Ultracapacitors: the future of electric cars or the 'cold fusion' of autovation?
ZENN Motors says its electric car will cruise for 250 miles on a single five-minute charge. Skeptics cry shenanigans.
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In 2005, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers sunk $3 million into EEStor. ZENN also invested $3 million and will get exclusive rights to retrofit vehicles with the system – and produce new mid-size cars using EESUs.Skip to next paragraph
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According to EEStor's patent application, the breakthrough is based on a technically arduous process of purifying and fabricating units with barium titanate, a material known to retain vast amounts of power.
"The main feature of the EESU is the charge and dis-charge at electric speed," Weir writes. "This is a key enabling factor for the advancement of the next generation of vehicles. Another feature is the amount of power the EESU can store. Lastly, the EESU is expected to be considered fully 'green.' "
But some bloggers call the purported breakthrough pure hype, today's version of "cold fusion," the still-theoretical energy source announced in 1989.
At least some analysts and researchers, though skeptical, seem reluctant to dismiss entirely the possibility that EEStor could be onto something significant.
"I'm sure they do have a technology, but skepticism revolves around the fact that nobody knows much about it," says Anu Cherian, an analyst who tracks the $100 million global ultracapacitor market for Frost & Sullivan, a growth consulting company. "The ZENN car looks to be an exciting development. But there's a lot of hype in the market."
Other ultracapacitor experts won't dismiss EEStor's claim despite technical challenges.
"It would be unfair to make an analogy between what EEStor is doing and cold fusion," says Joel Schindall, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who is using nanotechnology to improve ultracapacitors. "I don't doubt that they have built a device on a small scale that does store the amounts of energy they are talking about. I just don't know if they can manage the process of scaling it up ... for commercial applications."
Dr. Schindall and his colleagues hope soon to demonstrate a fivefold boost in ultracapacitor energy storage to up to 25 percent of the energy storage capacity of a lithium battery – and someday up to 50 percent – using a different approach to the problem.
Such significant advances would make ultracapacitors viable in vehicles, though they still fall far short of Clifford's claims about EESU.
Making commercial quantities of EESUs could prove challenging since even tiny impurities and defects in manufacturing could result in "a violent discharge," Schindall notes.
Safety is a huge issue for energy storage in vehicles whether powered by gasoline, ethanol, hydrogen, batteries – or ultracapacitors. High-capacity lithium-ion battery research for cars, for instance, is focused on ensuring those devices don't burst into flames. EEStor has ensured that its new ultracapacitor will be safe if damaged in a crash by "instantly discharging to ground," Clifford says.
Skeptics don't bother him, he says, because "we've seen this product with our own eyes."
"We've had a great 100-year run with petroleum," Clifford says. "But the time has come for all of us to come to our senses now and realize that the electric-powered era for cars has finally arrived."
Comments from EEStor
Much of the rampant skepticism on the Internet over whether or not EEStor has had a breakthrough in automotive propulsion stems from the company's reticence to speak or to demonstrate its product publicly. Only a handful of press releases have been issued since the company was formed, and press reports have rarely included any direct quotes from company managers. Below are comments from a Monitor e-mail interview with Tom Weir, vice president and general manager, EEStor, Inc.
Can you offer an idea of what your product could do for automotive transportation and a time horizon for development?