New energy storage solution space-bound

The European Space Agency (ESA) has chosen a new energy storage technology for possible orbit in 2018 which is expected to cut mission costs and improve energy efficiency.

The chosen ultracapacitor technology is also beginning to be used within the automotive and renewable energy markets to provide green and cost-effective energy storage.

Developers Skeleton Technologies have developed an energy storage method that stores energy in an electric field using ‘curved graphene’. The ESA will use the energy storage in space to provide surges of power on satellites and other spacecraft, and provide a continuation of energy when spacecraft are unable to harvest energy with solar cells from the sun. 

“Ultracapacitor technology has the potential to increase mission safety while reducing mission costs,” said ESA PECS manager Bernard Zufferey. “Skeleton Technologies’ SpaceCap cells will allow us to package a large amount of power into a very small space, creating opportunities for new applications.” 

Big savings

The technology is 60 times lighter than the batteries they will replace. As every pound of weight sent to space costs $9,000, the ultracapacitors are expected to cut mission costs.

Although the current lithium-ion batteries can store more energy than the ultracapacitors, the ultracapacitors are 30 times more efficient, can charge almost instantly, require less frequent replacement, and deliver significantly more power for weight compared to batteries.

Using ultracapacitors for tasks such as adjusting antennae and moving solar arrays will considerably reduce the amount of weight and room required for energy storage, so the new technology is expected to achieve significant efficiency savings for the ESA.

Skeleton Technologies CEO Taavi Madiberk said: “This deployment will see ultracapacitors used in the European space programme for the first time, solving a key challenge in space transportation by reducing weight and cost.

“[The deployment] will provide an extremely high profile showcase for our technology’s capabilities at the same time as we see rapidly increasing customer traction on the ground, from the motorsports industry through to renewable energy applications.”

Storage challenge

The next stage of the project, which started in 2011, will involve advanced space-like environment testing of the ultracapacitors, where the SpaceCap cells will be trialled under a range of conditions including in a vacuum, at working temperatures and radiation levels before being certified for space travel.

Space programs proportionally contribute an astronomic percentage – 1% – of total ozone depletion attributed to human causes due to burning of gasoline during rocket launches and the reactive gases emitted by rocket engines that cause ozone molecules to break apart. 

Other energy storage projects currently in development that could potentially revolutionise the industry include a hybrid-Flywheel power storage plant in Ireland and an ultra-fast charging and durable aluminium-ion battery developed by Stanford University earlier this month.

Lucinda Dann

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