Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Silver Bullet?

I've been saying for a while now that when it comes to energy issues, there's no silver bullet. That is, no single solution will present itself and say, "ta-daa! Everything's better!" We need to re-evaluate everything we do in terms of energy consumption. Land use, building codes, even how we dress needs to be thought of in terms of energy use. These are not problems that lend themselves to technical solutions.

Having said all that, if this is true it may just be the silver bullet I've long denied existed. Apparently (and there's very little information out there to substantiate this, so HUGE grains of salt are warranted) a Texas company called EEStor has designed and is near production of an ultracapacitor with incredibly high energy and power densities, and very low cost. From Clean Break:
EEStor's technology could be used in more than low-speed electric vehicles. The company envisions using it for full-speed pure electric vehicles, hybrid-electrics (including plug-ins), military applications, backup power and even large-scale utility storage for intermittent renewable power sources such as wind and solar.
It's that last one that is most promising, I think. The biggest problem with electricity to date has been the difficulty in storage. With a cheap, clean, long-lived way to store energy, these ultracapacitors may very well be the key to making solar and wind a critical part of the grid.

For those who don't know, ultracapacitors are analogous to batteries in that they store electricity. Probably every piece of electronics you own has capacitors in them, so this isn't some far-out technology. Where capacitors differ from batteries is that they are a solid-state electronic component as opposed to an electrochemical reaction. This means that capacitors can charge and discharge very quickly, relative to batteries.

(For a simple analogy, capacitors are to batteries, as the transistor is to the vacuum tube.)

However, until recently the amount of energy a capacitor could hold was far less than the best batteries. If EEStor is legit, than that's about to change. How big a change? According to the Energy Blog, the "product" that EEStor is producing weighs 400 lbs and holds 56kwh. 56kwh is enough - even with some pessimistic estimates - to power an electric car for more than 150 miles. More importantly for electric vehicle purposes, the power the product can deliver is astonishing - something like 400 horsepower, according to one estimate. The limiting technology for electric cars thus far has been the batteries. After EEStor, it might be the motors. My mother and her lead foot might even enjoy driving a car with one of these in it.

Now, 150 miles is still a bit short for a standard car, so the first application is liable to be plug-in hybrids. But even this 56kwh module could serve another purpose - install it in homes, and consumers would never have to pay peak electricity rates again. The module could charge at night, in offpeak hours, and run the home during the day without drawing off the grid. Alternately, a green-minded homeowner could combine this module with a solar rooftop and live entirely off the grid, as far as electricity is concerned. Even with an early cost of $3,000 that would be a minor expense compared to the solar panels, or with the home itself.

If homeowners don't go wild for these (and there's no reason to expect them to) the utility operators should consider a program of building decentralized "water towers" for electricity. By charging them at night, and draining during the day, utility generators could level out the load, allowing them to sell more electricity overall without building new capacity. These kinds of structures would have been impossible with even the best batteries - the life cycles are too short. Capacitors regularly perform for hundreds of thousands of charge-discharge cycles.

A little math. Assume a capacitor is charged at off peak prices - say, $0.04-$0.06/kwh here in Ontario. The peak price for a kilowatt-hour has been anywhere between $0.10 in the winter to $0.24 during the summmer, when we had to import electricity. (Thank you Manitoba - you kept our AC running!) These capacitors hold 56kwh. So if they fill up at the highest off-peak time (0.06) and sell the energy back during the lowest peak prices (0.10), we get this:
(56 * 0.1) - (56 * 0.06) = 2.24, or $2.24 profit per cycle.

If we pessimistically assume that these ultracapacitors are only good for 100,000 cycles (not the conventional meaning of "hundreds of thousands") then each $3,000 module could repay its investment almost 75 times. There's real potential here, technologically and economically.

Note that I actually suspect the profit potential here is overstated - the whole point is to allow a market to arbitrage the peak price of electricity down, by consuming more during off-peak hours. A cheap, long-lasting ultracapacitor makes this much more than a fantasy.

I should note that, thus far, EEStor doesn't have so much as a webpage. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - a lot of investors are still gun-shy from the dot-coms. And serious people are investing in EEStor, but that's actually beside the point. EEStor isn't the only company investing in ultracapacitors - some companies already have similar (though not as impressive, yet) products on the market.

I wasn't aware that ultracapacitors had come so far. It's nice to be surprised by good news these days.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the good information. My question is - do capacitors discharge at a constant voltage? What would be the impact of this on the EEstor devices, if any?

The promise offered here reminds me of the cold fusion story.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog looking for EEStor. Thanks.
In answer to anonymous, the voltage of a capacitor is directly related to it's stored energy, since it is a number of electrons sitting on a plate, and as you increase the voltage, you can pile more of them on one side. If they have somehow managed to develop a way of dividing one big plate into a lot of little plates, then you could theoretically discharge them in sequence, providing a semi-steady voltage until the last one is discharged. I haven't found anything about what they are doing except something about glass beads, but that could just be the curtain into thier bong room.
Depends what they are smokin', I guess.

Anonymous said...

is this the possible answer to peak oil?

Anonymous said...

Yes it could well be. I predict that if EESTOR comes to be (I wrote to Feel Good Cars which have a deal and they verify the technology) that all cars will rapidly shift to electric drive with the polution and energy efficiency advantages of that. EESTOR can be refueled like a gas car because of its recharge speed (few minutes and perhaps even in seconds)
to make it perfect we need something like super low cost thin film solar panels too or better. While electric use much less energy, electricity is still mostly coal and no good in the long run. nuclear, wind, solar, waterfall, and to some extent biofuel would make it 'perfect' in terms of global warming. Short of something like Steorn coming out, I think thin film solar is the way to go. the product is real and I believe very cheap to make but normal human short sightedness make them price them as high as solar panels have always been. it can and should be made as cheap as plastic bags and fields and deserts should be covered in them. compared to biofuel, solar panels are actually 100 times more efficient. you could drive your car for free...
ovonics is a maker of said solar film and they're featured in the documentary movie 'who killed the electric car' as a good guy. but they forget to mention how the product's greedy price is preventing the revolution

M. Simon said...

Capacitor charge is calculated as


C is Capacitance in Farads
V is Voltage in volts
I is Current in Amps
T is Time in seconds.

The energy in a capacitor (watt seconds):

E = 1/2 CV^2

So yes the voltage goes down as the energy is deained. It is not a relatively constant voltage generator like a storage battery.

OTOH if you drain it from full voltage to half voltage you get 75% of the energy stored.

That 2:1 voltage ratio is not difficult for modern electronics.

If you could do 2.5 to 1 (to 40% of maximum voltage) you would get 86% of the energy out.

3 to 1 gives about 89% of the energy out.

So you could reasonably rate them as capable of delovering 85% of rated energy.

For stationary storage high speed flywheels would give better energy density. Also capable of 100s of thousands of cycles.

BTW there has been a recent revolution in the capacitance density of small capacitors. This may be part of the EEstor Technology.

M. Simon said...

You know, Bucky got a lot of things right. Socialism wasn't one of them.

The price of thin film will come down when more people enter the market on the sales side.

Given that you can charge what you want (not always true), prices are set to maximize Profit per unit X number of units sold. Number of units sold will depend on manufacturing capacity and the supply/demand curve.

The profit is used to support research and development (or other investments). High profits lead to faster advances in technology. They also can lead to rapid increases in manufacturing capacity.

High profits also attract new entrants into the market.

No competent engineeer should be without a sound understanding of basic economics including supply/demand curves.

M. Simon said...

The high prices of thin film solar could be due to lack of manufacturing capacity.

There is no point in lowering the price such that volume doubles if you don't have double the capacity.

Real engineering is as much an economic discipline as a technical one.

Most amateurs in the field get all hot about technology with no understanding of economics.

It is like war. Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.

Technology is the tactics of business. Economics is the logistics.

Anonymous said...

I understand greed. it's not a tricky concept.
Everyone of the world's govs should however step in and create an enormous supply.
This is a matter of global security because of a clear and present danger.
Similarly each should seek out any promising battery solution and promote the progress with any and all decent means.

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