A significant breakthrough in supercapacitor technology looks set to render the humble battery to history, by providing both dramatically increased power capacities and rates of recharge.
The polymer-based technology, which is the result of research by scientists at the University of Surrey, the University of Bristol and Augmented Optics, has been found to be 1,000 to 10,000 times more powerful than existing batteries, and is also more environmentally friendly.
Supercapacitors have long been considered an important technology for future development, providing an alternative to batteries by storing energy using electrodes and electrolytes. This allows the energy to be stored and released for use far more quickly than in standard batteries, but so far supercapacitors have not been able to compete due to the fact that they have poor levels of energy density.
In other words, up until now supercapacitors could store only 1/20 of the energy of batteries per kilogramme, meaning that they were generally too large to be practical.
However, by adapting the principles used to make soft contact lenses – the primary field of Augmented Optics – the scientists have finally developed a material that can not only allow supercapacitors compete with batteries, but offer significant improvements over them.
The advances this supercapacitor technology offers are best explained in terms of electric cars, where it could offer the most dramatic improvements.
A present a standard electric car can get you from London to the nearby city of Brighton – a journey of approximately 55 miles. According to the scientists, this new supercapacitor could allow a car to be driven from London to Edinburgh – a journey of approximately 420 miles – on a single charge. And even when a car is required to recharge, the supercapacitor should allow this process to take just a few minutes, around the same period of time it would take to refill a petrol engine.
“There is a global search for new energy storage technology and this new ultra capacity supercapacitor has the potential to open the door to unimaginably exciting developments,” said Dr Brendan Howlin, from the University of Surrey.
However, it’s not just electric cars, or even gadgets, that could benefit.
“While this research has potentially opened the route to very high density supercapacitors, these polymers have many other possible uses in which tough, flexible conducting materials are desirable, including bioelectronics, sensors, wearable electronics, and advanced optics,” explained Dr Ian Hamerton, Reader in Polymers and Composite Materials from the Department of Aerospace Engineering, University of Bristol.
“We believe that this is an extremely exciting and potentially game-changing development.”
Now the scientists have demonstrated the potential of the supercapacitor technology, the next challenge is to develop it into a commercial product.
“The test results from the new polymers suggest that extremely high energy density supercapacitors could be constructed in the very new future,” said Jim Heathcote, chief executive of both Augmented Optics and Supercapacitor Materials.
“We are now actively seeking commercial partners in order to supply our polymers and offer assistance to build these ultra high energy density storage devices.”