From a universe far, far away – the 1960s – an idea that originated with the space program took off to orbit the world, though not in the precise vehicle its inventors originally imagined. “3M Corporation developed a thermoelectric technology for NASA’s Apollo program. A thermoelectric generator – TEG for short – converts heat directly into electricity. The heat source in this case was from decaying radioactive material. Well, when that phase of the program ended, 3M began to commercialize the technology for earthly applications using natural gas or propane for heat. In 1975, the founders of Global Thermoelectric had the vision to see the technology commercialized for use in the oil and gas industry,” explains James Bolen, Vice President, Business Development.
In a thermoelectric generator, heat from a gas burner is applied to one side of a hermetically sealed module containing an array of semiconductor elements, while the other side is cooled. This “delta-T” causes a steady direct electric current to flow. The solid-state design has no moving parts, resulting in extremely high reliability, next-to-no maintenance and extended longevity and durability.
“The thermopile is designed for 20 years of continuous operation, but many are still in the field going strong at 30 years. In addition, TEGs typically can be installed and running in hours and provide trouble-free operation with minimal maintenance – no more than two hours a year,” Bolen says. “Moreover, TEGs are effective in all temperatures, elevations, corrosive environments, operating in all kinds of weather conditions and are impervious to salt spray, airborne contaminants, or even bird droppings. And they don’t require the use of batteries. This makes them ideal for operations in the most remote locations, and particularly those that are not manned. It’s not surprising, then, that TEGs are the preferred solution for remote applications.”
Other alternatives require skilled technicians to perform frequent maintenance, resulting in higher operating costs, increased downtime and overall reduced reliability. And, as Bolen explains, “Although properly-sized photovoltaic systems can be cost effective in certain applications, problems with maintenance, reliability and short battery life make TEGs the better alternative.” When compared to any alternative, TEGs have the lowest life cycle cost for remote power applications within their size range.
This explains why Global Thermoelectric enjoys a dominant market share in one of its chief markets – wellheads, offshore platforms and pipelines – where they run on natural gas or propane and typically serve as a prime power source for mission-critical functions. “The company founders were from Alberta, which is Canada’s version of Texas, so the gas and oil industry was a natural fit,” Bolen says. “A logical extension of that was to provide systems that support telecommunications infrastructure.”
On offshore platforms, for example, conventional sources of power don’t provide the operator with the reliability required for all systems. Critical platform electrical loads include navigational lighting, emergency lighting, alarms, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and emergency communication systems where you simply can’t have downtime. For these systems, power availability is of utmost importance not only for safety, but also for security and regulatory compliance. Even on a platform with a large conventional power plant, it is necessary to identify those critical loads and ensure a much higher reliability of supply. Typically these critical loads consume less than 2000 watts of power.
30-Years of Skill Development
There are an estimated 20,000 TEGs installed in 50 countries comprising self-contained units from 15 to 550 watts that can be integrated into systems of up to 5000 watts of prime continuous power. With its 30-year anniversary as a highly specialized manufacturer approaching this summer, Global Thermoelectric continues to build upon its “only one of its kind” product line. In recent years it has leveraged its technical savvy into additional markets with Integrated Remote Power Systems and OEM and contract manufacturing.
“What makes us unique is not just the TEG” says George Longmuir, Plant Manager. “It’s our knowledge-base coupled with the capability to produce critical components. Virtually no one else has the combined machining and welding capabilities with high temperature alloys that we need for our hermetically sealed power units. Consequently, other companies in need of products utilizing these kinds of materials and processes look to us to supply components for their products.” As part of its OEM business, Global produces special thermoelectric power units for other companies to incorporate into their products. One of these is used in a unique self-powered heater for the U.S. military. Global also manufactures specialty high temperature heat exchangers that are incorporated into other products. “Another developing market for specialty heat exchangers is in the burgeoning fuel cell industry”, adds Bolen. “Global will continue to be an attractive contract manufacturing option to companies who need help with the more difficult things in this area. And we are looking to grow this part of the business.”
Global is a vertically integrated ISO 9001:2000 manufacturer that makes efficient use of its 50,000-plus-square-foot. facility an hour east of Calgary. During the plant’s 30-year history in the area, it has built a highly skilled and loyal employee base with the flexibility to handle all the pitches and rolls of the business. According to Longmuir, “Out of necessity, Global has developed a strong tradition of apprenticeship, particularly valuable in its machining and welding areas. We’ve developed programs that allow us to continually improve the breadth and depth of these skills that are critical to our business, including extensive cross training. In the course of one day a worker could be doing subcomponent assembly and highly technical welding. We train our employees to perform several different types of jobs so we have the ability to shift people around. In addition, this helps break up routine and make the job more diversified and interesting for our workers, which in turn keeps productivity levels high. And being in a small center, we have the flexibility to expand quickly at low cost. We’ve also established a stable of highly skilled partner companies who give us additional capacity for when we need it most.”
Global continually introduces new equipment and processes into its operation to accommodate new markets, products and cost improvement. Lean manufacturing principles have taken hold in the operation, with Global joining a local Lean Manufacturing Consortium. “We expect our OEM and contract manufacturing businesses to be a much larger portion of our overall business in the next couple of years,” adds Longmuir.
Integrated Remote Power Systems
Over the course of 30 years in remote power, Global had already expanded its capabilities in remote power systems to include turnkey power systems all over the world. In the past two years, however, Global has focused more intensely on systems integration to further capitalize on the combination of technical capability with market knowledge and presence. “For years we’ve combined our manufacturing capabilities, service, engineering and worldwide distribution channels with our project management skills to provide turnkey remote systems.” Bolen says. “And increasingly we have customers who want remote power solutions from us, but at sites where TEGs alone are not always the best technology. So we’ve created a more deliberate focus on integration of systems to address these applications. We expect this to develop into significant business. We have the ability to integrate many different types of energy conversion technologies into high reliability remote power systems even without TEGs. This is really the formalizing of a natural extension of our business.”
These applications are based on three primary designs – Global Hybrid, Global Charge and Global Station. Global Hybrid is a TEG-solar hybrid system designed to extend the refueling cycle of a TEG that uses tanked-fuel, ideal for remote telecom. Global Charge is a self-contained system featuring a state-of-the-art battery cycle-charging system that combines gensets, solar, wind or other power sources optimized for battery life, generator life and extended maintenance cycles. This provides very high reliability for larger remote power loads, and can operate on diesel, natural gas, or LPG. Maintenance and refueling is typically required once per year. Global Station is a self-contained operating station that includes a highly reliable remote power system but also includes the customer’s equipment. Global Station can be based on a cycle charging system, a prime power system or any combination of sources. All three configurations are available with remote monitoring and control.
The company maintains corporate offices in Calgary, Canada and Houston, Texas, while operating its manufacturing facility out of two buildings in Bassano, Alberta, about 120 km from Calgary. The Bassano facility is the site where the company was founded in 1975 by a group of local businessmen. It is from those local roots that the company has spread all over the world.
This in part explains why the company has continued to manufacture at the same location since its inception. The other key consideration is that the local labor pool is as unique as Global’s products. “This is a farming, hunting, fishing and oil and gas area, and there’s a pool of practical, flexible and skilled resources to draw upon. And some of our employees are sons and daughters of company founders. You aren’t going to find that kind of environment anywhere else but here.”
“Our official anniversary celebration is in July,” says Bolen, “and I think we have a lot to celebrate. Not just looking back at what we’ve accomplished, but looking forward to an exciting future. What the next 30 years will bring we can’t, of course, be certain, but there’s literally a world of possibilities that are remotely conceivable.”