Anticipating supercapacitors for laptops, tablets and smartphones

Supercapacitors are also improving at an impressive rate and are increasingly being used in ever-wider markets – including (soon) our personal devices.

Tesla headquarters
Magdalena Petrova
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This month, Tesla bought supercapacitor company Maxwell for $218M. This followed speculation that the company was going to create hybrid batteries that would finally eliminate the long charging times that plague electric cars.

The advantage with supercapacitors over batteries is they can consume and discharge their energy near instantly, they don’t put out as much waste heat and, compared to batteries, they handle a relatively unlimited number of charge cycles without degrading. How does a 20-year lifecycle with an estimated drop in capacity of 10% after 10 years sound?

The problem with supercapacitors that keeps them from replacing batteries is that they don’t store power very well for long periods, and they have far lower energy density – they tend to be bigger than batteries. But, the theory goes, if you were to wed a lithium Ion battery and a supercapacitor solution you might be able to get the best of both worlds. You could flash charge the supercapacitor, use it for regenerative breaking and high acceleration and bleed power to and from the battery pack over time.

In a device like a smartphone or laptop, which has batteries, you’d put the supercapacitor in the power supply and leave the batteries alone.

Charging could happen in seconds and the supercapacitors would bleed off the power charging your battery as you drove to your next destination. The issue with a car is you’re talking massive amounts of energy…but with a personal device the energy needs are vastly lower, making the implementation of the technology far less risky but with similar benefits.

Benefits

The same benefit would exist for a smartphone, laptop or tablet as for an electric car. If you were low on power, you’d plug the power brick into the wall, wait a couple minutes, then you could walk away, plug the power supply into your device, and charge at your leisure while using the device almost as if you took the plug with you. This would be huge with people fighting over plugs at conferences, restaurants or airports. You could build the device into backpacks, make it pocketable or ideally purse-size so you’d always have a fast path to power as long as you could borrow a plug for the needed five minutes to power up the power supply.

Zap&Go supercapacitor power supply

The fist attempt I saw to bring one of these to market was by a firm called Zap & Go. They promised a sub-$100 charger that would have all of these attributes and raised around $114K on Indiegogo with a promised delivery in the late-2015 timeframe. Using a graphene-based technology the effort appeared to be well-staffed, well-funded and a game-changer for those of us that wanted a better way to charge.

Sadly, back in 2016 they pulled the plug because they couldn’t get the technology small enough to work within its intended use case. No one is going to carry a power supply that is substantially bigger than the device they’re going to use it on. The firm, which appears to be moving to a far broader set of eventual products (including electric cars), continues to work on this solution and, on their website, they promise eventual electric car charging times of five minutes. This is a ton shorter than the 10 hours a typical electric car like a Tesla requires on a Stage 2 charger.

Tesla

That is why Tesla’s move is interesting, because Tesla will now work to get the solution size down and efficiency up, and – if they pull this off – the related solution should find itself maturing far more quickly. This maturity should again allow it to migrate off cars and onto our smartphones, tablets and PCs, taking fast charging to the next level and making it easier to get a full charge on our devices than it is to charge ourselves up with lunch.

Timeline?

With the progress of companies like Zap&Go and the massive investments by visionaries like Elon Musk, I think we are in a five-year window to permanently end battery anxiety for our devices and electric cars. Since the technology would generally be implemented in the charger, it will be far easier to upgrade our personal devices than it will be our electric cars, which have the chargers built in.

Supercapacitors are also improving at an impressive rate and are increasingly being used in ever-wider markets. In the end, by around 2025, we should have broad applications of supercapacitors eliminating the charge times we’ve come to hate in our personal electronics and electric vehicles.

With battery life on most of our personal devices over 10 hours, coupled that with a five-minute charge time, you get very close to the potential of unlimited electrical power.

That’s worth looking forward to.

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