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The Ultracapacitor Promise: Part 2

Josh Landess concludes his interview with Richard Smith

By Josh Landess

Editor's note: There have been a number of promising developments recently in the use of ultracapacitors to improve the performance of hybrid electric and battery electric vehicles. Considered by many the leading US manufacturer of ultracapacitors, Maxwell Technologies, located in San Diego, California agreed to let EV World's corresponding editor, Josh Landess visit their operation and talk to them about their technology. Here is part two of Josh's in-depth interview.

Jl: I have a bunch of questions in my head as a result of what you were talking about. First of all, simply, I'm used to thinking in terms of kilowatt hours. All the articles and discussions about EVs usually involve energy storage.

RS: Right.

JL Am I correct in understanding ultracapacitors are not as energy-dense as batteries, they're more power dense?

RS: Right, in fact usually the first thing we do when we sit down with the design engineers, we tell them that if you start asking kilowatt hour questions we have to leave because we don't do those things.

RS: What we do is 500 amp discharges, ok? So, if you want watts-per-kilogram-power-out, we can do that. We give you huge amounts of power for short periods of time. So the total energy of an ultracapcitor is on the order of less than 10% of a lead-acid battery for the same weight. So we're very energy-poor. But what we can do for 500 thousand times is we can take in very high current and discharge very high current power, which batteries can't do.

Jl: How long does it hold most of its charge?

RS: Capacitors leak faster than batteries.... Internally leak...in other words, if you take an alkaline battery and put it on the shelf, five years later it still has probably 75% of its energy so you can still use it. If you take a capacitor like our ultracapacitor and put it on the shelf fully charged, in 45 days it's one-half charged. So we leak relatively fast compared to batteries. Compared to other capacitors we're incredible. Most capacitors, if you take a standard electrolytic or a lot of standard capacitors, they leak down to half-voltage in 24 hours or less.

Jl: Another one of the questions that I had when you were speaking before....The issue of competition, ... the reason that comment really interested me is that I see a lot of companies with seemingly world-beating products coming to auto and say "Ok, we're going to increase your gas mileage by 10% with our wonderful new product." And they're more or less on their own and they may have the patents to their device, and it almost turns out that's a disadvantage, and it's almost good that there's competition. I think Carl Eibl said this, I think he said that the auto industry simply wouldn't allow a company to be on its own with a product.

RS: Yes. If you look at the Economics of the Automotive World, there are 50 million new cars built worldwide, every year. 50 million. 25 millions of those are what we would consider modern cars and trucks like we see in the US, Europe and Asia. And any component that goes into the automotive world has several things that I think have to be taken as realistic. One is: there are at least three centers that you have to think in terms of for build today... Asia, Europe and the U.S. And it's becoming China, and South America or certainly Mexico as additional places where you may want component factories to be built. So, at some point in time you have to think of distributing your factories close to the centers of automotive assembly, just for practical purposes. Number 2, they want, second, third sources of supply, and they will use alternate types of design. In other words, not everybody makes one lead-acid battery. There are lots of suppliers. And we want that just as badly as anybody. We want legitimate well-earned competition, because we need that....

Jl: ....It sounded like a big positive that your company understood this.

RS: ...And I think Panasonic has the wherewithal, the smarts, the factory backing, the reputation in the world and so on to be a very viable contender. The fact that we take a lot of pride in being better than they are today doesn't mean in the end that we'll stay there without a lot of work, of course. They're very good at what they do.

And, in the end, the automotive business also goes for "good enough". When somebody's "good enough", in other words, not everybody uses exactly the same engine, you just have different engine suppliers, then you have one that meets the requirement, then it's all economics after that. Just, you know, if you're good enough, and the other guy's good enough, the fact that you're slightly better doesn't demand a price-premium. If you're slightly better for the same price, they'll choose your part because it's a higher quality part, but they won't choose it because it's better and costs more. So the economics of the game are going to be huge in the automotive world.

Jl: I guess you're shooting for something like a $30 per cell goal on the large cell?

RS: That's our planned goal for 2004 in automotive type volumes, which are millions of cells.

Jl: Well, you're putting more than one cell in a car, right? It's a pack, right?

RS: That's correct. We basically are running 2.3 to 2.5 volts per cell. If you're in a 42 volt application, you need around 18 cells in a pack to be able to run at 42 volts and below.

Jl: And this is so effective at helping a car get to the 42 volt standard, that GM, correct me if I'm wrong, has said that this helps them eschew going into advanced batteries.

RS: Actually, GM didn't make that statement.

Jl: Okay, sorry.

RS: What they were very clear about is if we could make a $30 price-point, then their commitment to ultracapacitors over batteries was pretty well-established. In other words, our strategic commitment to be a high-volume, high-quality, low-cost supplier to them with price-points that we agreed to, made them commit to design systems around ultracapacitors. Does that mean that they could switch to batteries if they chose and we didn't hit our price-points? Yes. But I think they were convinced enough that we knew exactly what we were doing and that we were credible enough to get to that price-point that they made their commitment. Because they're investing huge numbers of millions of dollars to develop all of their drive systems around ultracapacitors.

Jl: Speaking of a company kind of learning to go from being a defense contractor to a getting into serious consumer type of mass-production, when I spoke to somebody here a year or two ago, you were working on a project to get the smaller ultracapacitors into watches, I think it was. And it was difficult. You weren't at the point, a couple years ago where you could just go out and make stuff. A lot of progress since then?

RS: I'm not sure who you talked to, and somebody could have said we were trying to get into watches which is probably some of our naïve thinking back then. Actually the applications of most importance to us are applications that are generally alkaline battery based and have a pulsed-power requirement such as digital cameras, wireless PDA's....

Jl: ...I'd love to have a better power source in my camera...

RS: ... I think everyone would, and I'll think they'll see that soon. And so in those kinds of applications, we bring a premium, we can do three to four times as many shots for the same battery, by using capacitors and alkaline batteries together. And you can use the cheapest alkaline battery instead of the most expensive one and get exactly the same number of shots out of it. So we can take a consumer item, ... a digital camera, and add a lot of value to it.

So in order for us to do that though, you've got companies in the world, all the major digital camera companies, they look at a company like Maxwell, and their questions are pretty straightforward. One, can you meet the price-point, which we can. It's valuable to them. And two, can you meet the volume, because we want a million of them by Christmas. That's why we've spent a huge amount of capital to move to this building, to basically build our infrastructure underneath the product itself, where we can produce 50,000 units a day, or 1.7 million per month.

Jl: That's here in San Diego?

RS: That's right across the hall from where we're sitting [in San Diego].

Jl: How have you found it as a manufacturing environment? Frankly, I just like the fact that you stayed in the U.S.

RS: Well let me tell you.... the strategy is, manufacturing is a function of material and labor cost. And labor cost often-times, if you have a manually intensive labor project, it has to be moved offshore to be globally competitive. In this case, we just built the machine, which you can't see [with] the microphone, but you can see on the wall there [a big picture]. That machine is on our factory floor. That machine is capable of doing 1.7 million parts of assembly. It takes a couple of operators to keep it loaded. So the total labor cost of building those parts is in the noise. And the amount of intellectual property that went into how that machine is designed to build our product to meet the quality standards is where we put money in. So, we have a substantial investment in research and development and manufacturing [ ] engineering, and very little labor in the factory. So, we either had to go offshore, and find the lowest cost labor there was, probably China, and still it would cost more than by building this machine and building the parts here.

Jl: Speaking as a San Diegan, I hope we become the ultracapacitor capital of the world.

RS: Well, I believe we will. On the other hand to be frank, we have a second-source supply in Europe in EPCOS [sp?]. EPCOS is [a] company that paid us for the license to produce our large-cell product. And the reason is, is because the automotive and other industries that we look to say "Who is your second source of supply?"

Our strategy is to also compete with ourselves, to give as many people the right to our technology as we believe are capable of taking it, so maybe another partner in Asia, where we have a manufacturing partner who has non-exclusive right to sell our capacitor in the region. We go into Europe and compete head-on-head with EPCOS, because if they're not aggressive, then we will be. But on the other hand, if somebody wants to know, is there a second factory that can build the same part, yes. Can they buy it somewhere else instead of from us, yes.

Jl: Skipping over to just kind of a plain-Jane alternative energy issue, in one of the downloadable discussions I listened to, it was mentioned that I think 11% of energy is dissipated at idling in vehicles, I think that was an EPA figure. I don't know about that figure, but do you have any figures for idling and braking, because the ultracapacitor would seem to help both?

RS: Yes. The primary concept behind the 42 volt integrated starter-integrated alternator type systems is to take advantage of one of those items that you discussed which is the idling time.

Jl: Right.

RS: We take whatever numbers the EPA puts out as being the actual percent of time [we spend] idling, amount of fuel consumed, whatever their statistics are, because everybody drives differently, but on the average you can lump everybody into a big model and say "11% of their fuel is used at stopping in city driving".

If you don't run the engine during that time, two wonderful things happen. One is you save that 11%, or at least you save probably 9 of the 11% because you still have some energy to start the engine, so you re-use some energy. And number two you're not polluting which is the other difficulty that we have. And the actuality is that we're creating, you know, gasses during idle time. All you're really doing is keeping your car motor going so that you have the convenience of stepping on the throttle and moving out.....

Jl: ...Right...

RS: ....So if you could do that electrically and then start the engine after you've initially accelerated away, then you've eliminated pollution and inefficiency.

Jl: It just seems like poor design to me. I don't mean to go off, but when I'm braking I'm throwing away as much energy as possible, or sitting idling and just using energy for no apparent reason, it seems like poor design.

RS: Well, I think it's kind of like evaluating the design in the circumstance that we're in. In the beginning cars that could be started without a crank were considered a miracle.

Jl: [heh, good point]

RS: ....so cranking cars were a poor design, but then once the technology was there to start electrically then that went away. And then we got more and more efficient cars, we got automatic transmissions and so on. But there's a limit to how much you can do with just direct driving and controlling with electronics the internal combustion engine. And so I think we're at that stage where a couple of things are coming together. One is, the external forces of realizing we can't deplete resources, we want to be more efficient. Two, we'd like to be less polluting, so we need to conserve as much energy as we can by regenerative braking, and also not wasting by just sitting and idling.

Jl: An environmentalist pointed out to me that when we brake, the stuff from the brake linings just goes onto the road and becomes runoff, and if we're reducing the amount of that type of braking that we're doing then that's also an untalked-about [thing].

RS: Yes, I think if we look at the positive effect of all this, if we just say that we're as efficient as we can get with the systems as they exist, I wouldn't say it's a poor design, I'd say it's optimized for the conditions that the economics allow the average person to buy a car under, if we look at the future and say "What would that optimization be?", I think it would irresponsible of car companies by 2005 for example to not be using what I would call a light or limited hybrid system, which would be a 42 volt system, which would have the starter-alternator would actually allow you to accelerate slightly and regen energy to the capacitors or the batteries, whatever they're using, to capture energy, because the technology will be available in the mid-two-thousands. So, between two-thousand four, five and six, I think we'll see a huge number of automobiles switching over to 42 volt systems, and using that as a light-hybrid, compared to a very complex hybrid like the Prius and the Honda Insight.

Jl: Do you have any thoughts on those vehicles? RS: I do. My opinion is, from a physics point of view, and an economics point of view, and an environmental point of view, there is kind of a optimum point out there, which I believe will 42 volt systems that have enough power to accelerate up from 0 to 7, 0 to 8 miles an hour, before the engine starts, which is the very inefficient and polluting part of the drive cycle., will capture most of the regenerative energy, and run otherwise as a very efficient internal combustion engine. I believe that for the next 20 years, that's going to be the nominal best all-around for economics, practicality and environmental protection. If you look to pure hybrids, very complex hybrids like the Prius and the Insight, they're going to remain very expensive, and there's always going to be the trade-off of how much electrical energy do you carry on-board versus how much internal combustion engine do you carry. I think that, in the end, something such as the fuel cell will be the ultimate, ultimate answer. But if you listen to what Ford said, versus what the press generally writes about, Ford just the other day announced they rolled out their first fuel-cell car. They announced it as a $6 million dollar car, which is not a surprise for a one-off, a first-one, a worthy investment, but they said, what was said by the Ford representative, the Vice-President of something, was in 25 years we'll all be driving cars just like this. And I believe that's absolutely correct, but I believe it's 20 to 25 years, not 10 years, because the fuel cell is a very complex expensive device, it's going to take a lot to get it into the cost-range that people can afford.

Jl: How much of a place do you think there will be for pure-electric vehicles in that scenario, if at all?

RS: I think the number of pure-electric vehicles will be more inner-city mandated, delivery vehicles, postal vehicles, UPS and Fed-Ex type vehicles, could be school-busses and city busses. They'll either be very efficient hybrids or actually electric vehicles. I believe they will still have to be mandated because I believe they will always cost more than any internal combustion hybrid would.

Jl: I see.

RS: But I think that there's a reason why, in the areas where you have the greatest need, it's viable to say, you know, you will not drive tax-cabs in New York City, that have anything except electric engines in them, electric drive. It may take awhile for that to materialize, but I think it has to be mandated. My personal opinion is I don't think the economics of electric drive is going to do more than a few percent of the world.

Jl: You know, I bet some of our readers might disagree about that. That's what makes horse-races.

RS: I know they would strongly disagree about why we should have electric... I'm not arguing that we shouldn't have electric, but I believe that the economics of it are going to be very difficult to have as a universal driving vehicle. I believe the fuel cell will be the right answer in the end for an electric drive vehicle because it's an electric generation plant. But I think we have to be pragmatic about that too, and that is, two points. One is: if we have to put into Hydrogen into being, actually you could run a piston-engine car on Hydrogen and it runs just as clean cause it only puts out water as well.

Jl: I've heard that.

RS: So if you have the right fuel, you don't care what the medium is that you burn it in. That's a pure fact of science. If you don't have the Hydrogen, and you have to use gasoline and then a reformer, well the reformer itself has complications of cost and dynamic response, and pollution if it's not done correctly. So, we have a lot of challenges, I don't want to discourage anybody from the challenges, but at the same time, I think there's a pragmatic nature to what we're doing that says we need to continue to optimize what we have available to us to reduce pollution, reduce consumption, and still allow, as long as the U.S. allows freedom of ownership of automobiles, some freedom of the market. There's some places where I think it should be mandated that electric vehicles be used, but not every place.

Jl: You've been more than generous with your time. I can think of two more quick off-beat questions. Turning to completely other alternative energies, for example, there are a couple of really important wind companies here in San Diego, the only comments I've heard about benefiting those technologies was about load-leveling in Solar Energy. Are there any other benefits, because there's a lot of off-grid for example in Baja Peninsula people do a lot of off-grid solar.

RS: What we've done in the past is look at being a temporary energy store for solar cells, especially sun-trackers. So if you're sun-tracking, you're trying to get the maximum exposure by moving your photovoltaic panel into as close direct sunlight as you can, perpendicular to the sun. And what happens on cloudy days is you may drop below a certain threshold of energy generated, and that may be below the threshold to drive the electric motors that actually do the tracking, so after a couple of hours of heavy cloud cover, you may not have enough energy to re-acquire the sun directly, or you may do it inefficiently so you're wasting the energy that you could be sending down the grid. So, what's been proposed, and actually experimented with, is using ultracapacitors as a temporary store, just like you could batteries, the only difference being is it's not a high-maintenance item, it'll last as long as the photovoltaics will so you build it into the system, and then when the sun doesn't shine, like overnight or in a cloudy time, you know on a clock how much time went by so it's pretty easy to just crank over. But you need energy to do that, well you now have some stored energy and you do it efficiently.

Jl: Yeah, if you've got 45 days to half-discharge....

RS: Yeah, if we have 45 days of rain then it's a different problem we're facing, from a historical basis.....

[general all-round pause for laughter]

RS: Let me comment about wind machines by the way. Wind machines actually have an interesting component that we're working with some people on. Hopefully it'll become more prevalent. They need to trim the blades to optimize for the wind. And to trim the blades, some of the blades have little actuator surfaces on them and some of them actually turn the whole blade to optimize...if the wind speed is too high, you can only generate a maximum amount of power, so you'd like to turn the blades to where you're at max power but you're not ripping the motors up and you're not ripping the blades up. On the other hand if you're very low-wind, you'd like to trim the blade to get maximum power for the amount of wind available. And the equations to do that are pretty simple. But the power to do that requires some pretty good power to turn the blade against the wind. And, again, a low-maintenance long-life solution to that is ultracapacitors. Again, batteries could be used, but they, again, require periodic maintenance, somebody's got to check on them, you don't want them failing frequently. Batteries have a certain life in them. And this is a high-power function. It's not used very often, but it takes a lot of current to drive those motors against the force of the wind. So that's another area where we're active.

If we go back to something that would be of great importance to Maxwell and great importance to EV World I think, it's the notion that: Do ultracapacitors play a big role in the future of improving the environment in ways that have to do with reduced pollution, reduced consumption. And it doesn't matter whether it's an electric car, or a fuel cell car, or an internal combustion engine car. In all those cases, we actually play a very efficient role.

We also are a recyclable product. We have aluminum, we have a salt and solvent. The solvent is like paint-thinner, so you can't throw it in your back yard. But we don't have heavy metals, you know the cadmiums and the leads and the other contaminants that we have to live with in the real world but we'd like to reduce to the maximum extent possible. So we offer a fairly safe product. No product is totally safe, I mean you have acids and solvents and everything. We don't have acids, we have solvents for our electrolyte.

But on the other hand, it doesn't matter what medium of car in the future that we end up with, the ultracapacitor serves a very good purpose as a dynamic buffer.

Jl: I like the fact that it's solid state and it helps me with my vehicle reliability. That would be fine with me.

RS: Yes. It's basically a component that can be designed into the car for the life of the car as a power-component for electrical storage as opposed to a maintenance item like batteries. I mean, that's a primary difference. You always need batteries cause you always need some energy stored that's greater than the ultracapacitor has in it, or a fuel cell or some electrical generator.

Jl: You know, you've been really generous with your time and answered an awful lot of questions. I think that this would be a good stopping point.

Times Article Viewed: 8567
Published: 20-May-2001

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