I have to love American innovation. The new idea in batteries. THIS is a big deal if it works.

Imagine a cellphone battery that charges in two seconds! Or a car in a few minutes. THIS is the stuff that makes our nation great and places like the former USSR ash heap dwellers.

 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.

Okay, now to get some cash together and find that company that is going to partner with them.  Then it’s Microsoft who?

All we need to do is make sure Obama doesn’t get anywhere near the place!

Update: One of the comments I read shows the trouble with the initial concept.  I’m no expert, but I thought I would share it.  Now my take is simpler- once the breakthrough occurs the problems can be solved in time. We had a number of such issues with making computers smaller. What happened was the technology reacted to the challenge.

The comments from Ronald:

An engineer’s response [I kind of got my brother into electronics, and he’s not so susceptible to miracles that can’t happen]:

Could be pretty good. The questions are:

– charge life cycle? Any “memory” or other breakdown issues?

– failure modes? (Jeez, if that super cap shorted, might be like a 500KV transformer at a power station shorting internally or getting hit by lightening. And it might only take one tiny short on one of the layers to start the whole thing into a firey cascade.)

– I think they’re glossing over the charge time aspect, especially for large current needs, such as cars.

Think of this in terms of “units of work”. A gallon of gas in its liquid storage form has only a tiny fraction of the “work units” it can produce. To get all those units of work, it takes a chemical process and LOTS of outside material (huge volume of air containing O2, plus a little bit of spark, which we can ignore for this discussion) to fully realize all possible work units from that gallon.

But now with the capacitor we’re shoving lots of electrons into little caverns, and their “unit of work” is pretty much one-to-one. That is, I need a bag of electrons so big to move a car 1 mile down the road. I cannot grab something “for free” from the atmosphere to leverage the volume of the “work stuff” I’m storing in the car.

I need to put that complete bag of electrons into the cap. I have to carry ALL the work units with me.

Now it’s true that electic motors are 70-90% efficient while the gas engine is maybe 27%, but as you’re there at the charge station shoving electrons into the “tank,” remember that you have to move and store — one to one — all the energy you’ll be using for the next 100 or 200 miles.

Think of releasing (transferring) all that energy in 3-4 minutes (the fill cycle).

Overnight in your garage, no problem. But the corner charge station might need a substation next door, and you’d need some pretty hefty connection cables to move ALL those electrons in that BRIEF amount of time.

Internally, how would you wire the cap to handle such a huge influx? An efficient capacitor geometry might limit the wire lead sizes to each layer or section of the cap, thus limiting how many electrons can flow in at at the same time, thus possibly increasing charge time.

The LED powered by the coated DVD in the video was cute but not necessarily impressive; I’d like to see some numbers — watt seconds of storage in the film on the dvd; electron density; charge time per watt second, and then those earlier questions above.

But, could be pretty cool if the engineering can make it work and there isn’t some “gotcha” in the physics or elsewhere that’s not immediately visible.

I can see the issue with driving that many electrons into a small space in a short time.  I would imagine the heat created alone would be great.  I can see the use of this type of battery in the area of being compact.  If we could get the same energy exchange at a tenth the size…  But then again, I’m not into electronics so I’m just guessing.

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2 Responses to I have to love American innovation. The new idea in batteries. THIS is a big deal if it works.

  1. Roland Stearns says:

    An engineer’s response [I kind of got my brother into electronics, and he’s not so susceptible to miracles that can’t happen]:

    Could be pretty good. The questions are:

    – charge life cycle? Any “memory” or other breakdown issues?

    – failure modes? (Jeez, if that super cap shorted, might be like a 500KV transformer at a power station shorting internally or getting hit by lightening. And it might only take one tiny short on one of the layers to start the whole thing into a firey cascade.)

    – I think they’re glossing over the charge time aspect, especially for large current needs, such as cars.

    Think of this in terms of “units of work”. A gallon of gas in its liquid storage form has only a tiny fraction of the “work units” it can produce. To get all those units of work, it takes a chemical process and LOTS of outside material (huge volume of air containing O2, plus a little bit of spark, which we can ignore for this discussion) to fully realize all possible work units from that gallon.

    But now with the capacitor we’re shoving lots of electrons into little caverns, and their “unit of work” is pretty much one-to-one. That is, I need a bag of electrons so big to move a car 1 mile down the road. I cannot grab something “for free” from the atmosphere to leverage the volume of the “work stuff” I’m storing in the car.

    I need to put that complete bag of electrons into the cap. I have to carry ALL the work units with me.

    Now it’s true that electic motors are 70-90% efficient while the gas engine is maybe 27%, but as you’re there at the charge station shoving electrons into the “tank,” remember that you have to move and store — one to one — all the energy you’ll be using for the next 100 or 200 miles.

    Think of releasing (transferring) all that energy in 3-4 minutes (the fill cycle).

    Overnight in your garage, no problem. But the corner charge station might need a substation next door, and you’d need some pretty hefty connection cables to move ALL those electrons in that BRIEF amount of time.

    Internally, how would you wire the cap to handle such a huge influx? An efficient capacitor geometry might limit the wire lead sizes to each layer or section of the cap, thus limiting how many electrons can flow in at at the same time, thus possibly increasing charge time.

    The LED powered by the coated DVD in the video was cute but not necessarily impressive; I’d like to see some numbers — watt seconds of storage in the film on the dvd; electron density; charge time per watt second, and then those earlier questions above.

    But, could be pretty cool if the engineering can make it work and there isn’t some “gotcha” in the physics or elsewhere that’s not immediately visible.

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