By Karen L. Miller , Business editor
Powerzinc Electric Inc., a California-based maker of
fuel-cell batteries, has re-energized its hopes to build
a plant in Reading, powered by a new chairman and support
from a government-funded center.
Robert S. Kripowicz, former acting assistant secretary
of fossil energy for the U.S. Department of Energy,
was named chairman of Powerzinc last week.
Another indicator things may be looking up for the stalled
factory project is Powerzinc¡¯s partnership with the
U.S./China Energy and Environmental Technology Center
at Tulane University, New Orleans.
Dr. S.T. Hsieh, managing director of the center and
a professor of electrical engineering at Tulane, said
Kripowicz will go this month to Shanghai, China, as
a part of a global strategy to create interest in Powerzinc¡¯s
Powerzinc and the center formed the partnership in March
to promote the firm¡¯s environmentally friendly zinc-air
fuel-cell technology in the United States and China.
Powerzinc has developed new applications for zinc-air,
a technology invented more than 100 years ago. The company
says zinc-air is safe, non-polluting, low-cost, refuelable
and produces high power.
The Tulane center promotes the interests of and creates
business for U.S. energy and environmental companies
One of its goals is to demonstrate Powerzinc¡¯s fuel-cell
products as a practical technology for electric vehicles.
Recently the company expanded into making batteries
for zinc-air, battery-powered bicycles, according to
Blake Huang of marketing department for the City of
Industry, Calif., firm. Huang referred comments about
the possible Reading plant to Hsieh.
Hsieh (pronounced Shay) said Powerzinc batteries also
can be used to power lights in coal miners¡¯ helmets.
Miners¡¯ helmets use lead-acid batteries, but fuel-cell
batteries could be made to fit into the existing compartments
for lead-acid batteries. The Powerzinc battery would
last longer, weigh less and be safer for miners, Hsieh
China mines more coal than any other nation, according
to Hsieh, and about 5,000 to 8,000 miners die there
each year in unsafe mines. Features that Powerzinc would
include could improve safety, Hsieh said.
After several trips to China to promote Powerzinc¡¯s
strategy, Hsieh said the next step will be to look for
venture-capital funding to build a plant in Reading.
¡°I think it¡¯s (the Reading plant) going to happen because
the plan is well-done and well-known,¡± Hsieh said. ¡°The
application of Powerzinc¡¯s products is much broader.
¡°The chairman needs to network and do team-making in
Shanghai and Los Angeles, and then come back to Pennsylvania.¡±
Hsieh, who came to Reading last summer to tour the area,
said: ¡°Reading has several strengths. It is the battery
capital of the world. It has the infrastructure for
battery-making and the craftsmen. Even though it is
a new application (fuel-cell technology), it¡¯s the same.
¡°Instead of training and hiring new people, you have
people who know how to make batteries. Second, with
the coal-mining business, there¡¯s a local market already
and local suppliers for the helmet prototype. Local
presence is crucial.¡±
Retailer Albert R. Boscov told City Council last February
that the firm might build a 38,000-square-foot plant
in the Keystone Opportunity Zone off Morgantown Road
that contains Brentwood Industries and Uni-Chains Manufacturing
Companies in KOZs are exempt from most state and local
taxes through 2013.
Hsieh said last week that he envisions two sets of long-term
workers for the Reading plant about 50 to 100 workers,
including staff, for the manufacturing, with as much
automation as possible to save on labor costs; and about
10 to 20 to handle the battery recycling part of the
¡°My sense and it¡¯s my personal sense is that if the
Reading plant is not started by the end of this year,
then it would be next year,¡± he said.
But a city official said it has yet to receive any plans
¡°I have not seen a basic business plan to give us some
idea of what they are looking for in the way of assistance
from the city of Reading to set up a plant to get their
operation going,¡± said Adam Mukerji, city director of
community development and executive director of the
Reading Redevelopment Authority. ¡°I haven¡¯t seen it.
It¡¯s on our back burner.
¡°They would need to submit a plan and projections on
what the company would be doing and financial information,
like how much money they would be putting into the project,
and what size land they would need. I have to determine
the viability of the project and whether the company
can pay back whatever the city would give them.¡±
Contact business editor Karen L. Miller at 610-371-5049