10:51am

Tue October 25, 2011
Tech

Upstate start-up harnesses battery power with a piece of paper

Battery technology has helped untether us all from electrical cords, but there’s a price to being portable.

Batteries are rigid and heavy. They need to be recharged and replaced frequently, and they’re full of toxic chemicals.

That’s why a small, start-up company outside of Albany, called Paper Battery, is working to change the way we store our energy.

Its latest product is made out of paper, but it’s not exactly a battery.

The most problematic piece

The product that Paper Battery is developing is another kind of energy storage device, called an ultracapacitor.

Shreefal Mehta is the company’s President and CEO, and he says it could help solve the love/hate relationship many people have with batteries.

“I think the problem is apparent to everyone around. The moment you pick your phone up, the moment you pick up a portable electronic device, the heaviest, bulkiest, most problematic piece of this device is the battery,” says Mehta.

Although his product, the PowerPatch, is still in development, Mehta says you may soon find it inside computers or cell phones. It’s unique because it’s paper-thin, and printed, just like a piece of paper.

Conrad Howe is one of the company’s lab technicians. His work involves spraying specialized ink onto paper-thin sheets made up of cellulose and carbon.

“I really hope this just takes off because if this works, it can really revolutionize the way batteries and capacitors are made,” says Howe.

Unimaginable possibilities

But right now, an ultracapacitor can’t take the place of a battery. Instead, it works as a support, allowing the battery to have more energy, and last longer.

Anu Cherian is a power and energy storage analyst who studies the ultracapacitor market for the research firm Frost and Sullivan.

“As a stand-alone technology in its current form, it does not have the potential to change the world, however, if used in conjunction with traditional batteries or fuel cells, the possibilities are unimaginable,” says Cherian.

She explains that ultracapacitors help capture and release quick bursts of energy, and they can have a lot of uses. In consumer electronics, for example, they can power the flash of a camera. On a larger scale, they can help kick-start a spinning wind turbine.

Although ultracapacitors are still often very expensive, Cherian says the costs are coming down, and she sees their biggest potential in the field of transportation, especially in hybrid or electric vehicles that make a lot of starts and stops, like a bus or a garbage truck.

“When the truck stops, the ultracapacitor stores the energy it acquires from the brakes, which otherwise would have been wasted,” she says.

That’s why companies, like Paper Battery, are working to make energy storage more efficient.

Right now the company is still housed in the business incubator at Russell Sage College outside of Albany, but it’s already attracting support from both public and private investors.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) just awarded the company a million-dollar grant to help commercialize its products.

Frank Murray heads NYSERDA and says Paper Battery fits in with his agency’s mission to promote clean technologies.

“You can combine the use of the ultracapacitor with some of the other forms of renewable energy such as solar to make the renewable energy work even more effectively,” says Murray.

Mehta adds that ultracapacitors also cut back on the environmental burden of batteries because they make them last longer.

“So this can be a ‘greener’ solution, preventing a lot of the waste stream that happens with batteries that need to be replaced more frequently,” he says.

Mehta says right now he’s in talks with several companies, and hopes to bring the PowerPatch to market by 2013.