Whatever you do, don’t call it a battery.
A research group at the University of Texas at Austin has taken a carbon-based nanomaterial called graphene, and developed it into a device that has the potential to vastly improve upon the energy storage capacity of batteries. Reportedly, graphene could also double the current maximum storage capacity of the group of battery alternatives known as ultracapacitors.
If the research group’s findings bear out when applied to reality, it could mean a complete phase change in the way we approach energizing not only our transportation sector, but our entire energy infrastructure.
According to Rod Ruoff, a mechanical engineering professor and the group leader, graphene ultracapacitors work in the same way that other ultracapacitors do, only with greatly increased storage capacity:
“Electrical charge can be rapidly stored on the graphene sheets, and released from them as well for the delivery of electrical current and, thus, electrical power. There are reasons to think that the ability to store electrical charge [on the graphene sheets] can be about double that of current commercially used materials. We are working to see if that prediction will be borne out in the laboratory.”
The graphene sheets are one atom thick and have a ridiculously large surface area — equal to an entire football field of surface area in less than a gram of graphene. It is this huge surface area that allows graphene to store an exceptional amount of charge on the sheets.
By now, many people who are interested in the future of transportation and alternative energy have heard about ultracapacitors — the most glorious of game-changers. And, chances are, if you’ve heard about ultracapacitors you’ve heard of EEStor and its relationship with ZENN Motors.
But while it’s true that EEStor is the loudest of the poster children for a burgeoning group of ultracapacitor dabblers, in a way, its publicity, secrecy and lack of data have given the ultracapacitor a kind of dubious credibility.
This is an unfortunate state of affairs because there are many others who are doing research on, and developing technology for, ultracapacitors, and whose research has appeared in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented in public forums.
In many ways, their work is what truly lends credence to the ultracapacitor’s claim to game-changing status because they’ve chosen to lay their work bare for all to see. Compare that to the near mythical EEStor’s clandestine deals with gigantic military organizations and small, seldom-heard-from electric car start-ups, and it’s no wonder people doubt the promise of ultracapacitors.
For those that are in the dark about what an ultracapacitor is, here’s a quick run down. The current method of storing electricity for later use is a battery that runs using some kind of chemical reaction (lead-acid, lithium ion, nickel metal hydride, etc.) — this is what makes them “batteries” by definition.
As an electrical energy storage device, the ultracapacitor works by storing a charge on microscopic sheets of various types of materials that are stacked together in a storage device.
While it’s true that advances in traditional battery technology are making leaps and bounds right now, the benefits of ultracapacitors over batteries are numerous, and include the ability to store and release charge extremely quickly (think 5-minute “fill-ups” at the energy station), as well as store huge amounts of charge relative to the size and weight of the device (think 500 mile trips on a power train that weighs about the same as a traditional engine and gas tank).
If I were a betting person, I’d lay the future of transportation on electric vehicles powered by ultracapacitors that provide a 500 mile range on a 5 minute “fill-up” and don’t cost much more than a gas or diesel vehicle you might buy today. Sound like a fantasy? I sure hope it’s not.
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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons