Zenn, EEStor, and Venture Capitalist Kleiner Perkins Cauflield and Byers All Bet ON Patent #7,033,406

Invention suggests car

-energy revolution



AUSTIN, Texas — Millions of inventions pass quietly through the U.S. patent office each

year. Patent No. 7,033,406 did, too, until energy insiders spotted six words in the filing

that sounded like a death knell for the internal combustion engine.An Austin-based

startup called EEStor promised “tech­nologies for replacement of electrochemical

batteries,” meaning a motorist could plug in a car for five minutes and drive 500 miles

roundtrip be­tween Dallas and Houston without gasoline.

“THE ACHILLES’ HEEL to the electric car industry has

 been energy storage. By all rights, this would make

internal combustion engines unnecessary.”





By contrast, some plug-in hybrids on the horizon would require motorists to

charge their cars in a wall outlet overnight and promise only 50 miles of

gasoline-free com­mute. And the popular hybrids on the road today still depend

heavily on fossil fuels. “It’s a paradigm shift,” said Ian Clifford,

chief executive of Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co., which has licensed EEStor’s

invention. “The Achilles’ heel to the electric car industry has been energy

 stor­age. By all rights, this would make internal combustion en­gines unnecessary.”

Clifford’s company bought rights to EEStor’s technology in August 2005

and expects EEStor to start shipping the battery replacement later this

year for use in ZENN Motor’s short-range, low-speed vehi­cles. The technology

also could help invigorate the renewable-energy sector by providing

ef­ficient, lightning-fast storage for solar power, or, on a small scale, a flash-charge

 for cell phones and laptops. Skeptics, though, fear the claims stretch

 the bounds of existing technology to the point of alchemy. “We’ve been

trying to make this type of thing for 20 years, and no one has

been able to do it,” said Robert Hebner, direc­tor of the University of

Texas Center for Electromechanics. “Depending on who you be­lieve, they’re

at or beyond the limit of what is possible. “EEStor’s secret ingredient is

a material sandwiched be­tween thousands of wafer-thin metal sheets,

like a series of foil-and-paper gum wrappers stacked on top of each other.


• From page 47

Charged particles stick to the metal sheets and move quickly across EEStor’s

proprietary materi­al. The result is an ultracapacitor, a battery-like device that

stores and releases energy quickly. Batteries rely on chemical reac­tions to store

energy but can take hours to charge and release energy. The simplest

capacitors found in computers and radios hold less en­ergy but can charge or

 discharge in­stantly. Ultracapacitors take the best of both, stacking capacitors

to increase capacity while maintaining the speed of simple capacitors. Hebner said

vehicles require bursts of energy to accelerate, a task better suited for

capacitors than batteries. But Hebner said nothing close to EEStor’s claim

exists today. For years, EEStor has tried to fly beneath the radar in the competitive

industry for alternative energy, con­tent with a phone-book listing and a handful of

cryptic press releases. Yet the speculation and skepti­cism have

continued, fueled by the company’s original assertion of making batteries obsolete

 — a claim that still resonates loudly for a com­pany that rarely speaks,

including declining an interview with The As­sociated Press.

The deal with ZENN Motor and a $3 million investment by the ven­ture capital

group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which made big-payoff early bets

on companies like Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., hint that EEStor may be

on the edge of a breakthrough technology, a “game changer” as Clifford put it.

ZENN Motor’s public reports show that it so far has invested $3.8 million and

 has promised another $1.2 million if the ultracapacitor company meets

a third-party testing standard and delivers a product Clifford said his

company con­sulted experts and did a “tremen­dous amount of due diligence” on

EEStor’s innovation. EEStor’s founders have a track record. Richard D. Weir

and Carl Nelson worked on disk-storage technology at IBM Corp. in the

1990s before forming EEStor in 2001. The two have acquired dozens of

patents in two decades. Neil Dikeman of Jane Capital Partners, an investor in

clean tech­nologies, said the nearly $7 million investment in EEStor pales

com­pared with other energy storage en­deavors, where investment has av­eraged

$50 million to $100 million. Yet curiosity is unusually high, Dikeman said, thanks

to the invest­ment by a prominent venture capi­tal group and EEStor’s

secretive na­ture. “The EEStor claims are around a process that would be

quite revolu­tionary if they can make it work,” Dikeman said. Previous attempts to

improve ultracapacitors have focused on im­proving the metal sheets by increas­ing

the surface area where charges can attach. EEStor is instead creating better nonconductive

material for use be­tween the metal sheets, using a chemical compound called barium

titanate. The question  is whether the company can mass-produce it. ZENN Motor

pays EEStor for passing milestones in the produc­tion process, and chemical

re­searchers say the strength and func­tionality of this material is the only thing

standing between EEStor and the holy grail of energy-storage technology.

Joseph Perry and the other re­searchers he oversees at Georgia Tech say

 EEstor seems to be claim­ing a 400-fold improvement of a ca­pacitor’s retention

ability, yet in­creasing that ability often results in decreased strength of the materials.

“They’re not saying a lot about how they’re making these things,” Perry said. 


Leave a Reply