The Story of an Energy Storage Startup

To decrease the transportation sector’s reliance on gasoline, viable alternatives must be found. Ultracapacitors — energy storage systems with very high energy density — might be a technology that drives Americans into a future free of the pump.

To make ultracapacitors, manufacturers need a component called a carbon electrode, made up of carbon storage materials that look like a black powder. Scientists used to use existing biological materials to come up with carbon storage solutions — they charred coconut husks to get carbon storage material, but even then, they were stuck with what was essentially a coconut husk at the molecular level.

But Dr. Aaron Feaver, while doing doctoral work at the University of Washington, decided plant life might not be the most ideal solution for finding a way to develop carbon materials.  Ultimately, Feaver wanted to develop a way to tailor carbon materials through chemical processes to create man-made materials perfect for energy storage.

In 2003, Feaver’s vision was realized when Seattle-based EnerG2, the company he co-founded with Rick Luebbe and Chris Wheaton, began work on advanced nano-structured materials for next-generation energy storage. During the last seven years, EnerG2 has received financial backing from the public and private sectors, including the U.S. Department of Energy. 

The company manufactures a black powder carbon material that is used to store energy in high-performance batteries and ultracapacitors. Ultracapacitors store and release energy faster than batteries, and they have a virtually limitless lifecycle. What EnerG2 has developed is a process that creates storage materials from scratch, starting with a mixture of various chemicals to create a resin that is dried and heated so that only pure carbon is left. The process allows EnerG2 to control surface structure and pore size in the material, making a purer product that is optimized for energy storage in ultracapacitors.

Ultracapacitors have great potential — in hybrid trucks, efficiency increases 30 percent with an ultracapacitor system installed. This goes a long way toward EnerG2’s overall goal to make gasoline obsolete.

“We take a bottom-up approach to creating our own storage materials instead of relying on a base raw material,” says Chris Wheaton, co-founder and CFO/COO of EnerG2. “It really came out of a desire to disrupt a somewhat static industry by asking the question, ‘If you could get your ideal carbon, what would it look like at the molecular level?’”

EnerG2 is able to tailor its energy-storing material for manufacturers who then put the powdery substance into batteries and ultracapacitors.

Advanced Material Production Could Drive Down Oil Demand

In August, EnerG2 began retrofitting a manufacturing plant in Albany, Ore., to create what will become the world’s first facility dedicated to the commercial-scale production of its synthetic, high-performance carbon materials for ultracapacitors. The $28 million expansion to Oregon was supported by a $21.3 million Recovery Act Advanced Battery Supplier grant through the U.S. Department of Energy. The construction primarily involves getting the interior of the building ready to accommodate EnerG2’s processing equipment and converting the warehouse into a high-tech factory. The company expects the plant’s construction to wrap up February 2012, having created 50 jobs in the process.  After construction, the company estimates it will hire workers for at least 35 long-term jobs as it supports electric and hybrid vehicle ultracapacitor producers with its energy storage materials.

“A significant obstacle keeping vehicle fleets from becoming all-electric is the fact that energy storage is insufficient relative to today’s internal combustion engine,” Wheaton says. “What’s required to make electric vehicles the standard is to improve energy storage and expand the range you can get out of EVs — we think the way to get there is through advancements in materials science that will improve batteries and ultracapacitors to the point where gasoline no longer makes sense.”

To see a great description of how ultra-capacitors work and EnergyG2’s innovative approach to improving their performance, play the video below. 

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This article was reprinted with permission from its original publisher, Energy Empowers: a U.S. Department of Energy blog “capturing the hearts and minds of the people building America’s clean energy economy.”  The mission of Energy Empowers is to put names and faces to the people who work on energy efficiency in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors and renewable projects, including solar, wind, water, biomass, geothermal, hydrogen and fuel cells, all of whom have received support by the DOE.


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