The greatest challenge facing the electric car industry is battery storage. But a small, reclusive start-up company in Austin, Texas shows signs to be designing a car that can plug in for 5 minutes and drive 500 miles.
Zenn Electric CarIn a recent patent, EEStor claims to be making "technologies for replacement of electrochemical batteries." The details of the patent far exceed the abilities of current research in batteries for electric cars, which usually require overnight charging and provide about 50 miles of driving. In fact, it's widely thought that most electric cars will be hybrids with combustion engines for extra power, even in the future.
Compared with the current state of things, EEStor's technology seems too good to be true--and many skeptics fear it is. As Robert Hebner, director of the University of Texas Center for Electromechanics, told the AP, "Depending on who you believe, they're at or beyond the limit of what is possible."
The uncertainty didn't stop Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co. from buying the rights to EEStor's technology in 2005. ZENN has invested $3.8 million in the company and has plans to integrate the technology into ZENN's low-speed, short-range electric cars. Venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which invested early in companies such as Google and Amazon, has also invested $3 million in EEStor's future.
The key to EEStor's technology is an ultracapacitor, a battery-like device that can store and quickly release energy, enabling the acceleration required by cars. The ultracapacitor consists of a nonconductive material sandwiched between thousands of thin metal sheets. Charged particles stick to the metal sheets and can move quickly across the sandwiched material.
Usually, researchers try to improve ultracapacitors by increasing the surface area of the metal sheets, allowing more space where charges can attach. However, EEStor is focusing on making a better nonconductive material between the metal sheets, using a chemical called barium titanate. Experts who have worked with barium titanate say that if the material can be mass-produced with sufficient strength and functionality, then it may provide a solution to energy storage in vehicles.
As an added intrigue to the story, EEStor is a very reclusive company, which does almost no promotion and recently declined an interview with the AP. However, EEStor's founders, Richard D. Weir and Carl Nelson, have done successful research on disk-storage technology at IBM in the 1990s before forming EEStor in 2001, and have dozens of patents. Logically, their experience shouldn't seem to lead them down a path that is headed nowhere.
Now, as everyone stands by to watch, the general sentiment seems to be that it sounds too good to be true, but hopefully it's not.