RISE Innovator Spotlight
Inspiration can strike at any time. The key is to recognize it when you see it.
For Jim Nigg, CEO and founder of Constructis, a company based on the concept of capturing and repurposing kinetic energy, that moment came as he watched traffic pass over a highway bridge in 1994.
“I was a rookie out of college working for the Washington State Department of Transportation and was sent to conduct a performance review on recently completed bridge projects near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport,” he says. “We used some new expansion joints that are still in use today and it was amazing as I pondered the energy being absorbed by vehicle traffic. Cars and trucks were just hammering on the joints, so I thought, ‘What if we could harness this energy?’”
Several years and prototypes later, Nigg is now seeing his inspiration in action through a pilot project at a Virginia Beach Public Schools bus depot where his rumble-strip like Roadway Energy X system was installed for testing in 2021. The goal is to produce cheap, emission-free electricity from vehicular traffic.
Constructis was one of the six grant winners of the inaugural RISE Coastal Community Resilience Challenge in 2019. Nigg credits RISE for enabling his company to advance its technology in Hampton Roads. As part of the $249,000 grant Constructis received, RISE also provided a $10,000 stipend and business training.
“RISE has been incredible and I sure hope they continue to offer out-of-the box thinkers, products and initiatives opportunities to grow here,” says Nigg. “Novel innovation is the hardest because there is no precedent to measure from; real trailblazers are hacking a path through the technology forest and pitfalls are everywhere. A responsive and supportive team is crucial to success.”
Nigg is a U.S. Navy veteran who served a total of eight years on active duty and in the reserves. He founded Constructis in 2007, through which he has developed Roadway Energy X. The system, designed as a series of strike tubes installed in a roadway that depress as vehicles pass over them, captures kinetic energy from braking traffic that can be stored in batteries to provide power to emergency services, traffic signals and pumps to clear flooded roadway, among other uses.
It can be installed overnight, ideally where traffic is slowing down and gathering, such as at busy intersections, exit and entrance ramps, toll booth plazas, parking lot entrances and elsewhere to capture and recycle energy that would otherwise be wasted. In multiple REX lanes systems capturing high volume traffic, they have the ability to generate over a kilowatt of continuous clean electricity.
The average family home in the U.S. uses around 900 kWH per month and around 30 kWH per day, according to Nigg. “That’s a lot of juice and the brass ring of measuring large power use.” If 200 REX lanes were installed in locations with 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles per day driving over the system, under a 20 to 30 year contract similar to a solar or wind project Constructis could power 10 to 20 family homes in perpetuity, he says.
“We have the ability to scale the REX in size up or down to provide optimum energy capture,” Nigg says, “meaning we see bicycle applications as well as Port truck-traffic applications.”
With 10,000 heavy trucks crossing into the Port daily, the REX system could support Port operations with clean electricity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing power even if the grid goes down from extreme weather, he adds.
We caught up with Nigg recently to learn more about this novel roadway system that started, as many great innovations have, in a garage.
Describe the evolution of your Roadway Energy X prototype’s design.
In 2013, I built an early prototype concept in my garage after spending three years in Afghanistan as a one of 12 senior managers leading more than 24,000 personnel building projects for the U.S. Army. Believing it would work, I hired people smarter than me to advance the designs while I filed the first patent. Version 1 was in my garage. Version 2 was completed drawings and advancing concepts. Version 3 was completely modeled, including advanced software to show gearing and rotational systems. Version 4 was built after I chopped up Version 3 to reflect parts we could buy mostly off the shelf — that’s what we built and tested. RISE provided the funds to build Version 5 and even portions of Version 6. Now we’re ready for Version 7. We basically went from the early rickety look of a Ford Model T into the Model A, and now the REX is getting smarter.
What development challenges have you faced?
Unbelievable challenges, mostly centering around access to capital. RISE provided funding support that helped us advance and become more attractive to investors; they helped us acquire the Environmental Exclusion Permit and all this activity induced Virginia Beach City Public Schools to say, “Hey, we like what you’re doing, put it at our LEED platinum bus facility for testing.” Then, after three years, we finally received underwriting and Berkshire Hathaway picked us up.
Where do you envision the REX system would be placed to capture the most amount of energy, and who are your target customers?
Ports, government, cities and municipalities, large commercial trucking or logistic companies, military, departments of transportation — even large residential developments are ideal. Locations with high traffic volumes, high speed off ramps, too. Basically, we can capture and convert more energy from higher mass, higher volume and higher velocity of vehicle traffic. It’s physics and why we’ll continue to grow and get to market. We basically “recycle” energy with zero carbon emission, and we’ll directly compete with all other energy sources.
What do you mean when you say “Constructis is battery agnostic”?
Our REX recycles the energy into electricity, then we charge battery banks inside the REX. Battery technology is advancing at an incredible pace, so our ability to switch to different technology use is important as the market may change favorites. We also look at cradle to grave “green,” meaning less heavier non-recyclable materials and metals is our target in battery use. We can meter directly to streetlights and nearby buildings. If we have REX systems, say, in New York City and a power outage occurs and we’ve maintained 60% storage, we could power those lights.
What motivated you to apply for the RISE Coastal Community Resilience Challenge, and how has it changed the trajectory of your business?
Paul Robinson, RISE’s executive director, contacted me in late 2018 when we applied to F6S (an online platform that connects founders to accelerators, funds and investors). As a former U.S. Navy Seabee, RISE provided us an opportunity to advance this technology in Hampton Roads — a location we wanted to be in. This region has a great military presence, one that represents an important customer we hope to get some REX lanes installed for soon. It’s an incredible location for growth, and we continue to be proud we were selected!
Flooded roadways are a particular concern in coastal communities. Can it be used to help mitigate the effects of floodwaters on streets and highways?
We installed a self-activating marine pump to show REX’s capabilities — it looks like a garden hose on full blast. In addition, we envision many REX systems being installed in the region to provide emergency power to first responders, critical infrastructure, hospitals and others. That’s a crucial application we provide a real solution for.
In what emergency scenario(s) would REX be useful and how?
Say we know a Category 3 hurricane is coming. Seven days out, or even less, our weather service is very good. Instead of using power generated, we’ll begin to store that power for use. The storm hits as expected, and even if flooded (likely) while the REX won’t be able to generate energy, our battery banks are sealed and pumping power where needed.
What other information or data can be collected and communicated to customers through REX?
We have a sensor package we’re eager to get installed. These are relatively cheap systems, although they include internal health monitoring, revolutions per minute, output, charge levels and other engineering items. In addition, we see weights and measures, traffic flow from timed lights to volume based, where the REX provides real-time data monitoring for the next generation of smart city applications. It’s a whole new level, and we’re out in front.
In what way can REX contribute to climate mitigation efforts (e.g., reduce greenhouse gasses)?
Emission avoidance is directly attributed to power output of clean energy generation, so depending on how many REX systems are installed and where, there are hundreds to thousands of tons of CO2 emissions avoided. To give another example, every loaded dump truck is about 10 to 13 tons — we can save that much CO2 from being pumped into our atmosphere!
How has your military background played a role in your entrepreneurial development?
Military was all about discipline and getting the job done, although every entrepreneur will share the hard and long hours involved. From there I think being driven and staying focused is key; however, without passion, success can be elusive.
What’s next for Constructis? What exciting things are on the horizon that you’re working toward?
We simply look forward to capitalizing this company and advancing the REX systems to get into the market to provide a green solution. We want to test and improve and grow, and we expect to be a small global company in less than 18 months. Without sponsorships and many professional peers supporting us, this technology would still be an idea that was built out in a garage.