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The Rise of the UltraCapacitor

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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.

17 Responses to “The Rise of the UltraCapacitor”

  1. Jay Draiman, Energy Consultant

    A more efficient and cost effective renewable energy system is needed.
    A more efficient and cost effective renewable energy system is needed.
    To accelerate the implementation of renewable electric generation with added incentives and a FASTER PAYBACK – ROI. (A method of storing energy, would accelerate the use of renewable energy) A greater tax credit, accelerated depreciation, funding scientific research and pay as you save utility billing. (Reduce and or eliminates the tax on implementing energy efficiency, eliminate increase in Real estate Taxes for energy efficiency improvement).
    In California, you also have the impediment, that when there are an interruption of power supply by the Utility you the consumer cannot use your renewable energy system to provide power.
    In today’s technology there is automatic switching equipment that would disconnect the consumer from the grid, which would permit renewable generation for the consumer even during power interruption. Energy storage technology must advance substantially. “Energy conservation through energy storage”.
    New competition for the world’s limited oil and natural gas supplies is increasing global demand like never before. Reserves are dwindling. These and other factors are forcing energy prices to skyrocket here at home. It’s affecting not just the fuel for our cars and homes, but it’s driving up electricity costs, too. A new world is emerging. The energy decisions our nation makes today will have huge implications into the next century.
    A synchronous system with batteries allows the blending of a PV with grid power, but also offers the advantage of “islanding” in case of a power failure. A synchronous system automatically disconnects the utility power from the house and operates like an off-grid home during power failures. This system, however, is more costly and loses some of the efficiency advantages of a battery-less system.
    We’re surrounded by energy — sun, wind, water. The problem is harnessing it in an economical way.
    Jay Draiman, Northridge, CA
    May 29, 2008

  2. James Anderson Merritt

    “Quick-charging” for EVs may be possible using ultracapacitors, but there are still some significant infrastructure hurdles to be cleared before you can quick-charge at EV “service stations,” much less at home. For one thing, the high voltages and currents that are necessary are tricky to handle and very dangerous. Docking arrangements or couplings need to be designed to mitigate for wet conditions, and be simple enough for the average person to use safely. For another, the wiring going into your home or garage is probably insufficient to support charging at a rate that would give you 200-300 miles of range in just five minutes. A reasonable home charging unit would store up charge all day at a slow rate from your home wiring, then discharge it quickly into your vehicle — but that would requiire you to have TWO ultracapacitor stroage units: one in your car and one at home. This might be possible and even practical, if ultracapacitor units end up being cheap. But if you had to have two BATTERIES (based on quick-charge capable Li-Ion, say) to facilitate home quick-charging, the cost would currently be prohibitive.

    I’m not saying we won’t clear the hurdles. I’m just saying that quick charge isn’t likely to be widely available anytime soon, even if eestor or other ultracapacitor companies were able to ship a suitable storage unit tomorrow. People who are holding out to buy an EV until they can “quick-charge” it will probably wait a long time. Better to invest soon in an electric vehicle that has the amenities, range, and performance you need, and adjust to recharge your energy storage unit throughout the day, at a more leisurely (and currently practical) rate. Right now, you can expect to recharge pretty much ANY EV at a rate of between 1 and 2 additional miles of travel per minute. Over an hour lunch, that’s between 60 and 120 additional miles. During a two-hour movie, 120 to 240 additional miles. Over an eight hour work-day, or while you are sleeping at night, you can easily replace any charge lost from prior driving. And so forth. Most people will rarely need “quick charge,” if ever (and then, only on long-haul trips). Rather than pushing for “quick charge” and the expense and trouble of a pervasive infrastructure to support it, we might be better off to push for many more regular electric outlets or not-so-rapid charging stations EVERYWHERE.

  3. Green energy is definitely the best solution in most cases. Technology like solar energy, wind power, fuel cells, zaps electric vehicles, EV hybrids, etc have come so far recently. Green energy even costs way less than oil and gas in many cases.

  4. This ultracapacitor EEstor is creating is really exciting! Imagine doing away with the internal combustion engine and all it’s noise and pollution! Finally our dependency on fossil fuels will be greatly reduced!

    I’ve heard that the ultra capacitors EEstor makes will store so much energy that, even though they CAN be charged in minutes, the power infrastucture in your house doesn’t have the capacity to charge them that quickly. I believe the plan is to have TWO ultra capacitors, one hooked to your house power grid to store energy over an 8 to 16 hour period. This unit will then have the capacity to dump it’s power into the ultracapcitor in your electric car in minutes. But don’t stop there! If you happen to loose power to your house, the ultracapacitor can be used as an UPS! You could even install it between your house and the coming power and use it as a buffer!

    Wow, this is great stuff! I can’t wait for these things to go into production!

    Of couse, one must keep an eye on the impact these things will have on our economy. We have an entire infrastructure established to build and maintain (mostly maintain) internal combustion engines. People who make a living changing oil, making oil filters, fixing transmissions and engines, delivering gasoline, fixing exhaust systems, making spark plugs, fixing radiators, and all the rest that goes along with the stinky, noisy gasoline engines will have to be retrained. This will have a definate impact on the economy. Your local power generation utility will be king of the road as the fuel refineries fall apart from lack of use.

    It will be a brave new (cleaner, quieter) world, but it will not be without it’s problems. Still, going electric is the RIGHT THING TO DO! And companies like EEstore will pave the way!


  5. Dave Long

    Now we just need to develop UCaps that can capture and store lightning strikes… faster and more powerful (and maybe cheaper) than all the windmills and PVs put together.
    A lighting rod on the roof and a capacitor buried in the back yard might fuel your car AND your house, at least thru the summer months.

    • geek comp

      or even better, an massive computer controlled array of ultracapacitors wired to several highly conductive lightning rod towers that can produce gigawatts of power and is connected to the power grid to reduce dependence on coal