Flywheel/26″/mike1st/mark2nd By BEN SULLIVAN Staff Reporter After more than a decade of trying, researchers at a Newbury Park company say they’ve developed a commercially viable flywheel for storing energy that could dramatically reduce dependence on chemical-based batteries. The company, U.S. Flywheel Inc., has sold the first few of its new flywheel systems to aerospace industry customers who are conducting tests on them. If the trials pan out, it could be a boon to the entire flywheel industry, which until recently has been the Rodney Dangerfield of eco-technology. “They may only be testing, but that means we’re selling systems,” said investor Dan Costner, who with his brother, actor Kevin Costner, resurrected the company two years ago with a capital infusion. To be sure, U.S. Flywheel is not the only player making flywheel power systems. A bevy of firms, from Woodland Hills-based Rosen Motors to Trinity Flywheel Power of San Francisco produce custom-order devices for utility companies, the military and automakers. But those are used primarily to release large amounts of power in short spurts, usually in conjunction with traditional chemical-based batteries or gasoline engines. What U.S. Flywheel says it has achieved is a practical way to use a stand-alone flywheel as a “kinetic battery” that stores energy better and cleaner than its chemical brethren. “They’re the closest company I’ve seen to having a commercially viable product,” said Byron Stafford, an engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. “I’m very impressed with their capabilities.” Other government agencies are similarly impressed. NASA, in conjunction with TRW Space and Technology Division, has paid U.S. Flywheel an undisclosed sum for a system that could eventually serve as a satellite power storage system, replacing the hundreds of pounds of batteries that satellites typically require. Honeywell Inc. has also ordered a U.S. Flywheel to test for satellite-powering purposes. With costs of between $6,000 and $8,000 per pound for a commercial launch, shaving off even a few hundred pounds can significantly cut launch costs, said Tom Pieronek, director of technology development for TRW’s Avionics Systems Center. The $250,000-to-$1 million cost of such a flywheel system is roughly the same as for a satellite-battery system, he said. “(But) satellite batteries currently have a lifespan of about five years. Our flywheel is designed to last 15, but could go up to 30,” said U.S. Flywheel Systems President Henry Chase. Flywheels have been around for centuries, and are already used as a way to “even out” the peaks and valleys of power generated by an engine’s piston strokes. The devices operate by accepting an electric charge through a motor-generator that spins a donut-shaped disk surrounded by coils of copper wire. Depending on how well it is balanced and the amount of drag it encounters, the disk can keep spinning for hours or even days from a single charge. When power is needed for some other purpose, a user essentially flips a switch that activates magnets spinning on the disk’s axle. The motor, which got the disk spinning in the first place, switches hats and now functions as a electrical generator, drawing down energy and slowing the disk’s rotation. Where U.S. Flywheel is said to stand out is in minimizing drag and friction on the disk. The company’s donut-wheel operates in a vacuum and uses magnetic bearings controlled by powerful computers to let the disk float on its axle without touching its container. The company has also pioneered the use of carbon fibers, the same stuff used in tennis rackets and the B-2 Stealth bomber, to increase the disk’s strength-to-density ratio, which boosts its energy-storage potential. While U.S. Flywheel is seeing its first orders going to satellite-power purposes, the original goal behind the product’s design was for use in electric vehicles. Electric vehicles already developed, such as General Motors Corp.’s EV1, carry about 1,000 pounds of lead-acid batteries and have a range of 70 to 90 miles between charges. Dan Bitterly, U.S. Flywheel’s founder and chief scientist, said that, pound for pound, his company’s flywheel can store four times the power. Replacing the EV1’s batteries with an equivalent weight of flywheels (it would take 12) would extend the car’s range to 200 miles, he said. But safety concerns have made automakers hesitant to install flywheel systems as a primary power source for non-polluting vehicles. A 50-pound flywheel spinning at tens or even hundreds of thousands of rotations per minute is a potentially deadly device. Indeed, when testing new designs, U.S. Flywheel scientists enclose the disks in a steel box with inch-thick walls, itself contained in a concrete, pillbox-like closet in case the disk begins to warble and fly off its mount. John Eastwood, president of Trinity Flywheel, is skeptical that, given their potential for harm, flywheels will be a primary power source for cars any time soon. “What happens if something goes wrong with one of those things? And you’re going to put 10 of them in a car?” Eastwood said. Yet Bitterly remains undaunted. “Sure, batteries don’t have any moving parts until they blow up,” he countered. To pursue the flywheel automobile goal, Bitterly and son Steven co-founded American Flywheel in the early 1990s. After a falling out with their business partner, the pair struck out on their own in 1993 with U.S. Flywheel, holding plenty of ideas but little cash. Soon teetering on closure, they attracted the attention of the Costner brothers, whose Costner Industries invests in environmental technology firms. “The company at the time was bankrupt, but the idea was good and fit our profile,” Dan Costner said. After a series of meetings with the Bitterlys to put the company on a commercial track, Costner said, he and his brother spent more than $5 million to let the father-and-son team work uninterrupted on their design. “It was like winning the lottery,” Bitterly said.