Silicon Valley Meets The Flathead Valley: Part One - ABC FOX MONTANA NEWS, WEATHER, SPORTS - KTMF/KWYB

Silicon Valley Meets The Flathead Valley: Part One

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COLUMBIA FALLS -

There may be a new silicon valley right here in Big Sky Country.

Sister companies in Columbia Falls are making strides to harness sustainable energy with zinc.

Batteries with the capacity to power entire cities--that is what ViZn Energy CEO, Craig Wilkins, is working to do, by capturing and using renewable energy sources: solar, wind, and geothermal.

"The problem with renewable is that it's a variable energy source, that is, you don't know when it's going to blow," said Wilkins.

The company shares half its name with the chemical symbol for zinc because of the metal's high energy density. With two patents and eighteen more pending, the science is centered on a surprisingly simple, spontaneous reaction, that produces zinc oxide, found in sunscreen, and an iron salt used in cattle feed, both nontoxic and nonexplosive byproducts--much safer than batteries that are already on the market.

"We've all seen the lithium battery fires when it blows up a laptop or an iPad. It's interesting when you see it on a small scale, but if you're looking at a battery that's maybe the size of Walmart you can see the safety concerns you would have on that," said Wilkins.

The premise was pioneered by the Department of Energy during the last energy crisis, but was never commercialized. Now, Wilkins and his team of 35 are field testing the first commercially-produced zinc storage containers until mid-2014 and looking to hire around 150 people over the next two years. Wilkins chose the Valley to found ViZn in 2009 not only because he is a fourth generation Montanan.

"We were able to leverage all of that infrastructure: the employee base, the supplier base, to be able to--I'm gonna say essentially to leverage off of what Semitools/Applied Materials is doing here in the Valley," explained Wilkins.

Not even on the market yet, and Wilkins is already getting rave reviews from potential customers.

"We're really fitting a unique market space that no other battery can fill," said Wilkins.

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