Tech Briefs

Hybrid Power Management

Ultracapacitors offer numerous advantages over rechargeable batteries.

An engineering discipline denoted as hybrid power management (HPM) has emerged from continuing efforts to increase energy efficiency and reliability of hybrid power systems. HPM is oriented toward integration of diverse electric energy-generating, energy-storing, and energy-consuming devices in optimal configurations for both terrestrial and outer-space applications. The basic concepts of HPM are potentially applicable at power levels ranging from nanowatts to megawatts. Potential applications include terrestrial power-generation, terrestrial transportation, biotechnology, and outerspace power systems.

Instances of this discipline at prior stages of development were reported (though not explicitly labeled as HPM) in three prior NASA Tech Briefs articles: “Ultracapacitors Store Energy in a Hybrid Electric Vehicle” (LEW-16876), Vol. 24, No. 4 (April 2000), page 63; “Photovoltaic Power Station With Ultracapacitors for Storage” (LEW-17177), Vol. 27, No. 8 (August 2003), page 38; and “Flasher Powered by Photovoltaic Cells and Ultracapacitors” (LEW-17246), Vol. 24, No. 10 (October 2003), page 37. As the titles of the cited articles indicate, the use of ultracapacitors as energy-storage devices lies at the heart of HPM. An ultracapacitor is an electrochemical energy-storage device, but unlike in a conventional rechargeable electrochemical cell or battery, chemical reactions do not take place during operation. Instead, energy is stored electrostatically at an electrode/electrolyte interface. The capacitance per unit volume of an ultracapacitor is much greater than that of a conventional capacitor because its electrodes have much greater surface area per unit volume and the separation between the electrodes is much smaller.

Power-control circuits for ultracapacitors can be simpler than those for batteries, for two reasons: (1) Because of the absence of chemical reactions, charge and discharge currents can be greater than those in batteries, limited only by the electrical resistances of conductors; and (2) whereas the charge level of a battery depends on voltage, temperature, age, and load condition, the charge level of an ultracapacitor, like that of a conventional capacitor, depends only on voltage.

HPM offers many advantages over the conventional power-management approach in which batteries are used to store energy:

  • Whereas a typical battery can be charged and discharged about 300 times, an ultracapacitor can be charged and discharged more than a million times. The longer lifetimes of ultracapacitors contribute to reliability; this is especially significant in such critical applications as medical and spacecraft power systems.
  • The longer lifetimes of ultracapacitors greatly reduce life-of-system costs, including the indirect costs of maintenance and downtime.
  • The longer lifetimes of ultracapacitors reduce adverse environmental effects, inasmuch as it will probably never be necessary to replace and dispose of ultracapacitors in most applications, whereas batteries must be replaced frequently.
  • Disposal problems and the associated contributions to life-of-system costs can be reduced because the chemical constituents of ultracapacitors are less toxic and less environmentally harmful than are those of batteries. Indeed, ultracapacitors are somewhat recyclable.
  • Excellent low-temperature performance makes ultracapacitors suitable for storing energy in applications at temperatures too low for batteries.
  • The consistent performance of ultracapacitors over time enables reliable operation not possible with batteries.
  • Unlike batteries, ultracapacitors can be safely left completely discharged for indefinitely long times.
  • Whereas the charge-discharge efficiency in conventional power management using rechargeable batteries is typically about 50 percent, the charge-discharge efficiency in HPM typically exceeds 90 percent.

In an economically important class of applications, HPM can be combined with regenerative braking to increase fuel economy in hybrid electric land vehicles. This concept has been demonstrated in tests of NASA’s Hybrid Electric Transit Bus, in which fuel economy was found to increase by 21 percent when regenerative braking with HPM was used.

This work was done by Dennis Eichenberg of Glenn Research Center. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Electronics/Computers category.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to NASA Glenn Research Center, Innovative Partnerships Office, Attn: Steve Fedor, Mail Stop 4–8, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44135. Refer to LEW-17520-1.

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).

Hybrid Power Management (reference LEW-17520-1) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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