“We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product”

From allowing man to make fire to being used as paper, trees have enabled us humans to advance dramatically – but now they can be used to create high-tech storage devices.

The discovery by chemists at Oregon State University, US, means that trees can be used to help power new cars, electronics and even in the aviation industry.

Scientists – who were barking up the right tree – found that cellulose, a key component of plant cells, can be heated in the presence of ammonia and turned into a key component for supercapacitors.

The exposure to high heat and ammonia converts the cellulose from the trees to a carbon material, which is needed for supercapacitors.

Supercapacitors, which can hold more power than a battery, can be used in computers and consumer electronic,s as well as heavy industries to power items as large as cranes.

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A supercapacitor can capture energy that might otherwise be wasted, such as in braking operations. Their energy storage abilities may help ‘smooth out’ the power flow from alternative energy systems, such as wind energy.

They can power a defibrillator, open the emergency slides on an aircraft and greatly improve the efficiency of hybrid electric automobiles.

They can also be charged quickly, but will equally lose that charge quicker than batteries.

David Xiulei Ji, from the university, said: “There are many applications of supercapacitors around the world, but right now the field is constrained by cost.”

“If we use this very fast, simple process to make these devices much less expensive, there could be huge benefits.”

He continued: “It’s surprising that such a basic reaction was not reported before. Not only are there industrial applications, but this opens a whole new scientific area, studying reducing gas agents for carbon activation.

“We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product.”

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The findings will also lead to the ability to produce supercapacitors at a much cheaper cost than has been previously possible, the university says.

As well as being cheaper the production of the electrodes of a supercapacitor will also be able to be done in an environmentally friendly way.

Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry at the university, said: “The ease, speed and potential of this process is really exciting.

“For the first time we’ve proven that you can react cellulose with ammonia and create these N-doped nanoporous carbon membranes.”

The membranes at the nano-scale are incredibly thin. A single gram of them can have a surfaces area of nearly 2,000 square metres. This is what allows them to be useful in supercapacitors.


 Final image courtesy of David Xiulei Ji / Oregon State University 


No one is safe from climate change: IPCC report

Climate change is going to have an impact on the daily lives of everyone on planet earth, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The findings of the international scientific organisation’s latest report, which focused on the impacts of, adaptations to and vulnerability to climate change, were announced this week at a press conference in Yokohama, Japan.

IPCC chairman Dr Rajendra K Pachauri said: “We have assessed impacts as they are happening and impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and oceans and I would like to emphasise that in view of these impacts and those that we have projected for the future, nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

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Pachauri warned that there could be a major impact on food security, with a change in climate conditions damaging crop yields.

“This really would be a severe challenge for some of the poorest communities and poorest regions in the world,” he said, adding that for the poorest there would be an increased risk of death from heat and vector-borne disease – diseases such as malaria that are transmitted by insects or other organisms.

However, he also stressed that it was not just the poorest who would be affected. In addition to food supply, which, given the popularity of imported foods in many parts of the world, is likely to affect everyone, Pachauri indentified a possible increase of extreme events, which would have an impact on “morbidity and mortality”.

“There could also be severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts on species and there is a risk of crossing tipping points as a result of increasing temperatures,” he added.

For coastal areas and island nations the outlook is particularly grim. “In areas like low-lying coastal areas, the small island states which are very vulnerable to sea level rise, there would be a possible breakdown of infrastructure networks, key services like electricity supply,” said Pachauri.

There are also likely to be other far-reaching social impacts as a result of climate change.

“Climate change can lead to displacement, can lead to increased conflicts,” said Pachauri. “There are already several stressors that are leading to conflicts in certain parts of the world – the impacts of climate change could well exacerbate those risks.”

But Pachauri stressed that efforts can still be made to mitigate the effects of climate change and highlighted that this was humanity’s only option if we are to minimise the potential damage.

“The one thing we have come up with is the importance of adaptation and mitigation choices because this is the only way that we might be able to reduce the risks of climate change,” he explained.

“I think the ability of human society to embark on a move to climate resilient pathways depends to a large extent of the extent to which we are prepared to mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases.”


Body image and video courtesy of the IPCC.