VLN Tech Rises to Its Next Challenge
For Ottawa’s VLN Advanced Technologies, its next big market opportunity may have come courtesy of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The California Air Resources Board recently implemented regulations to reduce the allowable emissions from small off-road gasoline engines of less than 25 horsepower, such as those found in lawnmowers, leaf blowers, dirt bikes, snowmobiles and chainsaws. The new regulations were the result of years of lobbying by a group of advocates that included Schwarzenegger during his time as governor of California.
This has left small-engine makers scrambling to adapt.
Many have focused their R&D efforts on the piston bores inside the engine block. These bores, cast out of aluminum, are coated with materials that can withstand the high temperatures produced by combustion and friction. With more precise machining techniques and more advanced coating materials, the goal is to reduce an engine’s harmful emissions.
But this requires a multi-step process. First, the surface must be cleaned and prepped. Traditionally, this involves some form of abrasive blasting to achieve a desired surface texture. The coating is then applied in a separate process.
But this requires the introduction of blasting materials that must be carefully cleaned away lest they leave foreign matter that will result in defects and poor performance. A block may be cast in one factory, shipped to another for surface prep, and shipped to a third for surface coating, before proceeding to final assembly. That’s a lot of time and money wasted on shipping and warehousing.
The challenge for VLN
VLN’s goal is to do what is currently considered impossible: Clean, prep and coat in a single application, without introducing any foreign materials.
But the impossible is nothing new for the team at VLN Tech.
The company specializes in novel waterjet techniques that dramatically improve the power and performance of conventional waterjet technologies for a range of applications. For example, VLN Tech is targeting the markets for land mine removal and the decontamination and reconditioning of radioactive waste from nuclear reactor sites.
The company persisted as a cash-starved startup for 13 years before it at last struck a landmark deal with Pratt & Whitney USA, part of United Technologies Corp., in 2011. Pratt & Whitney uses the VLN system to remove all types of coatings from parts, so they can be inspected and reconditioned.
Common wisdom held that it wasn’t possible to use a mere waterjet to remove such hard coatings. But VLN Tech proved the skeptics wrong and is working to do so again.
Multibillion-dollar market up for grabs
The company has already patented new waterjet nozzle designs that allow it to get inside even the smallest engine bore to clean and prep the surface with a combination of water and a blasting material. Founder and CEO Dr. Mohan Vijay is now working on that seemingly impossible one-step process: To clean and prep the surface when the jet nozzle enters the bore, using as the blasting material the actual coating material, then coat the surface when the nozzle exits the bore.
Considering tens of millions of small engines are produced for the U.S. market every year, the potential cost savings for manufacturers would be huge.
“If I could bring something like that to market, I could build the Lotus Building myself,” Dr. Vijay said. “This would most certainly inspire other investors to follow me down the road less travelled.”
What is the Lotus Building?
Dr. Vijay is not your typical entrepreneur. When VLN Tech secured that watershed deal with Pratt & Whitney, the 75-year-old didn’t retire. Instead, he used the company’s profits to fuel his charitable efforts. But he doesn’t want to just give money to charity, he wants to create a self-sustaining model that would free many charities of their annual scramble for funding.
The Lotus Building concept is a mixed-use development that operates on a not-for-profit basis. Any net profits are donated to charity. The site could be used for almost anything: a convention centre, a retail space, commercial office space, condos or some combination thereof.
What’s truly unique about his vision is the design he has chosen: He wants this structure to be in the shape of a lotus flower, a symbol with deep personal meaning.
Dr. Vijay has already committed $1 million of company profits, but estimates the total price tag for such a structure at about $200 million.
“It is always more rewarding to create a new track than to follow the existing one,” he said.
“Ours is to make philanthropy an integral part of our business strategy. I think any successful business should look for substantive ways to support its community.”
Visit www.vln-tech.com for more information