A Kiwi invention that makes wood heaters burn slow, hot and clean has caught the attention of US regulators and manufacturers
The problem had been smouldering away in the back of Mark Kendall’s mind for 20 years. One day he entered his workshop and set about solving it. An inventor, engineer and businessman, Kendall has always created his own machines and tools. His goal this time was to find a way to stop wood heaters consuming so much fuel, burning too hot and then petering out.
Within a couple of weeks he’d achieved it, coming up with a way of making fires burn slower, hotter and cleaner. His device, the variable choked venturi valve (VcV), also dramatically reduces the emissions they release.
“Our Auckland lab tests put the emissions numbers for this modified wood-burning fire at 50 times better than for the original fire, and as good as a gas heater,” says Kendall.
Confident he was onto something, he set out to turn his invention into a product with a clear path to market. It was now a matter of seeking the right partnerships and investors. Kendall enlisted the help of his accountants, Brian and Alistair Gauld, who introduced him to an interested party: David John and George Platt of the Wetlandsbank Group in Florida. All four are now Kendall’s partners in the consortium.
Having set up The Flamekeeper Company and secured patents, Kendall took the VcV to a Washington State lab accredited by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2008. According to the EPA, the annual health costs associated with burning solid fuels are around US$25 billion. Following some tweaks, a second round of testing revealed Kendall had halved the EPA’s rated emission of the test stove rate and doubled the burn time.
“It’s a quantum shift in the way we can run a fire,” he says. While each stove must be manufactured to accommodate the VcV, Kendall says the cost savings in reduced fuel use are “massive” and would quickly repay the capital costs.
“On average a US wood burner uses two cubic metres of wood (US$400 worth) per season. I can cut that down by 30 to 50 percent as well as halving the emissions.”
$130,000—invested by MSI to further develop the VcV
20 years—Mark Kendall spent two decades pondering wood burners
50 x—Auckland tests showed VcV emissions were 50 times better than an original fire
2—The US Environmental Protection Agency’s test stove had twice the emissions of the VcV device
US$25 billion— annual health costs associated with burning solid fuels
The VcV has residential, commercial and industrial applications. It could be used in homes, schools and factories. “To actually get it to market is very difficult. This project is a technology project, not a market project. Once it’s finished, the market will be driven to us through the EPA.”
Getting an invention like this off the ground requires significant funding, and while Kendall, the Gauld family and the US backers have invested money, additional funding is needed to move forward.
Alistair Gauld approached Dorian Scott at Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (then Enterprise North Shore), one of the Ministry of Science and Innovation’s (MSI) regional business partners. Scott had faith in the project and the MSI invested almost $130,000 in The Flamekeeper Company through its business assistance programme, TechNZ. Kendall and his partners used the funding to develop the VcV further and to demonstrate its efficacy to the EPA and manufacturers.
“That funding really takes the foot off my throat, which is huge,” says Kendall. “Without the TechNZ team, the impact of the recession in the US would have stopped us. They’ve been instrumental so far and have opened up more possibilities for us to pursue. Their input makes our dollars go further and focuses our goals. We’re proud to be associated with them.”
Flamekeeper’s technology can be beneficial in any market where the environmental impact of wood-fired heating is a concern, says Craig Adams from MSI’s Manufacturing and High Growth Firms division.
“It’s not just about having a good idea or even a working prototype,” says Adams. “Successful innovation is about taking the idea and turning it into a successful business opportunity. Kendall understands that the idea is just 10 percent of the recipe for success. The other 90 percent is hard work and finding good partners. To thrive in the innovation game, you must surround yourself with the right support, be open to advice and be focused on getting a product into a market that will generate a return.”
Kendall is now making further adjustments to the VcV to meet EPA requirements and is working with local and overseas manufacturers. He hopes to eventually take the technology worldwide.