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By Pie r r e M a r s • CA P - X X Lt d

Coupling a supercapacitor
with a small energy-
harvesting source
Supercapacitors store energy and deliver peak power in support of energy har-
vesters. Designers should consider several key issues when pairing them with
small energy-harvesting sources.

S
mall wireless sensors are becoming ubiqui- the load voltage decreases, the load current increases to
tous. Applications for sensors include building achieve the load power. Referring to Figure 1, designers can
control, industrial control, security, location model supercapacitor discharge as
tracking, and RFID. It is much more convenient
and cost-effective to autonomously power these VLOAD=VSCAP−ILOAD×ESR;
sensors with a small energy-harvesting source PLOAD=VLOAD×ILOAD=(VSCAP−ILOAD×ESR)×ILOAD
without expensive wires or batteries that need repeated =VSCAP×ILOAD−ILOAD2×ESR,
replacement.
The environment provides infinite ambient energy, where VSCAP is the supercapacitor’s voltage.
including piezoelectric, thermal, vibration, and photovoltaic This equation yields the equation for the load current:
energy, but at low power, which falls short of the peak power
necessary for transmitting data across wireless networks such ILOAD2×ESR−VSCAP×ILOAD+P=0.
as IEEE 802.15.4 (Zigbee), 802.11 (WLAN), or GSM/GPRS.
A battery or a supercapacitor acts as a power buffer to store Supercapacitor discharge can then be simply modeled in
enough energy to provide the power bursts needed to acquire Excel as
and transmit data. These energy-storage devices charge at low
power and deliver the burst power when necessary. ILOAD(t)=[VSCAP(t)−√(VSCAP(t)2−4×ESR×P)]/(2×ESR);
VLOAD(t)=VSCAP(t)−ILOAD(t)×ESR; and
Sizing the supercapacitor VSCAP(t+dt)=VSCAP(t)−dt×ILOAD/C.
Supercapacitor cells typically operate at 2.3 to 2.8V. The most
efficient and cost-effective strategy is to limit the supercapaci- This calculation is important if the load current times ESR is
tor’s charge voltage to less than the cell-rated voltage and significant compared with the supercapacitor’s final voltage.
store enough energy for your application. In this case, a simple energy-balance approach would make
A simple approach to sizing the supercapacitor is to cal- the supercapacitor’s value too small. This undersizing is likely
culate the energy necessary to support the peak power of to be the case at low temperatures, when ESR is typically two
the application, P, and set this value equal to ½C(V2INITIAL− to three times higher than at room temperature.
V2FINAL), where C is the capacitance, V2INITIAL is the square of The supercapacitor capacitance and ESR should also
the supercapacitor’s voltage just before the peak-power burst, allow for aging. Supercapacitors slowly lose capacitance
and V2FINAL is the square of the final voltage. However, this and increase ESR over time. The aging rate depends on
equation does not allow for any losses in the supercapacitor’s cell voltage and temperature. Designers should select initial
ESR (equivalent series resistance). The load sees a voltage of capacitance and ESR so that the end-of-life capacitance and
VINITIAL−ESR×ILOAD, where ILOAD is the load current. Because ESR can support the applications.

Figure 2 This simple and ef-
VSCAP VLOAD fective charging circuit targets
ESR use in cases in which the
SOLAR
ILOAD Figure 1 Ideal supercapaci- IPV open-circuit voltage of a solar-
C CELL
tor model; capacitance in cell array is less than the su-
series with ESR. percapacitor’s rated voltage.

[www.edn.com] June 7, 2012 | EDN 39

to draw that power at the most efficient point using MPPT. 2012 [www. which prevents the supercapacitor from energy-harvesting sources. requiring a dual-cell super- a constant-power load to the energy source.5V. The circuit in Figure 3 uses the 0 0 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 TLV3011 solar cell because it inte- grates a voltage reference.754V +3 6 + HS130 tor’s voltage. – The energy harvester is like a hose with an endless supply of water fill. Figure tric energy. forward current of less than 10 μA. Figure 2 shows a simple and effec- D1 tive charging circuit for cases in which PANEL VOUT BAT54 0 TO 3. which operates at 5. ICs to tions.2M the energy source’s open-circuit volt- age is greater than the supercapaci. PMG17 POWER 10 rent decreases. Linear Technology.definition they will vibrate when they are operating.edn. regulator is off. The battery charger is typically a dc/dc converter that is The open-circuit voltage is 8. A shunt regulator provides overvoltage protection. which has a limited energy supply and thus would 3000 18 require a series regulator. age. such as piezoelectric or thermoelec. LTC3108. As 2000 PMG17 CURRENT 12 the supercapacitor charges. VON=2. The diode prevents the + R3 100k supercapacitor from discharging back R1 through the solar cell if it goes dark.maximum current into a short circuit. draws short- circuit current from a solar cell.5V. a supercapacitor need not charge at current active-balance circuit ensures even distribution between a constant voltage but charges most efficiently by drawing the the cells. leading to a simple when charging a battery that must charge at constant volt. then the supercapacitor VOFF=2. 1000 6 The supercapacitor always draws the 4 maximum current it can. tor. at 0V. and a low- In contrast to a battery. such as the CAP-XX HZ202. can drive into a short Microgenerators are ideal for industrial-control applica- circuit and directly charge a supercapacitor from 0V. such as monitoring rotating machinery. such as solar cells and microgenerators.78V the open-circuit voltage of a solar-cell LOAD + array is less than the supercapacitor’s VMAX=2. R5 and. the water may overflow. must be able to drive into a short circuit to charge 4 shows the voltage-current characteristic of a microgenera- a supercapacitor. A shunt 2 5 − IPV Q1 regulator is an inexpensive and simple IRLML6401 R2 68k approach to overvoltage protection.Supercapacitor charging BAT54 diode because it has a low forward voltage at low A discharged supercapacitor looks like a short circuit to an currents—that is. so it makes sense capacitor.com] . A microgenerator also mum-peak-power tracking) to most efficiently draw power includes a diode bridge. however. many energy-harvesting sources. depending on the solar CURRENT 1500 POWER (μA) 8 (μA) cell’s voltage/current characteristic. once the supercapacitor fully 1M charges. This circuit uses the 40 EDN | June 7. which is similar to that of a solar cell and which delivers The industry has invested much effort in MPPT (maxi. the cur. If the hose is still run.754V rated voltage.714V 1 IC1 2. regulator. because by interface energy sources. Fortunately. and maximum current the source can sup- ply. with its LT3652. 16 In the circuit in Figure 2. which is analogous to a tor’s voltage. This approach is applicable from discharging back into the generator. it does not matter whether LOAD the excess energy dissipates. If IPV 10M R4 1.charging circuit (Figure 5). Figure 3 If the energy source’s open-circuit voltage is greater than the supercapaci- ing a barrel. and is an open-drain cell so that Figure 4 The voltage-current characteristic of a microgenerator is similar to that of a the output is open-circuit when the solar cell and delivers maximum current into a short circuit. ning once the barrel is full. the forward voltage is less than 0.4F + requires overvoltage protection using TLV3011 26M 4 a shunt regulator (Figure 3). 500 EDNMS4441 Fig 3.1V at a energy source. the 2500 14 supercapacitor. then the supercapacitor requires overvoltage protection using a shunt supercapacitor. draws only MICROGENERATOR OUTPUT VOLTAGE (V) approximately 3-μA quiescent cur- rent.eps DIANE so it charges at the highest possible 2 rate. This situation differs from that of a battery.

the cells redis- LEAKAGE POWERSTOR 1F CURRENT 20 NESSCAP 3F tribute charge among themselves. and time.1F. leakage currents of less than 1 μA. with its BQ25504. the leakage current a supercapacitor for an energy-harvesting circuit. In this case. leading to a simple charging circuit. otherwise.2F. DC GENERATOR VOUT 0 TO 11V VIN=5.edn.2M LOAD – OVERVOLTAGE PROTECTION Figure 5 A microgenerator includes a diode bridge.3 μA after supercapacitors from energy-harvesting sources. and Texas Instruments. 35 CAP-XX GZ115 0. The leakage current settles to an equilibrium Cell balancing value. Depending on the leakage TIME (HOURS) current of the supercapacitor and the operating temperature. 5V in doing so.2M 3. EDNMS4441 Figsider 5. 5V overvoltage state. which depends on capacitance. making them suitable for this current ranges from 5 to 50 μA. The time it takes to settle to the equilibrium Leakage current value decreases with increased temperature as the ions dif- Because some energy harvesters deliver only a few microamps. Supercapacitors can have current to charge from 0V. fuse more rapidly.9M + R3 +1 IGN +3 5 6 470 IC2 4 1 IC1 TLV3011 3 2 4 + 2 − − HZ202 C1 Q1 5 0.15F CAP-XX HS230 1. 2012 | EDN 41 . a cell-balancing circuit is necessary. The 150-mF capacitors such as 5V or 12V. 5V current characteristics.1F. the resistor’s Figure 6 A rule of thumb for equilibrium-leakage-current CAP-XX supercapacitors at value typically ranges from 1 to 50 room temperature is 1 μA/F. Because they MAXWELL PC10 10F 30 MAXWELL PC10 10F are in series.eps testing DIANE the minimum charging current when selecting When a supercapacitor charges. Thus. Designers should con- energy-harvesting applications (Figure 6). these capacitors require a minimum leakage current becomes important. LTC3625 ICs.09F R6 MAX447DEVK 1 nF IRLML6401 200m 49k R2 R9 R5 2. at room temperature is 1 μA/F.35V LOAD + R8 100k R7 R1 R4 10M 2.2 and 0. 160 hours. (μA) 15 NESSCAP 3F AVX 0.25 TO 5. 5V with different voltage-to-leakage- CAP-XX HS230 1. which prevents the supercapacitor from discharging back into the generator. they must all 25 POWERBURST 4F POWERBURST 4F have the same leakage current. Depending on the supercapacitor.com] June 7. one cell may go into an AVX 0. A rule age is greater than the cell-rated voltage require several of thumb for equilibrium-leakage-current supercapacitors supercapacitor cells in series to reach the rated voltage.2F. Circuits requiring that the supercapacitor’s terminal volt- Leakage current is proportional to cell capacitance. decays over time as the ions in the carbon electrodes diffuse into the pores. The simplest balancing 0 circuit is a resistor in parallel across 0 20 40 60 80 100 120 140 160 180 each cell. To POWERSTOR 1F achieve this goal. however. but the leakage current through the balancing circuit is too high for [www. Cells at varying 10 temperatures or aging over time at 5 different rates can exacerbate this problem.2M RL 1. charge in Figure 6 have leakage currents of 0. one of the cells could go into an overvoltage condition because the cells all have 40 CAP-XX GZ115 0. voltage. kΩ.15F slightly different leakage currents. Leakage current increases exponentially with temperature.

for example—is intermittent.ly/IHmuRf. MAX4470 CELL − R3 470 complementing batteries In some applications.5F + impedance of thin-film batteries may reach several SUPERCAPACITOR kilohms at such low temperatures. Australia) and a master’s degree in business admin- Figure 8 This design draws 2 to 3 μA after 160 hours of balancing a 0. for example—then the battery can charge the super- capacitor at low power. not The MAX4470 op amp in the figure has a supply cur. however. in others. In contrast.000 1. when the ambient-energy source—the SUPERCAPACITOR CELL sun.5 VOLTAGE Acknowledgment (A) (V) This article originally appeared on 0.5 event. necessitating the use of a battery. 2012 [www.5 0. then it is more energy- 8).5F For example. 42 EDN | June 7.000. http://bit. This arrangement also means for energy-harvesting EDNMS4441 applications Fig 7.2M temperature. and the supercapacitor can most energy-harvesting applications. the output current in the event that one cell causes a short When a supercapacitor charges from a battery to supply circuit. calls or low-power transmission in cold temperatures. they support them. A better approach deliver the high power bursts. DIANE active-balance circuit (Figure 7). Mars is also a member of the IEEE. 33.000 Pierre Mars is vice president of quality Time (SEC) and application engineering for CAP- XX Ltd. then the device must store energy not just for peak-power delivery but also to support the applica- tion for an extended time.0000001 0. it is more energy-efficient to charge the supercapacitor just before the peak-power event. as it would be at night. the internal 0. there is a critical interval between bursts of balancing a 0. Supercapacitors store energy by physical-charge storage. He has both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engi- ABSOLUTE OP-AMP SUPPLY TOP CURRENT BOTTOM CURRENT POWER CURRENT CURRENT neering from the University of New TOTAL CURRENT BOTTOM CELL VOLTAGE TOP CELL VOLTAGE South Wales (Sydney. or solar panels in winter sunlight. supercapacitors are alternatives to batteries. bursts arrive less often. Temperature performance This interval depends on several factors. a supercapacitor may be unable to store C3 C4 + C2 R2 10 nF 100 nF sufficient energy. This choice is avail- able only if you know beforehand when the peak-power event will 0. The resulting design draws 2 to 3 μA after 160 hours peak-power bursts. If the current can be positive or negative. the self-discharge characteristic of the super- include powering location-tracking units using vibration capacitor.com] . such as battery failure or an external stimulus. Supercapacitor ESR R1 at −30°C is typically two to three times ESR at room 33. so the device can still deliver peak power + C1 even at low temperatures.eps is to use a low-current that the battery never cycles deeply.00000001 0 Author’s biography 0 1000 10.edn. Examples leakage current. including the charge A major advantage of supercapacitors for energy-harvesting that the supercapacitor absorbs before reaching equilibrium applications is their wide temperature performance. To suit a log scale. extending battery life.001 2. for Business Administration (Paris).01 3 occur.EDN 0.00001 1.chemically as in batteries. If the needed peak power Figure 7 Low-current active-balance circuits target use in exceeds the amount the battery can supply—for GSM energy-harvesting applications. 0.5F CAP-XX HW207 supercapacitor (Figure where if the bursts arrive more often.0001 2 CELL CURRENT 0. pacitor to supply the peak-power event.5F CAP-XX HW207 istration from the European Institute supercapacitor. the absolute value of cell-balancing efficient to always leave the supercapacitor on charge. which may be operating in subzero temperatures. In some situations.000001 1 EDN’s sister site. SmartEnergy Designline.2M 0. R3 limits tively infinite cycle life.000 100. and the charge the circuit draws from the superca- transducers. so supercapacitors have an effec- rent of 750 nA and a rail-to-rail input and output. and that is not possible if it is in response to an unpredictable 0.