March 30, 2011 / 7:47 PM / 8 years ago

Ultracapacitors Gain Traction as Battery Alternative

Ultracapacitors continue to be barely a whisper in the energy storage conversation, but recent rumblings of support from investors, government and industry suggest something is afoot. Ultracapacitors, also known as super capacitors, are solid state devices that are superior to batteries in durability, power density and resilience to temperature changes, but they fall short in two key areas: high cost and low energy density.

Ultracapacitors are used in small amounts in a variety of electronics devices such as smart meters as well as in wind turbines, but the magnitude higher cost has prevented ultracapacitors from being considered in most grid and transportation applications. During interviews for our recent Ultracapacitors report, for each industry source who thought the technology showed promise, there were five who had strong opinions that their limitations would prevent them from ever being more than a niche product.

Recently however, ultracapacitors have gotten strong words of support from the Department of Energy via the annual budget report, which wrote glowingly about the technology’s potential to complement batteries in hybrid and electric vehicles. The United States Advanced Battery Consortium, which is a consortium of automotive companies that also receives DOE support, gave $3.5 million to ultracapacitor manufacturer Maxwell Technologies and partner companies earlier this year to develop ultracapacitors to assist in power delivery for hybrid vehicles. This announcement is double-edged - while the industry recognizes the potential, it also recognizes that the technology isn’t ready for commercial deployment, which prompted the funding. Investors are also supporting ultracapacitors by providing funding of $12 million to ultracapacitor maker Ioxus Corporation.

The largest order of ultracapacitors for automotive applications so far has been by Continental AG, which is integrating ultracapacitors into a stop-start system that is being by Peugeot. Pike Research projects that the annual market for ultracapacitors in stop start systems will grow from less than $30 million in 2011 to more than $350 million in 2020. Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk also believe ultracaps will find a home in electric vehicles, as he recently told Earth2Tech.

Ultracapacitors Revenue from Stop-Start Vehicles by Region, World Markets: 2011-2020Source: Pike Research

One of the unwavering believers in ultracapacitors has lost some of his ability to impact the market. Ian Clifford, stepped down as CEO of ZENN Motors, which had tied its entire fortune to enigmatic ultracapacitor company EESTOR. While Clifford’s removal gives additional fuel to the ultracapacitor doubters, it should not materially affect their long term viability.

Photo by Maxwell Technologies

John Gartner is a senior analyst at Pike Research and a co-founder of Matter Network.

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