The ugly side of next-gen energy storage

If you want to know why large companies — telecom companies and utilities in particular — are very slow to adopt new products that appear far more superior than what they currently use, here’s why: When cool products go bad, or when the companies behind them go out of business, you’re screwed.

Take the recent example over at AT&T. The telecom giant had purchased lithium-metal-polymer batteries a few years back from a promising Quebec City company called Avestor. AT&T was using 17,000 of those batteries at sites throughout the country to provide back-up power for equipment that runs its U-verse TV service. In fact, AT&T appears to have been Avestor’s largest customer, having deployed about 85 per cent of all batteries sold by the small company.

But Avestor locked its doors in October 2006, citing its inability to attract investment and customers for its telecom back-up battery. Perhaps not so concindentally, that’s when one of these Avestor batteries sold to AT&T exploded. Since then, a number of them have blown up or caused fires. As AT&T said in a statement: “Normally we would work with a vendor to diagnose problems and develop solutions. We can’t do that in this case.”

And one wonders why telecom companies and utilities are risk-averse, lending support to the adage: “Nobody ever got fired buying _____” — usually, it’s Microsoft or IBM, but in this case you could fill in the blank with lead-acid batteries. Now, think of the risk the big automakers are taking by wanting to put a lithium-chemistry battery into plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles? In fact, nobody ever wants to see these kinds of accidents/explosions happen because it does make decision-makers take a sober, second look when they’re considering taking a chance on a new technology. Bless them when they go for it. It takes guts, and we need this kind of risk to bring these innovations to market, whether it’s an EEStor ultracap or a VRB Power flow battery or a A123 lithium-ion battery. Unfortunately, some startups bite the bullet and it’s a risk that has to be considered, and accepted.

This makes me worry about agreements like the one Malcolm Bricklin’s Visionary Vehicles signed this week with Mississauga, Ontario-based battery maker Electrovaya Inc., a maker of lithium-ion superpolymer batteries. It’s great news for Electrovaya, a company that appears to have a great technology but is nonetheless a money-losing penny stock that has struggled to keep its head above water. Bricklin, who has made clear his intentions to bring a full line of plug-in hybrid-electric cars to market, is a good, high-profile partner to have. In a statement, he admitted there will be challenges ahead. “This is a complex new terrain and the methodology and science that Electrovaya has developed stands apart from the others,” he said, adding that his company selected Electrovaya after a comprehensive review of battery manufacturers in the United States, Europe and Asia.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed to create a joint venture, which will be established as a standalone company — owned equally by Electrovaya and Visionary Vehicles — whose purpose is to develop and manufacture batteries and battery-management systems. R&D will also be a strong focus. As part of the joint venture, Electrovaya would receive royalties and license fees and each company would have the option to purchase shares in the other. Strangely, the deal has done nothing to lift Electrovaya’s shares.

Time will tell whether this will be Electrovaya’s big break, or whether a few years down the road it will be a train wreck for both companies. But the experience over at AT&T should be a lesson to those, including myself, who get over-excited about the prospects of a new technology but underestimate the time it takes to get it right.

I guess in this market — in the rush to please “green” consumers, tackle climate change, and put a lid on skyrocketing energy costs — getting new, exciting and in some cases disruptive technologies to market requires a little bit of “Go faster!” and a little bit of “Slow down!”

4 thoughts on “The ugly side of next-gen energy storage”

  1. Well, maybe some companies exist in order to serve as warnings for other companies. Avestor’s story can’t help but force more due diligence for other companies in the field.

  2. This was once (still is?) typical to the nascent green building industry, since the bankers always wanted to consider that the energy-innovative home would some day have to be put back out on the market, and the question arose, would there be another purchaser eccentric enough to want it, or would it stagnate at the bottom of the listings? That marketing aspect has swung around somewhat, with entire subdivisions of homes now offered having green amenities as standard equipment.

    With all clean-leaning industries, as the the supply and demand markets grow simultaneously the stats should improve and we will have a more informed picture of both our potential resources and of the road ahead. They invested in these batteries and they provided them a few hiccups in return. I’m sure this is the case with other systems they have prototyped or beta’d. I’ve worked with companies that have repeatedly attempted something new, failing each time, and loading dumpsters with jettisoned products that were never even salable, let alone sold.

    We need to rebuild the ship while out at sea; to do so and still keep everyones comfy quality of lifestyle is stretching it a tad in my books. I assume multiple such sacrifices to be coming down the pipe toward us; Yeah our new ship might be ugly; but we need it done regardless, since the result if we don’t promises to be far more hideous.

  3. Are you aware that there is a new technology called Reticle Carbon? It is a highly porous and conductive material which can be used in supercaps to store energy. They can act as remote storage devices for solar and wind enery. FYI: USPTO 6,350,520 Patented by Dr. Carl Nesbitt.

    The low cost, high capacity ultra cap is here.

    Reticle’s revolutionary high surface carbon technology offers significant advantage over currently available technologies. Therefore, for most applications, the company’’s competition promises to come from other companies developing high surface carbon capacitive deionization related technology. Most of these are using Aerogel carbon, developed by Lawrence Livermore Labs. The current surface of aerogel is approximately 400 m2/g as compared with 2,000 m2/g for Reticle Carbon©©. The current quoted cost for aerogel carbon is approximately $150/kg as compared with production cost of $10/kg for Reticle Carbon©©.

    Capacitors are direct power storage devices. At present, metal-carbon composites are being manufactured in the automotive industry as a means of leveling the power draw in future electric cars. Such materials combine aluminum sheets and activated carbon in various configurations. The best in class capacity demonstrated to date is rather inefficient, storing a mere 7-10 kilowatt hours per kilogram of material. Given the cost of such materials, supercapacitors based on those materials are simply out of the question from an economic perspective, and the internal combustion engine continues to reign until the supercapacitor problem is solved.

    Reticle Carbon has in laboratory studies produced 7.5 kilowatt hours per kilogram of material in a 2 cubic inch capacitor (rather minuscule in size by Reticle’’s standards). This was accomplished with a modest surface area grade of Reticle Carbon by Reticle standards (1200 square meters per gram). Reticle has manufactured much higher surface area carbon monoliths (2100 square meters per gram), and that higher surface area carbon has a higher power storage capacity. Because of the lightness in weight of Reticle Carbon, supercapacitors built from Reticle Carbon are considerably lighter than metal-carbon capacitors and therefore are ideally suited for mobile and transportation applications in which onboard weight is a prime consideration. This is not to be discounted. One of the primary markets for supercapacitors is the automotive market, a market that absolutely craves lightness in weight. Another is the airframe market, which craves lightness in weight even more.

    We are presently working with several overseas investors on desalination. We are open to partnerships with other qualified entities.

  4. “Anonymous Says:
    January 23rd, 2008 at 7:16 pm
    Reticle Carbon has in laboratory studies produced 7.5 kilowatt hours per kilogram of material..”

    It’s important to get your figures correct when quoting energy density.
    You should be saying 7.5 WATT HOURS/kg. NOT killowatts. There is a thousand fold difference!

    Please don’t get my hopes up like this, only to be smashed by the truth!

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