More Good News About The 'Scientific Accident That May Change The World'

Graphene supercapacitors | Photo: UCLA

That battery life video that had gone viral due to a recent post on UpWorthy (and which we told you about Tuesday) now has an update. We told you that researchers at Ric Kaner's lab at UCLA had found a way to make a non-toxic, highly efficient energy storage medium out of pure carbon using absurdly simple technology. Today, we can report that the same team may well have found a way to make that process scale up to mass-production levels.

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The recap: Graphene, a very simple carbon polymer, can be used as the basic component of a "supercapacitor" -- an electrical power storage device that charges far more rapidly than chemical batteries. Unlike other supercapacitors, though, graphene's structure also offers a high "energy density," -- it can hold a lot of electrons, meaning that it could conceivably rival or outperform batteries in the amount of charge it can hold. Kaner Lab researcher Maher El-Kady found a way to create sheets of graphene a single carbon atom thick by covering a plastic surface with graphite oxide solution and bombarding it with precisely controlled laser light.

English translation: He painted a DVD with a liquid carbon solution and stuck it into a standard-issue DVD burner.

The result: Absurdly cheap graphene sheets one atom thick, which held a surprising amount of charge without further modification.

That work was reported a year ago; we mentioned it due to the video virally making the rounds this week. Late Tuesday, UCLA announced that El-Kady and Kaner have a new article in press, in the upcoming issue of Nature Communications, describing a method by which El-Kady's earlier, slightly homebrewed fabricating process shown in the video can be made more efficient, raising the possibility of mass production. As the authors say in their article abstract,

More than 100 micro-supercapacitors can be produced on a single disc in 30 min or less.

El-Kady and Kaner found a way to embed small electrodes within each graphene unit, and place the whole thing on a flexible substrate that allows the supercapacitor to be bent. The team is already claiming energy density comparable to existing thin-film lithium ion batteries.

In the video we shared Tuesday, Kaner says that this technology, if it pans out, offers possibilities like a smart phone getting a full day's charge in a second or two, or an electric car reaching "full" in a minute. This week's press release from UCLA offers other intriguing possibilities:

The new micro-supercapacitors are also highly bendable and twistable, making them potentially useful as energy-storage devices in flexible electronics like roll-up displays and TVs, e-paper, and even wearable electronics. The researchers showed the utility of their new laser-scribed graphene micro-supercapacitor in an all-solid form, which would enable any new device incorporating them to be more easily shaped and flexible. The micro-supercapacitors can also be fabricated directly on a chip using the same technique, making them highly useful for integration into micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) or complementary metal-oxide-semiconductors (CMOS). As they can be directly integrated on-chip, these micro-supercapacitors may help to better extract energy from solar, mechanical and thermal sources and thus make more efficient self-powered systems. They could also be fabricated on the backside of solar cells in both portable devices and rooftop installations to store power generated during the day for use after sundown, helping to provide electricity around the clock when connection to the grid is not possible.

Kaner says that his lab is now looking for partners in industry that can help make these graphene supercapacitors on an industrial scale.

It's tempting to be cynical about the possibility of a magic bullet energy storage solution; such a breakthrough could solve any number of problems from annoying dead smart phones to two-hour charge times for electric cars to an inefficient power distribution grid, and it's easy to really want this kind of thing to be true. Plenty of seemingly promising technical innovations in the last few years haven't lived up to their hopeful hype. There's always the chance that further study will reveal a fatal flaw in graphene supercapacitor technology. But for the time being, ReWire officially has its hopes up, at least a little.

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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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Cool. Small correction, though. Graphene isn't a polymer.

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Thanks for the correx, Dr. H. You're right, of course. Proper term is allotrope.

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Don't forget that it works at a whopping 4 volts! That might power a smartphone, but let's not get crazy and act like a supercapacitor can power an electric vehicle or many other industrial or electronics applications. Placing supercapacitors in series requires a lot of balancing circuitry due to the widely varying charge storage between each capacitor, so to get to higher voltage, you are talking about something much more expensive.

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Are you the village idiot or just came here to spam ? :-) Current Li-Ion batteries produce around 3.4V and are used in vehicles that need 250+ V. So have you heard about attaching batteries in series that doubles the voltage with each battery added ? I wander what are you doing here when you miss a basic education.

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Cynic#1 is definitely not an engineer.

We use supercapacitors that operate from 2.5 to 2.7 volts each to power our robot.
We stack the supercapacitors in series to produce ~200V supercapacitor arrays. Yes, we have cell charging and balancing circuitry of our own design, but that is standard for supercap arrays and battery arrays for that matter. We use supercap arrays for weight reduction, as well as, extremely hi and fast output current demands, that batteries could never tolerate. We also use the supercaps to capture all of the regen energy for very hi power efficiencies.

We look forward to the energy density of graphene supercapacitors at 4V.

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My physicist friends say the supercapacitor discharges linearly, meaning the voltage decreases such that most devices can only use about 30% of its total power before the voltage becomes unusably low.

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@cfct - There was a similar problem with lead-acid batteries prior to WWII, though the percentage of usable power was much higher.

And though cynic# 1 expresses doubts, the dramatic successes of graphene over the past year of improving lithium battery charging rates and storage capacities indicates a solidly serviceable technology. There are also several other possible advantages well worth chasing here: capacitive graphene storage batteries might relieve us of the hob-goblin of lithium battery fires; the burden of toxic battery recycling; and the painfully short product life-spans of under 1000 charge cycles.

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graphene....isnt new, and also the idea of its applications at first was for medical technologies not more junk to be replaced a year later...

good job UCLA...

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First, GREAT application of technology and in a good direction. Now my reservations: Safety, while it may be less fire-prone (li-ion are actually pretty safe, used for 100s of millions of devices) capacitors by their very nature are able to deliver ALL their energy almost instantaneously (think horrendously big spark). Instantaneous charging requires instantaneous deliver of HUGE energy. To charge a 40KWhr battery would take 40KW for an hour (duh). Practical delivery of energy would likely be limited to about 50KW Which leaves you with about a 45 minute battery/super cap charge. You want to charge it in a minute? 45 x 50KW will do the job (2.250MW) which at 2KV (ouch) would use 1,100Amps! Let us not forget that the capacitor will be able to RELEASE that much energy nearly instantaneously. So Supercaps WILL have their place such as in regenerative braking, but there are many barriers to them replacing those slow chemical batteries for most applications.

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OTHERS have called this NANO tech.... placing this atom thick carbon "battery" & "power conductor" as a coating on all home windows to produce and store all the power people need AND SEE THROUGH IT TOO.... 25 million green union jobs could include making and installing these gizmos into a billion windows of homes & buildings & place them 14 feet above all parking lots to provide shade for vehicles, rain run-off diversion and electricity storage & generation for whole city light systems @LarryAccomplish 843-926-1750 SHUT DOWN ALL slow cancer NUKES replace all fossil fuel burning with electric and hybrid hydrogen vehicles/motors and use wave & wind co-generating solar transportation rails trams & busses Larry_Carter_Center@yahoo.com VOTE MAY 7TH Special Election Green Party to Congress

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The article is really about a budding technology. How it scales up has tons of potential given how thin it can be. The discouraging comments do make some good points but if they are looking for higher capacity solutions they should check out this:
http://www.ted.com/talks/donald_sadoway_the_missing_link_to_renewable_energy.html

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Please note the typo in the 2nd sentence: Ric Kamen's lab, rather than Ric KANER's lab.
No need to post this comment, but please correct.
Cordially,
Stuart

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This is all very exciting. But while the electrical engineers are all spraying each other down with champagne, the structural promise of graphene seems equally exciting. Does anyone know of any group working on practical (and inexpensive) means of creating large sheets of this material?