San Diego Business Journal

Maxwell Technologies, Inc., a San Diego-based developer and manufacturer of innovative energy storage and power delivery solutions, has a goal: to be "a pod of whales in a big ocean, instead of minnows in a tub."

And Richard Smith, the executive vice president for strategic business development, says the company might be on track with the introduction of its D Cell Boostcap Ultracapacitor.

Billed as the first standard-sized ultracapacitor on the market, the product , an alternative to batteries , is designed to provide lower-cost, low-maintenance, environmentally friendly and reliable energy delivery for a variety of applications, including transportation, renewable energy, consumer electronics, space and telecommunications industries, he said.

"It doesn't store as much energy, but it's not about storage," Smith said. "It has a significant amount of energy, several thousand more times the energy. It can deliver in seconds. The rate is the issue."

For instance, he said, picture a 1-gallon jug of water. When you pour it out of a spigot, it comes out slowly, but with the ultracapacitor, it may be only the size of a cup, but you can dump that water out instantly.

"They don't tend to break down like batteries with use," said Smith. "They have a very long life and are very efficient. In cold weather, they still work just fine."

In other words, if you live in the Snow Belt, you wouldn't have to carry your car battery inside for the night and warm it by the stove.

Happy Customer

One satisfied client is Tom Bartley, the manager of new business for San Diego-based ISE Corp., which supplies gasoline, diesel and hydrogen hybrid drive systems for transit buses. Its literature sings the praises of Maxwell ultracapacitors for their ability to get the most out of braking energy and surge power, and their ability to last longer and require less maintenance than batteries.

"It's been convenient for us to use Maxwell, because they're so close by," said Bartley, "but we use them because they provide a very good product.

"They have a lot of creative people looking at applications that can mean overall savings. Energy storage is a critical part of all hybrid electric drives. The ultracapacitor is the best choice beyond batteries for the solutions we have."

Hybrid vehicles, windmills, fuel cells and automated utility meter reading systems, among other devices, need lots of power quickly, said Smith, but until recently the capacitor technology was limited and expensive. Standardizing the size makes all the difference, he said.

"By standardizing our ultracapacitors, we are reducing manufacturing costs by 50 percent," Smith said.

Another advantage, he said, is their ability to recapture wasted energy.

"If you use batteries, you can't capture all of that energy," said Smith, "but with capacitors, you can capture 95 percent of it."

Apples And Oranges

The D cell ultracapacitors are priced at $15 each in quantities of $1,000, and $10 in higher volumes. But comparing the prices with standard batteries isn't easy.

"It's really apples and oranges," said Mike Sund, the vice president of communications and investor relations for Maxwell.

The D cell ultracapacitor is more expensive than an alkaline flashlight battery the same size, he said, but less expensive than an advanced rechargeable battery, such as lithium ion.

"The way design engineers look at it is that if they need power , a fairly small amount of energy delivered quickly, as in a hybrid car , ultracapacitors generally would be the most cost-effective choice," Sund said. "On the other hand, if the device or system needs a sustained flow of energy over an extended period of time , like a flashlight , a battery would be the most cost-effective choice.

"If batteries are used for power, you need a lot of them, so a battery solution would be expensive, large and heavy," he continued. "Same with ultracapacitors: If what you need is energy, you would need a lot of ultracapacitors. For that reason, many applications combine batteries and ultracapacitors to complement each other in an optimized solution."

As for projected revenue on the new product, Sund said that the target on ultracapacitor sales is to generate gross profit margins in the range of 30 percent to 40 percent.

But, said Smith, "We don't do this to make a fortune. It used to be that no one went into technology to make a fortune, but to make things, for the fun of it. They tend to have a strong belief in something and nurture it."

Maxwell, which employees 115 employees at its San Diego headquarters, isn't hording the technology, but licensing it to such companies as Honda and others in Germany and China.

"We want to proliferate and produce as fast as we can," he said. "Our belief is that in order to be a dominant option, you can license and proliferate and have the chance of owning the market. If we have long-term agreements, we will give them access to some of our patents, but not the core technology. Our belief is that we will prosper by letting the market grow."

Not the usual strategy used by smaller companies, said Smith, adding: "We are taking the large technology model. That is the fastest way to let the market grow."

And one way to help Maxwell become those whales in a big ocean.