Evari turns to rocket science to solve problems with heat pumps

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Off a highway nestled in the woods of New Hampshire, a small group of engineers have been quietly working on advanced heat pumps inspired by rockets and satellites, of all things.

Evari emerged from stealth on Tuesday with its core technology related to rocket turbomachinery. The goal is to add dozens of miles to electric vehicles’ range while also kicking natural gas out of the home heating business.

Heat pumps use electricity to shuttle thermal energy from one place to another, and they tend to be a lot more efficient than traditional heating. In the case of home heating, they extract heat from the outside air and transport it inside to keep its occupants warm. In a refrigerator, they take heat away from the internal compartment to keep food cool. Global sales of heat pumps have been growing at a double-digit rate in recent years, but it hasn’t been enough to keep the world on track to hit net zero carbon emissions in 2050, the IEA has said.

Today, large swaths of the globe haven’t adopted air-source heat pumps because they don’t work as well when the mercury drops. Most of those places still rely on natural gas or heating oil, and convincing people to switch will require a drop-in solution that’s cheaper to run than their existing furnace or boiler and works at extreme temperatures. The basic technology that’s inside your car or your house hasn’t changed in over a century, and it still doesn’t work well at low temperatures.

“Let’s say it’s -30 degrees Fahrenheit in Minnesota, and you have a forced baseboard hot water heater,” Walker said. “No heat pump on the market can do that at any temperature, let alone really cold temperatures.”

Yet that’s exactly the kind of system Evari will eventually target. Its turbomachinery excels when there’s a large temperature differential it has to bridge. That might mean extracting heat from a cold Minnesota night to heat a home, but it also might mean dumping heat from a refrigerated container on an EV truck into a hot afternoon in Miami. Evari isn’t disclosing its target market yet, but Walker did say that it’s targeting transportation first.

What’s more, the refrigerants most heat pumps use are either potent greenhouse gases or can break down into forever chemicals, researchers have found.

Evari’s turbo-powered heat pump uses refrigerants like propane with extremely low global warming potential. It also doesn’t require oil for lubrication. That might sound like an odd thing to highlight, but it’s hard to design an oil that works well at both ends of the spectrum and plays nice with the heat pump’s refrigerant. An oil-free heat pump can work more efficiently at a broader range of temperatures, Evari’s co-founder and CEO Steve Walker told TechCrunch.

If Evari can bring its heat pump to market at a cost that’s competitive with existing options, it stands to upend a wide range of industries. Heat pumps are used not just to heat and cool homes and vehicles, but also to generate heat for industrial processes, dehumidify buildings, keep food cold in grocery stores and more.

Walker funded the early stages of development out of pocket, tapping a modest windfall he earned from the sale of a previous startup he founded that turned waste wood into fuel. As a result, Evari has sorted out much of the technical risk, Walker said. So while the company today announced a $7.5 million seed round, it’s much further along than most seed-stage companies. The round was led by Clean Energy Ventures with participation from Farvatn Venture and angels from the Clean Energy Venture Group.

The manufacturing process for Evari’s compressors will likely be costlier than existing designs, but they should be cheaper overall because they require less in the way of materials, Walker said. “Less than 5% of the copper and rare earth materials, for instance, for the same amount of cooling or heating output,” he said. The startup’s turbocompressors range in size from as small as a dime to slightly larger than a quarter. Despite spinning at hundreds of thousands of revolutions per minute, they’re nearly silent and vibration free, he added.

By trading materials costs for some additional manufacturing expenses, Evari’s material-light approach is well-positioned to insulate the company from the growing geopolitical tensions forming over critical minerals. Much of those are either mined or processed in China or flow through Chinese-owned companies, and the U.S. government has made it a priority to decouple as much of the country’s mineral supply chain as possible.

At the same time, U.S. industrial policy has begun to favor domestic manufacturing. The Biden administration announced in February that it was devoting $63 million from the Defense Production Act to boost heat pump manufacturing specifically.

For Evari, the timing couldn’t be better. It finds itself at the confluence of three sweeping trends. Now it just has to get its super-fast compressors into production in time to catch the wave of heat pump adoption.