Technology & innovation | Industry, manufacturing

Marchmont’s focus on innovation: Elton’s next gen supercapacitors

9 Nov '11
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

We’ll take a closer look today at Elton, an innovative company from outside Moscow that is working to offer automotive and energy sectors its hi-tech asymmetrical electrochemical supercapacitors. Eco-friendly, priced lower-than-global competitors, triple the service life and a market growing at 30% annually, Elton’s innovation is a project to watch. But being so ahead of the curve has its price—Elton will have to wait until its biggest markets catch up and are willing to pay for future savings.

Moscow regional company Elton is developing new asymmetrical energy-storage supercapacitor technology that the firm says will triple service life to an estimated 15 years. Elton says its product will endure more than a million discharge-recharge cycles, and changing it will take less than a minute.

The amounts of energy the new capacitor stores purportedly surpass those of conventional components “by a factor of ten.”

25% less cost

The benchmark used to determine a capacitor price is $5/kJ. Elton is said to be shooting for a maximum of just over $4.

The supercapacitor’s immediate use is in engine starter systems—especially for new hybrid vehicles. Another key market is the energy sector, including renewable energy, which Elton says will benefit through its next gen buffer power storage.

The player

Set up in 1993-1995 in the Moscow region’s town of Troitsk, Elton rapidly expanded from R&D and small run production, selling capacitors domestically, to becoming an international player. In North America, its products are marketed under the KAPower brand.

It took Elton another nine years to establish itself as a major producer of electrochemical capacitors in Russia.

In November 2010 the company joined the Skolkovo national innovation program outside Moscow and earlier this year received an $8.7m grant from the Skolkovo Foundation to further develop its current asymmetrical supercapacitor project.

A ‘clean tech’ product

Its new supercapacitor is an acid-free ‘clean tech’ product that is based on aqueous electrolytes. This technology not only makes it environmentally safe but also minimizes the hazard of explosion, a recurrent problem with today’s commonly used acid cells.

Unlike conventional capacitors that are hermetically sealed and therefore not designed to bleed off internal gases, Elton says its development has a special valve that eliminates gas build-up, but prevents discharge of any harmful substance.

This and other features, the company says, allow the new supercapacitor to operate at “extreme” temperatures and “without maintenance.”

Saving fuel for urban transport

According to Elton, next gen capacitors are particularly well-suited for start-stop systems in urban transport. Buses, vans and other vehicles that spend a lot of time waiting at traffic lights or in traffic jams waste fuel and are heavy polluters. By decreasing idle engine speed, Elton’s new capacitors will save fuel and reduce harmful emissions.

The company is already working with the new Yo-mobile and this past summer, completed a series of tests on Russia’s innovative hybrid bus, ‘Ecobus’—a vehicle that uses methane to power its electric motor and charge an energy-storage system.

According to Elton, using supercapacitors on the Ecobus resulted in a 40% drop in fuel consumption compared to a conventional gas-driven bus. The tests also validated near-zero greenhouse gas emissions—a result that surpasses the Euro-6 eco-standard—as well as improved consumer characteristics like low noise and vibration.

The capacitor company wants to go beyond buses and is reportedly eyeing manufacturers of subway cars, trams, trolleybuses and even diesel locomotives.

Save now, use later

Another potential market for the new supercapacitors is the energy sector.

Elton has plans to build industrial-sized supercapacitors for buffer power storage at all stages of electricity production from generation to transmission. It believes its new devices will be able to vary consumption at will and cut losses to a minimum.

The Troitsk firm might even develop an energy cost-saving solution for millions of households by allowing people to use its capacitors to take advantage of differing electrical rates. When rates drop at night and on weekends, consumers can store this cheaper energy and then use it during the day when rates are more expensive.

Three-pronged prospects

The global market for supercapacitors is still small, just $500m. But fueled by a sharp rise in hybrid car design and development, experts forecast growth rates to jump by at least 30% a year.

Elton is one of Russia’s five firms developing supercapacitors; the others are reported to be primarily export-focused, leaving the tiny $50m national market largely unexplored.

Analyzing prospects for tapping Russia’s automotive and energy sectors, experts are divided in their assessment of Elton.

The former, by far the faster-growing of the two, is Elton’s best bet. The sector is once again profitable and sales will be immediate; but competing with international majors like the U.S.’ Maxwell, Japan’s Panasonic, S. Korea’s Nesscap or France’s Batscap presents a serious challenge, especially after the RF joins the WTO this coming December with a pledge to lower barriers for overseas companies.

Although selling to the city-funded public transportation market is a very attractive opportunity, waiting for cities to generate enough cash to afford next gen fleets seems years away.

That leaves the consumer market. While we all need electricity, the lesson and promise of solar and other alternative energy systems that ‘save’ money in Russia shows that there’s a long way to go before people are actually willing to pay for it.
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