Ohio State students’ startup develops sustainable alternative to portable power generators

Posted: January 13, 2021

With an idea sparked by observing Buckeye football game tailgates, four students at The Ohio State University have developed a battery pack, delivery system and mobile app to replace emissions-heavy gas generators as a portable power source.

Their startup company, Electrion, already has attracted investors to commercialize their energy storage as a service (ESaaS) innovation.

The Electrion team (l to r): Anita Nti, Jacob Buaful, Jr., Caleb Buaful and Danny Freudiger

The Electrion team—engineering undergraduates Caleb Buaful, Jacob Buaful, Jr., and Anita Nti, and doctoral student Danny Freudiger—noticed something while walking around Ohio State football tailgates in 2019: gas-powered generators everywhere.

They started talking to Buckeye fans about how much energy they used for the TVs, slow cookers, mini fridges and satellite dishes powered by the generators before, during and after the games.

Based on observations, campus data and scientific research, they estimated that tailgate parties using gas-powered generators emit over 120,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of over 3,200 sedans for the same amount of time.

As members of the Ohio State student organization Smart Campus, founded by Freudiger, the team saw an opportunity for a project that aligned with the university’s efforts to become carbon neutral by 2050.

“We came back and started talking and thinking, ‘If that’s just from one day, that’s thousands of pounds of CO2 being emitted at just one Ohio State game, how much more would be over a season and then at other schools across the nation as well?’” said Nti, Smart Campus president. “We saw that as a very significant impact, so we thought about how we could possibly be a solution.”

As an alternative to the generators, they are developing rechargeable battery packs, a sustainable mobile delivery service via electric cargo bikes, and a logistics platform to coordinate battery distribution and track status.

“From there we really thought about the user experience. Because you are providing this as an alternative, you want that transition to be smooth. If it’s too hard, they’ll just keep using the generator because it’s easy to use,” Caleb Buaful explained. So the students also created a cloud-connected mobile phone application to monitor the batteries and for people to request and interact with the service.

"It's been exciting to watch this talented team of students not only develop cutting-edge technology, but also navigate the complexities of entrepreneurship and business development,” said BJ Yurkovich, a researcher at Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR) who is mentoring the students.

An $89,000 Ohio State Sustainability Fund grant the team earned in January 2020 enabled them to launch a proof-of-concept project. The team subsequently connected with MegaJoule Ventures, an investment firm that shares their passion for sustainability. Their $250,000 investment provides support for the team to accelerate the formal market introduction of Electrion products, as well as the development of the engineering and design tools required to integrate a wide range of battery chemistries. 

electrion students
Anita, Caleb and Jacob in the Electrion workshop at Ohio State's Center for Automotive Research

MegaJoule Ventures is excited about the Electrion opportunity because of the great team in place both in terms of vision, but also the depth of knowledge they gained and the accelerated deployment schedule they maintained in releasing an advanced prototype,” said company CTO Michael Gurin. “Their fundamental understanding of the electrical energy storage market is also strategically aligned with our investment strategy.”

The student-entrepreneurs are currently building product prototypes in their workspace at CAR and brainstorming concepts to extend their “sustainable energy on demand” model.

“I think everything we do should be about sustainability,” Freudiger said. “One of the bigger reasons why we’re here is to leave the world a better place than we found it so future generations can enjoy it and have it better off than we did.”

But what really gets them charged? Outreach to children in local school districts.

“Honestly, what separates people from each other and from opportunities, money or resources is just access to knowledge. That’s really the key,” said Jacob Buaful. “Our idea is to go out there into classrooms and do the big general assembly talks informing people of what sustainability is and how they can help.”

“We’re starting them while they’re young so they can start thinking about it and getting into it,” Caleb Buaful said, an opportunity he and his brother didn’t have when they were that age.

Nti said the Electrion project sparked her interest in sustainability, and she is motivated by the knowledge gaps she observes to continue on in the field.

“People automatically think of sustainability on such a large scale and totally negate the fact that there’s so much we can be doing on a smaller scale that can come together to actually make a large impact.”

modified version of original feature story by Joan Wall, Sustainability Institute