” Combining Fan with AC A More Efficient Cooling Solution”, Dr. Mayur Sundararajan, Superfan

  • Dr. Mayur Sundararajan did his B.Sc. Physics at Loyola College, Chennai, and completed his M.S and Ph.D. Physics at Ohio University, USA. He has research experience in nanosized semiconductor materials and their application in computer memory and hydrogen production. He pioneered the use of BLDC motors in fans, and in this discussion with IAmRenew, elaborates on his journey

Tell us about your journey into BLDC fans. How is BLDC a better and more efficient tech?  Would you liken this to the sort of impact LED lamps have made vis a vis CFL lamps?

Mayur Sundararajan: Versa Drives Private Limited is a technology firm focused on embedded systems and motor control products. It was founded as Computer Controls Corporation in 1989 in Coimbatore by Mr. Sundar and Mr. Durga. Mr. Sundar, holding an MS Electrical Engineering degree from Missouri Institute of Science and Technology, Rolla, USA, harboured a vision of establishing a business in India. Meanwhile, Mr. Durga, an electrical engineering graduate from IIT Madras, specialised in control systems and was keenly interested in embedded systems.

Initially, the company served the textile industry and expanded its reach to include printing and related sectors. In 2005, Versa Drives introduced a range of motor control products under the brand name Versa Drives. It eventually became its primary focus, leading to a rebranding of the company as Versa Drives Private Limited.

Leveraging their combined expertise of two decades, the company introduced Superfan, India’s pioneering super energy-efficient ceiling fan.

The story of Superfan begins in 2010

In 2010, during a conference, Mr. Sanjeev Keskar from Freescale suggested that we, being experts in drives, should focus on developing an electronic drive for the BLDC ceiling fan motor. A few days later, while back at our factory in Coimbatore, Mr. Durga stumbled upon an article titled “Ceiling fans: an overlooked appliance” by Prayas, Pune. The statistics given in the article on the impact of ceiling fans were striking. Recognizing the immense potential for energy savings, environmental benefits, and societal implications, we prioritised the project.

After we developed the drive, we realised there needed to be motors available in the country for use in our drive. By this time, we had gotten into the motor design and were equipped to develop a motor and drive and surpass their target specification for a ceiling fan, which we completed in 2012. The design still holds good, as evident from an IEEE paper in 2020, which compared several BLDC fans around the world and found that Superfan’s design in 2012 is still the best in terms of efficiency in electromagnetics.

The cost, the elective policy on star rating, and their timid approach were deterrents to traditional manufacturers adopting our technology and taking it to the market. Therefore, we decided to launch the product under the brand name Superfan. Superfan became India’s first super energy-efficient ceiling fan on 12-12-2012 in Chennai.

Superfan was more than just energy efficiency; there were several innovative and never-before-seen features like a drop-safe remote control, low-voltage operation (120Vac), immune to supply fluctuation, no-heat motor, and several fun colours with recyclable plastic-free and thermocol-free packing.

The release was followed by several recognitions nationally and internationally. The first major award came from the Department of Science and Technology when Superfan was chosen as the most innovative product of the year at the India Innovation Initiative 2013. The most notable one was from Dupont: the Global Sustainability Award in 2015, followed by the Global Leap Award from CLASP in 2016. These two awards led to the Superfan team being invited to a conference at the White House, USA, and Superfan being showcased at the CES show in Las Vegas.

In the meanwhile, there were several patents on the BLDC fan design and manufacturing process. As others followed us with inspired versions of BLDC fans, we continued to innovate. By 2019, the then-looming mandatory labelling pushed all the major players in the industry to have at least one BLDC fan model in their catalogue. As everyone was trying to reach Superfan’s performance in 2019, we continued to improve the products in energy efficiency and performance; by 2020, we had developed a super efficient blade technology when it was combined with our super efficient motor, it became twice as efficient as before – It was named Super Q. Super Q was awarded by Ministry of Power, Govt of India through NECA awards as the Appliance of the Year for being the most efficient fan in India, till now it is the most efficient fan in the country and arguably in the world.

Specific Aspect of the BLDC Motor that Makes it More Efficient

The efficiency of a BLDC (Brushless Direct Current) fan lies primarily in its motor technology, which is fundamentally different from the traditional AC induction motors used in conventional fans. This difference is crucial to understanding why BLDC motors are more efficient.

Fundamental Operating Principles

Traditional ceiling fans use AC induction motors (ACIM), which operate on the principle of electromagnetic induction. In an ACIM, the stator generates a rotating magnetic field, which in turn induces a current in the rotor. This induced current comes in contact with the magnetic field to produce torque, causing the rotor to spin and move the fan blades. However, this process has several inefficiencies:

  1. Heat Generation: The induced current in the rotor generates significant heat due to electrical resistance. This will result in a waste of energy and also cause damage to the motor components.
  2. Slip: ACIMs operate with a characteristic known as ‘slip’. It is nothing but the difference between the rotor’s speed and the magnetic field. Slip is necessary to induce current but also means that the rotor can never match the speed of the magnetic field, resulting in operational inefficiencies.
  3. Speed Control: The speed of an ACIM is primarily determined by the number of poles in the motor and the frequency of the AC supply, making precise speed control challenging without variable frequency drives. This lack of precision can lead to further inefficiencies, especially when the fan is not operating at full speed.
  4. Power Factor: ACIMs often have a low power factor, which means that more current is required for the same amount of work, leading to inefficiencies and higher energy costs.

BLDC Motor Technology

In contrast, BLDC motors operate on a different principle, where it consists of a rotor with permanent magnets and a stator with windings. The current to a BLDC motor is a constant direct current modulated by an electronic controller to create a varying current necessary for motor operation. This electronic controller uses a microcontroller to switch the current in the stator windings on and off in a precise sequence, creating a rotating magnetic field that gets in contact with the rotor’s magnetic field to generate torque.

Here are the specific aspects that make BLDC motors more efficient:

  1. Reduced Heat Generation: Using permanent magnets in the rotor eliminates the need for induced currents. This significantly reduces heat generation, minimises energy wastage, and enhances the motor’s lifespan.
  2. Precise Speed Control: The electronic controller of a BLDC motor allows for accurate speed control by adjusting the switching sequence of the current. This precise control leads to more efficient operation, especially at varying speeds, compared to the fixed-speed operation of ACIMs.
  3. Near-Unity Power Factor: BLDC motors can achieve a near-unity power factor because the electronic controller can align the current with the voltage, minimising phase differences. A higher power factor means less current is needed for the same amount of work, improving efficiency and reducing energy costs.
  4. Enhanced Features: The cutting-edge electronic board in BLDC fans allows for additional features such as timers, breeze modes, fine speed control, and smart home integration via Bluetooth and WiFi. These features serve a greater purpose than just user convenience and contribute to overall energy savings, showcasing the advanced technology of BLDC motors.

We understand your own manufacturing plant and office uses minimum cooling, preferring instead to go with fans for cooling. How does that work? (With Images)

Mayur Sundararajan: At Versa Drives, our commitment to eco-friendliness is ingrained in our business values. The Superfan, for instance, is not just about technological advancement; it’s a testament to our innovative approach to sustainability. By developing super energy-efficient fans, we’re not only saving energy but also making a significant impact on the environment. Our product innovation has led to a reduction of approximately 10 lakh tonnes of CO2 emissions daily, setting a trend for sustainability in the industry.

Since its inception in 2012, Superfan has been packaged without the use of plastics or thermocol, avoiding 300 grams of potential pollutants per unit compared to regular fan packaging. Our focus on energy consumption goes beyond the obvious, addressing factors such as power factor, harmonics, and leakage current. Superfan is designed to comprehensively minimise these energy wastages, leading to significantly higher long-term energy savings compared to other similar fans. This design approach, driven by our commitment to sustainability, ensures that Superfan is not just a product but a solution for a greener future. At the end of its life, Superfan can be easily separated into different materials for efficient recycling.

Another core value of Versa Drives is being equitable to all stakeholders of the business; aligning to this value, Superfan’s supply chain is intended to be predominantly local sourcing; apart from growing the local business ecosystem, it also significantly reduces logistical energy expenditures.

In our production, no single-use plastics are used, whereas our supplies come in cloth bags or reusable bins. Our infrastructure is built to consume less energy for operations, and our infrastructure is a habitat for over 50 species of birds and critters. There are atriums in the building, which reduces the need for artificial cooling and lighting. Our buildings have no ACs, and lights are used only towards the evening. We save rainwater diligently and make several other efforts around us that would be impactful over time.

All these actions are deliberate choices to ensure a sustainable environment for future generations.

For many people a star rating system for fans might seem like overkill. Why do you believe it matters?

Mayur Sundararajan: Why do you think it is overkill? There are over 40 crore fans in India, and they contribute to over 15% of domestic electricity demand. Having them in the mandatory star rating system would bring about standardisation in evaluating energy-efficient products and give an easy guideline for consumer choice. A savings of over 50% is quite significant for a product that is in the numbers on the same scale as our population!

The cooling challenge in tropical countries has been flagged as one of the biggest challenges on the energy front, as more and more people require cooling options. What is the role of fans there, and more precisely, BLDC motors?

Mayur Sundararajan: According to The Center for Science and Environment, India had encountered extreme weather events for 314 out of 365 days.

This underscores the pressing demand for effective thermal comfort solutions, given the increasing necessity of maintaining thermal comfort. Fans capitalise on the natural human cooling process—evaporative cooling through sweat—to provide personal comfort, offering an environmentally friendly alternative to air conditioners, which rely on conductive cooling mechanisms to cool occupants.

Furthermore, air conditioners contribute to a phenomenon known as the ‘urban heat island effect,’ where the heat given out by ACs increases temperatures in the external atmosphere, leading to an elevation in need for air conditioning – perpetuating a bicycle cycle.

Combining BLDC fans with air conditioners can mitigate this effect, since it operates more efficiently as their motors do not generate as much heat as AC induction motors. A user can run both the BLDC fan and the AC together but with the AC set to 27 degrees Celsius instead of 24 and still be able to experience a perceived cooling effect of 24 degrees Celsius with the fan running at mid speed. By this method energy consumption is cut down by approximately 25%, thereby minimising the heat island effect as the thermal load of the AC is lower. Implementation of this strategy is quintessential given the growing population. Thus climate change is an opportunity for the industry rather than a direct challenge.

Nevertheless, climatic change presents challenges like an industry-wide supply chain, made more challenging by environmental policies and geopolitical dynamics that could potentially hinder the continual advancement of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The incorporation of electronic components in BLDC fans increases the importance of environmentally conscious end-of-life practices and recycling to minimise the potential ecological damage.

Superfan has been addressing these challenges in small ways since 2012, with plastic-free eco-friendly packaging, eco-conscious manufacturing and infrastructure, building a local supply chain, and minimising the import content to components unavailable in India.

Just how are BLDC motors better than previously used tech? What is the current market share of BLDC motor powered fans in India, in more developed markets?

Mayur Sundararajan: The first question is answered in question number 1. The BLDC fans represent about 10% of the total market value. Most of this is in urban areas due to the higher price points.

BLDC fans come with a premium today vis a vis regular fans. Do you see that gap reducing, or will the market simply shift wholly to BLDC fans?

Mayur Sundararajan: Yes, the gap would be reduced with more volumes and more suppliers. The market would shift towards BLDC fans as the star rating will be revised every couple of years, pushing out the AC induction motor as it may not qualify for the minimum requirement.

What are the other key use cases where BLDC motors could enhance efficiency significantly?

Mayur Sundararajan: In the last decade, many motors have been switched to BLDC motors for efficiency and speed control. It has now been tried on other domestic appliances, and certain EV applications have also tried versions of BLDC motors.

What are your future plans for Superfans? Revenue and volume targets? How are you marketing and distributing it currently? Are you part of any discom led initiatives to replace older fans with BLDC superfans?

Mayur Sundararajan: Since the inception of the Superfan project in 2009, our mission has always been to save the environment by replacing all fans in India with Superfan-like fans. Our unwavering commitment to being eco-friendly, sustainable in every aspect of our business operations, and equitable to all stakeholders drove our actions and decisions. For us, stakeholders are our members: our associates, our customers, our environment, society, and our nation. Launching Superfan was a journey into uncharted territory with no equivalent product in the market; we undertook the task of setting a new standard for super energy efficiency, transforming it from an exception to the norm. This involved extensive collaboration with large institutions, government agencies, and the market to cultivate an environment receptive to such efficient products.

Over the years, our position as an industry outsider has given us unique insights into the inefficiencies that often stifle innovation. This outsider perspective has been instrumental in revolutionising the industry and steering it towards progress. Our experiences have shaped our belief in a diverse, future-centric, and long-term approach that benefits all stakeholders.  As we embark on this journey to grow the Superfan brand into an innovative appliance brand tailored to Indian needs, we understand the magnitude of this ambition. It demands a visionary outlook and a commitment to sustainable business practices at every step.

In summary, we seek investors who are not merely looking for quick returns but are committed to building an enduring institution. Ideal partners for us are those who value economic success and alignment with our core values, understanding that their investment is crucial to replicating similar impacts on other domains like the Superfan revolution and creating lasting returns for all stakeholders.

Currently, we sell through traditional distribution, online retail, direct sales through our website and calls, and showroom.

Yes, Tata Power in Mumbai has a program where customers get BLDC fans for a discount.

How sustainable is the manufacturing of BLDC motors today? Can it be made more sustainable by using recycled materials?

Mayur Sundararajan: All our superfans are manufactured and packaged in an eco-friendly manner. The very design of a Superfan makes it easy to recycle and to assemble and disassemble components like magnets, copper, aluminium, and plastics. Our packaging does not involve plastics or thermocol. This practice saves approximately 200 grams of plastic materials per product that would otherwise adversely affect our environment as non-biodegradable waste.

Yes, there is more room for improvement, and we have plans for that in terms of using recycled materials and ways in which logistics energy costs can be reduced. We also have ideas for designing products according to demographics, which also saves energy and the environment.

How do you see India meeting its cooling challenges by 2040-2050? What are the big technology innovations we will need/see?

Mayur Sundararajan: Meeting India’s thermal cooling challenges by 2040-2050 will require a multifaceted approach involving advanced technologies, renewable energy integration, and smart systems. Key innovations include adopting energy-efficient cooling solutions such as advanced air conditioning, passive cooling techniques, super-efficient fans, solar-powered cooling systems, and advanced energy storage technologies. Smart technologies like IoT-enabled devices and smart grids will optimise cooling management, while innovative materials like phase change materials and cool roofs will reduce heat absorption. Additionally, supportive policies, including stringent efficiency standards, financial incentives, and urban planning that promotes green spaces, will be crucial. These strategies will ensure sustainable and efficient cooling solutions for India’s growing population.

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