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What Does It Take to Introduce a New Material to the Commercial Ultracapacitor Market?

Attention all materials innovators who are working on new materials for ultracapacitors, here’s a friendly message: If the “value” of the new materials is equal to, or even just slightly lower than that of incumbent materials, there is no chance for adoption. Notice the term value is in quotes. The key to your success lies in your ability to determine the appropriate definition of that value. Clearly, it is a cost-versus-performance tradeoff, but there are many facets of that compromise to consider.

The easiest aspect to judge is low-cost materials. However, lower costs alone won’t necessarily garner design-in, especially if the resulting performance is degraded to the point that the device is no longer useful. At the same time, if the material costs less, we, the ultracapacitor manufacturers, want to know. We are always looking for lower-cost alternatives to our incumbent materials. We can easily advise you on navigating the low-cost side of the value equation.

The more difficult point to consider is where costs for materials are higher than incumbent materials. That is where the value concept comes into play. Don't expect that a small improvement in capacitance or minor resistance reductions will offset higher costs of any magnitude. The cost-benefit curve is not linear. Higher costs do not justify themselves linearly with performance improvement. End users have no tolerance for rising ultracapacitor prices. Once you accept this inelasticity, the biggest challenge is to judge the tipping point when you have a positive value proposition that will outweigh constraints on price. This tipping point is related to overall system cost and reductions in cost of operation. The best advice I can give is to get close to the ultracapacitor manufacturers. These folks will be your best allies, and the ones who can make the most difference in your understanding. Simply put, a materials supplier is not in the position to judge value as accurately as you may hope. Only the person who purchases the ultracapacitor can do that, and materials developers and suppliers are still a couple customer touch points away from the end users.

Ultracapacitor manufacturers are very open to new materials evaluations, discussions and activities. The best chance to make headway with one is to work with him on your value proposition, be able to describe it well and, most of all, demonstrate it. It will be difficult to discuss materials supply around a lab scale plant with years to go before having the resources to scale up to production level. It can be done, but it is more difficult than with a clearly defined pathway to scale in hand. And the scale-up is a big part of the value chain. In order to attract attention to your offering, you must be able to describe the scale-up processes and costs in detail with credible backup information.

There is a reason that commercially deployed ultracapacitor material sets are relatively limited in variety: Simply put, new materials have not met the requirements of the high value proposition required to unseat the incumbents. It’s not about performance; it’s about increasing value at decreasing prices, and that is where most new materials fall short on the path to market.

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