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The Electric Vehicle of the Future Could be Powered by Supercapacitors

Hybrid Electric Vehicle Race Car, Powered by Supercapacitor
Hybrid Electric Vehicle Race Car, Powered by Supercapacitor

Energy can be stored in a number of ways, from pumped hydro to supercapacitors, but you’d be unlikely to engineer pumped-hydro energy storage into an electric vehicle or smartphone.

On the other hand, there are plenty of small-scale energy storage systems for electric vehicles, smartphones, and laptops. Currently, lithium-ion battery technology delivers the best balance of energy density, durability, and lifespan. In electric vehicles, these traits are particularly critical in, not only offering low-emissions transportation, but a decent enough range and lifespan that would encourage their adoption. After all, what good is an electric vehicle if no one will drive it?

While lithium-ion batteries can take hours to charge, a potential limitation in an electric vehicle, supercapacitors take mere seconds to charge. Also, supercapacitors tend to have lifespans around ten times longer than lithium-ion, another consideration for electric vehicle lifespan. How soon could supercapacitors take over for lithium-ion batteries in an electric vehicle? It’s all a question of energy density, and supercapacitors are already in use, at least in limited applications and testing, by some automakers.

Volvo, for example, has been testing supercapacitor-embedded structural panels as a replacement for the heavy sealed lead acid battery in the engine bay. The result is a lighter vehicle for better fuel economy. The Toyota TS030 race car, a hybrid electric vehicle, employs electric motor-generators backed up by supercapacitors instead of lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride battery packs, a great application because supercapacitors cycle so quickly and hold a lot of energy. The Toyota Yaris Hybrid R concept features 400 hp total power with three electric motors and a supercapacitor bank, yet the fuel economy of, probably, the base Yaris.

Currently, the best supercapacitors offer tens of thousands of cycles more than lithium-ion battery chemistry, can charge and discharge in just seconds, yet top out at just 40% the energy density. Supercapacitors need a little more development before they can replace lithium-ion in an electric vehicle.

Photo credit: Christophe.roques

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