Opinion - 15/January/2021

If we are to take the energy transition seriously, we need to start doing the same with ultracapacitors

Compared with batteries, ultracapacitors have a power output nearly ten times greater, are environmentally superior and come without safety issues. Johan Söderbom from EIT InnoEnergy explains how a long-familiar piece of power system technology is unlocking new opportunities for sustainable and efficient energy storage and usage

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy


Ultracapacitors should be at the forefront of the energy transition

You may have heard quite a bit about ultracapacitors lately. But considering their proven potential in the transition to a clean energy future, experts—in what has been considered a niche field up until now—would argue we are hearing far too little about them.

Ultracapacitors are energy storage and recovery devices. They provide short bursts of high power, have short charge and discharge times, do not use harmful chemical substances and offer a virtually endless number of cycles before needing replacing or repair.

With recent interest in the technology, it is on a fast-tracked development cycle and is expected to serve more mainstream applications as a power source, which can either complement existing solutions or replace them altogether. With an increase in demand for short-term high-intensity power, low-maintenance ultracapacitors have an important role to play in meeting energy needs of the future in an efficient and sustainable manner.

Yet despite these clear advantages, ultracapacitors have found themselves on the fringe of mainstream technologies and are viewed by many as a niche technology. And while some recent hype has coupled the technology with its potential in the electro-mobility sector, the potential of ultracapacitors is much wider. Its functionality spans many key markets such as automotive, transportation, power grid and industrial segments, and the technology is poised for a massive uptake over the next decade across the energy landscape.

 

THE NEXT DECADE

The technology behind ultracapacitors is long established, dating back to the late 1950s, so why do we hear so little about them when energy storage is such a hot topic and what is required to encourage further uptake?

For one, awareness about the far-ranging applications of ultracapacitors will make its potential for the energy transition more visible and tangible. As energy systems change and electrification occurs, the opportunities for ultracapacitors grow too.

Essentially any industry that requires high power in a short time should be looking to ultracapacitors. At EIT InnoEnergy, we have been showcasing the technology to crane, elevator and power tool manufacturers, where there is a very clear business and use case, with a high power efficiency of more than 90%. In these applications, ultracapacitors act as energy storage and supply devices, reducing grid and generator requirements. These types of applications continue to open up across sectors and we will see much more in the next ten years.

 

STAYING COMPETITIVE

Batteries and ultracapacitors could be seen as competing technologies, but the reality is, the energy transition does not require one silver bullet but rather multiple, complementary solutions on the market. While we do expect to see ultracapacitors become more competitive against Lithium-Ion batteries in areas of cost and increased energy density, we also will see these working hand-in-hand.

There is also a clear path for ultracapacitors to replace lead-acid batteries completely and in the meantime there is a strong case for a hybrid set-up incorporating them together. Automotive manufacturers are already doing deals in this area with major players such as with Skeleton Technologies, known for its graphene-based ultracapacitors.

NAWA Technologies is another company in this space. They are currently working on a motorcycle with a drivetrain combining ultracapacitors and batteries. This gives astonishing specifications: very high power output, improved energy efficiency due to regenerative braking, and very fast charging—all advantages that are needed in the e-mobility transition. We expect that projects such as these will act as a catalyst for the technology in terms of awareness and visibility.

 

THE WAY TO 2030

From a technical standpoint, big strides will be made in ultracapacitors in the coming years. The existing generation fulfills its function very well. However, by the end of this decade we will see completely different specifications already. One aspect where a lot of research is being done is in increasing the energy density to reach levels closer to those of Lithium-Ion batteries. Further adoption of the technology will also drive down costs through economies of scale.

The investment community is also warming to the technology. Perhaps the strongest signal from an investor standpoint is Tesla’s acquisition of Maxwell Technologies last year, indicating a trust in the technology and its future.

Some markets, such as the grid segment, are already mature in the adoption of ultracapacitors.

The functionality of energy recovery is what makes ultracapacitors stand out as extremely valuable and is something running through many market segments, such as automotive, transport and industrial segments.

Interest is also starting to grow for distributed energy supply such as for Internet of Things devices, where it becomes a very competitive means to store energy. The anticipated impact by the end of this decade varies across segments but it is clear that technology will continue to improve, cost will drop and adoption of ultracapacitors can act as a technological pillar for the energy transition.


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