Week of October 19

This week Furukawa, a large and diversified heavy industrial manufacturer in Japan, announced that it would be selling a device known as the UltraBattery. We mentioned this device earlier in an article devoted to advanced battery designs, doing so without any expectation that it would appear as a commercial product. Now evidently it has.

An UltraBattery is a sort of hybrid battery/ultra-capacitor. The term itself is proprietary to CSIRO, an Australian nonprofit research institute that has performed extensive development work toward commercializing the device, but it has existed in the laboratory for many years and was subject to a D.O.E. report several years ago. It has, as Furukawa indicates, particular relevance to electric traction, and may be assigned considerable if not revolutionary importance.

Batteries of whatever chemistry have one highly significant shortcoming as power sources for electric vehicles. They are limited in their ability to supply high currents to an electrical load on a sustained basis, and if called upon to do so by the drive unit, namely the motor, will begin to heat up so that internal resistance climbs and the battery pack can no longer follow the load. In other words, run a battery hard for an extended duration and it will falter in its power delivery and may be damaged by the sustained high current draw. Voltage is apt to drop as well.

For this reason, batteries have often been mated with ultra-capacitors in experimental vehicles, with the latter handling momentary demands for high current and being re-charged from the battery pack. This is in fact a fairly serviceable arrangement, but currently available ultra-capacitors are very limited in their storage capacities notwithstanding the word "ultra". Ultra-capacitors of any reasonable size will be drained in seconds under conditions of hard acceleration, and any attempt at spirited driving over a hilly course will not allow time for recharging. In this sense a pure electric vehicle using almost any combination of batteries and capacitors is like a steam engine. Run it hard enough and you deplete the high energy storage unless it is given time to recover, to build a new "head of steam" so to speak.

An UltraBattery uniquely possesses the ability to deliver sustained high current to the load and to permit extended operation at lower power. It outperforms an ultra-capacitor with respect to high current capability and approximates a battery in terms of steady state operation.

Various battery chemistries have been incorporated in devices of this nature, also known as hybrid battery-capacitors, but most of the experiments have involved the same lead acid chemistry used in ordinary car batteries. The usual practice is to construct an anode or positive element utilizing approximately the same porous lead structure found in a lead acid battery, but the cathode will be of granulated carbon just like cathode of an ultra-capacitor. Chemical reactions will only involve the anode and the electrolyte, not the cathode.

Energy density is only slightly better than that of a lead acid battery, which is to say, not very good, but is much better than that of an ultra-capacitor. And because the UltraBattery can safely be discharged more deeply than a pure battery, the effective energy storage capacity is higher.

Will we be seeing these any time soon in pure electric or hybrid electric automobiles? Probably not, at least not in cars from the major manufacturers. Auto makers generally favor long lead times in product development and the electric vehicles that will appear five years from now have already been designed. Some small manufacturer may well adopt the UltraBattery sooner, but don't expect the devices to become ubiquitous any time soon.

More on BlackLight Power

Last week we considered an announcement from BlackLight Power regarding independent testing which appeared to vindicate some of the company's claims. This week I found mention of the company in a NASA study which casts the company in a somewhat less favorable light. The report, entitled "Advanced Energetics for Aeronautical Applications" is a survey of various power sources for propulsion including both established technologies and highly controversial proposals such as "zero point energy" concepts. The study indicates that the BlackLight Power reaction involves a hydrogen plasma, a fact that is not indicated in BlackLight Power literature, and that the energy released by the production of a hydrino atom representing elemental hydrogen in a hitherto undiscovered low energy state is approximately 100 times that released when hydrogen is combusted with oxygen. The authors of the report indicate making two visits to the BlackLight Power laboratory in which staff were unable to produce evidence that such energetic reactions were in fact taking place. Nor did the hydrino compounds BlackLight Power claimed to have made exhibit the nuclear magnetic resonance spectra that the company indicated would be manifested.

The study did not assert that BlackLight Power was a fraud but merely that its claims remained unproven.

No doubt we will be hearing more of BlackLight Power and perhaps of other less than entirely credible startups. There are plenty of them out there including a rare few like Interstellar Technologies and MagneGas which are headed by research scientists of impressive formal credentials. In an energy crisis—and we are in one now, recent fossil fuel price declines notwithstanding—damned near everyone gets a hearing. Many curious companies will gain prominence in the months and years to come, and investors and public policy framers will be facing increasing difficulties in separating the wheat from the chaff.