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Design Better Portable Power – A Hybrid Generator

By TJ McCueSunday, July 20, 2014
3D, 3D Design, 3D Printing, Design, Manufacturing

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As a startup, any prospective customer call is welcome. But when that call comes from NASA, asking if you can help them with a special project, well, that’s got to be a great day. Planetary Power, based in Redmond Washington, received that call and knew that their hybrid generator, HyGen, would be just the product that NASA needed to be successful.

NASA was about to run a 120-day Mars simulation, located on the Mauna Loa Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. If you have been to some of Hawaii’s volcanoes, you know that they resemble another planet. The red rocks and thin air at Mauna Loa, which is at 8,500 feet above sea level, gave the six person crew the conditions they needed to simulate – extremely harsh conditions to help them prepare for future Mars missions.

Joe Landon, CEO of Planetary Power, explains that traditional generators are expensive and inefficient. The high altitude and treacherous conditions made refueling costly and difficult. The Mars simulation was the perfect way to demonstrate how their hybrid generator could provide continuous and reliable power at a fraction of the cost of a traditional generator. Combined with handling the rugged environment, the generator had to also minimize its impact to the local environment.

The HyGen provides cleaner power because this team built this generator from the ground up. When they explained their approach to me, I don’t think there’s one off-the-shelf part in the entire generator. They designed everything, piece by piece, to create a system that the most efficient and effective use of power.

Mike Basso explains how they developed just one of their custom parts, with the help of a high end aerodynamicist. They have been on the path to rebuilding, almost from scratch, a generator that will change the way power is supplied in remote and difficult environments. Mike was not onsite in the Redmond offices, but working remotely, so he joined us in a WebEx meeting where we recorded the call and screen as you see it. That may help to explain the slightly different audio quality of a traditional video recording. Mike walked us through how they use Autodesk Inventor, with files in the Vault (the data management software that helps organize, manage, and track data creation, simulation, and documentation processes), to work on various projects and components.

As the team explains the various parts, they showcase a whole range of 3D printed parts – parts that they print via the RedEye On Demand service from Stratasys. Both Joe and Mike talk about how cool it is to upload a file to RedEye and in two or three days your part gets shipped and is sitting on your desk.

Roger Lenard, Chief Technology Officer for the company, walks us through some of the 3D printed parts and how they all fit together in a short video below. Remember now, this team is building a new, powerful engine that produces more power, for its size, than traditional generators. So, 3D printing has saved them time and money and Roger explains how they discovered a minor mistake when assembling the plastic parts. I hear this time and again how prototyping in plastic uncovers a challenge they would not have seen until after an expensive die or mold was made.

The HyGen combines diesel generator technology has integrated energy storage for off-grid power (Lithium Ion batteries) and offers a peak output power of 60 kW. The engine runs only when the batteries are depleted or the load demand is high. Peak loads are met by drawing energy from the battery bank and/or the engine, if needed, and it is all computer-controlled without user input. The HyGen also can be hooked up to alternate power sources like solar panels or wind systems.

Their system operates at 60% to 80% less, fuel-wise, than conventional generators resulting in significant savings. In the demonstration, you cannot hear it because the engine only kicks on when the solar power and battery components need a boost.

The NASA project is known as HI-SEAS (short for Hawaii – Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) and the HyGen hybrid generator provided just what the space agency ordered – clean power that could operate in the harshest conditions without damaging the environment. Planetary Power is changing the way the government, the military, construction, and many other industries think about providing power to their remote operations (and even areas not so remote).

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