A supercapacitor in every system? Potential is turning to probability

Source: Avnet/Abacus engineers inside article

Written by Ekaterina Rachel, Product Manager, Passive. Instant power, always on, disposable, or not. Traditional battery technologies are being challenged by a relatively new kid on the block, the supercapacitor, and forcing developers across a range of battery-powered applications to examine just what and when power is needed for their system.

Where a battery’s chemistry stores power – usually involving harmful chemicals and toxic metals – capacitors store energy quasi-instantaneously through a combination of electrostatic and electrochemical storage of electrical energy. A supercapacitor has a solid or liquid electrolyte with positive and negative ions between its two electrodes (see below), which creates an ‘electrical double layer’ (accounting for the ‘EDLC’, as supercapacitors are otherwise known). Where a pair of electrons and positive ions or a pair of electric holes and negative ions form between the electrode and the electrolyte, capacitance is created.

A supercapacitor construction

Supercapacitors vs. batteries

Size is the main limiting factor for a supercapacitor; the surface area of the electrodes determines how much power can be stored. Whilst supercapacitors store considerably less power per gram than a battery, their storage capacity is often outweighed by their ability to be recharged over and over. In addition, minimal degradation gives them thousands of times more lifetime than a battery. In practice though, they are often connected in parallel with batteries. One of the most newsworthy applications for supercapacitor/battery combinations is regenerative braking whereby a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) recaptures and reuses the high charging currents generated during deceleration and braking. This energy is stored in a reservoir – either a flywheel or batteries – for later use under acceleration.

Another key characteristic of supercapacitors is their capacity to charge and discharge quickly, which is why they are often used as an energy buffer or reservoir in electrical systems, large and small. As supercapacitors fill a short-term power need, by combining supercapacitor and battery technologies, battery stress can be reduced, extending the service life. Hence why supercapacitors are now found in everything from cars and forklifts, to wind turbines and wearables.

Applications for supercapacitors can be divided into three main areas:

Sizing up supercaps

Some of the largest supercapacitors have high voltages (3.0V and more) and capacitances rated to several thousand farads, such as those used for regenerative braking and power assist for hybrid electric vehicles. At the other end of the scale are low profile devices that provide current of 2 to 3 A to meet the peak power demands of battery-powered consumer devices with current-limited energy sources.

When selecting a device, there are a few questions that specifiers should bear in mind:

With supercapacitor ranges from AVX (featured image), KEMET, Murata and Panasonic, Avnet Abacus is well-positioned to offer advice on device selection. Our line card includes AVX’s cylindrical SCM series connected EDLC modules (right), with capacitance values ranging from 0.47 to 7.5F. Available in 5 and 5.4 V, peak current is 0.86 A to 173.5 A, and ESR is between 4 and 300 mΩ. These can be used alone or in conjunction with primary or secondary batteries to provide extended back-up time, longer battery life, and instantaneous pulse power in applications such as uninterrupted power supplies, camera flash systems, wireless alarms and scanners.

For low profile applications, Murata’s DMT series of general-purpose supercapacitors cater to operating temperatures up to 85°C. With a low ESR of 130 mΩ, 4.2 constant voltage and capacitance range to 470 mF, Murata cites smart meters, door locks, power tools, motor applications and e-paper, as suitable use cases. Meanwhile, the high-power Murata 5.5V DMF series features low impedance and high capacitance in a small, slim package. With a temperature range of -40°to 70°C, the DMF series (below) is suitable for high-brightness LED flash, remote keyless entry, high-power audio and smart meters (especially in cold environments).

Murata’s DMF series supercapacitor

Whilst supercapacitor research focuses on improving electrolyte efficiency, exploring the use of graphene and improving their environmental performance using benign electrolytes, there is already a wide choice of high-performance supercapacitors available today.

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