The Rise of the UltraCapacitor

Between the Superbowl yesterday and Super Tuesday tomorrow, you will be forgiven for overlooking Maxwell Technologies’ announcement today that the company’s San Diego plant has just been ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certified to produce ultracapacitors. But if you’re interested in the future of the auto industry, you might want to sit up and take notice.

This week’s Economist brands new so-called “ultracapacitors” a potentially “disruptive technology” for the 21st century, one that could actually supplant rather than just supplement traditional car batteries. Did someone say time-travelling Delorean?

The news is that while capacitors have traditionally been used for quick bursts of speed, rather than endurance, ultracapacitors differ from traditional ones in that they can potentially match a battery in both areas. That’s thanks to new technology that uses interactions of positively and negatively charged ions coupled with an electrolyte instead of static charges. This development gives capacitors 5 percent of a battery’s storage capacity, but in order for ultracapacitors to seriously challenge batteries, that number needs to be much higher.

Scientists at MIT are working on a nano-engineered version that coats the surface area of the ultracapacitors with our old friends carbon nanotubes, which they claim can boost its capacity up to 50 percent of a battery. Also in the hunt is Cedar Park, Texas-based EEStor (that we wrote about here), which does away with the electrolyte and instead uses an insulator called barium titanate, which the company claims can store “very high“ levels of energy. One sign they might be on to something is that the company recently inked a deal with Lockheed Martin for its “electrical energy storage units” to be used to charge military gear once production starts later this year.

Another exciting application for ultra capacitors could be in recharging electric cars, a process which until now has been painfully slow. Refilling capacitors in the same way you top off the tank at the gas station would make electric vehicles much more practical and attractive. Canadian electric car firm called Zenn has signed a deal with EEStor to replace the current lead-acid batteries in its small urban vehicles with the EEStor units, in hopes of making its cars highway ready.

All of this sounds promising, but whether ultracapacitors can really unseat the mighty battery remains to be seen. The conversation, however, has been started, and battery technology is going to be forced to adapt to catch up.

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