refrigerant, is expected to reduce fuel consumption by up to 50 percent in heating and cooling applications.

“Over the last couple of decades, the technology has improved and efficient heat pumps for the colder parts of the country, such as the Northeast, are available. But they are expensive,” Schwartz said. “With our novel heat-pump technology, we can significantly cut production costs as well as the overall consumer cost.”

Schwartz said ThermoLift will be able to manufacture its product cheaper than its competitors largely because of the heat pump’s simple design. The pump, based in part on revised engines in the automotive industry, consists of fewer moving parts, uses no valves, and doesn’t need a compressor to pressurize a refrigerant. Instead, helium or hydrogen is used as a working gas.

The heat pump is a closed-cycle system in which the working gas oscillates between the three cylinders, or “chambers.” Heat is added to and removed from the cycle through heat exchangers and displacers.

“Because there are no valves, the pressure in all three chambers is always constant, always the same. If the pressure goes up, it goes up in all three chambers, if it goes down, it goes down in all three,” Schwartz said. “And, that’s the secret — the relationship between the pressure, volume and the temperature is held tightly together in an open system.”

Since the pump is driven via natural gas for both heating and cooling, the technology will help alleviate the electric grid peak overload, especially during warmer months when the electric load is stretched beyond its capacity at a time when most people are running their AC units.

Although ThermoLift is developing the pump to initially run on natural gas, it can be modified to run on a variety of heat sources, including biofuels and solar power.

“Broad adoption of our device will result in dramatic environmental improvements, including reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and the elimination of refrigerants while reducing fossil-fuel demand,” Schwartz said.

The device is expected to reach commercial production within three years and will be manufactured in the U.S with specific operations in New York State.

In addition to assistance from Stony Brook University and the university-based CEBIP, ThermoLift has received grants totaling $1.2 million from the Department of Energy and NYSERDA. The company, which is collaborating with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, also has established relationships with Brookhaven National Laboratory, National Grid and the U.S. Department of Defense.