The business that was born when an engineer couldn’t find the right valve

Dr Geraldine Torín OllarvesChemical engineer Dr Geraldine Torín Ollarves came to Imperial in 2014 to research the way liquids and gases behave at extremely high pressures. Her research is important for carbon capture and storage (CCS) – the process of collecting carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, and depositing it in underground rocks to stop it reaching the atmosphere.

She says: “I put gas and liquid together and change the pressure to see when the mixture becomes liquid and when it becomes gas. This is important in CCS in real life because we need to know how much gas we can dissolve in the pores of rocks.”

To study these gases and liquids she needed to take samples from high-pressure vessels, which meant she needed a very special valve. “It’s like if you want to cook stew in a pressure pot,” explains Dr Torín Ollarves. “You add your meat, vegetables and water, and the meat becomes very tender in just 45 minutes because it is under high pressure. But imagine you needed to test the meat during cooking, you can’t do it because of the high pressure in the pot. The samples I needed to take were like testing the stew.

“I tried some products that were available on the market, but I found them difficult to work with and unreliable. I spent several months of my life trying to get them to work, but they didn’t work and I got fed up.”

Dr Torín Ollarves decided to try a new approach. Together with co-inventor Professor Martin Trusler, she came up with her own new design for a valve that worked at high pressure. Then, just a few weeks later, she spotted an advert for the Techcelerate programme.

“I had to work fast to get an application in, but I did it and I got a place on the programme. I was a long way behind in comparison to the rest of the people in my cohort. I was just starting out and all I really had was an idea. Gavin Barnes in the Department of Chemical Engineering workshop, made a first prototype. This was tested to show proof of concept. I’m now working to get protection for the intellectual property.”

In addition to her research, Dr Torín Ollarves spends quite a lot of her time teaching and she did not want to give up her commitments, even while on the programme. Despite the limits on her time, she still managed to speak to more than 100 people about her ideas. She interviewed valve sellers, including the CEO of a valve company, engineers in different industries and other researchers.

Dr Geraldine Torín Ollarves“It was stressful for me because every exhibition or conference I went to was full of men: there were about 300 men and only two or three women. All I had was an idea, so I needed to learn as much as possible. I needed to know if it was just my problem or not.

“I had to make sure I didn’t say too much so my initial approach was to explain the problem I had and ask whether they had a solution. Many people I spoke to said, ‘if you find a way, let me know’ and offered to do trials for me.”

Thanks to the programme, Dr Torín Ollarves discovered that her idea could also be useful for businesses that rely on catalysis, pharmaceutical and oil companies, and for other areas of research.

“I’ve gained a lot from the Techcelerate programme. I know more about business – how to do it and how not to do it. Now, I’m confident to approach anyone and have anyone approach me. It’s also opened new doors – I have contacts and I can go back to them. I’m also confident that my idea will be helpful for others – not only to me.”

She says that the valve design is delicate and there will be many steps in the process of developing it. The first steps will be continuing to create prototypes and trying them out herself. Then she will need to finish protecting the intellectual property before she can begin trials outside her own lab.

She adds: “Techcelerate altered my life and I’m still catching up. But, since day one, even day zero or day minus one, I have really believed in this product. I know it will work and do what it should do because I created it to meet my particular need. And because I designed it from scratch, it’s my baby.”