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A New Deal for EEStor

A delayed battery technology may indeed be on the way.

Earlier this month, a stealthy startup that says its ultracapacitor-based energy storage system could make conventional batteries obsolete took a small step toward proving its many skeptics wrong.

Good-bye batteries?: The startup EEStor says that it has technology that will store ten times as much energy as lead acid batteries.

The company, EEStor, based in Cedar Park, TX, has made bold claims about its technology but has so far failed to deliver a working commercial product. However, an agreement announced this month with Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, MD, suggests that the company could be making progress–at least enough to convince a major defense contractor that the technology has merit. The agreement gives Lockheed an exclusive international license to use EEStor’s power system for military and homeland-security applications–everything from advanced remote sensors and missile systems to mobile power packs and electric vehicles. The technology, Lockheed said in a statement, “could lead to energy independence for the Warfighter.”

Lockheed has not seen a working prototype but said that qualification testing and mass production of EEStor’s system is planned for late 2008. Lockheed would not disclose the terms of the partnership. “We fully intend to work with EEStor this year to prototype and demonstrate this technology for the soldier,” says Lionel Liebman, Lockheed’s manager of program development in its applied research division. “We’re looking at a lot of applications where the EEStor application can help.”

EEStor says that its patented system is a nontoxic, safe, and lower-cost alternative to conventional electrochemical battery technologies, offering ten times the energy density of lead-acid batteries. The company also claims that its system allows rapid and virtually unlimited charging and discharging without significant degradation of the unit. (See “Battery Breakthrough?”) But many experts have been skeptical, citing the difficulty of working with the material at the core of the company’s system: a ceramic made of barium-titanate.

A lack of news from the company has only fed the skepticism. The last public announcement from EEStor came last January, when it revealed that it had made high purity barium-titanate powders on its first automated production line. But the company has so far failed to deliver units of its storage product to minority investor ZENN Motor, a company based in Toronto that plans to use it in electric vehicles. Originally, the devices were to have shipped in the first half of last year.

EEStor chief executive Richard Weir declined to comment on the development of the technology and the agreement with Lockheed. But he told Technology Review in an e-mail message that he’s anticipating another “technical news release in the near future,” at which time he would be open to discussing EEStor’s progress in more detail.

ZENN chief executive Ian Clifford remains optimistic. “Every restatement of delivery time has been for good reasons,” he says, suggesting that the Lockheed announcement and the due diligence that led to it “add credibility to the technology.” He’s now expecting delivery of the energy-storage unit in mid-2008. And it won’t be a prototype, he emphasizes: it will be a mass-produced commercial product. “This is about commercialization, not hitting technology roadblocks. We’re in constant contact with EEStor, with regular visits to their site. We always come away from every meeting much more excited that this is going to happen.”

ZENN has already switched to a different motor in its current low-speed electric vehicle, partly in anticipation of the new energy storage technology. “We’re first in line,” says Clifford. “We understand we’ll be taking the first product off the production facility being built right now.”

Liebman, who says that he has visited EEStor’s facility in Cedar Park and was impressed, also expressed confidence in the company. He notes that EEStor’s approach so far allows for a rapid ramp-up in production. “I think it’s very real,” he says.

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