Ultracapacitors have been a star attraction in scientific research for years, but the component might be best suited for a supporting role in the commercial world, says Alex Shnaydruk at APowerCap Technologies.
APowerCap Technologies is trying to bring a novel breed of ultracapacitors — which are essentially holding tanks for electrons — to the automotive and electronics market in a way that better fits economic reality. APowerCap won’t sell ultracapacitors to power electric cars. Instead, it is prepping a line of ultracapacitors to charge the batteries in electric cars, which will in turn run the car. That’s similar to the way General Motors will use a gas generator to charge the batteries on the Chevy Volt, but without the gas.
In a nutshell, the problem with ultracapacitors is cost, he said during a presentation and meeting at the Dow Jones Alternative Energy Innovations conference taking place in beautiful Redwood City, Calif. this week. Employing ultracapacitors to power a car would break the component budget. Other than that massive problem, ultracaps are great. They can be charged in a few seconds and can discharge rapidly as well.
The first project out of the company is KERS, which stands for Kinetic Energy Recuperation System. It is an “energy recuperation??? system commissioned by a company that supplies components to Formula 1 cars. The KERS charger will consist of 200 of APowerCap’s cells. That is a single cell in the picture. The company showed off a 14-cell prototype at a meeting.
APowerCap will subsequently move onto producing ultracapacitors for electronic bikes, a growing market in Asia and even Europe, as well as power storage devices for notebooks and other electronic devices. Using an ultracapacitor can take some of the bulk out of a phone or other product, he said.
The company is also working with a lead acid battery maker to supplement more traditional batteries. In tests, APowerCap was able to show that a lead acid battery supplemented by its ultracapacitors required only one third of the lead of traditional lead acid batteries, lasted 2.5 times as long, and worked well in cold weather. The overall volume of the battery was also 60 percent smaller. (Lead acid, by the way, isn’t dead. Axion Power International is also building carbon cathodes for lead acid batteries while Firefly Energy is making a membrane for lead acid batteries. Both of these companies have received investment funds from the Quercus Trust.)
“Most of our intellectual property is in the electrode,??? he said. The electrode is made of carbon sheets measuring only a few hundred nanometers thick or less. Current is collected by aluminum strips. Thus, two key components of the battery are made from two of the more common elements on Earth.
“We use just regular carbon,??? he said. How the carbon molecules arrange themselves in the sheets, however, determine its properties.
If the company can move from the science experiment stage to mass manufacturing, it could find a receptive audience. The lengthy charging times of batteries and the limited range remain two of the big stumbling blocks to the greater acceptance of electric cars. (Think of it: Will consumers really want to swap car batteries, like Project Better Place has proposed for getting around the charge time issue.) Ultracapacitors can put a dent in that, although cost would still be a big question.
APowerCap, by the way, comes out of the Ukraine. It has received some funding from local VCs and is now seeking $10 million. It has delivered samples to potential customers, he said. Ukraine isn’t a hotbed of startup activity, but all the countries east of the Vistula are certainly well regarded for their science.
Some large automakers are already thinking in the same direction as APowerCap too. Two weeks ago, I interviewed Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president of the technology development department at Nissan. He said that the company was trying to figure out a way to make an electric car that could charge itself while driving. Nissan’s goal, however, would be to recharge the battery electrically, not with a gas generator. An ultracap might work better than a fuel cell for that task.