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Supercapacitors: likely successors to li-ion batteries?

20 February 2013

Peter Harrop of IDTechEx offers an insight into the fascinating world of supercapacitors.

Supercapacitors (or ultracapacitors as they are otherwise known) are now centre stage for designers of electronics and particularly power circuits, writes Peter Harrop. This is because they are improving faster than the batteries and electrolytic capacitors they increasingly replace.

More subtly, they reduce the need for, and danger from, lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries. For example, when placed across a rechargeable battery, they protect it from fast charging and discharging and allow more of the energy in the battery to be utilised. The result is that less battery is needed, life and safety are improved and maintenance is reduced. As a result of this - and increasing use of supercapacitors in non-battery replacement applications - the annual growth of the leading suppliers in aggregate has increased to 30 percent, representing a market that will exceed $11bn within ten years.

Of the eighty or so companies either currently making, or about to make, supercapacitors and their variants such as supercabatteries (assymetrical electrochemical double layer capacitors such as lithium capacitors), only 6 percent are in Europe. So, while it may therefore seem strange to locate the event, Supercapacitors Europe 2013 in Berlin, bear in mind that 25 percent of supercapacitor demand emanates from Europe - from companies like Bombardier using large banks of them to recapture the braking energy of trains to Riversimple using them to shunt automotive fuel cells.

And there are numerous other examples, including extensive use as backup in wind turbine blade control, bus door opening, hybrid cars, crane and elevator braking and many stand-by power supplies for electronics. The MAN hybrid bus in Germany, for example, has been a great success, with the lithium-ion battery now completely replaced by a supercapacitor. 

These large and rapidly growing applications in Europe leverage the high power density and, above all, the 'fit-and-forget' benefits of supercapacitors, which last the life of the equipment in which they are installed.

With the Boeing Dreamliner grounded because of its lithium-ion battery system, it is likely that supercapacitors will partly or wholly replace such batteries in aircraft wherever possible, mimicking what has already happened on the ground. Indeed, supercapacitors can be fully discharged for transport and the majority of them will soon have no flammable toxic electrolyte, unlike the batteries they replace. Moreover, air regulations concerning the transport and onboard use of lithium-ion batteries are very likely to be tightened.

Supercapacitors Europe 2013

A premier IDTechEx technology event, Supercapacitors Europe 2013 is co-located with a number of partner events, including one concentrating on graphene, which may eventually permit supercapacitors to exceed the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. Other co-located events cover printed electronics, photovoltaics, energy harvesting and storage, and wireless sensor networks.

Dr Peter Harrop

Supercapacitors Europe 2013 will showcase the huge effort in Europe to leapfrog existing supercapacitor technology and its applications. Current work offers prospects such as thin film supercapacitors overlaying a car body or on the back of flexible solar photovoltaics. Others are working on structural, load bearing supercapacitors, part of the trend to integrate components and essentially make them 'vanish'.

Staying in Europe, it emerges that the west coast Normandy region of France is becoming a supercapcitor centre of excellence. Here, companies such as Armor Group, Batscap and its parent company Bollore and the Hutchinson Group, subsidiary of the TOTAL energy group, are forming an emerging supercapacitor technology cluster in the region. Capabilities for the different key stages of the supercapacitor value chain range from key supercapacitor components manufacturing to the supercapacitor-equipped electric vehicle, BlueCar. 

Last year, in the US, the focus of the IDTechEx supercapacitor event was on carbon nanotubes in supercapacitors, with presentations by academics from institutions such as Hang Yang University in Korea and the State University of New York at Binghamton. This year in Berlin, progress reports will be given by Fraunhofer IPA, which is leading the Electrograph European project focused on production of graphene through electrochemical exfoliation for supercapacitors, and Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, which will present on hierarchical graphene-based materials for high-performance supercapacitors.

On behalf of the UK, the University of Manchester, part of the British consortium focused on the 'manufacturability' of graphene, will talk about porous graphene for flexible supercapacitors, while Imperial College London will cover 'smart skin' supercapacitors. VTT Finland will discuss supercapacitor versions with aqueous electrolytes printed on paperboard, and companies such as Graphene Frontiers will speak about their chemical vapour deposition process for implementation of graphene/nanotube to electrode materials.

There's a global dimension too, with best-in-class speakers from CAP-XX (Australia), Graphene Frontiers (USA), Shanghai Shi Long High-Tech (China), and Elbit Systems (Israel). For full details of the main and co-located events, click here.

Dr Peter Harrop is currently chairman of IDTechEx. He was previously director of technology at Plessey Capacitors Scotland and chief executive of Mars Electronics, a start-up he grew organically to $260m gross sales value.

Les Hunt

Editor


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