Two young Madison companies with novel ideas for generating electricity are in the latest class of the WERCBench Labs energy-related business accelerator in Milwaukee this fall.

EWPanel and NovoMoto are among seven startups chosen for the 12-week mentorship program that started Aug. 29.

EWPanel’s concept is to create electricity by touch; NovoMoto is bringing solar energy to rural central Africa by powering individual homes and businesses in small doses.

The power of touch

EWPanel has developed a “thin-film nanogenerator,” about the thickness of Scotch tape, said co-founder Chunhua Yao.

“When you touch it with your finger, or walk on it, or press it, it can generate electricity,” Yao said.

The technology that converts motion into electricity is a triboelectric nanogenerator.

The concept is similar to that of static electricity. “In the winter, when you take off your sweater, there is an electrostatic charge against your skin,” Yao said.

EWPanel’s technology stems from research by Xudong Wang, professor of materials science and engineering, and Yao, a doctoral candidate in Wang’s laboratory. It converts energy created through touch into electricity and uses it to power a small electrical device, such as LED lights or sensors.

For example: If it is embedded in a floor, when people walk on the floor, it can generate electricity, said Yao. “Or we can put this thin-film nanogenerator on the handle of the door for home security. When people touch the handle, the nanogenerator will produce electricity which can be used to charge some low-power electronics,” she said.

It could charge a Bluetooth chip that would be able to turn on a siren so that someone grabbing the door handle to open a door would set off an alarm, Yao said.

She said it is more efficient and safer than similar technology called piezoelectricity that also produces electricity from movement. Piezoelectricity floor tiles are “more expensive, not flexible in design and often contain toxic materials,” Yao said. “Our technology, however, is clean, inexpensive, safe and compatible with the floor itself.”

EWPanel uses wood pulp, which is biodegradable and can come from waste materials, she said.

Yao and Wang formed the company in 2016 and incorporated it this February.

Even as EWPanel pursues ways to commercialize the technology, the research itself continues, separately, in Wang’s lab.

As part of that effort, Wang’s team has set up a floor panel in Union South as a test project.

The 96-square-foot panel includes a layer of wood pulp fibers with embedded electrodes. Some of the fibers in that layer have been treated with chemicals. When people walk on the floor, the treated fibers rub against the untreated fibers, creating an electrostatic charge, and the electrodes collect the charge and output it as electricity that lights a sign explaining the technology.

“We are trying to find out how much power can be generated in such a public area, how stable this technology can be ... in a normal environment,” said Wang.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation holds the patent to the technology and is funding the research by Wang’s lab, which was advanced through a WARF accelerator program.

Wang, a U.S. citizen originally from China, has been teaching at UW-Madison for nine years. Yao, also from China, is in the U.S. on a student visa.

“Our group has been working on this environmental energy harvesting from the beginning,” Wang said.

His vision for the technology has changed a bit over the years, from fanciful to more practical. “In the very beginning, I thought of a self-illuminating floor — you walk over it and the floor lights up by itself. It’s cool technology.”

But, he added, “I don’t know what the market is. There are probably more realistic alternatives. I still want to make it, though.”

Kerosene to solar

NovoMoto uses small solar panels to run lights and charge mobile phones in rural communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where co-founder Aaron Olson was born.

Olson and his family moved to the U.S. when he was 2 years old, but he still has relatives in Mboka Paul, a village about 50 miles northeast of the capital of Kinshasa. When Olson visited them in 2015, he was surprised to see that few residents there have electricity wired into their homes, he told the Wisconsin State Journal in an interview in 2016. Instead, they use kerosene lamps for light at night and charge their mobile phones at diesel generating stations.

So Olson and then-fellow engineering doctoral candidate, Mehrdad Arjmand, teamed up to find a solution. The result was the formation of NovoMoto in November 2015, partnering with Olson’s relatives in the Congo.

A 35-watt solar panel can power three LED lamps, charge two cellular phones, and also run an energy-efficient radio and a TV, Arjmand said. It also is safer and costs $2.15 a week or $4.50 a week for the solar units, depending on their size, which is less than the $22 a month that residents currently pay for kerosene just to light their lamps and charge their phones, he said.

Arjmand said the first solar systems were installed for eight paying customers in a pilot program in three villages near Kinshasa, and NovoMoto quickly amassed a waiting list of 140 potential customers.

“People from five other neighboring villages ... reached out to our local team and requested to receive our systems in the future,” he said.

NovoMoto has three employees in Madison and seven in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including technicians who install and maintain the systems.

‘A great opportunity’

The five other startups in this WERCBench session are from Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Milwaukee.

Each team receives a $10,000 grant at the start of the program and another $10,000 at graduation.

“WERCBench Labs is a great opportunity to explore our next offering for the off-grid communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Arjmand said.

Yao said she hopes the WERCBench program will help to narrow down the potential uses for EWPanel’s technology.

“We are now just exploring all possibilities to see which has the vast commercialization opportunity,” she said.

This is the third class for WERCBench Labs, a project of the Midwest Energy Research Consortium, which is partially funded by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Contact Judy Newman at jdnewman@madison.com with tips and story suggestions.

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.