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fter hearing about Power Chips™ thermotunnel technology, many people find that they have questions regarding what Power Chips are, how they work, and how they might be applied in specific cooling solutions. This page is intended to address those issues.

If you have a question that is not answered here or elsewhere on our site, please feel free to contact us, or send an e-mail to pr@powerchips.gi.

  • The Basics
  • More Technical Questions
  • Questions about Applications
  • Questions about the Company and its Strategy
  • Q&A from an email in Sept, 03

    The Basics

    Q - How do Power Chips work?

    A - By creating a heat differential, energetic electrons are made to "tunnel" from one side of a tiny vacuum gap to another, creating a usable flow of electric current. This process is called thermotunneling and is based on known principles of quantum physics.

    The same process can also be used in reverse to provide cooling. For more information on the theory, see:
    Hishinuma Y, Geballe TH, Moyzhes BY, Kenny TW (2001) Refrigeration by combined tunneling and thermionic emission in vacuum: use of nanometer scale design. Applied Physics Letters 78 (17):2572-2574.

    Q - How do you claim such high theoretical outputs?

    A - The research paper mentioned above projects outputs for known materials as high as 5000 watts/cm². Because of other limitations, we expect the maximum practical output to be on the order of hundreds of watts/cm².

    Q - Have actual devices been built?

    A - Yes. Physical devices have been in the lab since 1998. Pictures are available on our website.

    Q - Why is this better than standard systems like internal combustion engines or turbines?

    A - There are many advantages. Power Chips do not rely on any mechanical work being done by the combustion of fuel, but rather the heat generated by that combustion. They can be used to generate primary power, through direct exposure to the combustion chamber, or to recover waste heat from existing systems. They can operate on any fuel, and they can run at higher operating temperatures (which results in greater efficiency and lower pollution). They are solid state, so there are no moving parts to wear out, and they are silent in operation.

    Q - How much power do they generate?

    A - Power Chips generate very low voltage and high current, but the total power generation depends on the heat available and the delta-T between the two sides. See our power calculator for more specific information.

    Q - What will be the cost of power produced by power chips compared to other methods, like fuel cells or conventional systems?

    A - The cost of power created by any system is a direct function of the cost of fuel and the efficiency with which that fuel is converted to electricity. Because their only requirement is heat, systems using Power Chips will be able to use the most cost-effective fuel available. Furthermore, with efficiencies ranging from 2 to 10 times greater than existing systems, the cost of power should be dramatically reduced.

    Q - Do Power Chips work in a restricted temperature range?

    A - Yes, but it's a pretty broad range. Power Chips will work from below ambient temperatures to temperatures exceeding 1200K. It is unlikely that Power Chips will have a long lifespan at over 2000K, though most development work to date has been in the ambient region.

    Q - How do I get hold of one for testing?

    A - Current hardware prototypes have proved the concept of Power Chips and research, both our own and independent research, shows the theoretical performance levels. We expect to have commercial prototypes available in 12-15 months from getting funding for the final stage of development. To get hold of one for testing earlier than that, you would need to be a potential industrial partner, prepared to help underwrite the costs of that development stage.

    Q - Why haven't we heard of this before?

    A - There has been a certain amount of publicity in trade and specialist journals, but we have not been seeking general publicity until we were in a position to talk freely about the thermotunneling process we are using. Now that patents are issued and others are pending, we are seeking licensees and development partners to bring the technology to market.

    Q - How much will it cost?

    A - We anticipate a marginal cost per watt of power generation on the order of pennies. The materials used are inexpensive, and the purities required are low. For manufacturers, the unit price will be highly competitive with existing systems. The price manufacturers charge consumers depends on other factors such as the typical overheads in that market, how competitive it is, how much regulation and testing are required for an application, and so on.

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    More Technical Questions

    Q - How efficient are Power Chips?

    A - Power Chips are projected to have efficiencies of 70-80% of Carnot efficiency.

    Q - How efficient are they at the moment?

    A - We are not testing for useful power generation at the present, so no efficiency measurements have been made. We know what we want to do to increase the uniformity of the effect, which is an engineering issue, and we are seeking the funding and collaboration to do that.

    Q - What is 'Carnot efficiency?'

    A - The Carnot equation is a commonly used base for measuring the efficiency of heat pumps, so there is no intention to deceive by using it to describe Power Chips. The Carnot equation describes the efficiency at which a perfect heat pump would operate if there were no other energy losses - an impossible level of perfection. This number will change depending on the temperatures of the hot and cold sides. For example, a perfect heat pump will be use energy more efficiently when the difference between hot and cold is only 10 degrees, than when the difference is 50 degrees.

    But no matter how much the Carnot efficiency changes, the projected efficiency of Power Chips will be 70-80% of that figure. This compares very favorably with internal combustion motors and turbines, which typically operate at 15-30% of Carnot efficiency, and Peltier thermoelectric systems, which are typically 5-8% of Carnot efficiency.

    Q - Why don't you just use normal efficiency that everybody can understand?

    A - If we did not use the Carnot efficiency as a base, we would have to specify the exact conditions under which a certain level of efficiency was reached, and our number would only be true for those conditions. By giving the figure as a percentage of Carnot efficiency, physicists can work out the absolute level of efficiency for whatever conditions they are interested in. Our power calculator will enable you to put the figures in yourself and see how the results compare to other systems.

    Q - Aren't you comparing Carnot efficiency for Power Chips with absolute efficiency for other systems to make Power Chips look better?

    A - No. All the efficiency figures we give are projected, and are compared as a percentage of Carnot efficiency.

    Q - Isn't quantum tunneling extremely inefficient, because it is just a matter of chance? Some electrons may tunnel across the gap, but many others won't.

    A - It is true that quantum tunneling is based on the probability of electrons being in one place or another at a given moment. However, the electrons that tunnel will always be the ones with a high kinetic energy, since they are at the peak of the probability wave function, enabling them to appear on the other side of the gap. This means that they are the 'hottest' electrons, exploiting heat energy to make the jump, and creating a steady flow of electric current that can be used to power a load. As long as there is a continued source of heat and a heat differential between the two sides, electron flow will continue.

    If you were just looking at a few such events, then the probabilities would make for a very unpredictable device. But with many millions of events over a relatively wide surface area, the end result becomes highly reliable.

    Q - Won't electrostatic attraction force the plates together with pressures of tons per square inch?

    A - There are electrostatic attraction as well as atmospheric pressures. The piezo elements used for positioning are more than strong enough to handle these pressures.

    Electrostatic force is approximately 1 kg/cm² for a 10 nanometer gap between electrodes and 1 V of applied voltage. Forces on that order do not create considerable technical problems.

    Q - There is no such thing as a near-perfect (or even really good) temperature insulating solid material -- the only pretty good temperature insulation is... a vacuum. Any decent vacuum over a nano-scale gap is going to close the gap, real quick, right?

    A - The gap is readily maintained in vacuum; we already do this. Actually, there is a temperature insulator that is as good as vacuum for our purposes: a gas with very close spacing between the electrodes. If the space available is less than the mean free path of the gas electron, then virtually no heat transfers across the gap. This technique is used, to some extent, in today's refrigerator insulation and aerogels. Power Chips' insulation is far better than that used in traditional insulation materials, because the return path for the heat is all the way around the device, not down the side wall of a gel.

    Q - Wouldn't you get arcing across the gap?

    A - If the surfaces are very uneven, arcing may occur at sharp edges. In operation, these edges are destroyed, so the arcing is eliminated. Note that at low voltages, arcing is not a common problem.

    Q - As one side gets hotter, doesn't that brake the tunneling?

    A - No. The most active electrons tunnel, so you will get more tunneling current with hotter active areas than with colder. It takes less work to "push" the electrons downhill when the temperature difference between the two plates increases, so the thermodynamic efficiency rises, as is predicted by Carnot. See our power calculator for examples.

    Q - Usually semiconductors exchange electrons. If there is a flow of electrons (charge) where do the additional electrons come from?

    A - Low energy electrons flow into the chip as part of the circuit, replacing any high-energy electrons that tunnel across the gap.

    Q - Usually semiconductors exchange electrons. If there is a flow of electrons (charge) where do the additional electrons come from?

    A - Low energy electrons flow into the chip as part of the circuit, replacing any high-energy electrons that tunnel across the gap.

    Q - Isn't this just Maxwell's Demon, a well-known perpetual energy machine which violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

    A - Maxwell's sorting demon was imagined to be a "nimble fingered being" which would sort particles without the external input of energy, and without causing an entropy increase elsewhere in the universe. For example, all of the hot molecules of gas would be sorted to one side of the chamber, and all of the cold molecules would be sorted to the other side, reducing the entropy of the gas in the container.

    There is nothing wrong with reducing the entropy of a container of gas, but you must do work, and the entropy of the entire universe must increase (or at best remain constant) in order to obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

    Our Power Chips carry out a form of "sorting", removing the higher energy electrons from an electrode while leaving the lower energy electrons behind. However this sorting requires that electrons gain energy from a heat source, meaning that work must be done. This work is supplied in the form of heat energy being fed to the device.

    Hence we are not providing something for nothing. "Maxwell's demon" is supposedly powered by its own environment, but with Power Chips, you need an provide heat to generate electricity.

    Q - If Power Chips work, then why haven't you measured actual power generation?

    A - In order for useful power to be generated, high tunneling current needs to be achieved. With that in mind, maximizing the tunneling current has been our focus and we have been optimizing our prototypes to get as much current as we can. So far we have been able to generate electricity in laboratory tests, but until remaining development work is completed the amount of power produced is not commercially useful.

    When we have developed the tunneling currents to a suitably high level, the power generation will be of a commercially useful quantity and we will begin more exhaustive tests (rather than spending a lot of time now to show a relatively small amount of useful electrical output). As we have done for other companies, we can demonstrate power generation today - we are interested in speaking to anyone wanting to test our chips and willing to pay for the tests. The chips are not "plug and play" now, and require some setup and expertise. This means taking time away from our development efforts, so such tests are not inexpensive.

    The tunneling current already operates at a very high level of efficiency in line with our predictions -- in fact the laws of physics say it must do so, and our work with Boeing last year confirmed this. Our current goal is to increase the robustness and engineering quality of the prototypes so that more energy can be converted (or pumped) by them and higher currents obtained -- at the same high level of efficiency.

    Our lab manufacturing techniques, while way ahead of anything that's been done before, are still a little rough by the standards required to get currents high enough for commercial applications. That's not because we don't know how to do what is neccessary, but rather because we don't have the money for the facilities we need to do it. Raising those funds -- $10-15 million (not a massive sum by any means) -- is what we need to do next, for what should be the last leg of the development process.

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    Questions about Applications

    Q - Can Power Chips generate enough power to drive a car?

    A - With production devices, we expect Power Chips to be more than capable of replacing a standard internal combustion engine. By lining a combustion chamber with Power Chips, a car could efficiently create enough energy to drive electric motors. By substituting hydrogen for gasoline, the only emissions of such a vehicle would be water vapor. If the combustion chamber were fed by an intelligently controlled injector and fuel pump (or redundant injectors), any available fuel could be used, including: hydrogen, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, or alcohol.

    Q - Can Power Chips generate power from auto engine or exhaust heat?

    A - Absolutely, and because it's much easier (in terms of design) to line an exhaust pipe with Power Chips than it is to redesign an entire power plant (even one as simple as a Power Chip lined combustion chamber), we expect this to be a primary initial application. Since cars currently waste up to a third of the energy in gasoline as exhaust heat, using Power Chips to recover a significant fraction of that power could provide ample electricity for new systems, and could act as a replacement for existing alternators.

    Q - How can Power Chips be used to generate solar power?

    A - When we talk about Power Chips in solar power applications, we're specifically referring to solar-thermal power. This means that reflectors and lenses are used to focus light and generate heat. This heat is then used with Power Chips to generate electricity.

    The advantage of this technique versus existing photoelectric systems is that reflectors and lenses can be produced cheaply, and in quantity. Furthermore, if the solar reflectors are used to superheat a fluid such as oil or molten salt, they can continue to generate power after the sun has gone down.

    Q - Could you run a computer by placing a Power Chip on the hot CPU, or on the hot face of a Cool Chip™ that is cooling the CPU?

    A - No. In generating electricity from heat, a Power Chip is acting to block the heat flow to some extent, much as a dam used to generate electricity from a flowing river must impede the flow of water. The CPU is warmer than desired, and a passive heatsink or an active cooling system is used to keep it cool. You would not want to use a Power Chip, as this would impede the cooling of the CPU.

    Questions about the Company and its Strategy

    Q - Why are you based in Gibraltar?

    A - We have discovered that Gibraltar is an excellent place for a company to be domiciled. Gibraltar is a long time member of the European Union having English Common Law as the basis of commercial transactions. Gibraltar has superb infrastructure for conducing business world wide and is a very pleasant place to live, and it also offers a very comfortable, English-speaking environment.

    Gibraltar GAAP is the accounting standard, which is very similar to UK GAAP.   Power Chips plc and the other companies in the Borealis Family conform and comply with all the rules and regulations of the Gibraltar Authorities.   It should be noted that we no longer report to or are under the regulation of the Canadian Securities Authorities nor do we report to the US Security Regulators.

    Q - Why aren't you listed on the NASDAQ?

    A - We don't meet the technical qualifications for the NASDAQ exchange which require, among other things, that companies are large enough and have a minimum number of market makers. Also, under certain circumstances, foreign companies on the NASDAQ can be considered US companies, for tax and IP purposes. For these reasons many foreign companies prefer to trade OTC, including many well-known European companies. We review this policy from time to time, and we may well seek listings on other exchanges with the higher profile we would get from a licensing deal.

    Q - Your parent company Borealis has other technologies. How come?

    A - Our parent is now primarily a research and development firm. Company policy is to allow all staff -- even if they are not on the scientific side -- complete freedom to come up with bright ideas for new research. Most of these ideas turn out to be completely impractical. The few that have merit have been developed and patents filed. Those most advanced in development are spun off as separate companies, like Power Chips plc, so they are not tied to the success or failure of other ventures. Borealis shareholders still retain a majority interest, but new investors who are interested only in the one particular technology are able to invest just in that activity. Hence the structure of multiple companies under one parent.

    Q - What does the logo mean?

    A - The logo shows a beluga whale carrying a pickaxe. Our parent company was involved in minerals and exploration in Canada, and the logo was created back then, in the 1980s. The beluga whale is an Inuit symbol of good luck and prosperity, and the pickaxe represents prospecting for minerals. However, the whale is also a general symbol for environmental concern and the pickaxe can stand for basic industrial work. So the same corporate logo is applicable to both old and new endeavours.

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    Q&A from an email in Sept, 03

    Q - I have been looking into Your Power Chip technology, and find it interesting. However, I would appreciate to get some more information. Is there any other information available in addition to what is posted on Your website?

    A - We can start with your questions.   If necessary, we may need to execute a non-disclosure agreement in the future.

    Q - While reading some of your documentation on the web some questions occur to me, which I would appreciate to get answered:
    What is the purity needed in the materials used in the Power Chip?

    A - The bulk materials have a low purity requirement (95%+ for the copper, silicon, etc.).   In the core thin film, which is only a few atomic layers thick, the purity requirement is high, inasmuch as the oxygen content must be precisely regulated.   Overall, the PowerChip is a very inexpensive device to manufacture because neither quantity nor quality nor process are expensive.

    Q - What is the maximum operation temperature for the materials used in the Power Chip?

    A - In our first generation, it will be on the order of 250C, as set by the curie points of the piezo elements regulating spacing.   Because of the broad selection of materials available to us, operation will go well above 1000K.   We have a known failure of 2 years’ operation at 1600K continuous, and 10 years at 1200K.   This is why we position Power Chips as the ideal waste heat recovery technology -- getting more power from a given quantity of fuel.   Except in specific applications, because of the temperature limits, we do not see Power Chips competing with turbines for at least a decade.   Internal combustion could be sooner.   But if Power Chips can add 20% to the output of every thermal power plant in the world by using the waste stream, that is a good start.

    Q - Is the technology used in the Power Chip really limited by the Carnot cycle?

    A - Not literally, since we do not use the Carnot cycle in operation.   But this is a good benchmark to use, because Carnot does a good job of explaining why the delta-T is very important in extracting useful power.   Power Chips are not a combustion technology in and of themselves, so thermal efficiency is a less useful measurement.

    Q - In the publications on Your website, you are operating with different power densities.   What is a realistic capability in Watts per square centimetre?

    A - For Power Chips, 10-40 watts is realistic.

    Q - It would also be interesting to know the current price and the expected future price of a Power Chip unit and the price per Watt produced?

    A - The technology will be sold to be competitive; our goal is to dominate at least the waste recovery business.   Production costs are projected to be <<$1.00/watt capacity.   But there is a hitch: Power Chips will not be sold on the market.   Instead, we are licensing the use of the technology (we will separately sub-contract manufacture) on an exclusive worldwide basis.   What this means is that our licensees will have access and the legal right to use chips.   Non-licensees will be barred from the market unless the licensee chooses to sub-license in turn. This is an opportunity for a company interested in Power Chips as part of a sizable income stream.   License agreements are in discussion with a number of entities today (as you know, Rolls-Royce plc has licensed Cool Chips from our sister company), and we are being flexible in negotiating licenses for specific markets on a first-come, first-served basis.

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