Ultracapacitors Getting More Competitive

Is there an ultracapacitor in your future?

Is there an ultracapacitor in your future? If the people at Maxwell Technologies (San Diego; www.maxwell.com) are right, then the answer to that is "yes"—and that future will occur sooner rather than later. The company has recently launched two new ultracapacitor products that were, says Michael Everett, vp of Technical Systems, developed "with automotive needs in minds." One is the BOOSTCAP MC2600, a 2.7-volt, 2,600-farad cell. It has a cylindrical shape, 166-mm long and 57.7 mm in diameter. It can be fitted with terminals for either mechanical fastening or welding. Then there's the BMOD2600-16 16-volt module, which is an assembly of six of the cells housed in a splash-proof aluminum chassis measuring 420 x 160 x 70 mm. The module also includes temperature and voltage monitoring and cell balancing.

Ultracapacitors are energy storage devices like batteries, but unlike batteries, there are no chemical reactions involved. Not only can they cycle more times than batteries, they can operate at very low temperatures—such as -40° C—which means that they're useful for, say, cold-weather starting. The ultracapacitors recharge and discharge quickly.

Essentially, the ultracapacitors are aimed at applications ranging from balancing the loads on electrical power networks within vehicles, or to work with systems like steer-by-wire. Other areas of consideration are lighting and power door locks.
Yes, hybrid-electric vehicles are a natural application for ultracapacitors, as the devices can be used to start the vehicle and then get the internal combustion engine running, and to then collect energy from regenerative braking for subsequent cycles.

One of the things that Maxwell has done is address an abiding need in automotive applications: lower prices. The volume price for cells was, apparently, $270 each as recently as 2000. The MC2600 is available for $92 in low volume and $54 in mid-range volumes; the modules are priced at $613 each for low volumes and $366 at midrange. Apparently, improvements in manufacturing processes have permitted Maxwell to realize these lower price points. And the company is working to have an even lower price point by 2010.

In March 2005 Maxwell received a development contract from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC) to develop a next-gen ultracapacitor cell and module; this contract provides some $3-million in matching funds.

But with the new cell/module development, Everett says, there are some 15 programs underway at various auto companies that include ultracapacitors. He anticipates that there will be design in of the technology within the next 24 months or so.—GSV