From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published March 16, 2012 09:10 AM

Supercapacitors or Batteries

A battery is a device that stores energy and makes it available in an electrical form. A capacitor is a device that stores energy in the electric field created between a pair of conductors on which equal but opposite electric charges have been placed. A capacitor is not a battery and is of a more temporary nature. Electrochemical capacitors (ECs), also known as supercapacitors or ultracapacitors, differ from regular capacitors that you would find in your TV or computer in that they store substantially higher amounts of charges. They have garnered attention as energy storage devices as they charge and discharge faster than batteries, yet they are still limited by low energy densities, only a fraction of the energy density of batteries. An EC that combines the power performance of capacitors with the high energy density of batteries would represent a significant advance in energy storage technology. This requires new electrodes that not only maintain high conductivity but also provide higher and more accessible surface area than conventional ECs that use activated carbon electrodes.


Now researchers at UCLA have used a standard LightScribe DVD optical drive to produce such electrodes. The electrodes are composed of an expanded network of graphene — a one-atom-thick layer of graphitic carbon — that shows excellent mechanical and electrical properties as well as exceptionally high surface area.

The paper is published in the journal Science.

The process is based on coating a DVD disc with a film of graphite oxide that is then laser treated inside a LightScribe DVD drive to produce graphene electrodes.

Typically, the performance of an energy storage devices is evaluated by two main figures, the energy density and power density. Suppose we are using the device to run an electric car — the energy density tells us how far the car can go a single charge whereas the power density tells us how fast the car can go. Here, devices made with Laser Scribed Graphene (LSG) electrodes exhibit ultrahigh energy density values in different electrolytes while maintaining the high power density and excellent cycle stability of ECs. Moreover, these ECs maintain excellent electrochemical attributes under high mechanical stress and thus hold promise for high power, flexible electronics.

"Our study demonstrates that our new graphene-based supercapacitors store as much charge as conventional batteries, but can be charged and discharged a hundred to a thousand times faster," said Richard B. Kaner, professor of chemistry & materials science and engineering.

Additionally, LSG electrodes are mechanically robust and show high conductivity (>1700 S/m) compared to activated carbons (10-100 S/m). This means that LSG electrodes can be directly used as supercapacitor electrodes without the need for binders or current collectors as is the case for conventional activated carbon ECs. 

In order to evaluate under real conditions the potential of this all solid-state LSG-EC for flexible storage, the research team placed a device under constant mechanical stress to analyze its performance. Interestingly enough, this had almost no effect on the performance of the device.

"We attribute the high performance and durability to the high mechanical flexibility of the electrodes along with the interpenetrating network structure between the LSG electrodes and the gelled electrolyte," explains Kaner. "The electrolyte solidifies during the device assembly and acts like glue that holds the device components together."

Since this remarkable performance has yet to be realized in commercial devices, these LSG supercapacitors could lead the way to ideal energy storage systems for next generation flexible, portable electronics.

Some other variations of the supercapacitor principle have been used on motor startup capacitors for large engines in tanks and submarines, and as the cost has fallen they have started to appear on diesel trucks and railroad locomotives. In the 2000s they attracted attention in the electric car industry, where their ability to charge much faster than batteries makes them particularly suitable for regenerative braking applications. New technology in development could potentially make them with high enough energy density to be an attractive replacement for batteries in all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids, as they charge quickly and are stable with respect to temperature.

China is experimenting with a new form of electric bus (capabus) that runs without powerlines using large on board supercapacitors, which quickly recharge whenever the bus is at any bus stop (under so-called electric umbrellas), and fully charge in the terminus. A few prototypes were being tested in Shanghai in early 2005. 

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