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Ultra-Capacitors in Power Conversion Systems

Analysis, Modeling and Design in Theory and Practice Wiley

Statement of the problem
When charging batteries there is a advantage that capacitors don't have. Usually
the batteries don't start at zero voltage, and even if they do only a tiny amou
nt of charge is required to get them to a large fraction of the open circuit vol
tage. Capacitors often start at zero volts and the voltage is proportional to th
e coulombs of charge. This means that a capacitor charger is very different than
a battery charger. A capacitor charger has to deliver a large amount of current
at a wide range of voltages.
Several Solutions to the Problem
There are two problems that need to be addressed in choosing a power supply to c
harge large supercapacitor banks.
1) All power supplies need voltage and current regulation. Most of the time the
voltage is tightly regulated and the current is free to vary until it maxes out.
A current controlled power supply monitors the current and tries to keep it con
stant by varying the voltage if needed. This means that the output current is mo
nitored and the output current controlled. While most switching power supplies a
re current limited, the way they act to an overcurrent condition varies. Also, t
he limit point is usually beyond the recommended operating range of the supply (
typically 120% of rated power to allow for surges). Common overcurrent behaviors
a) Shutdown. The supply stops delivering power and needs to be power-cycled to r
b) Hiccup mode. The power supply will shutdown, then restart itself. This will r
epeat until either the overload goes away, or a component in the power supply fa
ils from trying. This will gradually add charge to the capacitor bank until it i
s within the voltage and current range of the power supply
c) Foldback. This means that the output voltage is reduced. Depending on the slo
pe of the foldback, the current limit point may also be reduced as the voltage d
rops. Some supplies have a combination of these. For example Meanwell's S-150 se
ries will foldback for mild overloads, and shutdown for larger ones. Foldback is
the closest to what is needed for charging batteries or capacitors. But these p
ower supplies are not designed to foldback until the output current is far beyon
d the rated power. For the S-150 the threshold is about 130% of rated capacity,
so the supply is running hot when it is in current limit. This point can be adju
sted by changing one fixed resistor. I have also used the SP-320 series for batt
ery charging, but needed to add external circuitry to implement current limiting
. The PSP-500 series has an internal pot to adjust the current limit point. This
will also gradually increase the charge and voltage on the capacitor bank, thou
gh the foldback range (or compliance) is rarely sufficient to let it charge a ca
pacitor bank from zero voltage.
2) The second problem, at least for charging supercapacitors, is over what range
of output voltage will the supply deliver continuous power without shutting dow
n or hicoughing. With most batteries, the range of voltage between discharged an
d fully charged is not very wide, so it doesn't pose much of a problem. With cap
acitors, the fully discharged voltage is zero. This is a big problem in that mos
t power supplies usually won't work into the dead short, which is what a fully d
ischarged cap looks like.
The reason for this is because the operating power for the control circuit is us
ually derived from an extra winding on the transformer. While this winding is is
olated from the output, the voltage it delivers is a fixed ratio of the output v
oltage. This ratio is chosen by the designer to deliver a operating voltage of 1
0-12 volts when the power supply is delivering it's nominal output voltage. Depe
nding upon the design, the supply will usually work properly even if this voltag
e varies by as much as +/- 30%. Unfortunately, there is no ratio that will deliv
er any operating voltage when the output is zero volts. We have used two possibl
e solutions to this problem. One is to have a linear post regulator to keep the
switcher output high enough to keep operating when the capacitor is zero. This l
inear regulator would be bypassed as soon as the capacitor voltage is high enoug
h for the switcher to continue directly. The second solution would be to have a
power source for the operating circuitry that is independent of the output volta
ge. There are trade-offs between these for efficiency and simplicity. Of course,
the trade-offs will vary with the actual power supply chosen, it's minimum oper
ating voltage, and complexity of modifications.
PowerStream has experience with chargers for large supercapacitor banks, includi
ng UPS systems using supercapacitors for wide temperature range applications and
intrinsically safe backups.
Capacitor 101
A basic capacitor consists of two metal plates, or conductors (typically aluminu
m), separated by an insulator, such as air or a film made of plastic, or ceramic
. During charging, electrons accumulate on one conductor, and depart from the ot
her. In effect, a negative charge builds on one side while a positive charge bui
lds on the other.
The negatively charged electrons want to join the depleted (positive) side, but
cant cross over that non-conductive insulator (for the most part, anywaythere is s
ome leakage). This separation of positive and negative charges, which want to ba
lance out, or neutralize, each other, creates whats called an electric field. Dis
charging occurs when the electrons are given a path to flow to the other sidein o
ther words, when balance is restored.
Putting the ultra in ultracapacitors

Ultracap diagram courtesy of NREL
Ultracapacitors also have two metal plates, but they are coated with a sponge-li
ke, porous material known as activated carbon. And theyre immersed in an electrol
yte made of positive and negative ions dissolved in a solvent. One carbon-coated
plate, or electrode, is positive, and the other is negative. During charging, i
ons from the electrolyte accumulate on the surface of each carbon-coated plate.
Like capacitors, ultracapacitors store energy in an electric field, which is cre
ated between two oppositely charged particles when they are separated. Recall th
at in an ultracapacitor, we have this electrolyte, in which an equal number of p
ositive and negative ions are uniformly dispersed. And remember that in a capaci
tor, negative charge builds on one side and positive charge builds on the other.
Similarly, in an ultracapacitor, when voltage is applied across the two metal p
lates (i.e. during charging), a charge still builds on the two electrodesone posi
tive, one negative. This then causes each electrode to attract ions of the oppos
ite charge.
But for an ultracapacitor, each carbon electrode ends up having two layers of ch
arge coating its surface (thus, ultracaps are also called double layer capacitors)
, John Kassakian, a professor in MITs Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electron
ic Systems (LEES), explained to me: In effect, an ultracapacitor is actually two
capacitors in series, one at each electrode.
Joel Schindall, another professor in MITs LEES and associate director of the lab,
explained that during discharging, the charge on the plates decreases as electr
ons flow through an external circuit. The ions are no longer attracted to the pla
te as strongly, he said, so they break off and once again distribute themselves ev
enly through the electrolyte.
Measuring capacitance
Surface area makes a huge difference for whats called capacitance, or the amount
of electric charge a device will hold given a certain amount of voltage. Capacit
ance is the key metric for comparing capacitor performance, and its measured in F
arads (named, as Lost fans might appreciate, after the chemist and physicist Mic
hael Faraday).
Now, the Farad is such a huge unit of measurement, its like measuring distance in
light years, said Schindall. So its much more common to see microfarads (one-milli
onth of a farad) and even picofarads (one-millionth of a microfarad).
A capacitor the size of a D-cell battery, for example, has a capacitance of only
about 20 microfarads. But a similarly sized ultracapacitor has a capacitance of
300 Farads. That means, at the same voltage, the ultracapacitor could in theory
store up to 15 million times more energy than the capacitor.
Here is where we run into some of the challenges with ultracapacitors, however.
A typical 20-microfarad capacitor would be able to handle as much as 300 volts,
while an ultracap would be rated at only 2.7 volts. At a higher voltage, the ele
ctrolyte starts to break down. So realistically were talking about an ultracapaci
tor storing about 1,500 times the energy of a comparably sized capacitor, said S
Putting ultracaps to work
For most music, Schindall explained, a high-end audio system with big speakers m
ight do just fine with a 1-watt amplifier. But then the kettle drum comes in, dema
nding a sudden power surge of 1-kilowatt. One solution, Schindall said, is to bu
ild a 1-watt supply, plus an ultracapacitor to handle the peak.