The promise of strong load-bearing materials that can also work as batteries represents something of a holy grail for engineers. This is why a new supercapacitor material, developed by US Vanderbilt University researchers, could prove to be a real game-changer in the energy storage sector.
New supercapacitor material-the potential benefits
The new material could see applications such as a laptop's casing becoming a power source or even house construction materials doubling as batteries.
The researchers etched nanopores into silicon layers, which are infused with a polyethylene oxide-ionic liquid composite and coated with an atomically thin layer of carbon. This process creates small but strong supercapacitor battery systems, which stores electricity in a solid electrolyte, instead of using corrosive chemical liquids found in traditional batteries.
These supercapacitors can store and release about 98% of the energy that is used to charge them, and they hold onto their charges even as they were squashed and stretched at pressures up to 44 pounds per square inch. Small pieces of them are strong enough to hang a laptop from.
Although the supercapacitors resemble small charcoal wafers, they can theoretically be molded into just about any shape, including a cell phone’s casing or the chassis of a sedan.
They can also be charged—and evacuated of their charge—in less time than is the case for traditional batteries.
Supercapacitors are larger than equivalent rated lithium-ion batteries; but when used as part of a structure housing a device; this no longer becomes such an issue.
"Supercapacitors store ten times less energy than current lithium-ion batteries, but they can last a thousand times longer. That means they are better suited for structural applications," says Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Cary Pint.
While the use of silicon in structural supercapacitors may be better suited to consumer electronics and solar panels, the team believes their design will have applications in other materials including carbon nanotubes and metals such as aluminium.
Supercapacitor material can be tailored
Pint explains that this process can be extended to various kinds of materials systems to make practical composites with materials specifically tailored to a host of different types of applications. “We see this as being just the tip of a very massive iceberg.”
Pint adds that potential applications for these materials will go “well beyond neat tech gadgets”. The applications will eventually become “transformational technology” in everything from rocket ships to sedans to home building materials.
Pint also explains that this technology can also help the world shift to the intermittencies of renewable energy power grids, where powerful batteries are needed to help keep the lights on when the sun is down or when the wind is not blowing.
The Vanderbilt University team's work is being supported by grants from the US’s National Science Foundation.