As reported by Bloomberg, Tesla has acquired the innovative energy storage company Maxwell Technologies for $218 Million. The move is a direct departure from Tesla’s current energy storage requirements; instead of relying on lithium battery technology, this acquisition could signal a change to capacitor technology.
The key selling point of capacitors, either of the super- or ultra- variety, is the much shorter charge and discharge rates. Where a supercapacitor can be used to weld metal by simply shorting the terminals (don’t do that, by the way), battery technology hasn’t yet caught up. You can only charge batteries at a specific rate, and you can only discharge them at a specific rate. The acquisition of an ultracapacitor manufacturer opens the possibility of these powerhouses finding their way into electric vehicles.
While there is a single problem with super- and ultra-capacitors — the sheer volume and the fact that a module of ultracaps will hold much less energy than a module of batteries of the same size — the best guess is that Tesla won’t be replacing all their batteries with caps in the short-term. Analysts think that future Teslas may feature a ‘co-battery’ of sorts, allowing for fast charging and discharging through a series of ultracapacitors, with the main energy storage in the car still being the lithium battery modules. This will be especially useful for regenerative braking, as slowing down a three thousand pound vehicle produces a lot of energy, and Tesla’s current battery technology can’t soak all of it up.
Recharging your mobile phone or your electric vehicle in a few minutes sure sounds appealing. Supercapacitor technology has the potential to deliver that kind of performance that batteries currently can’t, and while batteries are constantly improving, the pace of development is not very fast. Just remember your old Nokia mobile with Ni-Cad batteries and several days of usage before a recharge was needed. Today we have Lithium-Ion batteries and we have to charge our phones every single day. A better energy storage option is clearly needed, and supercapacitors seem to be the only technology that is close to replace the battery.
The Economist is an interesting publication, a British weekly newspaper that looks for all the world like a magazine, and contains pithy insights into world politics and economic movements. It’s one of those rare print news publications that manages to deliver fresh insights even to hardened web news junkies despite its weekly publication date.
It was typical then of their wide-ranging coverage of world industries to publish a piece recently on the world of supercapacitors, with particular focus on Estonia’s Skeleton Technologies. This is an exciting field in which the products are inching their way towards energy density parity with conventional batteries, and news of new manufacturing facilities coming online should be of interest to many Hackaday readers.
Exciting though it may be it was not the news of a new capacitor plant in Germany that provided the impetus for this piece. Instead it was the language used by the Economist writer delicately skirting the distinction between the words “Supercapacitor” and “Ultracapacitor”. Images of flying crimefighters in brightly coloured capes spring instantly to mind, as Captain Ultra and Superman battle an arch-villain who is no doubt idly bouncing a piece of burning Kryptonite against the wall in readiness for the final denouement.
The pioneering years in the history of capacitors was a time when capacitors were used primarily for gaining an early understanding of electricity, predating the discovery even of the electron. It was also a time for doing parlor demonstrations, such as having a line of people holding hands and discharging a capacitor through them. The modern era of capacitors begins in the late 1800s with the dawning of the age of the practical application of electricity, requiring reliable capacitors with specific properties.
One such practical use was in Marconi’s wireless spark-gap transmitters starting just before 1900 and into the first and second decade. The transmitters built up a high voltage for discharging across a spark gap and so used porcelain capacitors to withstand that voltage. High frequency was also required. These were basically Leyden jars and to get the required capacitances took a lot of space.
In 1909, William Dubilier invented smaller mica capacitors which were then used on the receiving side for the resonant circuits in wireless hardware.
Early mica capacitors were basically layers of mica and copper foils clamped together as what were called “clamped mica capacitors”. These capacitors weren’t very reliable though. Being just mica sheets pressed against metal foils, there were air gaps between the mica and foils. Those gap allowed for oxidation and corrosion, and meant that the distance between plates was subject to change, altering the capacitance.
In the 1920s silver mica capacitors were developed, ones where the mica is coated on both sides with the metal, eliminating the air gaps. With a thin metal coating instead of thicker foils, the capacitors could also be made smaller. These were very reliable. Of course we didn’t stop there. The modern era of capacitors has been marked by one breakthrough after another for a fascinating story. Let’s take a look.
Anyone who grew up with a Game Boy knows how well they sucked through AA batteries. [Nick]’s Game Tin console solves this problem by running of an ultracapacitor charged by solar power.
The console is based on a EFM32 microcontroller: an ARM device designed for low power applications. The 128×128 pixel monochrome memory display provides low-fi graphics while maintaining low power consumption.
There’s two solar cells and a BQ25570 energy harvesting IC to charge the ultracap. This chip takes care of maximum power point tracking to get the most out of the solar cells. If it’s dark out, the device can be charged in about 30 seconds by connecting USB power.
The 10 F Maxwell ultracapacitor can run a game on the device for 1.5 hours without sunlight, and the device runs indefinitely in the sun. Thanks to the memory display, applications that have lower refresh rates will have much lower power consumption.
The Game Tin is open source, and is being developed using KiCad. You can grab all the EDA files from Bitbucket. [Nick] is also gauging interest in the Game Tin, and hopes to release it as a kit.