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Battery Viral Video: Legitimate or Too Good to Be True?

Bendable supercapacitor material from the Kamen Lab | Screen capture from The Super Supercapacitor, Brian Golden Davis

[Update: UCLA has announced more good news about this discovery. Read here.]

There's a video making the viral rounds describing a potential energy storage device that seems way too good to be true: a high capacity "battery" made in an almost absurdly simple process, which offers the prospect of super-fast charging of everything from smartphones to electric cars, and which can be safely composted at the end of its useful life.

Despite the video's recent popularity, this isn't breaking news: it's a year old. But the promise of this new technology is legitimate. It's also pretty awesome.

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Here's the video that's making the rounds, produced late last year by Brian Golden Davis; a finalist in the $200,000 GE FOCUS FORWARD Filmmaker Competition that's been given a serious boost in visibility by Upworthy:

The capsule summary: A UCLA team led by Richard Kaner, PhD. is developing graphene supercapacitors for possible routine use as energy storage devices. Graphene is a polymer of pure carbon which in its basic form consists of a flat sheet of hexagonally bonded carbon atoms. Graphene is an extremely conductive semiconductor that has been the object of research lately for potential use in supercapacitors, which are electrical energy storage devices that have often been suggested as an alternative to batteries.

Instead of making chemical changes in a storage medium, as batteries do, supercapacitors literally just store electrons in positively charged sections of their molecular structure. This means that they can be charged almost as quickly as you can feed power into them. It also means that unless the semiconductor used in the supercapacitor has loads of surface area for the electrons to stick to, the amount of power a supercapacitor can store -- its "energy density" -- is fairly limited.

Graphene has an incredibly high surface area for startlingly small amounts of material: more than 1,500 square meters per gram. That's loads of electron parking spaces. It's also flexible and relatively durable for something essentially made of charcoal. But graphene has been difficult to work with: until recently, it was cumbersome to create sheets of graphene that could be used in technical applications like supercapacitors.

The breakthrough described in the video -- and in this paper in the March 2012 issue of Science came when Kaner Lab researcher Maher El-Kady found a way to make high-quality sheets of graphene using technology most of us have in our homes already.

What El-Kady did was... well, we'll let you find out the way we did by watching the video. It's science at its best. Remember to push your jaw back up into place. Or you could read the Science abstract for a spoiler.

One of the most promising aspects of this new energy storage medium? It's pure carbon. It's non-toxic, more or less, and biodegradable. It's also a substance that's incredibly abundant and cheap: in fact, we could conceivably collect its source material by pulling that pesky, overabundant CO2 out of the atmosphere to use as a storage medium for our renewable energy. Compare that with chemical storage batteries, even the most benign of which are best treated as hazardous waste when they reach the end of their useful lifespan. As Ric Kaner points out in the video, graphene could go into your organic garden's compost pile.

Commercial applications are likely a couple of years away even if Kaner's team doesn't stumble upon a glaring technical downside to graphene as an energy storage medium, but even so, this is the kind of science that gets ReWire all charged up. Even a year after it's published.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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