Powering up energy storage: Estonian tech nominated for prestigious prize
Three Estonian scientists have been nominated for European Patent Office (EPO) prize for developing superior carbon-based materials for the energy storage devices known as ultracapacitors. The invention uses a material called curved graphene, which increases the amount of energy stored by the ultracapacitors. Inventors state their ultracapacitors can charge within 15 seconds, withstand over one million charge cycles, and are free from toxic materials.
Estonian scientists Jaan Leis, Mati Arulepp and Anti Perkson have been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2022 – one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes – for developing superior carbon-based materials for the energy storage devices known as ultracapacitors or supercapacitors.
What are supercapacitors? Supercapacitors and batteries both supply electrical energy to machinery, but while batteries deliver their energy steadily and are more suited to long, regular tasks, supercapacitors are better suited to delivering large, short bursts of energy for functions where power is needed quickly. For example, they are particularly suited for the fast acceleration and breaking in electric cars.
The researchers began to experiment with the carbon-based material at the research institute Tartu Technologies in the late 1990s. At the time, carbon material used for supercapacitor technology was energetically inefficient. Since then, the trio has patented three improvements to their carbon-based material, with the first one being filed in 2001.
What is the invention? Leis, Arulepp and Perkson's invention significantly enhances the power and energy density of ultracapacitors. Scientists state that their supercapacitors can charge within 15 second and withstand over 1 million charges. At the heart of this performance advantage is the patented material called curved graphene, which differs significantly from regular activated carbons used by other ultracapacitor manufacturers. Curved graphene is engineered to have a form similar to a crumpled-up piece of paper, which gives it a higher surface area on the electrode and so a higher density to transmit power.
Their optimized curved graphene is manufactured entirely in Europe and has a high chemical purity and is free of the toxic materials commonly found in other battery/capacitor technology, such as lithium or cobalt. This ensures reliability and limits the environmental impact of the company's ultracapacitors.
"The technology developed by this Estonian team can help our transition away from fossil fuels by improving the performance of alternative energy sources," said EPO President Antonio Campinos, announcing the finalists. "Their success is built upon twenty years of incremental breakthroughs, and highlights how continuously investment in innovation can advance an entire industry such as energy storage."
Leis and Perkson co-founded the Estonian ultracapacitor producer Skeleton Technologies to commercialize their invention. Skeleton Technologies has around 240 employees and is based in Grossröhrsdorf, Germany (manufacturing), Berlin (sales) and Tallinn (R&D and pilot production). The company currently has €1.3 billion worth of commercial agreements and intends to scale up its facilities to be capable of producing 12 million units per year in a fully automated production line.
"We have always had this idea that when we develop something in the lab, it has to have real value," says Leis. "This is a big difference from scientific articles - you always find something new, but is it applicable to real life?"
In 2018, the Skeleton Technologies began testing ultracapacitor-powered trams in Mannheim, Heidelberg, and Ludwigshafen in Germany that resulted in up to 30 percent savings in electrical energy.
The three inventors are one of three finalist teams in the "Industry" category of the Award, which recognizes outstanding inventors in commercially-successful technologies patented by large European companies with more than 250 employees and an annual turnover of more than €50 million.
European Inventor Award 2022
The European Inventor Award honors individuals and teams' contributions towards technical progress, social and sustainable development and economic prosperity.
The finalists and winners of the 2022 edition are selected by an independent jury and will be announced at a virtual ceremony on 21 June.
In addition, the public selects Popular Prize winner from the 13 finalists by voting on the EPO website in the run-up to the ceremony.
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Editor: Kristina Kersa
Source: European Patent Office (EPO)