Environment & Engineering

A new supercapacitor superstar

Published Oct 29, 2020

The latest project to join the Wellington UniVentures incubator is focused on exploring ways to provide energy storage alternatives to batteries—and could potentially disrupt the way that supercapacitors are made today, making them cheaper and more sustainable.

So what are supercapacitors?

“Batteries can hold large amounts of energy, but take hours to charge up,” says Dr Ashwath Sundaresan, Wellington UniVentures’ Senior Commercialisation Manager on the project. “Supercapacitors, on the other hand, are a great alternative to batteries for applications that need energy quickly—such as when accelerating a car.” The problem, he says, is that today’s supercapacitors use highly corrosive electrolytes which are also expensive to produce.

But thanks to Victoria University of Wellington PhD student Fraser Hughson, a solution could now be in sight.

“Fraser was coming to the end of his PhD thesis on water-based electrolytes for batteries when he discovered that his technology could also be applied to supercapacitors—potentially achieving the same voltage as existing supercapacitors, but making them low-cost and non-toxic to produce,” says Ashwath.

Fraser says that what started out as a PhD project on magnesium ion batteries transitioned—“somewhere along the line”—into supercapacitors and electrochemical energy storage. “Professor Thomas Nann was my supervisor, and he is well known for seeing commercial opportunity in research,” he says. “You could say his enthusiasm for getting projects out into the world where they can have impact must have rubbed off on me.”

The Wellington UniVentures incubator programme is aimed at supporting projects that have excellent commercial potential, to help the inventors reach their goals faster.

Ashwath says that in Fraser’s case, this involves wrapping multiple layers of expertise around what’s become known as the ‘SuperCap’ project—including protecting the intellectual property and providing marketing and commercialisation advice.

“Our aim is not only to help Fraser develop a well-rounded commercial offering, but also to help him become a well-rounded entrepreneur.”

Ashwath says that it’s important to help Fraser get the foundations in place now, because the market potential for his technology is immense, and could include electricity generators/distributors and transport operators.

“As electricity generators shift to renewable energy—e.g. sun or wind—the grid can become unstable when either clouds move across the sun, or the wind shifts,” he says. “Supercapacitors can support consistency of supply with quick-store, quick-release energy to manage the baseload, working with ion batteries to achieve the right balance.”

Supercapacitors could also be used to mitigate distributed network issues by ensuring a rapid, uninterrupted, high-quality supply of power goes back into the grid.

Thanks to introductions from Wellington UniVentures, Fraser is one of KiwiNet’s Emerging Innovators—taking part in the programme which provides targeted support to help early stage career scientists become the future innovators of New Zealand.

The Emerging Innovator program also provides some funding, which he will use to carry out market validation research with supercapacitor manufacturers over the next six months.

“Once Fraser knows what the market wants, he will have a better idea of what further work is required to commercialise” says Ashwath. “The next six months will lay the groundwork for the incubator team to identify other areas of wrap-around support that he will need to accelerate his commercialisation programme.”