Last year, researchers at UCLA made a fantastic, albeit accidental, when a team of scientists led by chemist Richard Kaner devised an efficient method for producing high-quality sheets of graphene. This supermaterial, which won its developers the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a carbon material that is known for its incredible strength and flexibility, which is why it is already being considered for use in electronic devices, solar cells, transparent electrodes, and just about every other futuristic high-tech application.
Given the fact that the previous method of producing graphene sheets (peeling it with scotch tape) was not practical, the development of the new production process was already good news. However, something even more impressive happened when Maher El-Kady, a researcher in Kaner’s lab, wired a small square of their high quality carbon sheets to a lightbulb.
After showing it to Dr. Kaner, the team quickly realized they had stumbled onto a supercapacitor material – a high-storage battery that also boasts a very fast recharge rate – that boasted a greater energy storage capacity than anything currently on the market. Naturally, their imaginations were fired, and their discovery has been spreading like wildfire through the engineering and scientific community.
The immediate benefit of batteries that use this new material are obvious. Imagine if you will having a PDA, tablet, or other mobile device that can be charged within a matter of seconds instead of hours. With batteries so quick to charge and able to store an abundant supply of volts, watts, or amperes, the entire market of consumer electronics would be revolutionized.
But looking ahead, even greater applications become clear. Imagine electric cars that only need a few minute to recharge, thus making the gasoline engine all but obsolete. And graphene-based batteries could be making an impact when it comes to the even greater issue of energy storage with regards to solar and other renewable energy sources.
In the year since they made their discovery, the researchers report that El-Kady’s original fabrication process can be made even more efficient. The original process involved placing a solution of graphite oxide on a plastic surface and then subjecting it to lasers to oxigenate and turn the solution into graphene. A year ago, the team could produce only a few sheets at a time, but now have a scalable method which could very quickly lead to manufacturing and wide-scale technological implementation.
As it stands, an electric car with a recharge rate of a few minutes is still several years away. But Dr. Kaner and his team expect that graphene supercapacitors batteries will be finding their way into the consumer world much sooner than anyone originally expected. According to Kaner, his lab is already courting partners in industry, so keep your eyes pealed!
Combined with the new technologies of lithium-ion and nanofabricated batteries, we could be looking at a possible solution to the worlds energy problem right here. What’s more, it could be the solution that makes solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy feasible, efficient, and profitable enough that they will finally supplant fossil fuels and coal as the main source of energy production worldwide.
Only time will tell… And be sure to check out the video of Dr. Kaner and El-Kady showing off the process that led to this discovery: