Four entrepreneurial Ohio State students developed a battery pack, delivery system and related phone app to replace emissions-heavy gas generators as a portable power source — and they’ve attracted investors to make the project a viable business.
But what really gets them charged? Ask them why they want to show their invention to children in local school districts.
“Honestly, what separates people from each other and from opportunities, money or resources is just access to knowledge. That’s really the key,” says team member Jacob Buaful Jr., a computer science student. “Our idea is to go out there into classrooms and do the big general assembly talks informing people of what sustainability is and how they can help.”
The team, pictured in photo above includes (from left) Anita Nti, a computer science major; Jacob Buaful; Jacob’s brother, Caleb Buaful, who is studying industrial and systems engineering; and Danny Freudiger, a mechanical engineering doctoral student. (Photocredit: Matt Schutte/College of Engineering)
The students’ idea got its spark as they walked around Ohio State football tailgates in 2019. What they noticed: So. Many. Generators.
They started talking to Buckeye fans about how much energy they used for the TVs, slow cookers, mini fridges and satellite dishes powered by the generators before, during and after the games.
Then came the homework.
Using their observations, campus data and scientific research, they estimated that gas-powered generators used by fans on any given Saturday emit over 120,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent emissions of over 3,200 sedans for the same amount of time.
As members of the Ohio State student organization Smart Campus, founded by Freudiger, the team saw an opportunity for a project that aligned with the university’s efforts to become carbon neutral by 2050.
“We came back and started talking and thinking: If that’s just from one day, that’s thousands of pounds of CO2 being emitted at one game and just at Ohio State, how much more would be over a season and then at other schools across the nation as well? We saw that as a very significant impact,” says Nti, Smart Campus president. “So we thought about how we could possibly be a solution, hence the reason the project is called ‘Energy Storage as a Service.’” Or, ESaaS.
As an alternative to the generators, they are developing rechargeable battery packs; a sustainable mobile delivery service via electric cargo bikes; and a smart mobility and logistics platform to coordinate battery distribution and track status.
“From there we really thought about the user experience. Because you are providing this as an alternative, you want that transition to be smooth. If it’s too hard, they’ll just keep using the generator because it’s easy to use,” Caleb Buaful says. So the students also created a cloud-connected mobile phone application to monitor the batteries and for people to request and interact with the service.
"It's been exciting to watch this talented team of students not only develop cutting-edge technology but navigate the complexities of entrepreneurship and business development,” says BJ Yurkovich, a researcher at Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research who is mentoring the students. “I am really looking forward to witnessing what comes next for them."
Furthermore, they devised a way to use what they’ve learned to help school children think about sustainability early — an opportunity the Buaful brothers say they didn’t have when they went to school.
They built a curriculum to present to schools and planned visits (as the pandemic allows) to Metro High School, Upper Arlington City Schools and Columbus City Schools.
“We’re starting them while they’re young so they can start thinking about it and getting into it,” Caleb Buaful says. “People just don’t understand how to be really effective. Even this water bottle I’m drinking: I can cut the top off, put some soil in it and start a garden.”
From a curriculum standpoint, Freudiger says, the project touches on many different components, such as sustainable energy, software development and Internet of Things.
“Then there’s the fact that you actually have a physical thing you can take into the classroom so kids can see it, they can interact with it, they can play with it,” he says.
Before long, the students decided to create a business for their “Energy Storage as a Service” project; they called it Electrion.
“I would say the first push was the Ohio State Sustainability Fund grant that we won,” Jacob Buaful says, referring to $89,000 they received in January 2020 to launch the pilot program. “That was an eye-opener: We won something; this could mean something.”
Later, they connected with MegaJoule Ventures, an investment firm that shared their passion for sustainability. The company owns, invests in and strategically aligns with companies and organizations focused on developing, validating and launching environmentally sustainable energy technologies and solutions.
MegaJoule Ventures’ $250,000 investment provides support for the team to accelerate the formal market introduction of the Electrion products as well as the development of the engineering and design tool required to integrate a wide range of battery chemistries.
“MegaJoule Ventures is excited about the Electrion opportunity because of the great team in place both in terms of vision but also the depth of knowledge rapidly they gained and the accelerated deployment schedule they maintained in releasing an advanced prototype,” says company CTO Michael Gurin. “Their fundamental understanding of the electrical energy storage market is also strategically aligned with our investment strategy.”
Gurin has significant intellectual property expertise and a deep understanding of renewable energy and energy management to help the team find market opportunities.
“This project definitely sparked my interest in sustainability,” says Nti, but the knowledge gaps she saw are pushing her to stay in the field.
“People automatically think of sustainability on such a large scale and totally negate the fact that there’s so much we can be doing on a smaller scale that can come together to actually make a large impact,” she says. She wants to explore that in her career via community initiatives and policies.
“I think everything we do should be about sustainability,” Freudiger says. “One of the bigger reasons why we’re here is to leave the world a better place than we found it so future generations can enjoy it and have it better off than we did, hopefully, if we do things the right way. I think all of that is centered around sustainability. It’s sustainability for energy. It’s sustainable communities. There are so many different components to sustainability, and that’s why I think it’s so important that we keep it at the front of our minds all the time.”
By Joan Slattery Wall, Sustainability Institute at Ohio State