PITTSBORO — Energy is an imprecise science. Experts generally agree about two-thirds of all electrical energy goes to waste — from the generation point at a power plant, through a series of …
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PITTSBORO — Energy is an imprecise science. Experts generally agree about two-thirds of all electrical energy goes to waste — from the generation point at a power plant, through a series of transformations, and finally at the outlet in your house, energy is sacrificed hither and thither with wanton abandon.
“All that’s considered ‘rejected energy,’” Alex West, vice president of operations and financial officer at Pittsboro’s 3DFS, told the News + Record. “Only about 33% of the energy that is produced electrically is actually used and the rest is lost mostly through heat and through vibration.”
3DFS hopes to change that. The small Pittsboro startup — which has operated for about 10 years, the last seven in a 10,000 square-foot lab on N.C. Hwy. 902 — intends to upend the energy industry’s notion of acceptable waste. Its technology, software-defined electricity, has demonstrated the ability to radically improve energy transmission and retention. According to data on its website, 3DFS can demonstrate 94% efficiency, “meaning that the electrical energy remained electricity and fully transferred the energy into work...”
After a decade developing and refining their invention, 3DFS’s scientists and engineers are ready to share it with the world. If the company’s ambitions come to fruition, 3DFS will change electricity as we know it. As Apple and Microsoft revolutionized communication, as the Wright brothers and Ford revolutionized transportation, 3DFS is poised to revolutionize energy.
“Not everyone is our client yet, but everyone’s our end user,” West said. “Electricity is the largest interconnected machine that humankind has ever produced. This is an oversimplification, but it’s essentially one wire that connects all of us. We have this enormous machine that’s living, it’s breathing, and the goal is to be able to connect our technology on the end user side, on the generation side, on the transmission side, so that everything is working in tandem to create a cleaner grid to create a more efficient power system.”
If all goes according to plan, 3DFS’s technology will “touch a vast majority of the people on this planet,” West said. The biggest hurdle, though, is explaining to prospective customers how software-defined electricity actually works. The concept is yet obscure and it’s exceedingly complicated. Even new employees need about four months of dedicated training before they’re prepared to contribute anything useful, West said.
The process (uber simplified) works in two stages. First, and perhaps most impressive, 3DFS’ software performs hyper-specific, real-time analysis of electricity in action. It extracts millions of data points from an electrical transmission in fractions of a second to build a model of exactly what’s happening and where energy is being wasted.
Second, having interpreted the data acquired in step one, the software uses an intricate series of algorithms to predict future inefficiency and preemptively correct the signal, synchronizing the electrical waves and virtually eliminating energy loss. The company’s name, 3DFS, refers to part of this process, but a more detailed explanation is “actually a secret,” West said. “It’s a part of what makes our technology work, but I’ll have to keep you guessing on that one.”
If that layman’s explanation is still hard to understand, don’t feel bad, West says. Convincing prospective clients that its technology is not science-fiction fantasy is one of 3DFS’ biggest challenges.
“It’s just so different, a completely different approach to how we tackle the energy problem,” West said. “A lot of people, and rightly so, are concerned with the production on the other side, like natural gas and petroleum, wind, hydro — the sources of energy. And that’s great, we need that concern. But a much smaller amount of people are concerned about once we get it to create electricity, what happens now?”
But 3DFS is starting to make waves. In the last few years, the company has been widely recognized for its contributions to technology, and big energy users (think the defense industry and Big Data, for example) are rearing to employ its product. In 2017, 3DFS won one of Popular Mechanics’ coveted Breakthrough awards. Last year, it was recognized by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence in the department’s annual sustainability publication. And the company has featured in such publications as Forbes and Vox.
Newfound interest has bolstered the company’s bottom line, and 3DFS is looking to make aggressive expansion. The 15-person staff was only five a year ago, and hopes to reach 35 by the end of 2021. By the end of 2022, West expects the company will have hit 100 employees and moved to a bigger facility, perhaps at one of Chatham’s budding megasites. With a reinforced team, 3DFS anticipates average electricity users will feel the benefits of software-define electricity within the next decade.
“We want to integrate across the residential level and be able to put a device to help measure and correct power in real time for homeowners and apartment complexes, that kind of thing,” West said. “That’s probably a 10-year timeline to get to there, though.”
Besides saving billions of dollars, which are forfeited now to cover unused energy production, 3DFS’s technology will reduce carbon emissions, helping address the global climate crisis. And the company’s leaders are especially proud to bring high-paying, important jobs to rural N.C.
“North Carolinians are brilliant people, and they’re not all in Charlotte or Raleigh,” West said. “We kind of hope to be an industry that can provide really nice jobs outside of those metro areas. I live in Chatham County. Most of our staff lives in Chatham County. But it is increasingly difficult to find good jobs in rural areas. So we hope to give people another option outside the heavy population areas, and I think it’s exciting what we’ll be doing here in years to come.”
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @dldolder.