Durham company looks to commercialize cooling technology for refrigeration

Apr. 06, 2014 @ 06:56 PM

A Durham-based company raised nearly $26 million in venture capital recently in order to try to bring a thermo-electric cooling technology for refrigerators to market.

Phononic Devices’ CEO Tony Atti said the semiconductor company is working with an industry partner to bring to market a refrigerator that would use its cooling system technology. He declined to name the partner.

“We successfully demonstrated prototypes in working units last year, which catalyzed that partnership and our financing,” Atti said. “And now the goal this year is to qualify products for market adoption next year.”

The company was founded in 2008 based on technology licensed out of the University of Oklahoma and Caltech. The idea was to use semiconductors, which he said have had a transformative impact on industries like lighting with the introduction of light-emitting-diode, or LED, bulbs, and to do the same thing for heating and cooling.

The company’s thermoelectric cooling system is designed to replace compressor-built appliances. He said Phononic’s devices are more efficient and don’t contain toxic refrigerants.

“We can completely eliminate Freon; there’s no toxic refrigerants in our system now,” Atti said. “There are no moving parts prone to break down or (to have) reliability failure. You can reduce the energy consumption, and meet very demanding regulatory specs.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had already banned the sale of new refrigeration and cooling appliances that contain certain harmful coolants such as R-12, also known as Freon-12. As of 2010, the agency banned heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system manufacturers from producing new air conditioners and heat pumps with other harmful coolants such as R-22.

The idea to launch the company was born out of a lunch meeting with investors about the heating and cooling capabilities of semiconductor materials. 

In 2009, he said the company raised $2 million in a capital-raising round to translate paper concepts into experiments. They later got a $3 million grant, and then raised another $15 million to demonstrate their concepts in devices. Now they’ve closed on about $26 million for commercialization.

Atti said that while they’re looking to start with refrigeration, they plan to expand into other products such as cooling products for computer servers.

The company was initially based on Centennial Campus, a research park near N.C. State University’s main campus, and his first four or five employees were N.C. State alumni. The company now has close to 60 employees involved in research and development and manufacturing. They’re based out of 15,000 square feet of leased space in Durham, and expect to grow into 20,000 square feet of space.