Union in the News for February 19, 2003
Hoping his invention will get hot
By Breea Willingham - The Times Union
Frank Wicks thinks he has the key to lower heating bills: an Electricity Producing Condensing Furnace that converts 20 percent of propane fuel into electricity and uses the rest as heat.
Wicks, a mechanical engineering professor at Union College, has written a proposal for the New York state Legislature describing the benefits of his invention. He hopes it eventually will replace current home heating systems.
"People are spending a bigger portion of their income on heat and electricity," Wicks said. "This will make what we have (fuel) last longer."
Wicks showcased his furnace Tuesday during an informal demonstration at the Ramada Inn on Nott Street. Wicks described his invention as both a furnace and an electric power plant. The idea, he said, is to produce electricity as a co-product so that it is of equal value to heat.
"So what you're gonna do is put in $100 worth of fuel, and we get $80 worth of heat and $80 worth of electricity. In a chimney furnace, you only get $75 back and in the best (non-chimney) systems, you put in $100 and you get $70 back," Wicks said.
Other benefits of his invention, Wicks said, would include cleaner air and water and development of a major new manufacturing and service industry that would create new jobs. Wicks said his furnace -- made of a module, engine, generator and controller -- can be made for less than $1,000 and sold for little more than that.
Wicks introduced his system last week at the National Engineer's Week program in Albany. He plans to show it to Gov. George Pataki's office and to state legislators. He said it should become the standard for space heating and make existing furnaces obsolete, "the way Benjamin Franklin's stove saved forests by making wood-wasting fireplaces obsolete."
He hopes that by 2005 the state will require 5 percent of new gas and propane furnaces to begin converting at least 15 percent of fuel into electricity.
Wicks has studied home heating systems for more than 25 years. His past designs include a fuel-efficient diesel and steam engine for trains and ships.
The furnace actually was patented in 1987 and has gained national recognition in publications, but still hasn't caught on as a source for heating homes.
"Everything takes time to develop," Wicks said. "I've invested too much time in this.
"I'm going to stick with it until it happens. There were good reasons for it then and better reasons for it now."