Battery maker Powerzinc¡¯s Reading project may be recharged
New leadership and applications for the product have created a new enthusiasm about the idea, but city officials have yet to see a plan.

=== Feb. 17, 2003 ===

Source: Reading Eagle Newspaper
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 products.

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 in China.

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 said.

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 Inc.

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 operation.

¡°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 from Powerzinc.

¡°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 or business@readingeagle.com

 



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