After being made redundant from Nokia Bell Labs, Nick Jeffers and Brian Donnelly kept their cool when making their start-up dreams a reality.
Cooling technology is vital for many different industries. From power-hungry data centres to the pharmaceutical industry, the advancements in this deep-tech space have become increasingly important.
One company working in this space is Enovus Labs, a start-up created in 2020 by two former Nokia Bell Labs employees. Nick Jeffers and Brian Donnelly worked together at the R&D company for 10 years, having previously studied mechanical engineering together at Trinity College Dublin. When the lab left Ireland and the pair were made redundant, they used it as an opportunity.
“We always wanted to do a ‘start-up’ and when we were both available and had a certain amount of financial security resulting from the redundancy, we thought this was the perfect time to execute on this dream,” said Jeffers. “We were lucky enough to be awarded a space contract to develop hardware for lunar environments and we’ve never looked back.”
In a nutshell, Enovus Labs works on a variety of advanced cooling technologies, from comms systems deployed in the desert to equipment deployed on the south pole of the moon.
‘We build really efficient lightweight heat sinks with a fraction of the aluminium used in traditional cooling solutions’
“The common theme of our work to date is small size and lightweight thermal solutions. We wanted to develop a cooling technology inspired by the advanced innovations we’ve worked on but could be deployed in large terrestrial markets,” said Jeffers.
One of the start-up’s products is Segri-COOL, which Jeffers said reduces size, weight and carbon emissions compared to classical cooling technologies like die-casting or bonded-fin. It uses the phase change of a fluid to transport heat throughout a heat sink, similar to how a heat pipe operates.
Inspired by elephants
The difference is that Segri-COOL uses a network of two-phase structures. “We utilise algorithms which are bio-inspired to effectively grow these heat transfer networks throughout a heat sink,” said Jeffers.
These algorithms were inspired by nature – in particular, the ear of an elephant. Elephants cool themselves by pumping their warm blood through a network of arteries and veins in their ears. They then wave their ears around and splash water on them, which cools the blood. This cooled blood is then pumped around the elephant’s bulk, cooling them from within. This biomimicry laid the groundwork for Enovus Labs’ cooling tech.
“We looked closely at these ears as thousands of years of evolution has led to the vein and artery layout architecture that effectively spreads the heat – using blood in this case – across a surface. Inspired by this, we lay out our cooling channels with the same approach,” said Jeffers. “This means we build really efficient lightweight heat sinks with a fraction of the aluminium used in traditional cooling solutions, which is really important from a carbon footprint point of view.”
Out of this world
As Jeffers said, the deep-tech start-up was awarded a contract to develop hardware for lunar environments and never looked back. So, what does that involve?
“We took commercial off-the-shelf equipment and designed a new mechanical enclosure and thermal solution for it to survive transit and operation on the south pole of the moon. The qualification process for the technology was extensive and our design passed everything with flying colours,” said Jeffers.
“The thermal solution designs for this were a precursor to Segri-COOL and actually saved our customer a significant amount of money from reducing the size and weight of the equipment when compared to other leading solution on the market.”
Enovus Labs has been extremely successful since it was founded, having already received 18 awards for excellence, filed 34 patents and published 18 peer-reviewed journal articles and 31 peer-reviewed conference papers.
But as with any start-up, it’s not without its challenges and Jeffers said a lack of resources is the main issue when it comes to developing physical technologies. “We have been able to make it this far without the need for investment, but we need to expand now to capitalise on the demand we’ve found for Segri-COOL,” he said.
“Over the last few years, we’ve built up a world-class lab, which is located in the Greenway Hub Business Incubator in TU Dublin. We now need to have sufficient funds coming in to hire more engineers to accelerate the development of Segri-COOL and other next-generation technologies already in the pipeline.”
However, he added that he’s optimistic about the current progress with plans to have the company’s tech in product trials later this year and into production the following year.
A unique aspect of Enovus Labs’ products is that they have been designed to reduce the size and weight of hardware, which not only reduces the financial cost but also the environmental cost.
“[The lightweight design] has a positive impact on CO2 generated in shipping, production of the hardware and the production of the raw material (aluminium),” Jeffers said. “It is important that the ICT industry looks at its carbon footprint holistically and that includes the types of cooling solutions implemented.”
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