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Ultracapacitors: The Next Big Thing in Energy Storage?

We've all heard of the battery, of course -- but how many of us have heard of the ultracapacitor? I'm guessing that's a pretty small slice of the audience, so I'm pleased to say that that's about to change when you listen to my conversation with Mark McGough, CEO, of Oneonta, N.Y.-based Ioxus, the world's top-tier producer of ultracapacitor-based energy storage systems.

A veteran of the alternative energy space, Mark has been at the helm at Ioxus since 2010. He talked ultracapacitor functionality, applications, and why ultracapacitors are being touted as the next big thing in energy storage. Even Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame has indicated that ultracapacitors will be the future of the electric car. Who knew?

So what exactly is an ultracapacitor? To say that it is a battery on steroids is oversimplifying things, but they do, indeed, more or less look like a battery, are more powerful than a battery, and can be charged and discharged up to a million times and in just a matter of seconds -- obvious advantages over battery technology. They basically store and release energy quickly, which in the world of renewable energy is rapidly changing the energy storage landscape.

When paired with a battery (or by itself) they are the power on board allowing manufacturing equipment, buses, passenger cars, wind turbines to achieve performance that they could never have achieved with battery technology alone. On hybrid buses, for instance, ultracapacitors are pivotal in making them cleaner and more fuel-efficient by providing propulsion. On wind turbines they provide the adjustment of the blades in different wind conditions allowing for more efficient energy harvesting.

Although the ultracapacitor market is worldwide, the market for Ioxus (and most likely its competitors) is still primarily overseas in China and Japan. In fact, two-thirds of Ioxus products are shipped to those countries. Mark threw out this astounding fact: China is putting up wind turbines at a rate of one every 90 minutes around the clock. China is also in the throes of putting a fleet of 300,000 hybrid buses on the road as well.

Although the lion's share of products are still shipped overseas, the U.S. has secured a leadership position in energy storage and most definitely in the world of ultracapacitors. Mark doesn't see that changing because the U.S. is churning out the most innovative technology entrepreneurs and materials scientists in the world and heavily investing in research and development.

And this translates into good news on the job front. In the fall of 2010, when Mark came on board at Ioxus, there were 19 employees. Now they have 82 and it's about to get even higher. And I gathered from our conversation that this is a pretty standard trend in the ultracapacitor /energy storage world.

So will ultracapacitors be part of our every day language in the next 5-10 years? They may not roll of the tongue like a battery per say but what is certain is that the technology is getting better every day and that with universal increased commitment to renewable energy, energy storage becomes ever essential. We may not ask for ultracapacitors by name now, but if Mark has anything to say about it, we will very soon.

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