Not many success stories start with a six-person Estonian research team, but that was the humble beginning of Skeleton Technologies, the company behind the world’s most advanced supercapacitors – a high power energy storage technology.
In those early days, despite little money in the bank, the team held some crucial intellectual property: ‘curved’ graphene – the closest anyone has come to a ‘perfect’ version of the wonder-material, and a huge jump forward for supercapacitors.
Skeleton’s commercially-minded co-founders were inspired to buy the IP. They joined the researchers, founding Skeleton in 2009, since when, projects with the European Space Agency, Horizon 2020 and InnoEnergy have put the company on the cusp of revolutionising the supercapacitor industry.
A material difference
Like batteries, supercapacitors store and discharge electrical energy. But whereas a battery stores a lot of energy, charging and discharging it slowly, a supercapacitor holds less but charges and discharges it rapidly.
The technologies are often complementary. “Imagine an electric car,” says Egert Valmra, Programme Director at Skeleton: “While the battery stores a large amount of energy to be discharged gradually, the supercapacitor gives that burst of acceleration when needed.”
When first made commercially viable in the early 2000s, supercapacitors relied on materials from organic precursors – as most of the market still does. Nowadays, Skeleton’s nanoporous curved graphene offers far superior performance to its competitors.
“We’re still the only company taking this approach. What we can produce today is roughly four times as powerful and stores twice as much energy as our next best competition,” argues Valmra.
Skeleton’s challenge has always been how to produce its world-leading technology at scale.
A breakthrough came in 2011 when the European Space Agency chose Skeleton to investigate how different versions of the materials could be produced and would behave in different environments.
In 2012, Skeleton graduated to small-series manufacturing and by 2014 it could produce roughly 1,000 units per month with a variety of target applications.
And last year, Skeleton completed construction of a new German manufacturing facility capable of producing 4 million cells per year.
“The key year for us though, was 2014, when we started working with InnoEnergy and Horizon 2020,” says Valmra.
“InnoEnergy helped in a number of ways,” says Valmra. “Obviously, funds are very important for anyone looking to scale up a scientific breakthrough.”
And that’s exactly what the funds were used for – a research project designed to overcome the challenges of producing curved graphene at scale.
“Just as important was InnoEnergy’s network. We’ve found several prospective clients and some of its member companies have become valuable partners.”
Onwards and upwards
With the research project’s successful conclusion in late 2017, Skeleton expects to switch its German mass-production facilities to making its next-generation supercapacitors.
“From that, the power and storage capacity of our cells will eclipse competitors by orders of magnitude and will make many new applications possible,” says Valmra.
Most exciting are applications in the automotive sector, where making the supercapacitor-battery combination really work enables huge efficiency improvements in electric vehicles.
“When Skeleton is mass-producing its next-generation supercapacitors, it’ll be a seismic shift for a lot of industries and you can see a clear leader in clean energy innovation emerging,” says Diego Pavia, CEO, InnoEnergy.
Most recently, Skeleton has unlocked a €15m loan from the European Investment Bank as it continues to scale its technology and ambitions.
“When we talk to people, there are three names that instantly catch their attention,” says Valmra. “The European Space Agency, Horizon 2020 and InnoEnergy. InnoEnergy has been instrumental in getting us to where we are today.”