Saturday, November 1, 2008

Moving beyond the battery


By Jorge Sosa

In late September, Chrysler announced plans to mass-market four electric vehicles by 2011 — a sports car, a Jeep Wrangler, a minivan and the GEM Peapod. The latter: a smiling jelly bean of a car for folks who enjoy Tofutti and conspicuous economy.

Coming from the company that brought you the Hemi, this was big news. But even bigger news might be coming next fall, courtesy of a Canadian automaker named ZENN and its Texas-based partner, EEStor.

ZENN plans to introduce a highway-capable electric car with a top speed of 80 mph and a 250-mile range. Big whoop, right? Well, ZENN's new model will also be fully rechargeable in less than five minutes, with the aid of a high-voltage cable. Ordinary household outlets should be able to charge the car in two to four hours.

EEStor, a company in which ZENN has a 3.8-percent interest, has patented a design for the fast-charging ultracapacitor, which reportedly contains no toxic materials and weighs a fraction of comparable NiMH or lithium-ion batteries.

How does it work? The key ingredient is barium-titanate. I have no idea what that is, but apparently it's a white powder. (I can all-too-easily imagine a nightmare scenario in which Keith Richards tours EEStor's manufacturing plant and snorts the company out of business.)

ZENN has locked down the exclusive worldwide rights to use the ultracapacitors in four-wheeled personal vehicles with curb weights up to 3,100 pounds, golf carts and the like, and aftermarket conversions for passenger vehicles with internal-combustion engines.

The potential for EEStor's energy storage system, if it lives up to its hype, goes far beyond passenger vehicles. EEStor chief executive and co-founder Richard Weir told MIT's Technology Review the ultracapacitors could be scaled down or up to power everything from pacemakers and laptops to locomotives and direct-energy weapons.

Consider the prospect of replacing all your batteries with storage units that pack 10 times more juice, weigh nine-tenths less, and charge up in minutes. How might that change your world? Another fair question to ask: Is EEStor peddling hyperbole?

If so, Lockheed Martin is certainly buying. In January, the defense contractor announced it signed "an exclusive international rights agreement to integrate and market Electrical Energy Storage Units (EESU) from EEStor, Inc., for military and homeland security applications."

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but Lockheed Martin called the EESUs a "fully 'green' technology that will be half the price per stored watt-hour than traditional battery technologies."

It's hard to imagine too many environmentalists cheering at the thought of Lockheed Martin devising new and improved, environmentally friendly ways of killing people. But, it's also hard to imagine a $29 billion corporation staking its reputation on such an endorsement, if there isn't some factual basis to it. If nothing else, Lockheed Martin's agreement suggests that maybe the EEStor promise isn't too good to be true.