MIT Professors Discuss Status, Potential Of Ultracaps

In a great primer on ultracapacitors and their potential applications, GigaOM’s Josie Garthwaite borrows an analogy from Joel Schindall, a professor in MIT’s Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems (LEES). She writes:

Think of it this way: The ultracapacitor is like a small bucket with a big spout. Water can flow in or out very fast, but there’s not very much of it. The battery is like a big bucket with a tiny spout. It can hold much more water, but it takes a long time to fill and drain it. The small bucket can provide a brief ‘power surge’ (‘lots of water’ in this analogy), and then refill gradually from the big bucket…”

With this explanation of the relationship between ultracapacitors and batteries, Garthwaite recounts Schindall’s overview of the state of energy storage technology today. The piece is called, “How ultracapacitors work (and why they fall short),” but it could just as easily be titled, “The powerful benefits of pairing ultracapacitors with batteries.”

Certainly, Garthwaite’s “capacitor 101” discussion explores the idea that ultracaps work best right now in concert with batteries. But the possibilities implied by that relationship are significant. She lists several, including:

  • For microhybrids, ultracapacitors can provide power (lights, radio, air conditioner, etc.) while the engine is idling and support the restart, then recharge during the next interval of travel.
  • While today’s transmission lines operate below full capacity in order to accommodate power surges, ultracapacitors could absorb those power surges, enabling lines to run closer to 100 percent capacity.
  • For high-end audio systems, big speakers might be adequate for a 1-watt amplifier. “But then the kettle drum comes in,” as Schindall explains to Garthwaite, and there’s a need for a 1-kilowatt power surge. An ultracapacitor could handle that peak in conjunction with the 1-watt supply.

The article, which gives a digestible explanation of the technology, ends with some hints as to what the LEES professors are focusing on and what will likely come next for ultracapacitors. In the field, we see advances coming, as well, and we’re looking forward to delivering them to our customers around the world who are already realizing the value of ultracapacitor innovation.

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