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Supercapacitor storage breakthrough aims to scale

The UK’s drive to shift to a cleaner energy mix has been driven by government decisions about where to invest, including for energy storage. While this mode helps established technologies expand, it does little for innovation.

“There’s a need to find people who look outside the box in their thinking, it requires individuals,” said Superdielectrics CEO Jim Heathcote. “When you have a committee, there’s a need to feel safe with the decisions.”

For innovation to have a chance, you need to “pray a lot and be lucky”, Heathcote explained. Superdielectrics launched a new energy storage technology in March.

Energy density

The Faraday 1 offers a means to store power while not requiring any rare earths. “Once you’ve worked out how to do it, it is reproducible and scalable,” Heathcote said. “There’s no cobalt, no lithium, no nickel. It’s highly recyclable and it’s low cost – and it’s about 50% water.”

The company acknowledges that lithium-ion batteries offer better energy storage per kg and better efficiency. The Faraday 1 device, though, out performs these li-ion batteries in terms of cost, safety and recyclability, it claims.

“We don’t have the supply chain issues of li-ion batteries. We should be able to mass produce competitively quite easily, Heathcote said. The company sees lead-acid batteries as its nearest competitor, claiming to match the energy storage – while charging 10 times faster.

Speaking at the Faraday 1 launch, Professor David Fermin said it had “energy density comparable to some of the existing technologies, like lead-acid or nickel-cadmium batteries, but has 100 times more power. They can deliver that energy 100 times quicker.”

Superdielectrics appointed Professor Marcus Newborough in May 2023. At the launch in March, Newborough flagged the variability in supply and demand for power – and how energy storage could bridge the gap.

“Our IP is based on crosslinked hydrophilic polymer materials,” Newborough said. “The polymers give us a platform on which to innovate.”

Innovation station

The path to the Faraday 1 was not straightforward. Heathcote had previously served as CEO of ITM Power. “I’ve been working on the great problem of storing renewable energy for the last 25 years. It has to be cost effective.”

ITM broke through into hydrogen production through proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis. Heathcote said hydrogen production posed other challenges, around pressures and safety.

“The business model [at ITM] was to go public and then build a pilot production line.” Superdielectrics’ technology is “much more advanced than ITM in 2006”.

The launch of the Faraday 1 demonstrates the company’s next step. Attempting to compete with a Chinese manufacturer building li-ion batteries is “never going” to work, he said, given the low cost of labour in China and control of strategic minerals.

The Faraday 1 energy storage device from Superdielectrics
Superdielectrics’ Faraday 1

“What we’re doing has never been done anywhere on the planet before. I remember talking to our investors in 2015, when I said, ‘the good news is we’re now working outside the textbooks’.”

Superdielectrics initially launched with a focus on advanced contact lenses. In 2016, following university tests, the company announced that it had made “one of the great breakthroughs in energy research technology”.

It has continued to invest in R&D. “We’re still working on a pure supercapacitor. But we’ve also found these materials have exceptional uses in a thing called a hybrid supercapacitor. It stores some of the energy in electric fields and some of it chemically.”

Growth case

Superdielectrics sees the initial use for its device in home energy storage, forklifts and electric bikes. Going by the various subsidiaries listed to the company, it sees potential expansion into trains, ships, grid management and aircraft.

Heathcote noted the importance of the prototype in demonstrating the company’s resolve. Superdielectrics has a much stronger hand for “real commercial talks” with a device in hand. Interested companies can test and verify the model, backed up with tests from the universities of Bristol and Surrey.

“Otherwise it’s all hot air. Most claims in the battery technology area have struggled and the technology just doesn’t arrive in the marketplace.”

Superdielectrics did consider an IPO a couple of years ago but the timing was bad, with the market turning against “green” stocks, including ITM.

The capital markets remain an option for growth, Heathcote said. Superdielectrics raised £17.2 million in 2020.

The other route would be signing up a strategic or commercial partner. The company has been in discussion with major corporates.

“Obviously, if we’re going to succeed, we’ll either, in my opinion, we’re going to have to grow very fast or work with other companies. I have tried to keep the technology in the UK, just as I did with ITM.”

Over the next 12 months, Superdielectrics aims to both improve its technology and grow as a company.

“As the energy density improves, as long can continue to do that, it’ll be easier and easier and easier to raise money or get a corporate partner. And we should, by the end of this year, have left lead acid battery in the rearview mirror.”

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