Your phone dies at the worst possible time. You curse the heavens accordingly. And, odds are, this is the only time you ever really think about the battery that makes it possible to connect to everyone and everything you hold dear.
A tad more respect, please. The humble and oft-maligned rechargeable battery is actually a big player in the technology that could mitigate the effects of climate change, as long the mechanisms that provide its energy are able to work properly — and, more importantly, cheaply.
Enter Gerald DeCuollo, president, CEO, and co-founder of TreadStone Technologies, based at 201 Washington Road. TreadStone develops corrosion-resistant metal plate technology used in fuel cell stacks, which essentially means TreadStone’s technology allows other technology to work more efficiently.
The big deal is that those metal plates TreadStone is working so hard to protect are the answer to the question: How do we stop relying on fossil fuels and start reversing the effects we’ve had on climate change?
DeCuollo will be part of the New Jersey Technology Council’s upcoming webinar, “Can Tech Stop Climate Change — a Regional Perspective,” on Wednesday, March 16, at noon. The event originally was developed as a conference to be held on March 3, but was repurposed as a webinar.
The event will also feature George Kirby, CEO of Ocean Power Technologies, and Andrew Mongar, president of AirGreen LLC. Price to be announced. Visit www.NJTC.org.
DeCuollo grew up in Scotch Plains, the son of Italian immigrants. His father, a mason, built a small construction business and impressed three things on his son. “Number one was, I had to play an instrument,” DeCuollo says. He jokes that his father always told him he had avoided being sent to the front lines in World War II because he was a clarinet player in the band.
The elder DeCuollo could also play saxophone, which young Gerald did not pick up. He instead plays guitar.
“Number two was, I had to learn to swim,” he says. This was because the family had a beach home at Mantoloking, and being in the water was just going to happen. “Number three was, I had to get an education.”
DeCuollo earned his bachelor’s in chemistry from Fairleigh Dickinson in 1977. He later earned a master’s in business from Penn and went to work for the Sarnoff Corporation (now SRI). He also worked at an alternative energy company, Hydrocarbon Technologies (now Headwaters Technology Innovation), which was involved in hydrocarbon processing and energy conversion. At Sarnoff DeCuollo had been responsible for business development activities in fuel cells and other alternative energy-related technologies.
Also at Sarnoff he worked with Conghua (CH) Wang, a one-time research associate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Penn. The two would pair up to develop TreadStone through Sarnoff, with Wang as vice president and chief technology officer.
The company spun off from Sarnoff in earnest when it got its first major funding via a $50,000 New Jersey Science & Tech Grant award in 2006. In 2008 the company got a big boost from the Edison Innovation Awards, when it won a $500,000 grant to develop its products and has since built a solid client base among some of the top companies and agencies in the United States and Europe. DeCuollo is now working on building business with companies in Asia.
DeCuollo has been married to Phyllis, a clinical psychologist, for 30 years. They have one daughter, Alecia, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. DeCuollo says she can swim like a dolphin and got her education (Penn and UNC-Greensboro) just fine. But the clarinet lessons didn’t stick so well.
Green and green. Those plates TreadStone is trying to protect work in some pretty harsh conditions and are vulnerable to wear and corrosion. If they’re going to do any good for energy production and storage, they need to be protected from corrosion and breakdown. Sounds simple enough, yes?
The trouble is, making inexpensive products for energy generation and storage is as simple an idea and as complicated an actual process as getting a person to Mars. Several manufacturers make corrosion-resistant products, and the products work, DeCuollo says. But they cost a lot of money. And it always comes back to money.
Climate change and the changing climate. “Philosophically,” DeCuollo says, “the world energy landscape is changing. Society is essentially becoming more green.”
This is in concert with governmental regulations that shape energy policies. For a while now, governments worldwide have tried to find a way to reduce carbon emissions and have turned to renewable resources, like wind and solar.
The problem with wind or solar, of course, is that while these methods can generate enormous amounts of energy, that energy can’t be stored very well. So governments and industries — particularly the auto industry, with its efforts to eliminate petroleum-produced smoke and vapors — started looking into batteries and battery-like fuel cells that could provide power when needed without having to rely on a continuous source of power. The basic idea is a kind of on-demand power source that doesn’t require major machinery or combustive moving parts.
Again, an easy enough answer in theory that’s really a tough nut in practice. Remember, nobody said the energy generated by renewable sources can’t be stored, it’s just hard to store it efficiently. Batteries only last a few hours, maybe a few days before they need to be recharged. Easy enough to do if you have a power cord and a wall outlet, but what happens when you’re not in a place with outlets?
Think, for example, of soldiers, DeCuollo says. Back in World War II, soldiers carrying any communications technology carried a simple radio that usually wasn’t being used. Today soldiers carry GPS, night vision, communications equipment, and a bunch of other powered tech devices that require recharging.
Sadly, soldiers are unable to carry around wired walls as well. So the option is to either load soldiers up with pre-charged (read: really heavy and huge amounts of) batteries or give them something that can keep a few batteries charged/easily rechargeable.
“Do you want the soldier to carry 80 pounds of batteries or 80 pounds of ammo and food?” DeCuollo asks.
Again — simple, but not. Technologies that help turn things like the air into a power source need a few moving parts to work. These parts have largely been made of graphite, which is effective when everything is working, but doesn’t hold up long, DeCuollo says. More durable are materials like stainless steel, except that metals rust quickly in the punishing ecosystem of energy generation.
So DeCuollo and Wang decided to concentrate on the materials needed to protect these energy-producing metals in a way that would make protection cheap. Because as green as everyone wants to be, DeCuollo says, the price of operating renewable energy in the long view has been pretty steep.
Sure, costs are coming down for things like solar, but practical use on a large scale needs to come down a lot more. When the bottom line becomes the arbiter, it will always go with the cheaper alternative, even if that alternative is belching a whole lot of carbon.
DeCuollo is quite mum on what TreadStone’s technology is and on who the company’s clients are. “We’re dealing with a lot of proprietary technology,” he says, so he is not at liberty to divulge much.
But he can mention Ford Motor Co., because Ford has already told the world. Last year at a conference in Japan, Ford, in a slide show on its new car technologies, mentioned TreadStone on 8 of 20 slides, DeCuollo says. This was a fantastic and very public boost by a world-leader corporation for a three-person company that is forced to work under the radar, he says.
He can also mention that TreadStone is working with several other major car manufacturers as they too look to nullify their carbon footprints, as well as the Department of Defense.
There’s still far to go, however. Despite the positive direction and an increasingly good track record of proven performance, DeCuollo says, TreadStone is far from a household name or the standard in the industry. But he expects that to change for the better.
“The bottom line is, we’re doing well,” he says. “We’re getting there.”
TreadStone Technologies Inc., 201 Washington Road, CN 5300, Princeton 08543-5300; 609-734-2368; fax, 609-734-2967. Gerald DeCuollo, CEO. www.treadstone-technologies.com.