Refueler: Will This Device Help Put An End To Air Pollution?
Rohan Sreerama and Mehul Raheja, two 10th graders at American High School in California, might just have created a device that turns car emissions into fuel. The device got them first place (Silicon Valley) in the Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition – the largest entrepreneurship event created for, and run by, high-school students in America.
We sat down with the young entrepreneurs to find out what inspired them to come up with the device, how it works and what motivated them to enter the competition.
What inspired you to focus on the environment?
Rohan Sreerama: I always imagined India as this exotic place. But when I arrived there for the first time on a summer holiday, my view completely changed. On stepping into the main road to look for a taxi, the smoke and fumes overwhelmed me as it never had in the US. It was clear that the cars and trucks were emitting pollutants, and that this was a harmful trend throughout India. I had never actually experienced just how significant this problem was.
After returning home, I did some research and was disappointed to find out that, even in the U.S., there was minimal development in emissions-control technology. People were developing drones and electric vehicles for the distant future instead of creating changes that would impact the quality of air today. Currently, the most prominent emissions-control device is the 40-year old catalytic converter, which has only seen two major developments. As the population grows, and the number of cars increases, this technology is rapidly becoming obsolete.
Our goal was to make a positive change for the environment today, not 20 years in the future, and to do it by using readily available technology.
What is the blue ocean idea you put forth that clinched first place in the Silicon Valley competition?
The Refueler is an emissions-control system. It uses open-source technology to reduce hydrocarbon emissions from the tailpipe. Hydrocarbons are present in low concentrations, but in a bustling city climate, this adds up rapidly. They contain propane and butane – composites of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which are dangerous when released in the air. But they can also be very useful when captured and re-used to fuel cars.
Throughout our research, we observed different models from the automotive industry, and learned of a dual-fuel system in New Zealand and LPG cars in Europe that burn more cleanly and efficiently in city climates. And so, we decided to incorporate these ideas in our emissions-control device.
The Refueler uses a compact Arduino board, open-source software, and a motor. The board is connected to a copper plate that we programmed to open and close based on concentrations of LPG emissions. When LPG emissions reach a certain concentration, the copper plate will close.
Our plan is to include a tube that transfers these captured emissions to a dual-fuel system in the trunk of your car. The system includes an LPG tank to which the captured emissions are transferred through a modified vapor-injection method. This then sends the gasses through the intake manifolds (a series of tubes that distributes air coming into the engine) and converts them to usable gas. From there, the emissions can be sent to the gas chamber for usage. It’s not technically possible to convert all emissions into usable gas, but enough that it will save the consumer fuel and reduce the harmful effects on the environment.
We all want to help create a clean environment, but not all of us can afford advanced technology. Is this what you’re setting out to change?
Yes, exactly. Blue ocean strategy is about creating new market space, and to help us with this we used the Three Tiers of Noncustomers framework (below). We want to reach ‘soon-to-be noncustomers’ with our device: middle-class Americans who use natural-gas-powered cars on a frequent basis, and cannot afford to upgrade to an electric car. These people are ready to jump ship if the right opportunity presents itself. So we’re not trying to beat competitors producing electric cars, but rather to expand the market.
The Three Tiers of Noncustomers:
We believe there is a market for the device because of the harsh effects of global warming and the need for a better emissions-control device than what is currently available. Our device benefits not only the environment but also the consumer. In addition to saving the environment from harmful hydrocarbon emissions, consumers get increased fuel efficiency (around 35%). We therefore believe the Refueler will deliver a leap in value to customers and to the environment.
The Refueler will appeal to customers who might refuse expensive green technology such as electric cars (tier 2). It will also attract customers who might otherwise not explore environmentally friendly alternatives but are looking to save on fuel costs (tier 3). The potential to identify this huge latent demand, and turn it into new customers is what makes blue ocean strategy so appealing.
We used the blue ocean ERRC grid to identify the factors that would help us pursue differentiation and low cost.
So what’s the next move?
We plan to incorporate our business and then go one of two ways. As busy high-school students, one of our goals is to apply for a patent and then sell our ideas over to a large car manufacturer such as Ford or GM for further research. On the other hand, we would like to begin actual business operations by employing staff and a board of directors. We would also consider talking to overseas manufacturers to help develop our idea and bring it to the marketplace.
Of course, with any task this large, there are obstacles and challenges to overcome. In our case, one of the major issues of starting a business is finding staff and a board of directors willing to cooperate with an inexperienced high-school team. Also, we need to find investors to support our interests and finance further research.
What did you learn by entering the blue ocean entrepreneurship competition?
We got to learn about blue ocean strategy and to really put our idea to the test. For us, the most appealing aspect of being blue ocean is the excitement of creating a new market space that delivers a win-win.
We wanted to create something the car industry hasn’t offered, and reduce costs by eliminating and reducing the features which are not needed. This is what makes blue ocean strategy such a creative endeavor, and it’s what inspires us to continue pursuing it.
Creating value innovation might seem easy on paper, but making a workable product that can provide the value is difficult. Some technologies simply don’t exist, and government regulations can make it impossible for some innovations to work. Our extensive scientific research and proof of concept (along with the creation of a prototype) helped us convince the judges that our product can be made.
We also learned that one of the major skills of business is to deliver a pitch with efficiency, while also being humorous and knowledgeable about the product.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs entering the competition next year?
When working on your project, don’t be afraid to pivot if you see that you are taking it into a red ocean, or if the idea starts to look impossible. Once you are satisfied with the idea, make a video and share it with your friends and family to get some feedback. Use all the advice, suggestions, and questions you get to improve your project, and prepare for questions the judges may ask you. The better you know your product, the more chance you have of convincing others that it is amazing.
If we could do it again, we would spend a little more time creating and practicing our pitch. We would make it flow better, emphasize certain words and create more suspense. We would also spread our idea more widely by promoting our video in ways other than just posting it to our social media accounts.
Rohan Sreerama and Mehul Raheja attend American High School and are both current 10th graders. Their company is Green Gas Technologies, based in Fremont, California.
Founded in Maryland in 2014, the Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition competition has since gone nationwide and is now held in three locations: at John Hopkins University on the East Coast, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and online.