By Bill Moore
A successful business start-up investor, Kraig Higginson almost turned down the opportunity to get involved with what would become Raser Technologies and its Symetron electric motor/controller technology.
Instead, he got to thinking about all the machinery that uses electric motors today and changed his mind.
Good thing, because increasingly the modern world runs on electric motors. And while electric-drive passenger vehicles are still an emerging market, the brisk sales of hybrid-electric cars and the billions of dollars in hydrogen fuel cell research makes it inevitable that future generations will be driving or riding in vehicles powered by advanced electric motors.
And those motors won't be anything like the ones that power your table saw or run your garbage disposal. That tried and true -- but century-old design -- will have been supplanted by sophisticated motors whose internal architecture and controls are definitely not of the 19th century.
Raser Technologies' Symetron(TM) is just such an electric motor. While it uses virtually the same materials found in the common DC or AC motor, how those components are arranged and controlled results in a motor that is dramatically more efficient and has a higher power density. The Symetron motor in the Formula Lightning race car the company modified develops an amazing 420 foot-pounds of torque.
To give you a clearer sense of what that means. The new A35 V-8 engine in an Infiniti Pro-series Indy Car, which is about the same size as the Formula Lightning -- generates 385 foot-pounds a 8,000 rpm. That engine weighs 325 pounds. The Symetron weighs just 147 pounds (66.6 kg) and measures a mere 11 inches in diameter and is just 8.5 inches thick.
What's the magic? I asked Higginson.
"The eleven herbs and spices, if you will, are a combination of how the rotor and stator and windings are [arranged], as well as a control strategy that's different than standard control strategies that are out there today," he replied cryptically, adding that the companies they are licensing the technology to want to keep the technology a secret for obvious competitive reasons.
The company is publicly traded over-the-counter under the symbol of RSTG and has a current market cap of nearly $1.4 billion dollars.
Higginson founded it a little over 3 1/2 years ago. It went public in 2003. It currently has 24 employees, half of them on the engineering team.
"We're a licensing company", he explained to me. "We license the technology to motor manufacturers, and we are doing some ground-up engineering for customers that we are working with right now".
Those include the U.S. Army, for whom Raser is developing an integrated start-alternator for a hybrid Humvee project, as well as a joint project with the U.S. Energy Department. In addition, the company has projects in the works with some 23 other companies, ranging from automotive to industrial traction to stationary motors.
Because of Higginson's personal love of snowmobiling -- especially in Yellowstone National Park -- and his passion for the environment, one of Raser's first demonstration vehicles was to convert a conventional Polaris snowmobile to run on electric-power only, replacing the noisy, high-polluting gasoline-engine with a Symetron motor and controller.
"I am an interesting study on this topic because I am in avid snowmobiler and I am also a very avid environmentalist, so this was dear to my heart on a couple fronts".
He asked his engineers to look at solving the environmental problems inherent in gasoline snowmobiles using Raser technology. The result was a Polaris snowmobile that is so quiet that when Higginson took his first test ride, he was able to hear his cellphone ring and talk to the party on the other end while doing 35 mph, then the top speed for the machine. Yellowstone Park restricts snowmobiles to 30 mph. Since then, the company has gotten the speed up well beyond this, Higginson said.
While that project is on the back burner for the moment, Higginson is hopeful that someday, the company can work with a snowmobile manufacturer to offer both an electric and hybrid-electric model, which he pointed out will help mitigate any consumer concerns about range. The electric-only prototype used CPI Lithium ion batteries and had a range of just over 30 miles.
To showcase the power density of the Symetron motor, Raser decided to install the system into a Formula Lightning open-wheel race car. Higginson noted that the motor can develop 500 hp and has exceptional torque, so using a well-recognized racing platform made sense.
"It really has been a good platform. It really does catch people's eye, and as they start to look at what's happening with that motor... as they start to look at the size of the motor in that car and recognize that it is capable of putting out around 500 horsepower, it really does do the job that it needs to do".
Next on the agenda for the car is a run at the land speed record for this class vehicle on the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats once surface conditions permit.
"We are confident we have the vehicle and the platform to do that with," he said. When they do, it probably won't be with the lead-acid batteries that power the motor at present. He calculated that switching to lighter batteries like lithium ion would reduce vehicle weight by some 430 kilograms (947 lbs).
Higginson attended the 21st Electric Vehicle Symposium in Monaco and acknowledged, as did EDTA's president Brian Wynne, that the illness and then death of Prince Ranier did cast a shadow over the Symposium, forcing many scheduled driving events to be either scaled back or canceled. However, the Grimaldi family did allow Raser Technologies' reception to take place in the Prince's private vintage car collection, which includes some of the very earliest electric vehicles. He estimated that about 300 people attended.
As result of the Monaco exhibition and the SAE Congress, the company is now sorting through a new list of potential customers.
I asked Higginson if Raser is staking its future on the electric vehicle industry or was it looking at other potential applications. He replied that while the company clearly hopes to see automakers continue to develop more electric-drive vehicles and sees promising developments there, he acknowledged that new uses for his company's technology seem to materialize every day.
"We're working with people in industrial traction drive, which are things like forklifts and tugs. We are also working in environments that are just industrial motor applications... HVAC or pumps or other motors of that kind. So, as far as our technology goes, we're not limited to any one particular market".
He added that the company is also testing integrated start/alternators.
"There's a very broad market for this technology. It is the automotive industry that we are very excited about.. and it is the industrial applications. It's everything from your wife's vacuum cleaner to your table saw to your vehicle. We can enhance technology in each of those environments".
While Higginson hopes the automotive industry will be the first to employ Raser motors, he's a enough of a realist to know that adoption of new technology takes years, "not weeks or months".
"We have our train on that track," he explained, "and we're moving down that track to be involved heavily in the auto industry as we go forward. The reality is you'll probably see our technology commercially becoming available in other applications just because of the timing of what it takes for the auto industry to go through testing and get something adopted in a vehicle".
For a twenty-four person company, Raser is remarkably well-funded. Higginson told me that the company has no debt and enough money in the bank to operate for four-to-five years. Although it is currently listed as an Over-the-Counter (OTC) stock, the company has made application to one of the major exchanges and is slowly working its way through the process.
If Raser has any problems, it's dealing with all the potential new business and inquiries that keep coming its way. That has to be a nice "problem" to have.
Editor's Note: This synopsis represents the salient points of this 31-minute interview. For more details, be sure to listen to the entire interview by using the Flash-based MP3 Player below the featured photo or download the MP3 file to your hard drive for playback on your favorite MP3 device.