Hampton firm’s turbine technology is on energy cutting edge

Jim Kesseli, founder and president of Hampton-based engineering research firm Brayton Energy, knows a thing or two about being ahead of the alternative energy curve.As a young, MIT-educated research engineer almost three decades ago, Kesseli had a front-row seat in the alternative energy development arena before energy prices bottomed out and government funding dried up.“At the time it was impossible to make the economic case,” said Kesseli, an MIT graduate, about major innovations in high-efficiency and low-emission micro turbine engines that he saw while working at Lockheed Sanders (now BAE Systems) in the early 1980s.But the economic case has changed dramatically, as the drive for alternatives to a fossil fuel economy has become more urgent politically and economically amid concerns about climate change, volatility in the energy markets and man-made disasters, such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.Kesseli’s research and development-intensive company specializes in design, prototyping and testing of turbomachinery and gas turbine systems.Kesseli said Brayton Energy — which is named after the 19th century gas turbine engine innovator and Exeter resident George Brayton — is on the cutting edge of micro turbine and other alternative energy development projects — ranging from working with commercial truck fleets in the United States and Brazil to one of the more intriguing solar energy collection and distribution projects in the country.Green incubatorBut Kessli, whose company has attracted the attention of multinational giants Wal-Mart and Google, wants to do more. He plans to foster green business development by hosting an incubator to help early-stage clean energy companies.The Seacoast Sustainable Energy Technology Incubator is located in one of the two buildings Brayton occupies along Lafayette Road in Hampton (the companyalso is planning to buy a third building).Kesseli said he wants to do his part to assist young businesses that will come from a wide range of clean-energy avenues including thermal, solar, wind, LEED energy efficiency, insulation, hydro and energy auditing.“We’ve had success and we wanted to turn our attention towards something more egalitarian and bring in companies who can benefit from working together in the same space,” said Kesseli, who has talked to a few firms and is seeking good fits for both parties. “We can offer favorable terms and lend a helping hand with our expertise.”That expertise would be considerable.Kesseli, who has 16 patents in the gas turbine field, said that what Brayton’s 28 employees do is sometimes hard to quantify because of their R&D work. In short, they do basic research, designing, engineering and creating manufacturing prototypes in partnership with other companies.Brayton is heavily involved in a number of innovative projects, and Kesseli said the company expects a major expansion in its engineering staff.Among the more noteworthy projects is SolarCAT, which could lead to the establishment of the nation’s first solar-powered power plant in Arizona. The project resulted in a major Department of Energy grant, and Brayton has created a gas turbine system to generate electricity from energy collected by dozens of solar dishes.“This (SolarCAT) concept has been around for a while, but it ended up dying in the 1980s due to a lack of economic viability,” said Kesseli as he gave a tour of Brayton’s prototype workshops. “But this is a radically new way to make electricity.”Another development, funded by Brazilian investors, has become a renewable energy biomass turbine power plant.But the most “revolutionary,” according to Kesseli, is the next stage of what he saw as a young researcher — an ultra low-emission and multi-fuel micro turbine as an advanced propulsion system for large trucks. Brayton is partnering with a truck manufacturer and corporations such as Wal-Mart on the project.It’s “revolutionary,” Kesseli explained, because it will replace the diesel engine — which has been around for more than a century.“This is a low-emission gas turbine with advanced high efficiency. It will have large-scale applications and multi-fuel capability, from renewable fuels to natural gas.”While Brayton has remained very low key, it caught the attention of the national Pew Environment Group which cited Brayton last year for being a positive example of New Hampshire’s fast-growing clean technology economy.“We chose them because they were a premier company in clean energy technology, “ said Jan Pendlebury, the New Hampshire representative for the Pew Environment Group. She said companies such as Brayton, in conjunction with the state’s climate action plan, have “attracted almost $67 million in clean tech venture capital in the last three years. Together, policy leaders and private investors can boost New Hampshire’s clean energy economy.”Kesseli, who believes that government investment in alternative energy development is still too low, said the company was humbled by the Pew recognition and hopes it spurs more recognition to “create clean energy economy jobs here in New Hampshire and expand the potential for renewable energy across the country.”