By Steve Minter
Investment in renewable energy, our political leaders keep telling us, is supposed to result in good-paying American jobs, stimulate old-fashioned American innovation, free us from our dependence on foreign oil and lead to a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing. That’s a tall order for government and industry to fill, even without a recession clinging like a frightened child, but there is evidence that some U.S. companies are up to the challenge.
Take Ioxus Inc., a small start-up with 16 employees located in Oneonta, N.Y. The company was founded in 2006 by parent Custom Electronics to develop and produce ultracapacitors, an electrochemical energy storage device that can augment or even supplant batteries. While ultracapacitors have been available commercially since the late 1970s, the market for these devices has surged in recent years. Compared to batteries, explains Chad Hall, Ioxus’ chief operations officer, ultracapacitors offer high power density, quick charging and discharging, stable operation in a wide temperature range, and the ability to cycle hundreds of thousands of times.
Michael Tentnowski, vice president of marketing for Ioxus, tells those unfamiliar with the technology to think of it like a bicyclist’s water bottle. If the bottle is a battery, you squeeze it and only a little water, or power, comes out. But if the water bottle were an ultracapacitor, power is supplied in a rush as if you cut off the whole lid. Since ultracapacitors come on fast and strong, they are good at providing backup power if there is an interruption, or responding to peak demands.
“The ultracapacitor advantage is it provides for burst power,” explains Hall. “If a factory turns on a large motor, there is a big requirement for peak power. The ultracapacitor can provide that peak power while allowing the fuel cell or grid line or battery to maintain a nice, steady output of energy which increases the life of those products.”
They also are well suited to a variety of renewable energy applications because of their cycle endurance. “As we move to a smart grid, there are a lot of different technologies — wind, solar, wave generation — that are all cyclic,” Hall observes. “At one given point, wind is blowing and then it is not. You need energy storage and the capability to deliver energy when you need it. Almost all the renewable green technologies require an ultracapacitor to provide a real solution for the customer.”
Ultracapacitors hold huge promise for transportation applications. For example, they can be used in hybrid buses to provide initial power as the bus starts up. This allows a relatively small diesel engine to be used to provide running power. When the bus brakes, the ultracapacitors can store regenerative energy. Hall said such an arrangement reduces nitrogen oxide emissions by 75% and increases fuel efficiency by 50%. Similarly, ultracapacitors can be used in hybrid electric cars to boost acceleration and reduce demand on batteries, significantly increasing their useful life.
Ioxus is in a field with such substantial players as Maxwell Technologies, NessCap, EEStor, Nippon Chemi-Con and Power Systems Co. Ioxus has 12 patent applications. Hall says the differentiator for its products is high power density. “We have more capacitance in a smaller area than the competition — typically 30% more capacitance in 90% of the space,” he claims.
Ioxus began commercial production in July. When asked about the view in some quarters that manufacturing in the U.S. faces bleak prospects, Hall, a lean manufacturing advocate, disagrees. “I don’t have a sense that manufacturing in the U.S. is gloom and doom. I think we need to take a step back and get smarter and more creative. When you look at our company, we have created a higher-performing product in the U.S. that matches or beats Asian pricing.” In an innovative technology arena, that is an old-fashioned formula for success.