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

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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,

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:

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.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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