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The Emergence of “Sustainable Charge on Demand”

Posted by at 10:45 AM, 08/16/2010

Since the start of the three-day Academy in July, the momentum of participants' activity may have only increased. Attendees of the week-long accelerator event in San Jose may recall CyVolt, a contestant from Seattle with a colorful story to tell about its quest to harness the efficient use of glycerin as an alternative energy.

This fuel could be available in a variety of miniaturized form factors in the 100 mW – 20 W power range. CyVolt is developing a fuel cell battery technology for use in myriad applications—from hand-held appliances to cars. If it succeeds, it may well be poised to some day introduce an “energy-dense,” inexpensive, environmentally friendly system offering a viable, versatile solution to some of the world's toughest environmental challenges with respect to energy utilization. It claims to be able to produce a “charge on demand”—virtually immediately—without requiring any warm-up period.

I had an intriguing discussion recently with Dave Clark, CyVolt's chief marketing officer (CMO). Just what is glycerin? “It's basically sugar,” he says. According to Clark, from CyVolt's perspective, it derives from the raw waste stream of a biodiesel manufacturing process. So it utilizes a by-product of an inherently sustainable energy production process.
Fuel cells don't store energy well but do deliver power well. On the other hand, batteries in the market today store electrical energy and deliver power well, but they do not create power. Marrying these two technologies can make for an optimal system--energy creation via the fuel cell and power storage and delivery via the batteries. That's where CyVolt comes in. Its technologies are intended to augment the amount of “untethered time” devices can have. In effect, their solutions will become “range extenders,” a term folks who are in the electric vehicle space are becoming ever more familiar with.

“We are focusing on the 100 mW – 20 W is power range. That's what we are examining,” Clark explains. It corresponds to RFID tags on the low end to hand-held devices and beyond.

Who do they compete with? To hear Clark tell it, perceived competitors may not have entered the market yet. “Our greatest real competition may be the status quo itself,” he muses.

In fact, CyVolt may not have any direct competitor at all—at least not in the form of another start-up. Its technology has generated plenty of interest among prospective customers across industries. “As a fuel choice, everyone we've talked to—whether its an OEM, a manufacturer, military—like the choice of glycerin as a fuel.”

What makes it so attractive to them is that it is “completely renewable.” Depending for its raw materials upon a by-product of the manufacture of biodiesel, its supply is plentiful, he points out. “Frankly from a business perspective, we're turning something that is in “global excess” and has a value of almost zero—actually just 8 cents per pound—to $200 per pound after we've added our value to it,” Clark explains.

This hints at the potential “embarrassment of riches” that  CyVolt is investigating, and perhaps the essence of super-abundant sustainable low-cost energy in the future if it succeeds only moderately.

CyVolt devices can be designed to fit comfortably in practically any form-factor and can be easily refilled in the most demanding of spaces. It's hot-swappable, meaning a cartridge can be refueled without first turning off the appliance to do so. (Just how it produces a “charge on demand” without requiring a warm-up period may have to wait for another blog post.) Also, dispelling any remaining fears—warranted or otherwise—about fuel cells, “it's safe,” he insists.

Clark points out that one of the things that plagues the fuel cell industry is its weakness in regulating power, i.e., avoiding spikes. Batteries, on the other hand, are by their nature good at doing this. This leads to another important point for an industry that has been faced with fears about “explosions” of new prototypes.

One only has to recall SONY's fire-prone laptops some four years ago to realize the risk batteries might present to the user. Although CyVolt's technology is energy-dense, it won't lead to an explosion as in the case of hydrogen. Not only is glycerin inherently inflammable, it will actually put out a fire!

But about CyVolt's strategy, he is quick to point out that the choice of glycerin as its fuel of choice is but “one leg of the stool.” Another aspect is their “building from the bottom up” approach; this alludes to the microscopic aspect of the technology. It is unique to CyVolt's business strategy, and they are is pursuing it relentlessly.

While others intent on the holy grail of miniaturization have sought to take existing fuel cell technology and work backwards, CyVolt's philosophy is to “start our design itself from the low-end.” Clark explains, “For us that means there are no moving parts to build” in the first place, and because of this, there is no need to work backwards towards miniaturization. It's plotting in this manner to devise systems like these that is more the rule than the exception in development efforts throughout the industry today.

What about its potential (currently largely untapped)? Just think of humming birds and bees; imagine the miracle of their efficient energy use compared to how humans “just get by” in going from A to B. To put it further into perspective, Amory Lovins once determined that the energy cars consume to propel its passengers and cargo represents only some 5% of the total fuel it actually burns.

Acknowledging the tough job of gauging market readiness, Clark observes that since it is tied to funding,“You're constantly, you're forever 'interrogating' the plan, i.e., modifying the business plan.” This allows you to open the market to ancillary markets,” he explains. While determining market readiness is financing-dependent, “the technological gains we're now making is very exciting,” Clark says. One success they've realized has been the Air Force SBIA Phase I study, and they are actively pursuing Phase II.

From CyVolt team-members' perspective, their Cleantech Open experience has certainly helped CyVolt advance its business objectives. Based on their experience at bootcamp, he insists attending was a smart decision. “The lineup of expertise at the Cleantech Open Academy was just outstanding.” They far exceeded our expectations.“ He emphasized they experienced a “very condensed exposure to seasoned experts.” Further, the delivery was effective, since it engaged us all in dialogue that was mutually beneficial. They spoke to the “collective experience of the group.” 

Written by Eckhart Beatty

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