The holy grail of energy

Now here is an interesting company called EEStor, claiming to be able to produce a device called a supercapacitor (or recently, they changed that into hypercapacitor, you’ll understand why if you read on) that claims to have the following capabilities

  • The batteries fully charge in minutes as opposed to hours
  • Whereas with lead acid batteries you might get lucky to have 500 to 700 recharge cycles, the EEStor technology has been tested up to a million cycles with no material degradation.
  • EEStor’s technology could be used in more than low-speed electric vehicles. The company envisions using it for full-speed pure electric vehicles, hybrid-electrics (including plug-ins), military applications, backup power and even large-scale utility storage for intermittent renewable power sources such as wind and solar.
  • Because it’s a solid state battery rather than a chemical battery, such being the case for lithium ion technology, there would be no overheating and thus safety concerns with using it in a vehicle.
  • Finally, with volume manufacturing it’s expected to be cost-competitive with lead-acid technology.

If these claims were true, it would provide an instant solution to many of the most vexing energy problems today:

  • Energy storage problems that plague alternative energy like wind and solar (the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun certainly doesn’t always shine..) would be a thing of the past, leading to much wider adoption (with resulting economies of scale and learning making them cheaper, faster
  • Electric cars would be instantly possible, without the limitations of battery power (limited range, weight, long recharge times, short recharging life cycles, safety, cost, etc.) or the compromise hybrid solutions on the road today (whose batteries are even more limited as they don’t use lithium-ion technology).
  • We wouldn’t need to build a whole new infrastructure to power fuel-cell driven cars.

Could this be true? Here some more claims:

  • Among EEStor’s claims is that its “electrical energy storage unit” could pack nearly 10 times the energy punch of a lead-acid battery of similar weight and, under mass production, would cost half as much.
  • It also says its technology more than doubles the energy density of lithium-ion batteries in most portable computer and mobile gadgets today, but could be produced at one-eighth the cost.
  • If that’s not impressive enough, EEStor says its energy storage technology is “not explosive, corrosive, or hazardous” like lead-acid and most lithium-ion systems, and will outlast the life of any commercial product it powers. It can also absorb energy quickly, meaning a small electric car containing a 17-kilowatt-hour system could be fully charged in four to six minutes versus hours for other battery technologies, the company claims.
  • According to patent documents obtained by the Star, EEStor’s invention will do no less than “replace the electrochemical battery” where it’s already used in hybrid and electric vehicles, power tools, electronic gadgets and renewable energy systems, from solar-powered homes to grid-connected wind farms.

Now, MIT Technology Review was also on it last year:

  • A secretive Texas startup developing what some are calling a “game changing” energy-storage technology broke its silence this week. It announced that it has reached two production milestones and is on track to ship systems this year for use in electric vehicles.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet..

  • Richard Weir, EEStor’s cofounder and chief executive, says he would prefer to keep a low profile and let the results of his company’s innovation speak for themselves. “We’re well on our way to doing everything we said,” Weir told Technology Review in a rare interview. He has also worked as an electrical engineer at computing giant IBM and at Michigan-based automotive-systems leader TRW.
  • Ultracapacitors have many advantages over traditional electrochemical batteries. Unlike batteries, “ultracaps” can completely absorb and release a charge at high rates and in a virtually endless cycle with little degradation.
  • Where they’re weak, however, is with energy storage. Compared with lithium-ion batteries, high-end ultracapacitors on the market today store 25 times less energy per pound.
  • This is why ultracapacitors, with their ability to release quick jolts of electricity and to absorb this energy just as fast, are ideal today as a complement to batteries or fuel cells in electric-drive vehicles. The power burst that ultracaps provide can assist with stop-start acceleration, and the energy is more efficiently recaptured through regenerative braking–an area in which ultracap maker Maxwell Technologies has seen significant results.
  • On the other hand, EEStor’s system–called an Electrical Energy Storage Unit, or EESU–is based on an ultracapacitor architecture that appears to escape the traditional limitations of such devices. The company has developed a ceramic ultracapacitor with a barium-titanate dielectric, or insulator, that can achieve an exceptionally high specific energy–that is, the amount of energy in a given unit of mass.
  • For example, the company’s system claims a specific energy of about 280 watt hours per kilogram, compared with around 120 watt hours per kilogram for lithium-ion and 32 watt hours per kilogram for lead-acid gel batteries. This leads to new possibilities for electric vehicles and other applications, including for the military.
  • EEStor claims that, using an automated production line and existing power electronics, it will initially build a 15-kilowatt-hour energy-storage system for a small electric car weighing less than 100 pounds, and with a 200-mile driving range. The vehicle, the company says, will be able to recharge in less than 10 minutes.
  • The company announced this week that this year it plans to begin shipping such a product to Toronto-based ZENN Motor, a maker of low-speed electric vehicles that has an exclusive license to use the EESU for small- and medium-size electric vehicles.
  • By some estimates, it would only require $9 worth of electricity for an EESU-powered vehicle to travel 500 miles, versus $60 worth of gasoline for a combustion-engine car. [and this based on 2007 gas prices, shareholdersunite]
  • The key challenge, however, is to ensure that the barium-titanate powders can be made on a production line without compromising purity and stability. “Purification gives you better production stability, gives you better permittivity, and gives you the high voltages you’re looking for,” says Weir. “We’ve now got the chemicals certified and purified to the point we’re looking for.”
  • EEStor announced this week that the first automated production line for its powder has performed as required and that permittivity will meet or exceed expectations. It also said that it achieved 99.9994 percent purity for its barium-nitrate powder, a crucial ingredient in the dialectric. San Antonia-based Southwest Research Institute independently confirmed the results.

So far so good. Any problems? A couple, actually:

  • Jim Miller, vice president of advanced transportation technologies at Maxwell Technologies and an ultracap expert who spent 18 years doing engineering work at Ford Motor, isn’t so convinced. “We’re skeptical, number one, because of leakage,” says Miller, explaining that high-voltage ultracaps have a tendency to self-discharge quickly. “Meaning, if you leave it parked overnight it will discharge, and you’ll have to charge it back up in the morning.”
  • He also doesn’t believe that the ceramic structure–brittle by nature–will be able to handle thermal stresses that are bound to cause microfractures and, ultimately, failure. Finally, EEStor claims that its system works to specification in temperatures as low as -20 °C, revised from a previous claim of -40 °C.
  • Safety is another concern. What happens if a vehicle packed with a 3,500-volt energy system crashes? Weir says the voltage will be stepped down with a bi-directional converter, and the whole system will be secured in a grounded metal box. It won’t have a problem getting an Underwriters Laboratories safety certification, he adds.
  • Regarding concerns about temperature, leakage, and ceramic brittleness, Weir did not reply to an e-mail asking him how EEStor overcomes such issues.
  • Nonetheless, the company has some solid backing. Its board has attracted Morton Topfer, former vice chairman of Dell and mentor to Michael Dell. The company is also backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture-capital powerhouse that has an impressive track record.

This was a year ago, are we any closer to the truth? From an MIT Technology article today:

  • Dick Weir, founder and chief executive of EEStor, a startup based in Cedar Park, TX, says that the company has manufactured materials that have met all certification milestones for crystallization, chemical purity, and particle-size consistency. The results suggest that the materials can be made at a high-enough grade to meet the company’s performance goals, as well as withstand the extreme voltages needed for high energy storage, the company said in a press release last week.
  • Toronto-based ZENN Motor, an EEStor investor and customer, says that it’s developing an EESU-powered car with a top speed of 80 miles per hour and a 250-mile range. It hopes to launch the vehicle, which the company says will be inexpensive, in the fall of 2009.
  • But skepticism in the research community is high. At the EESU’s core is a ceramic material consisting of a barium titanate powder that is coated with aluminum oxide and a type of glass material. At a materials-research conference earlier this year in San Francisco, it was asked whether such an energy-storage device was possible. “The response was not very positive,” said one engineering professor who attended the conference.
  • Many have questioned EEStor’s claims, pointing out that the high voltages needed to approach the targeted energy storage would cause the material to break down and the storage device to short out. There would be little tolerance for impurities or imprecision–something difficult to achieve in a high-volume manufacturing setting, skeptics say.
  • But Weir is dismissive of such reactions. “EEStor is not hyping,” he says. Representatives of the company said in a press release that certification data proves that voltage breakdown occurs at 1,100 volts per micron–nearly three times higher than EEStor’s target of 350 volts. “This provides the potential for excellent protection from voltage breakdown,” the company said.
  • Despite its critics, EEStor has won support from some significant corners. In addition to Lockheed Martin, venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is an investor, and former Dell Computer chairman Morton Topfer sits on EEStor’s board.
  • Weir says that momentum is building and that he’ll start coming out with information about the company’s progress on a “more rapid basis.” Plans are also under way for a major expansion of EEStor’s production lines. “There’s nothing complex in this,” he says, pointing to his past engineering days at IBM. “It’s nowhere near the complexity of disk-drive fabrication.”
  • The company is also in serious talks with potential partners in the solar and wind industry, where EEStor’s technology can, according to Weir, help put 45 percent more energy into the grid. He says that the company is working toward commercial production “as soon as possible in 2009,” although when asked, he gave no specific date. “I’m not going to make claims on when we’re going to get product out there. That’s between me and the customer. I don’t want to tell the industry.”

Stay tuned. This really is very exciting stuff.