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August 6, 2013

Beltane lines up financing to produce energy, fresh water from one device

Courtesy Beltane
Courtesy Beltane
Beltane co-founders Laurenz Schmidt, left, and Steve Musica stand with one of their prototype solar power generation units at Brunswick Landing.

While exploring markets for a lightweight, high-capacity solar power generator, entrepreneurs Steve Musica and Laurenz Schmidt had a eureka moment: The areas around the world with the most sunlight often have the most dire shortages of fresh water.

"If you have a shortage of fresh water, you almost by definition have great sunlight," Musica says.

That realization led the budding Brunswick-based company, Beltane, to pair its solar and thermal power generator with desalination machines to purify salt water using a process called forward osmosis.

In coming years, the need for fresh water is expected to increase dramatically. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization expects that, by 2025, nearly 1.8 billion people will live in regions with absolute water scarcity and up to two-thirds of the world's population could live in areas where demand for water is strained.

"The problem is absolutely tremendous," Musica says.

The company's core technology is its downward-facing solar power and thermal exchange unit, which is perched above an array of Fresnel lenses that track the sun throughout the day and reflect sunlight, concentrated 20-fold, onto a solar panel.

The combined output of electric and thermal energy, Musica says, allows the system to operate a desalination filter.

"Our focus is on the combined solar power and fresh water and we haven't seen too many companies doing that," Musica says.

Last month, Beltane received its fourth grant, for $2,900, from the Maine Technology Institute to complete its study of pairing the solar unit with desalination machines that are already on the market. The company has received a total of $44,900 in MTI funding.

A key to the overall system is that the forward osmosis process uses around one-ninth the power of reverse osmosis for purifying salt water and, with the Beltane generator, can do it all without a connection to a power grid. The lower power requirement to run the desalination machine also means the unit can put out more electricity.

"We want to go where nobody else wants to go because it doesn't pay for them to put in transmission lines or bring supplies," Schmidt says.

The company is still in the development stage, but Schmidt has an eye on markets he became familiar with as chief technology officer for Fairchild Semiconductor International Inc., a position he held until 2008.

"I have some very good acquaintances in government and (non-governmental organizations) in the Middle East, from my previous career, who are very interested to get technology of the kind we are making," Schmidt says.

That's because the unit's portability and autonomous operation would pair well with the needs of nomadic and semi-nomadic populations that need freshwater for irrigation, drinking and livestock.

"It's very scalable and energy autonomous and doesn't require anything but energy from the sun," Schmidt says.

Musica says the design aims to protect the solar panel from the elements by having it face downward, and the use of multiple lenses allows wind to pass through the unit easily, which prevents the need for a bulky and weighty frame.

That lightweight and simple design will have other benefits down the road, Musica says.

"Rather than building the metal structure and components all in Maine, we'll make the critical components and then have people build [the rest] at the installation site," Musica says.

The co-founders say potential clients include Caribbean resorts that don't have the capacity for large-scale desalination systems or reliable energy from the grid.

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