Voltai: Harvesting energy from motion to power marine vessels
April 19, 2022 | Entrepreneurs and innovators
As the maritime sector edges away from a reliance on fossil fuels to power vessels, adopting innovative technologies that generate energy – especially as timelines and international regulations around decarbonization become more strict – will be essential. Some emissions-free and renewable energy storage solutions exist, but those, and a lack of charging infrastructure at ports, have significant limitations to their efficacy. Voltai is working on a solution.
“You can put batteries on a vessel but they take a lot of space and we’re limited by their size. Solar panels are great when it’s sunny, but when it rains or at night, it doesn’t work that well, so there is a real need for a new solution,” said Maja Maher, Founder and CEO of Voltai and Nova Institute, adding, “We have a very high energy density generator that can harvest energy from motion … Whatever we can do to harvest energy that is always there and already around us will help us move toward a greener future for the marine economy.”
Maher first became aware of the need to harness kinetic energy from the roll, pitch and yaw of marine vessels back in 2018, when she came across an Innovative Solutions Canada Challenge, sponsored by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. At the time, she was leading the research team at Nova Institute, her Oakville, Ontario-based cleantech research and development company that also offered in-person courses for technical specializations such as machine learning and prototyping.
“What I love about entrepreneurship is that you get to solve problems that people haven’t found solutions for … I’ve always been interested in technology and what is possible when you push the limits of the technology we have available today,” she said. “When you’re in entrepreneurship, you can actually shape what the future is going to look like – so that’s a huge drive for me.”
So she applied for the Innovative Solutions Canada competition, and began researching solutions to harvest kinetic energy for marine vessels, while offering in-person courses with Nova Institute – until the pandemic hit in 2020 and the company made a major pivot.
“We thought, what could we do to help out in this crisis and to help our business survive? So, we opened a mask factory in Ontario and it went beyond our expectations – we were able to hire a lot of people at a time where there were not a lot of jobs to be found, and set up a mask factory, providing the federal government and private businesses in the Toronto area with masks up until now.
“So Nova Institute moved from being a cleantech research center to also being a medical device manufacturer, but we still had our devoted cleantech team that was working on our main project, which is kinetic energy harvesting for marine vessels,” Maher explained.
“What we do is, we take motion that is normally wasted, and turn it into useful electricity. We have a small generator that – you can think of it similar to the generators that you find in windmills or water turbines, except we have way higher energy density. That means we can make them smaller and more efficient with the same or more of an energy output,” she said.
Maher added that the generator is incredibly useful on the water because it takes up very little space and doesn’t add a lot of weight – a typical pain point for onboard energy storage solutions, such as batteries.
With two, very different products under the Nova Institute brand, Maher decided to separate them and continued developing the ultra high density generators that harvest energy from motion for marine vessels under the newly-created company name Voltai.
But building a solution for marine vessels in Southwestern Ontario – far from the ocean – is no easy feat. So, she contacted the Ocean Startup Project to learn about available resources, and applied for the 2021 Ocean Startup Challenge, as she started making plans to move her family closer to the Atlantic.
“We were already so happy with the whole application process, so when we got the call that we were actually selected as one of the winners, it was really great news for us. We made amazing contacts and received amazing support from the program, so now we’re setting up our office in Halifax, and getting our first Nova Scotia hire in April,” she said, adding that she used the $25,000 prize to build out marketing materials and strengthen their graphic profile.
“For me it’s mainly the connections and the network that you get access to; there’s a lot of doors that are opened once you’re in the Ocean Startup Project,” Maher said. “There is nothing better than getting warm introductions to potential clients or partners; it’s a lot easier to get in touch with the right people.”
Voltai’s technology is at the stage right now, where it is a great fit for smaller, autonomous surface vessels, like smaller systems requiring energy typically sourced from solar panels, for example; it could supplement those to extend the range, or even replace them in some cases. They are still working in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard, and have plans to scale their technology for larger vessels in the coming years.
“Our immediate goal right now is to get a pilot project on the water this summer, ideally with a Nova Scotia-based company. We want to get our technology tested in real life. We got great results in the lab and now we want to see how it does with actual clients. We also are looking to expand our patents to do some international patenting,” she said, adding that’s a primary objective after being selected to participate in Innovacorp Accelerate a few weeks ago.
“What excites me about working on clean technology for the ocean sector is that we get to be a part of moving the marine industries into a cleaner direction,” Maher said. “The ocean sector has a long way to go to reach sustainability. That is a great part of reaching the goals of net zero by 2050. We can do that. We just need more, cleaner energy and other initiatives to reduce CO2 emissions.”
Learn more about Voltai by visiting their website.