‘Supercapacitor’ is not a word in every car buyer’s vocabulary yet but, like the catalytic convertor before it, that may soon change. Michael Spencer, the billionaire founder of electronics market operator ICAP appears to think so at any rate.
Over the weekend, news came through that Spencer was injecting a rumoured $8 million into Superdielectrics, a start-up that is developing the technology to build a high-capacity supercapacitor which is expected to lower the cost of electric vehicles (EVs) by helping them charge in seconds. Supercapacitors can also store more energy than conventional electrolytic capacitors and have a longer lifespan than rechargeable batteries
“I started this about 40 years ago with materials that went on to form the basis of extended wear contact lenses,” Highgate told The Engineer earlier this year, “but we [he and his research partners at the Universities of Bristol and Surrey ] then wondered whether we could use this material as the basis for membranes in fuel cells. The next step was to determine if we could make the material electronically active, and we found that we could.”
Tipped to play a leading role in the future of electric cars, Superdielectrics already has an R&D tie-up with Rolls-Royce, has raised about £15m to date and is valued at around £250m.The Cambridge-based company is now considering an IPO on the London Stock Exchange.
While batteries charge and discharge slowly, supercapacitors do so very fast. Until now, however, they have only had around 5% of the energy density per kilogram of battery technology and have not been able to compete with the lithium-ion alternative. Although supercapacitors currently power electric buses in China, these need to be charged at almost every bus stop.
In the longer term, however, experts predict that they could be increasingly applied to public transportation (including in small electric cars used for ride-sharing). Outside the field of transport, they are already used in power-stabilizing applications like backup systems and power buffers and have the potentIal to extend the life of both consumer electronics such as laptops and mobile devices, and power tools such as electric drills.
Supercapacitors are also, as Heathcote points out, environmentally sustainable and do not rely on rare earths or other scarce minerals.“This new work would transform the energy system which underpins our entire way of life – it is the necessary development before we and our children can have a genuinely sustainable, environmentally safe energy supply.”