A New Ultracapacitor or Just More Hot Air?

From the 'believe it when we see it' files: The Associated Press reported today that a small firm called EEStor has filed a patent for a new ultracapacitor to be used to power automobiles. The kicker in the application comes in its description, where it claims to offer "technologies for replacement of electrochemical batteries."

According to a spokesperson for the first customer to license the new ultracapacitor, Toronto's ZENN Motor Co., the EEStor unit represents a "paradigm shift." Its backers claim that, when charged for five minutes in a plug-in hybrid car, drivers can expect to go for 500 miles without a recharge.

"The Achilles' heel to the electric car industry has been energy storage," said Ian Clifford, CEO of ZENN Motor. "By all rights, this would make internal combustion engines unnecessary." Clifford added that his company expects to begin installing the EEStor units in its line of short-range, low-speed vehicles later this year.

Still, many are skeptical of the claims from the little-known battery maker.

"We've been trying to make this type of thing for 20 years and no one has been able to do it," Robert Hebner, director of the University of Texas Center for Electromechanics, told the AP. "Depending on who you believe, they're at or beyond the limit of what is possible."

He added that vehicles require bursts of energy to accelerate, a task better suited for capacitors than batteries.

"The idea of getting rid of the batteries and putting in capacitors is to get more power back and get it back faster," Hebner said.

Venture backers of the reclusive EEStor include the influential Silicon Valley firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, indicating there may be more to the start-up's claims than hot air.

"They're not saying a lot about how they're making these things," Joseph Perry, a battery researcher at Georgia Tech told the AP. "With these materials [described in the patent], that is a challenging process to carry out in a defect-free fashion."

"I am skeptical but I'd be very happy to be proved wrong," Perry added.

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