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In search of a better battery

In the wake of the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, Sigrid Cottrell, a real estate broker and entrepreneur, began talking with a longtime friend, Andrew Heath, who had studied electrical engineering and industrial marketing at Clarkson University in New York, about how to advance the use of alternative energy sources.

One issue they discussed was finding better ways to store power generated from solar panels and wind turbines, which can’t generate power continuously. Heath, while investigating alternative energy sources on his own, had come across the research of a University of Central Florida associate professor, Lei Zhai, who worked with nanotubes — carbon formed into tube-shaped structures with minuscule diameters thousands of times thinner than a human hair. The nanotubes, in addition to being extremely light, are very strong, and conduct heat and electricity far better than other materials. Zhai’s nanotubes showed promise for making lightweight, high-capacity batteries.

Ultimately, Cottrell and Heath formed a company called HyCarb and bought rights to commercialize Zhai’s work. They’ve hired researchers who are working with graphene and carbon nanotubes to develop a battery that’s lightweight, fast-charging, non-flammable and almost entirely recyclable. The battery is in its third prototype stage.

The duo envisions HyCarb’s battery as a way to store solar and wind power for utility-sized or individual projects. And because of its lightweight, non-flammable nature, they believe it also could be used in civilian and military aircraft. “They can’t have batteries that are burning up,” Cottrell says.

The company aims to improve battery technology so that it’s safer and more environmentally friendly, she says. “Batteries today are so toxic that they’re polluting our groundwater, our soils and our air,” she says.

HyCarb, based at Central Florida Research Park in Orlando, is expanding to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s research park in Daytona Beach and will use its new space as a battery integration and test facility.

Cottrell and Heath are now trying to raise about $3 million in funding. They say they hope to create 220 jobs in Volusia County during the next decade. “Everybody knows that batteries need to get better,” Heath says.

Electric Vehicles

Tampa Electric Co. (TECO) has joined with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) Authority to help fund a first/last mile transportation service near the University of South Florida in Tampa. HART’s HyperLINK service is using four Tesla Model X electric vehicles to take riders to their final destinations from local bus stops (and vice versa). Riders in the USF area can summon a Tesla for $3 via a HyperLINK app. TECO contributed about $50,000 toward the service.

“Tampa Electric is always looking for cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy,” says TECO spokeswoman Cheri Jacobs. “This project is both high-tech and forward-looking.” TECO has more than 40 electric cars and bucket trucks in its fleet and more than 30 charging stations at its offices and power plants.

See other stories from Florida Trend's September issue.

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