Another cellulosic ethanol play snags funding

A Toronto-based company called Woodland Biofuels Inc. has attracted its first institutional investor, Investeco Capital Corp., which has funded $1.25 million (Canadian) of what is expected to be a $3.25 million investment. Like others in the market, including Montreal-based Enerkem, the company uses a gasification process to break down wood biomass and agricultural residue. It can also process human and animal sewage “sludge” and municipal solid organic waste. The gas is then processed through a series of catalytic reactors to produce ethanol, distillation water and steam. Investeco determined the process was “extremely efficient” and sufficiently scaleable to support Woodland’s march toward commercialization. Woodland, it should be pointed out, was recently granted $9.8 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada toward development of a demonstration plant for its process.

More and more of these cellulosic ethanol plays are coming out of the woodwork, so to speak, suggesting that perhaps the quest for non-corn ethanol is closer — as I’ve said in past posts — than initially thought. At the very least the flurry of activity and funding is a good sign.

European homes to have $5,200 fuel cell by 2010: Acumentrics

Interesting story in the Boston Globe about Westwood, Mass.-based Acumentrics, a maker of solid-oxide fuel cells. The article states the the company is working with Italian heating products firm Merloni TermoSanitari to develop a commercial household version of its fuel cell, which would hit the European market by 2010 and cost around $5,200.

Solid oxide fuel cells run much hotter than the PEM-based cells that companies such as Ballard Power have developed. This makes SOFCs a poor option for transportation, but great for fixed applications where a relatively clean fuel like natural gas can be used on site — i.e. someone’s basement — to produce electricity, heat and hot water. The company’s CEO is quoted as saying he expects the product to be certified for a 10-year lifespan and that the payback from energy savings in Europe, where energy prices are quite higher, will be about three years. Cracking the North American market will be harder, but the company remains hopeful, citing the fact it has in recent years increased the fuel cell’s output 120-fold, cut costs 90 per cent and reduced the size by 80 per cent.

Acumentrics acquired last year the assets of Fuel Cell Technologies Ltd. in Kingston, Ontario, which became Acumentrics Canada Ltd. and is focused on R&D for the company. That office is working on the use of ammonia and paint fumes as a fuel for the Acumentrics fuel cell.

Of course, Acumentrics isn’t the only player in this game. The secretive Bloom Energy, a well-funded venture backed by Kleiner Perkins, is also pursuing the SOFC market with a technology first developed for the NASA Mars program. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Bloom has 200 employees and is ramping up fast. It claims to be twice as efficient and have 100 per cent less emissions than conventional energy generation technologies. Curious.

Unlike fuel cells for cars, one can clearly see a path of commercialization for SOFC systems and their eventual use in homes.

6N Silicon raises another $20 million

Mississauga, Ontario-based startup 6N Silicon Inc. has raised up to $20 million in a second round of financing. The company’s goal is to be the lowest-cost provider of solar-grade silicon that doesn’t need to be blended with high-purity silicon. It has come up with a proprietary, low-energy process, which can be inexpensively scaled up, for upgrading standard metallurgical-grade silcon into solar grade silicon. 6N wants to be one of the industry’s leading suppliers of solar-grade silicon within three to five years.

Venture capital group Good Energies led the round, which includes previous investors Yaletown Venture Partners and Ventures West. 6N, founded less than two years ago by current president and chief technology officer Scott Nichol, raised $6 million last July and has been moving quite fast on its plans for commercial-scale production. “This is clearly an important milestone for 6N, and we are looking forward to entering our initial production phase and then ramping up aggressively from there,” said David Dunnison, vice-president of business development.

EEStor powered CityZENN targeted for fall 2009

We can only hope, right?

ZENN Motor Co. held its annual general meeting today and offered some more insight into when it expects product from Cedar Park, Texas-based EEStor and when it plans to come out with a highway-speed electric vehicle using EEStor’s “game-changing” energy-storage technology.

That date would be fall 2009, the company said — a far cry from orginal talk of 2007 but, if the product delivers on its promises, I’m sure it will be worth the wait. “The cityZENN is planned to be a fully certified, highway capable vehicle with top speed of 125 KPH/80 MPH and a range of 400 kilometres/250 miles. Powered by EEStor, the cityZENN will be rechargeable in less than 5 minutes, feature operating costs 1/10th of a typical internal combustion engine vehicle and be 100 per cent emission-free,” the company said in a statement following the meeting.

One point: I expect the “rechargeable in less than 5 minutes” comment would be true only if there are special charge stations available, since I’m told this wouldn’t be possible from a standard home outlet.

ZENN chief executive Ian Clifford said EEStor’s storage technology is in “advanced stages of commercialization” and that commercial product will first be shipped to ZENN in 2008. Though the company said it has not yet tested the technology in a vehicle application yet. The company also plans new 2009 versions of its low-speed ZENN, including a four-passenger car and a utility vehicle.

Talks are also under way with some of the automotive OEMs, though Clifford wouldn’t mention names. ZENN has the right to enter joint ventures with OEMs to produce vehicles with its EEStor-powered “ZENNergy drivetrain.” The company also plans to develop and market its ZENNergy drive systems for retrofitting and conversion of existing internal combustion vehicles. The initial target, the company said, will be large, high-profile fleets.

Someone at the meeting asked about the cost of the highway-speed cityZENN. Clifford commented that he expects some premium compared to internal-combustion alternatives, but also expects the car to be competitive with comparative gas-guzzlers and well within the range of affordability for prospective car owners.

Dick Weir, founder and CEO of EEStor, told me a few weeks ago that there would be an announcement soon on permittivity of its barium titanite powder, considered a major benchmark that would trigger future payments to EEStor from ZENN, and I can only assume Kleiner Perkins as well. No word yet, though I’m told EEStor is working on various aspects of its technology in parallel with the goal having a production run of commercial product in 2008.

Sometimes this whole story is like one of those dreams in which you’re running toward something but the ground keeps slipping from under you… One thing I will say though: ZENN has done a decent job throughout all this of building its brand.

Sempa Power can swing both ways

There’s an interesting little company in Vancouver called Sempa Power that’s been sharing a little secret with governments, business and industry: sometimes it’s okay to use electricity for heating. A shocking statement, eh? I mean, with the exception of heat pump technology, electricity has generally been vilified as a source of heating.

Sempa sees it a different way. It has developed software that does an up-to-the-minute analysis of natural gas, propane, oil and electricity rates and can switch a customer between electricity and fossil fuels whenever the rate is lowest. This requires putting in electric boilers at a customer’s site, but Sempa argues that the savings from its “hybrid heating” system offer a payback of just three years. This is because natural gas tends to be cheaper than electricity during the day but more expensive at night, particularly as jurisdictions move to time-of-use electricity rates that offer off-peak discounts. It also turns out that nighttime electricity is cleaner than using natural gas in jurisdictions that rely on nuclear and hydroelectric generation for baseload power, and which have a lot of nighttime wind generation. So Sempa customers, in addition to saving, can also lower their environmental footprint. Hotels like it. Sempa has installed its system in several hotels already, including in Whistler — the site of the 2010 winter Olympics. The system is also in a hockey arena in Manitoba.

What Sempa is doing is not rocket science, but it does highlight the benefit of thinking more holistically about how we use energy. Too often we pit grid power versus natural gas, without thinking that one is better some times and the other is better other times. Not only does a hybrid system get you savings and, in most cases, reduced emissions, but it also gives you a backup in case one of the two fails.