Power Electronics

The Next Hybrids May Be Industrial Strength

Once considered exotic, hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) are now very much mainstream, if not yet dominant, in the consumer automotive marketplace. In a recent study of the HEV market, The Freedonia Group forecasted that worldwide demand for these vehicles would rise from 227,000 cars in 2005 to 1.58 million in 2010, and then to 3.9 million in 2015. But the hybridization of vehicle technology is not limited to light vehicles; hybrid electric drive trains also should make an impact on buses, trucks, trains and various types of heavy industrial equipment.

Already component makers have begun to target these markets. For example, late last year ultracapacitor manufacturer Maxwell Technologies introduced a series of 125-V ultracap modules that serve as energy-storage building blocks for commercial and industrial HEVs. These modules combine capacitors with cell-balancing circuitry, monitoring and fan cooling, and are ruggedized to withstand harsh environments and high duty-cycle operation. Multiple modules can be linked in series for voltages as high as 1500 V.

These capabilities enable the ultracap modules to provide on-board energy storage for electric rail vehicles. The modules can be used to store braking energy as trains come into a station, and that energy may then be used to help trains accelerate as they leave the station. They can provide a similar benefit in hybrid buses.

Although regenerative braking is also used in consumer automotive designs, those HEVs typically rely on batteries rather than ultracaps for energy storage. According to Maxwell, ultracaps may be a few years away from use in light vehicles, until the time comes when they have dropped to a price point that's acceptable in cars.

Meanwhile, industrial utility vehicles and construction equipment present interesting opportunities for ultracaps and other HEV components. Bobby Maher, Maxwell's director of business development, comments, “The hybrid crane is a new application we're seeing as many ports are seeking cleaner systems. In hybrid-type cranes, all the lifting and lowering is powered by ultracaps, which provide short-term peak demands.”

Like buses, these applications employ diesel engines, which are then adapted to hybrid electric systems. And given the large number of diesel trucks used in transportation and construction, it's possible to envision many other uses for HEV technology.

Though not hybrids in the usual sense, fuel-cell forklifts also present another opportunity for ultracaps to provide peak-power energy storage. In these applications, the fuel-cell plus ultracaps combination replaces lead-acid batteries and eliminates the lengthy recharge times associated with battery-powered forklifts. As with other types of industrial hybrids, the forklifts will require power-management components and circuitry, and so represent areas where innovative power components may shine.

Because all of these commercial and industrial applications are just emerging, it's hard to gauge the size of these markets. However, overall market data for the different types of vehicles suggests the possibilities. For example, according to The Freedonia Group, 286,000 buses were sold worldwide in 2005 and that number is expected to reach 352,000 in 2010.

The same firm also provides data for material-handling equipment, which includes industrial trucks and lifts, conveyers, hoists and cranes, though this data is expressed in revenue. According to The Freedonia Group, these types of equipment accounted for $93.8 billion in sales last year, a figure that is expected to rise to $117 billion in 2010.

Though these market figures do not indicate meteoric growth for buses and industrial equipment, the opportunities in these applications for hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles to take market share away from conventional technologies are certainly significant. Consequently, these applications will continue to fuel development of ultracaps, batteries and other energy-storage components, as well as high-voltage/high-power semiconductors, power converters, motor drives, electric motors and numerous other components.

Because performance often trumps cost in the workplace, commercial and industrial applications offer an excellent proving ground for hybrid vehicle technology. In effect, industrial equipment manufacturers may do much of the “heavy lifting” of testing out components and systems that, ultimately, will make their way into hybrid cars.

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