An eye-glazing technical press release was put out this week by Texas-based EEStor, a company that has spent more than a decade trying to bring low-cost, high-capacity and super safe energy storage to market.
The next morning, Toronto-based ZENN Motor – a minority strategic shareholder in EEStor—saw its stock price shoot up 150 per cent. It was as if a defibrillator had brought a corpse back to life.
So what’s going on here? As someone who has followed this company closely for eight years, it’s still difficult to say. What’s clear is that EEStor is the story that refuses to die, and given the company’s ambitious goals, that’s could be viewed as a good thing.
My first Clean Break column about EEStor – and the first to appear in a major newspaper—appeared in 2006. Back then, the company was promising an energy storage device (a type of super-duper capacitor) that pound for pound could pack 10 times more energy than a lead-acid battery. More impressive is that it would cost half as much, charge in minutes, and was made of abundant, non-toxic materials.
Think about that: With such a technology, the price of electric cars would plummet and fears over “range anxiety” would disappear. Your iPhone or BlackBerry could last a week or two on a single charge, and when it did run out, it would recharge faster than boiling water for a cup of tea. Energy from wind turbines and solar panels could be stored and dispatched on demand, and affordably.
EEStor founder and chief executive Dick Weir, a former fighter jet pilot, was in my experience an abrupt, somewhat cantankerous individual who didn’t make many public announcements, but when he did he ratcheted up expectations of what and when the company would deliver.
So, too, did management at ZENN, which through its investment and technology rights agreement with EEStor was betting the farm that Weir would deliver. As a publicly traded company, ZENN was a proxy for EEStor – a way for retail investors to back what was an extremely speculative opportunity.
It didn’t hurt that venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, known for its successful bets on Google and Amazon.com, were early investors, or that former Dell Computer vice-chairman Mort Topfer sat on EEStor’s board, or that the tiny company had a strategic development agreement with military contractor Lockheed Martin.
Unfortunately, the past seven years has been marked by a series of missed milestones and disappointments. There is still a loyal group of EEStor followers – called “EEStorians” – who track the company’s every move, but for the most part those who were optimistic in the early days, even if skeptical, have tuned out.
Part of the reason is that ZENN, which is hibernating pretty much as a shell company to save cash, and EEStor, which continues to work away in the background, have both stopped talking. They learned their lesson that talking didn’t help; it only created problems and undermined their credibility.
They also learned that their own expectations were unrealistic and didn’t reflect the many barriers that stand in the way of product development, regardless of the breakthrough nature of their technology. They needed to walk where they wanted to run.
This week’s announcement was another small step along the grueling path, but judging by the market reaction, it’s a positive one. Just how positive is open to interpretation.
The company disclosed that energy storage “layers” built on its pilot product line, and which are the building blocks of its final device, were independently lab tested and reviewed by expert Rick Ulrich, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Arkansas.
Ulrich called the samples a “significant advance” and an “important breakthrough.” The measurements taken still don’t come close to what EEStor is aiming for, but one observer who accompanied Ulrich during his visit said it’s enough to prove that the approach works, the production line is doing its job, and improvements can be made with some final tuning.
“There are only 80 people in the world that Weir needs the attention of at this point, and to get those 80 people to care you have to put out this information,” he said. “This is a tease, for sure, but enough is there to get those peoples’ full attention.”
EEStor’s next step is to independently certify its pre-production layers. At that point, the big automakers and industrial giants will be invited to obtain test samples. If they like what they see, the story gets really interesting – the building of the layers into a full device that can be lab tested in power tools, mobile gadgets, and even vehicles.
One could argue that EEStor, through its delays, has lost its window of opportunity and that the rest of the technology world has caught up. The batteries used in the higher-end version of the Tesla Model S, for example, boasts 240 watt-hours per kilogram, not far from the original EEStor goal of 286 watt-hours per kilogram.
Newark, Calif.-based Envia Systems, which counts General Motors as a strategic investor, claims it has reached 400 watt-hours per kilogram with its lithium-ion technology and could hit the market with a commercial product by 2015.
But EEStor has since upped its game by claiming it can double, even triple its original target, even achieving energy densities of more than 1,000 watt-hours per kilogram at a cost that few could – at this point – compete with. Plus, unlike batteries, its device can charge instantly and would have unmatched environmental attributes.
Of course, this is all still highly speculative and incredible claims require incredible evidence. Fool me once…
But the fact that this little company, tucked away in a small suburb of Austin, Texas, has managed to stick around for 12 years is evidence that this is no fly-by-night operation.
It may ultimately fail, though we should all hope it doesn’t. But as my high-school gym teacher used to tell the scrawny kid that was me, “Hey, at least you get an A for effort.”
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. (Mad Like Tesla includes a chapter on the EEStor saga for those looking for more background on this company and its story)