Straits Times: Wed, Nov 23
LIFE-LONG inventor Philip Wong tends to be more concerned with perfecting innovations than turning them into cash streams, but his latest venture has the look of a real winner.
Mr Wong and his team at Real Time Engineering (RTE) have developed fuel-cell power plant technology that converts biomass such as sawdust, fruit peels or plant waste into electricity. The 'waste-to-energy' product was launched last year after a decade of blood, sweat and tears doing research and development (R&D).
It is finally starting to get some commercial traction although Mr Wong, 68, seems to get more pleasure out of the tinkering than signing contracts.
He is addicted to R&D work on innovative products and knows too well the sacrifices that he and his family have to make because of that. 'People like me should never get married,' he says, adding that his typical work day can easily last up to 16 hours. 'I still remember after my first year of marriage, my wife bought a portable TV, plonked it in the office and watched it there.'
Mr Wong, who is also an adjunct lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, has needed his dedication to get the waste-to-energy product up and running. But the process took a lot longer than expected as he and his team had not anticipated the problems that come with using hydrogen.
RTE uses hydrogen to convert fuel to electricity via an electrochemical process that is clean, quiet and highly efficient.
But hydrogen is perceived to be highly flammable and many people steer clear.
'But it is light and will float upward very quickly so the flames will rise to the ceiling and it won't hinder any escape by the door,' says Mr Wong. Also, hydrogen will not combust if it is kept below 4 per cent of the air volume, he adds.
Another major problem was the high cost of hydrogen. 'Hydrogen costs 60 cents per kilowatt hour... so it was back to the drawing board for us,' he says.
The extra research has allowed RTE to produce hydrogen at three US cents (four Singapore cents) or four US cents per kilowatt hour, which makes it special as it can supply clean energy at a lower cost than its competitors.
There are similar clean energy firms elsewhere, like in the United States, but they typically buy the hydrogen for their use, he says.
RTE developed a unique catalyst that extracts hydrogen from biomass, which is a lot cheaper than the traditional way of producing it from natural gas.
Mr Wong then collaborated with researchers from Temasek Polytechnic for three years on a small-scale power plant, which was incubated at the school's Clean Energy Research Centre. It serves as a sample plant.
But sceptics were hard to convert.
A launch for the RTE plant was held early last year at the Singapore Business Federation and RTE offered a price 10 per cent below grid price. 'But, believe me, there were no takers,' says Mr Wong.
The plant is aimed at hotels and other large institutions. They do not have to come up with any initial investment as RTE will build, install and run the equipment. The customers will just have to pay for the use of the power, says Mr Wong.
'We're like Singapore Power on a small scale.'
Apart from the concerns over hydrogen, potential customers were concerned about the biomass mess and managers did not dare to take the risks of committing to the new technology, he adds.
'In desperation, we went to TEC (The Enterprise Challenge, an initiative under the Prime Minister's Office) in September last year. They said they can tolerate failures... and they found us JTC Corp who signed a power purchase agreement for 10 years plus 10 years,' says Mr Wong.
The one-megawatt fuel cell plant is being been set up at CleanTech One industrial park in Jalan Bahar, part of CleanTech Park, a facility aimed at boosting Singapore's position as a global hub for eco-technology and energy.
TEC gave RTE a grant of $890,000 for the plant which will be installed by next October; the rest came from an individual investor.
RTE is also building and installing a similar plant at the Ministry of Manpower and has at least four projects in the pipeline, including a potential US$1.6 billion 100 megawatt one in Haimen, China.
Because it takes about 18 months and about US$11 million to build and install one of its plants, RTE needs to get more investor funding in before it can start on the other projects.
Mr Wong started RTE in 1993 as an R&D firm focusing initially on modem development and computer security, because he 'couldn't find somebody who wanted to create new breakthrough innovations' at the time.
But when the Asian financial crisis came, he lost almost everything overnight. 'In '94, we had 60 engineers and by 2000, we had six people,' he says.
Mr Wong then went into clean energy. RTE relied on some residual income from two building automation projects. He also sold a house and an apartment for a few million dollars to fund the business.
'It's tough. There were many times when I wanted to throw in the towel... There are a lot of sceptics out there, there are also the creditors to deal with,' says Mr Wong. 'I've absolutely no doubt that the idea will work. But the despair, it was to do with whether I can convince people that it works.' He now spends most of his time talking to potential investors here and overseas.
RTE's two projects will yield enough income to sustain it for a while. It will also profit from the by-product - synthetic crude oil, which can now sell for above US$100 a barrel, though Mr Wong says he is doing his sums based on a conservative $80 a barrel.
If he can get investor funding to start the other four projects soon, RTE could be looking at annual revenue of tens of millions or even hundreds of millions in several years' time.