The New Energy Economy clearly cannot depend on extracting and processing ancient plants and long-dead animals.  Indeed, to truly succeed, the post-petroleum era will require a steady stream of fresh thinking about how we generate, distribute, use and store energy. 

Traditional ideas about generation and distribution are already being turned on their heads by the new "smart grid" paradigm; energy use is increasingly being driven by an application-level emphasis on efficiency and environmental impact; and "carbon-footprint" is becoming as important a specification as amps, watts and volts. The next logical step is to focus on broadening and redefining the notion of energy storage.

So far, the bulk of the energy storage conversation has revolved around ongoing advancements in battery technologies.  But just as the overall energy industry is becoming more complex and multi-faceted, energy storage cannot be limited to a single technology. The reason is simple and clear: the interaction and combination of various storage technologies will drive the innovation and advancements that the New Energy Economy requires.

Missing the Potential of Energy Storage

Here are two good examples that reinforce my point. General Motors recently announced it would build a 31,000-square-foot battery development lab in the United States while installing lithium-ion battery packs in its new Volt electric cars. Meanwhile, Honda is rolling out the FCX Clarity, a zero-emission hydrogen-powered fuel-cell sedan with a compact lithium-ion battery. These are both ambitious and welcome moves, and they will certainly improve the automotive industry's prospects in the 21st century global marketplace.

But these battery-centric solutions do not deliver on the full promise and potential that efficient next-generation energy storage systems offer.  By looking beyond batteries, an even better solution becomes available – one that combines available storage technologies to produce entirely new benefits for consumers and for the environment.

Hybrids for Hybrids

In fact, energy storage technologies are often complementary to each other; and the cost and performance characteristics of separate storage devices are frequently enhanced by their combination. For instance, batteries, with their large quantities of readily available energy, can be integrated with super-fast charging and discharging ultracapacitors, which can deliver bursts of energy at a moment's notice.  The mechanical marriage goes even deeper because ultracapacitors are far better suited than batteries to recapture bursts of available kinetic energy, and this vastly reduces an application's energy consumption over the nearly limitless lifespan of the ultracapacitor.

Batteries and ultracapacitors are purchased and used separately today, and each has its own solid place in the market. Ultracapacitors are often found in mass transit vehicles, for example, because they withstand the endless heavy-duty cycles of acceleration and braking; batteries, for their part, are used in current-generation trucks and automobiles because of the amount of energy they offer. But if the two technologies were blended together into  "hybrid" solutions or applications, we'd have entirely new and improved energy storage systems that would transcend the current batteries-only perception while opening fresh worlds of opportunity for the 21st century.

Big Batteries

Let's look at plug-in-hybrids (PHEVs) as another example.  The challenge here is that the total lifecycle cost of these vehicles can't be justified by ordinary users.  For starters, the battery systems that would be required to get a PHEV to go 150+ miles on a single charge are fairly expensive and, even at full scale production, they will likely be the most expensive component of the vehicle.  These batteries simply do not have the cycle life to last the expected lifespan of the vehicle.  This means more than one expensive battery system will have to be factored into the total vehicle cost.  In addition, batteries just aren't very good at recapturing regenerative braking energy; as a result, they lose a lot of the available kinetic energy generated by braking events.

An ultracapacitor combined with a battery solves both of these problems. Ultracapacitors are great at energy recapture and, in our "hybrid" system, they would replace the battery's role in this process to capture a vast majority of the available kinetic energy instead of having it lost in the form of heat. 

This arrangement also insulates the battery from the constant cycle stress of starting and stopping and, as a result, could extend the battery life to match the expected life of the vehicle.  The cost of ownership savings would be huge.

Just as important, because ultracapacitors would be taking the power load and delivering acceleration, relatively small and light batteries in the "hybrid" system would provide pools of readily available energy at a lower overall cost.

So, when it comes to developing the next generation of post-petroleum vehicles, can we avoid a zero-sum game? Can we move beyond the traditionally binary choice between batteries and ultracapacitors? Can't we – and shouldn't we – have the best of both worlds and utilize each of these solutions?

Four-Step Plan

I answer "yes" to all three questions.  But to meld the technologies, we must act on four fronts.

First, we have to create new metrics that are more than simple energy density. A more complete set of metrics must not only include the amount of energy stored, but also:  how quickly energy is captured and released, the number of charge-discharge cycles, and the total cost of ownership of the storage system. Embracing these metrics means we'll make smart, objective choices when designing any new energy storage system, including battery-ultracapacitor combinations.

Second, we need to invest more in ultracapacitor research, both for stand-alone improvements and in their combination with battery technologies.  One clear method for accelerating this funding is through the federal government budget resources recently made available for energy storage. The proper application of these funding sources will keep improving ultracapacitors while enhancing their cost-effectiveness.  Already, as ultracapacitor technologies have improved, a host of fresh applications have become available.  Improvements in the technology have translated remarkably quickly into new applications.

Third, we need to support the build out of a new domestic industry that manufactures ultracapacitors to complement domestic battery production; this is a global competitiveness necessity that will clearly help the U.S. build and maintain a leadership position in the New Energy Economy.  Ultracapacitors can no longer simply be regarded as a niche energy storage system to be deployed around the edges of the industry.

Fourth, we must establish and maintain standards for ultracapacitors so that this technological solution can be incorporated as quickly as possible into the variety of new applications that have been – and will continue to be – coming online.  Standards will also help insure that device quality remains as uniformly excellent as possible; such quantitative consistency will be essential for broad application of the described ultracapacitor-battery combined systems.

Forging a Technological Alliance

Breakthrough clean technologies will help pave the way for our nation's economic recovery and our world's environmental sustainability. There is no innovation-oriented market with brighter prospects – or greater sweep or scope – than energy storage. If we can find ways to meld batteries and ultracapacitors in new and unprecedented combinations, I believe we'll double our chances for sustainable success in a variety of key industries while, at the same time, boosting both our energy and economic futures.

Seattle-based EnerG2 is currently focused on customizing electrode materials to enhance energy and power density in ultracapacitors.

The above opinion piece is from an independent writer and is not connected with Greentech Media News. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not endorsed by Greentech Media.