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February 22, 2018


By, Nathan Hallam, 'Senior Business Development Manager at Ayming UK


From cranking up truck engines in cold weather to backing up power systems in data banks, ultracapacitors are now being used in thousands of applications. Many investors and observers expect the technology will go much further, transforming numerous industries, including transport. Imagine driving an electric car on a single charge from London to Edinburgh, then re-charging in just a few minutes.

Ultracapacitors – double-layer capacitors sometimes called supercapacitors – offer an alternative power source to rechargeable batteries. Whereas batteries use a chemical reaction to generate power, ultracapacitors store energy in an electric field.

This confers some big advantages. That power can be released and re-charged much more quickly. Supercaps can also last for up to a million charge cycles. And they’re much lighter than batteries and more efficient too: with little or no internal resistance, they operate at close to 100% efficiency.

All this opens up a myriad of uses. They’re ideally suited for any application requiring: high bursts of power, and fast recharging; a high power-to-weight ratio; low maintenance; and a long life cycle. A bonus is that unlike battery cells, ultracapacitors don’t rely on harmful chemicals or materials.

The downside, however, is that ultracapacitors have a much lower capacity. Which is why they were mainly seen as a partner to batteries, rather than as a replacement.

But as their storage capacity increases, the technology competes with lithium-ion and other batteries in more applications.

However, let’s not get carried away. Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycle’ serves as a useful reality check when evaluating emerging technologies.

The international research specialist’s graphic curve represents how innovations tend to trigger rising expectations and then plunge through a ‘trough of disillusionment’ as progress stalls, before a second generation of applications and developing best practice drives wider adoption.

Gartner reckons that ultracaps hit peak hype back in 2015.

The development of the technology is now moving so fast it looks scalable. High-density storage would generate a dazzling array of new opportunities.

At the end of last year a project investigating new polymers for very high energy-density ultracapacitors was hailed by the UK academics involved.

“There is a global search for new energy storage technology and this new ultra-capacity supercapacitor has the potential to open the door to unimaginably exciting developments,” said Dr Brendan Howlin, University of Surrey (Dec 2016).

This research – by Augmented Optics Ltd – involved electronically conducting polymers, which are a by-product of its work on soft contact lenses.

Other advances in various fields, including nanomaterials, are accelerating the development of ultracapacitor technology. Most famously, graphene is a frontrunner in the race to deliver high-density storage.

There are strong push-pull forces at work. Social and political pressures – fuelled by concerns around carbon emissions, pollution from transport, and the need for reliable supplies of renewable energy  – are powerful drivers.

As governments set deadlines for the phasing out of combustion engines, motor manufacturers like Ford and Volvo are not only committing to electric vehicles – they are also investing in this technology alongside pioneers, such as Skeleton Technologies, Ioxus, Maxwell Technologies, and LS MTRON42 .

The involvement of most mainstream carmakers – as well as the likes of Tesla (and SpaceX), Delphi Automotive, Continental, Valeo – is a strong indicator that the timeline for wider adoption of ultracap technology is shortening.

And not just in the automotive industry. Ultracapacitors look set to boost innovation for clients across many sectors:

·         In transportation, capturing otherwise wasted energy through regenerative braking systems on cars and trucks, and buses and                  trucks

·         In manufacturing, maintaining power and regulating voltage to ensure smooth power supply to production lines and facilities

·         In construction, capturing and discharging bursts of power for heavy lifts by cranes and other plant

·         In renewable energy, smoothing out the peaks and troughs in power generation by solar and wind

·         In aerospace, powering satellites, aircraft and spacecraft

·         In consumer technology, charging mobile devices in seconds and powering wearable technology

Although his Tesla cars are built around lithium-ion batteries, Elon Musk has predicted that it would be ultracapacitors that ultimately drive the electric vehicle revolution. One prediction is that supercaps could replace batteries in electric cars within five years.

That would see – on Gartner’s Hype Curve – ultracapacitors accelerating up the ‘slope of enlightenment’ towards a highly productive future.

They may not arrive in the short term, but the medium term is looking increasingly likely.

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