By Eric Peterson | Jun 23, 2014
Composite material technology for industries
Founded: October 2012
Andrew Coors became CEO of Steelhead Composites by way of 9th Street Investments, where he was involved in funding Lightning Hybrids in 2012. The Loveland-based maker of hydraulic hybrid systems for trucks and buses had a supply-chain headache, says Coors.
"Doing due diligence on Lightning, we became concerned about their supply chain," he explains. The component in question was hydraulic accumulators, which store and release a hybrid vehicle's braking energy. "There was one supplier and they were getting swamped with orders. The wait times were getting longer and longer."
Because of this "supply-demand imbalance," Coors opted to go into the accumulator business himself with Steelhead. "We decided it would be best to have a fully separate company to meet this need we saw for pressure vessels for not only hybrids but other technologies," he says, citing hydrogen fuel cells and and natural-gas vehicles as target markets beyond hybrids. "The world needed another composites manufacturer, especially in Colorado, with the focus on alternative fuels and cleantech."
Coors was employee #1 when the company launched in late 2012, and his first hire was Dr. Kaushik Mallick, Steelhead's director of engineering. "He's a brilliant engineer," touts Coors. Since then, Steelhead has been hiring at a rate of "one new employee a month," he adds.
Hydraulic accumulators are essentially batteries for mechanical energy usually lost in the braking process, he adds. "For a hybrid system, it's an energy storage device," he says. "It has enormous power density and pretty good energy density." In other words, "They can charge and recharge very quickly. In six seconds, you can fully charge an accumulator." The end result can be as much as a 40 percent uptick in fuel efficiency.
While hydraulic accumulators have been around for 40 years and are omnipresent in heavy-duty vehicles, Steelhead's differentiating factor is the use of a composite of aluminum overwrapped with carbon fiber.
"The carbon fiber has phenomenal weight-to-strength characteristics," says Coors. "The aluminum only bears 10 percent of the load -- the other 90 percent is carried by the carbon fiber."
The resiliency of composites is surprising considering how lightweight they are. "We're one-sixth the weight of steel," says Coors.
One hurdle Steelhead cleared in its R&D was perfecting the accumulator's port opening for hydraulic fluid. "The larger the port opening, the more stresses it faces," Coors says.
Steelhead has two patents in hand and several more pending. Issued in May, most recent patent covers "a materials technology that allows our vessels to attain better fill characteristics," says Coors. "It enhances range -- you can fit more gas in a vessel."
But the current focus at Steelhead is squarely on getting its first hydraulic accumulators out to customers. "Right now, we're shipping our first orders to customers," says Coors.
Those shipments were hydraulic accumulators, and Steelhead's pressure vessels for natural gas and hydrogen fuel cells are set for their market debut by the end of the year.
Challenges: "The regulations," says Coors. Pressure vessels "require certification, and it takes a lot of time. It's expensive to sell a vessel to a new market." The key? "Patience."
Opportunities: Providing pressure vessels to the natural gas and hydrogen markets, particularly the latter. "It's a new and exciting market, and it requires vessels that can withstand high pressure," says Coors. "It's an electric vehicle you fill at a gas station. It could change the landscape of how we fuel our vehicles in the next few years.."
Needs: "Our biggest issue is finding skilled labor, finding skilled tradespeople who can operate machinery and understand manufacturing," says Coors. Colorado needs "additional support for our vocational schools as well as communication with our high school students about the opportunities” in manufacturing.