Grounded in Reality, Maxwell Technology’s CEO Dispels Static Around Ultracapacitors
Is it just me, or have ultracapacitors somehow become the latest hot and mysterious alternative energy technology?
Just a few weeks ago, my Xconomy colleague Greg Huang reported that Seattle startup EnerG2 landed $8.5 million in venture funding to develop a new class of ultracapitors that use nanocomposite materials to store energy. Before that, Light Electric Vehicles of Eugene, OR, announced that EEStor, a secretive company in Cedar Park, TX, would supply ultracapacitors next year for LightEV’s two- and three-wheel vehicles. Then I noticed that one of three finalists in a $25,000 contest organized on YouTube to solicit ideas for a new “Energy X Prize” was a proposal to create a new storage medium—an “ultracapacitor.”
This fascination may be due to the fact that the technology is akin to catching lightning in a bottle—literally. An ultracapacitor is an electronic device used to store electrical energy. It can charge and discharge electricity almost instantaneously, albeit at low voltage, hundreds of thousands of times without being depleted.
Now it just so happens that a San Diego company called Maxwell Technologies (NASDAQ: MXWL) has been developing ultracapacitors for the past 15 years. So this flurry of recent announcements left me confused. Doesn’t the technology needed to make ultracapacitors already exist?
So I arranged to talk with David Schramm, the CEO at Maxwell, which has been manufacturing ultracapacitors for commercial customers for the past seven years or so. And I asked: What do these recent announcements mean? Is the big breakthrough in ultracapacitors yet to come?
“I have a hard time shadow-boxing against some of these things, I don’t know where to start,” Schramm says. “It’s one thing to write on a piece of paper what you’re going to do, and it’s another thing to work with people who have actually done it.”
Maxwell, which was founded as a government R&D contractor in 1965, inherited its expertise in ultracapacitors from working on power sources for pulsed lasers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Maxwell decided to focus on developing ultracapacitors for commercial markets in the early 1990s, as defense spending plunged in the years following the dismantling of the Soviet Union. But making money from ultracapacitors has been a challenge for Maxwell, and the company has been continually reinventing itself for the past 10 or 15 years.
One problem, Schramm says, is that the industrialized world already has batteries. Electronics manufacturers understand how to design battery-powered products and automobile manufacturers understand how to design vehicles equipped with lead-acid batteries.
“If you bring a whole new energy device to market, engineers need to understand what it will do and how, and why it should be included in their products,” explained Michael Sund, a Maxwell spokesman.
Manufacturing costs, and the difficulties in increasing production volume, have probably been the biggest barrier to adoption that Maxwell has faced. In recent years, the company has moved its manufacturing operations to low-cost contractors in China. That has helped the company boost production. Maxwell’s ultracapacitor sales have jumped from $5 million in 2004 to a current production rate estimated at $30 million a year, although overall profitability for the company is still a problem.
After years of trying to gain acceptance among customers, Schramm says Maxwell is now selling its ultracapacitors for use in hybrid-electric buses made in the United States and in China, for windmill power-generators in Europe, cordless power tools, consumer electronics and as part of backup power supply systems that must provide uninterruptible power for computer chip makers and other key industries.
While the innovative materials under development at EnerG2 are promising, Schramm says the Seattle startup faces two critical challenges: How do you get the technology out of the laboratory, and how do you make it cost-effective? “Carbon nanomaterials are orders of magnitude more expensive than the carbon powders we work with,” Schramm says. “It’s hard for me to imagine them having manufacturing capacity with the capital they have raised.”
As for a proposed X Prize to create an ultra-capacitor, Schramm says it would be a breakthrough if someone developed a single energy storage device that combines the capability of a battery to generate sustained electrical energy with an ultracapacitor’s ability to rapidly charge and discharge electrical power.
“That’s where you run into the laws of physics,” Schramm says.
Trending on Xconomy
By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.