1 Apr '11
Today we’ll take a closer look at a start-up working to clean up the energy and manufacturing sectors, SPENS. Set up last year with an initial investment of just $455k, the company recently announced the launch of its next gen aero-hydrodynamic technique for surface treatment and cleaning. Having signed up Russian energy majors like Gazprom and KES Holding and with as many as 50 regional companies interested in its technology, SPENS is a start-up to watch.
Moscow-registered SPENS (which in Russian stands for ‘Service for Industrial Energy and Oil Systems’) is the successor of St.-Petersburg’s Aerogidrodinamika, a firm that pioneered research into soft and hard blasting technology.
Investment and ownership
SPENS was established in 2010. An unidentified private investor put up about $350k and now owns 50% of the firm. He is also said to have introduced the company to the management of one of Russia’s energy majors, KES Holding, to help SPENS commercialize its products.
Alexander Kostevich, SPENS innovative founder, reportedly kicked in another $105k in exchange for a 40% holding. The start-up’s current CEO, R. R. Kasaev, owns the remaining 10%.
With the initial investment and a marketing strategy in place, the company was able to take Aerogidrodinamika’s technology to the next level. Last summer, it began production of its MultiBlast plants that use innovative aero-hydrodynamic principles for the energy-generating and oil sectors.
How it works
The initial use of SPENS’ patented technology, developed by its majority shareholder Alexander Kostevich, was focused on high-quality and safe treatment of thermal and gas-compressor turbines.
The technology is based on the so-called Rebinder effect. First observed in 1928 by P.A. Rebinder, a gifted Soviet scientist who died in 1972, it’s used to facilitate the mechanical processing of various materials, especially materials that are difficult to work and materials of extreme hardness. Russian scientific literature on the subject says that “...other important uses include the control of friction and wear through the application of lubricants, the efficient production of finely divided (powdery) materials, and the production of solids and other materials having both particular disperse structures and required combinations of mechanical and other properties through disaggregation and subsequent ‘repacking’ without internal stress.”
The actual process works by using compressed air to accelerate micro-drops of water, which contain an abrasive, to the speed of sound. When these micro-drops hit a surface, as in the Rebinder effect, the strength of the water is reduced allowing the abrasive to mechanically destroy impurities and then simply wash them away along with the used abrasive.
The technology controls temperatures at the point of contact to preserve physical and chemical properties of a surface, ensures a full cycle of treatment from cleaning to drying, is fire- and explosion-proof, and allows for repeated utilization of the same working mixture.
Conventional vs. creative
Most conventional techniques to clean turbine rotors at hydro stations, heat and power facilities, nuclear plants, oil and gas compressor units or aircraft engines use mechanical or aero-abrasive (sandblasting) cleaning.
These methods inevitably damage the surface layer of metal and eventually cause failures even of the most fatigue-resistant equipment. The SPENS-developed aero-hydrodynamic technique reportedly keeps treated surfaces intact, causes no dust in the process, uses less water and other expendables and is eco-friendly. The developers also claim the process gives treated surfaces new positive properties, e.g. increased adhesive behavior.
Another advantage that the developers hope will win over potential customers outside the energy and manufacturing sectors is MultiBlast’s reported ability to offer a variety of treatment modes, both hard and soft, using a single abrasive.
In conventional methods softer blasting cannot remove heavy fouling; while using harder modes damages surfaces. One can’t control intensity without loading a different abrasive, SPENS says.
Facing the competition
The company claims its process is not only superior to sandblasting but also some of the more recent internationally used cleaning methods.
For example, soda utilized in the patented SBS Armex or ExaStrip techniques has a softer crystal lattice and large, 0.8-1.5mm particles, but it results in lower cleaning quality compared to aero-hydrodynamics, especially when it comes to purifying high-temperature scale on turbines.
Another method, widely used globally, is large dry ice particles (2-4mm). But SPENS says its 300-nanometer particles can even clean micro-cracks and surface blisters. These are often inaccessible using competing technologies, but can be reached and cleaned with an aero-hydrodynamic powder consumption of just 10-40kg/h—a considerable advantage over the Armex soda’s 300-800kg/h.
SPENS also says its technology is highly competitive, too. Its powders are a reported 100 times cheaper than the Armex soda and unlike its competition, are available across Russia. They do not require any special storage conditions, either (compared to dry ice, for instance, which must be kept in thermal containers).
Lining up customers and exploiting new markets
The developers claim Russian energy majors like KES Holding and Gazprom already are their customers. Now the company is expanding its market to include inter-regional generation firms (TGCs, former RAO UES of Russia parts) that operate in Central Russia (TGC-6), the Mid-Volga Basin (TGC-7, OrTGC), the Urals and Komi (TGC-9) and Volga-Vyatka (TGC-5).
However, energy and manufacturing sectors are not their exclusive focus. SPENS says its innovative aero-hydrodynamic treatment method is applicable to more sensitive areas, too. These include cleaning monuments and facades of historical buildings. Sandblasting is no longer permitted at such sites because it leaves the surface exposed to even more degradation. At UNESCO-protected sites for example, the current technique is to use expensive lasers to remove centuries old grime.
Cleaning stone, cars, bridges and more
SPENS says its hydrophobization of exterior marble and stone surfaces actually enhances protection against adverse environment impact (such as surface water absorption and bio-destructives) and is quicker and far less expensive than laser treatment.
A number of agreements have already been reportedly inked with municipal authorities in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Yaroslavl to do this kind of work. The Russian Restorers Association has also formally approved the STENS method for use on architectural monuments.
The company’s process can also be used to remove graffiti by washing out extraneous paint, layer by layer, without using chemicals and without marring wall paint. Other applications include cleaning autos, railroad cars, ships, etc. and transport infrastructure like bridges, tunnels and stations.
From $35K to $2m in 12 months?
SPENS began providing MultiBlast services in 4Q 2010. Its first customer was Vladimir’s heat and power station, the TGC-6 area; and sales were just $35,000. For this year, sales are projected to be more than $2m. To reach this goal, the start-up is reportedly setting up regional divisions: SPENS Center will service the TGC-6 stations as well as Peterburgteploenergo in St. Pete; SPENS Volga will be set up to work with its Volga Basin generation partners; and SPENS Urals will service TGC-9 and TGC-5.
Unless decided otherwise, the company won’t sell equipment this year; only services will be offered, the management says.
SPENS is reportedly working on other innovative techniques at its newly established R&D and production lab at SPENS Center, this time focusing on higher energy efficiency for heat exchangers.
The company is also focusing attention on promoting an Integrated Service Network to facilitate the introduction of innovations in industrial, energy and oil and gas projects. It believes that by leveraging a large number of companies within a system, it will help companies reduce their cost of modernization.
The concept is getting some traction. SPENS says that more than 50 companies in Russia’s regions have already showed interest in the Network.