Labor Day weekend is a busy one for travelers. Families out shopping for back to school supplies, sun-worshipers heading back from the beach, and scores of backyard barbecues and college football games to attend, all make for some serious gas-guzzling out on the nation's highways.
With gasoline hovering at $3 a gallon at many pumps across the US, the price of all that road rallying adds up. The typical minivan, on average, costs $65 to fill, making that relaxing ride to grandma's for Sunday dinner a real teeth-grinder.
But what if you could harness a technology that would enable you to drive 500 miles round-trip on a 5-minute charge?
That's the promise of U.S. Patent No. 7,033,406 which promises, maybe even threatens, to do away with the internal combustion engine, and the traditional car battery, all in one swoop.
The patent is the property of Austin-based startup called EEStor, which touts "technologies for replacement of electrochemical batteries." In layman's terms, that means you could use the EEStor technology to drive from Boston to Philly and back without a drop of gasoline.
Today's hybrid technologies can't come close to that level of driving performance. The best plug-in hybrids need an overnight charge to go just 50 miles. In addition, even the most advanced hybrids, like the Honda Prius, still depend on fossil fuels.
According to Ian Clifford, chief executive of Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co., which has licensed EEStor's invention. "The Achilles' heel to the electric car industry has been energy storage. By all rights, this would make internal combustion engines unnecessary."
According to a company release, Clifford's firm bought rights to EEStor's technology in August 2005 and expects EEStor to start shipping the battery replacement later this year for use in ZENN Motor's short-range, low-speed vehicles.
Before anyone gets too carried away, skeptics abound. "We've been trying to make this type of thing for 20 years and no one has been able to do it," notes Robert Hebner, director of the University of Texas Center for Electromechanics, in an interview with Forbes.com. "Depending on who you believe, they're at or beyond the limit of what is possible."
According to the Forbes piece, EEStor's "secret ingredient" is a material sandwiched between thousands of wafer-thin metal sheets, like a series of foil-and-paper gum wrappers stacked on top of each other. Charged particles stick to the metal sheets and move quickly across EEStor's proprietary material. The result is an ultracapacitor, a battery-like device that stores and releases energy quickly.
ZENN Motors has raised many eyebrows in the alt-energy world with its claims of making the battery "obsolete". It's way too early to say that -- company financial statements show that it so far has invested $3.8 million with another $1.2 million to come "if the ultracapacitor company meets a third-party testing standard and then delivers a product," according to Forbes.com. That's not a lot of money, especially for a ground-changing product that will kill the car battery.
Another ultracapacitor developer, Maxwell Technologies Inc.,says that the EEStor patent is potentially full of holes. A company statement notes that tthe ultracapacitors described in EEStor's patent operate at extremely high voltage, 10 times greater than those Maxwell manufactures, and won't work with regular wall outlets. In addition, capacitors could crack while bouncing down the road, or slowly discharge after a dayslong stint in the airport parking lot, leaving the driver stranded.
While it's way to early to say that, as EESTor claims, the "battery is obsolete", the work the alt-energy company is doing bears watching. Consumer demand is a powerful tonic to alt-energy providers. After all, Henry Ford had his day when others claimed he wouldn't. Maybe Ian Clifford will have his day, too.