Friday, June 4, 2010

EEStor No Longer Lone Crazy Energy Storage Company Thanks to Vinod Khosla

According to officials within the Department of Energy's ARPA division, any recently announced winner of funding for the Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation (BEEST) program would have been required to provide a "strong potential to meet or exceed the Primary Technical Requirements" for the funding opportunity. Those requirements include EEStor-level energy densities of 400Wh/kg or 600Wh/liter aka ~ 10,000J/cc with not quite EEStor level cost targets of $250/kWh. It is no small surprise then that several projects were awarded to traditional battery based projects including the usual suspects: lithium ion, zinc air, and rarely heard of magnesium ion.

But at least two projects represent capacitor based energy storage systems: one from Vinod Khosla's Recapping Inc. and the other from Stanford researcher, Fritz Prinz. To observers of the capacitor industry, news that capacitor based energy storage techniques with such specifications by such reputable organizations as Penn State (Recapping's research team) and Stanford University is nothing less than astonishing.

"250J/cc is a reasonable guess for the upper limits of energy storage in a capacitor. People have postulated 400J/cc but believability is extremely low for that," said a long time capacitor industry veteran, "and 20J/cc may be the highest you can actually buy today."

According to one BEEST program awardee, "all of the projects chosen included validating data to support their application." Additionally, the ARPA division of DOE hired 20-25 subject matter experts from industry, academia and national labs to perform the evaluations of all of the projects, according to Matthew Dunne, ARPA Chief Legal Counsel.

The funding levels provided to Stanford and Recapping Inc. are consistent with the "Proof of Concept Seedling Category" which requires awardees "to provide proof of concept device performance the coin-cell scale or larger" by the end of the project. The larger awards provided for battery technologies mentioned above all appear to fall within the "Advanced Device Prototyping Category" which requires full scale energy storage devices capable of being inserted into a vehicle at project completion.

This news that Khosla has now an EEStor project should not be surprising. Several months ago, the former Kleiner Perkins partner wrote an article in Grist covering his views on energy storage and included this mixed signal quip about EEStor:

"Even more disruptive approaches that we have not invested in today may be on the horizon. If EESTOR-like approaches work (I am somewhat skeptical of this particular company, though I believe new science similar to that proposed in its patents is possible), then so much the better."

At the time of his article, Khosla had owned Recapping for just over a year, according to filings with the State of California. But more interesting is that, one blogger has said that as early as September 2006, Vinod Khosla "indicated he is invested in this area." Was that in reference to Khosla's work as a Kleiner Perkins partner? Or was that stemming from work performed with his own Khosla Ventures founded in 2004? That's difficult to say because Vinod Khosla is still listed as an Affiliated Partner at EEStor investor Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers. SEC filings for companies listed on that page include documents showing Khosla still associated with investments launched while he was at Kleiner. Further confusing the issue is the fact that in my email conversations with Mr. Khosla, I would address them to his Khosla Ventures email address and he would respond with his address.

You may be wondering why I'm referencing all of these points. It's for the simple fact that in my investigation of Recapping Inc., I've been unable to uncover one of the most mysterious things. Although Penn State is listed as the research team working on the project, they were not awarded the ARPA funding---it was given to Recapping Inc. And despite this arrangement, you might think Penn State is responsible for the fundamental discovery making their project possible. They aren't.

So, the EEStor-sized mystery that Vinod Khosla is sitting on is quite simply: who discovered the insights which would make 10,000J/cc possible in a capacitor based system? ...because most certainly, whoever it was would definitely qualify for a Nobel Prize.

We hope to learn more about Vinod's EEStor project soon.


Image source: CNET.