battery storage technology has been a heavy weight on the back of scientific innovation. From cell phones to electric vehicles, our technological capabilities always seem to be several steps ahead of our ability to power them. Several promising new technologies are currently under development to help power the 21st century, but one small start-up looks especially well positioned to transform the way we think about energy storage.
Texas-based EEStor, Inc. is not exactly proposing a new battery, since no chemicals are used in its design. The technology is based on the idea of a solid state ultracapacitor, but cannot be accurately described in these terms either. Ultracapacitors have an advantage over electrochemical batteries (i.e. lithium-ion technology) in that they can absorb and release a charge virtually instantaneously while undergoing virtually no deterioration. Batteries trump ultracapacitors in their ability to store much larger amounts of energy at a given time.
EEStor’s take on the ultracapacitor -- called the Electrical Energy Storage Unit, or EESU -- combines the best of both worlds. The advance is based on a barium-titanate insulator claimed to increase the specific energy of the unit far beyond that achievable with today’s ultracapacitor technology. It is claimed that this new advance allows for a specific energy of about 280 watts per kilogram -- more than double that of the most advanced lithium-ion technology and a whopping ten times that of lead-acid batteries. This could translate into an electric vehicle capable of traveling up to 500 miles on a five minute charge, compared with current battery technology which offers an average 50-100 mile range on an overnight charge. As if that weren’t enough, the company claims they will be able to mass-produce the units at a fraction the cost of traditional batteries.
"It's a paradigm shift," said Ian Clifford of ZENN Motor Co., an early investor and exclusive rights-holder for use of the technology in electric cars. "The Achilles' heel to the electric car industry has been energy storage. By all rights, this would make internal combustion engines unnecessary."
But this small electric car company isn’t the only organization banking on the new technology. Lockheed-Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, has also signed on with EEStor for use of the technology in military applications. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital investment firm who counts Google and Amazon among their early-stage successes, has also invested heavily in the company.
While these associations have lent merit to the claims, skeptics abound. Some have even invoked the term alchemy -- a word used in its derogatory sense to discredit 'pipe dream' inventions. "We've been trying to make this type of thing for 20 years and no one has been able to do it. Depending on who you believe, they're at or beyond the limit of what is possible," said Robert Hebner of the University of Texas Center for Electromechanics.
If it is true, though, then it will be tantamount to a whole new post-battery era in technology. The company claims the technology can be scaled up or down for virtually any application, from pacemakers to use in the renewable energy sector (think solar panels). If it comes to fruition, the technology could revolutionize virtually every aspect of energy storage. Further, because it is based on solid state architecture and is not dependent on chemicals, the technology would be extremely safe, environmentally friendly, and benefit from an unparalleled lifespan.
Zenn’s Ian Clifford has visited EEStor’s upcoming production facility in Cedar Park, Texas on several occasions. "To be very clear, this is not a lab that they are building. It is a full, state of the art production facility that is nearing completion, and we remain very pleased with their progress," he boasts.
After several delays, EEStor plans to roll out the first production units later this year, and Zenn hopes to have cars featuring EESU technology on the road by Fall 2009.