Top Tech Day 8: Graphene Supercapacitors

Today’s post was written by Jason Ganz, formerly of the Millenium Project. Jason Ganz is a highly capable emerging technology analyst and Prokalkeo is grateful for his perspective on Top Tech 2013. His twitter can be found @jasnonaz.

Over the past few years, one of the most exciting areas of potential innovation has been the creation of new super materials. These supermaterials have a wide variety of applications across a number of disciplines, including manufacturing, energy & medicine. The breakaway star of current supermaterials has undoubtedly been graphene. Graphene is a two-dimensional, crystalline form of carbon with some astounding physical properties. It is so strong that James Hone, a mechanical engineering professor at Columbia once claimed that “it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap”.

Graphene is also one of the best conductors of energy ever discovered. Graphene has been hailed as a wonder material that has the potential to revolutionize everything from solar panels to transistors. In 2013, however, the largest breakthrough with graphene was the steps taken towards creating a commercially viable supercapacitor out of graphene.

A capacitor is a device commonly used in electronics that is similar to a battery, but is able to absorb and release energy many times faster. One common application of capacitors is the bulb used in camera flashes. Traditionally, capacitors have been significantly limited in their functional applications due to their inability to store large amounts of energy – the energy density of a capacitor is between 1/5th& 1/10th that of a battery. Thus, capacitors have traditionally had only niche applications. In recent years however, scientists have been attempting to make a capacitor out of graphene. By utilizing the unique physical properties of graphene, the amount of energy stored in a capacitor could be improved by many orders of magnitude. This has led these potential graphene capacitors to be dubbed “supercapacitors”.

Supercapacitors are extremely exciting because they combine the large amounts of energy storage found in traditional batteries with the extremely rapid energy absorption of capacitors. Consider the possibility of a smartphone which charges in mere seconds, or an electronic vehicle which can be fully powered up in under ten minutes. Those are just some of the eventual possible uses of graphene supercapacitors.

Graphene is extremely difficult to produce in significant quantities. There has been steady progress over the past several years towards increasing grapheme yields. Until recently, however, the prevailing sentiment was that graphene supercapacitors were far from becoming prevalent.

In 2013, graphene supercapacitors made drastic leaps towards becoming a commercial reality. In December of this year, Lomiko Metals & Graphene Laboratories Inc, announced that they had created a prototype graphene supercapacitor. The prototype achieved a specific capacitance of 500 Farad per gram, and was created by converting natural graphite flakes into graphene through Hummers method. The final product attained a specific surface area of 500 square meters per gram with an electrical conductivity of 4 S per centimeter.

While no one can yet say whether this particular method will be the one which brings supercapacitors out of the laboratory & into the living room, the fact that Lomiko Metals managed to create a working prototype is quite exciting. Only a few years ago, graphene supercapacitors were seen as a distant possibility. Today, although it is far from assured that they will make it to market, recent discoveries make this seem far more likely.

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