Electric motors consume as much as half the world’s electricity. Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates are investing to make them more efficient

Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates

As much as half of the world’s electricity is consumed by motors. They power everything from fans to electric cars and pumps to industrial machinery. Making them more efficient could go a long way in reducing emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

That’s the promise of California-based startup Turntide Technologies Inc., which has commercialized a new type of electric motor. The company said on Wednesday it has raised $80 million from investors including funds led by Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr., and co-creator of the iPhone Tony Fadell.

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Electric motors convert electricity into motion by using electromagnets to generate magnetic fields that turn a rotor around a shaft. That simple turning motion, depending on the size of the motor, can blow fallen leaves or bend sheets of metal.

But in conventional motors, much of the magnetic field is wasted and doesn’t contribute to turning the rotor. Turntide has found a way to try and maximize that conversion by turning the magnets inside the motor on and off as often as 20,000 times a second. When the process works correctly, the motor can produce the same amount of work with up to 30% less electricity.

The design of the motor dates back to 1838, said Turntide Chief Executive Officer Ryan Morris. But the fine control needed to run it efficiently had to wait until computer chips got cheap enough to run the programs.

That’s what Downey likes about the technology, beyond its ability to cut emissions. “They figured out how to use a 19th century technology and use software to make it do what it always had the potential to do,” he said in an interview.

Morris describes the product as “software wrapped in metal.” That’s why the company is able to outsource the manufacturing to India, China and Taiwan, but still control the intellectual property needed to run the motor efficiently.

Turntide is currently focused on a niche market. It replaces the old electric motors in ventilation systems in large buildings. The cost savings from reduced electricity use means it can promise a return on investment in as little as three years. By the end of 2020, Turntide had replaced 5,000 such motors and aims to do 50,000 this year.

Next, Turntide is exploring the application of its motors in pumps and compressors. Ultimately, the company’s biggest market is likely to be electric cars, though achieving the performance that electric motors in cars demand will take a few years of development.

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