Ever wish you didn’t have to be tethered to an outlet because your phone is constantly on low battery? Or have you been wanting to buy an electric vehicle, but wish you didn’t have to fear running out of juice in the middle of the freeway? Somewhere, hidden deep in a lab on the campus of UCLA, Prof. Richard Kaner and PhD. Candidate Maher El-Kady, are working on making that a reality.
Kaner and his student team of biochemists are piggybacking off the work of Russian scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, whose groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene, earned them the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.
So what is graphene exactly?
Although it’s functionality remained an unknown at the point of its inception, simply put, graphene is a single layer carbon, completely flexible, and one of the hardest materials known to date.
For such an amazing creation, its process of discovery may seem a little less remarkable. Take any ordinary graphite pencil and rub continuously over a piece of paper until a substantial layer has formed. Grab a piece of tape, place it over the graphite, and as you proceed to peel it back the resulting material left on the tape is graphene.
However, for purposes of consumerism, to use that methodology seemed impractical to Kaner and Maher, so they went about it in a different direction. They started with graphite oxide (a liquid), spread a thin layer over the surface of an ordinary disc, popped it into a consumer grade dvd burner like the one on any laptop or computer and with the help of the laser, it deoxygenated and turned into graphene. There was just one little problem: they didn’t know exactly what to do with it. But, that answer would soon come sometime later.
It’s a morning as ordinary as any other. Maher calls his professor to join in him the lab without any explanation over the phone, just a distinguishable zeal in the air of his voice. Heading straight over, Kaner arrives to see his grad student with a small piece of graphene hooked up to what amounts to small jumper cables. He then grabs hold of the positive and negative ends and attaches them to a lightbulb. Instant luminescence. That alone would have been a monumental success towards the understanding of graphene, but the truly astounding moment had yet to occur. Maher releases the lightbulb from the cable, but the light does not extinguish, it stays strongly lit for a five continuous minutes despite only being charged for a mere five seconds. Kaner knew instantly what they had on their hands: graphene is a supercapacitor.
What’s significant about the discovery is that it combines the best properties of our current energy storage devices, without the negatives. Batteries, most commonly used to power electronics, have high storage capacities to keep things running for extended periods of time, but have a slow rate of charge and discharge, which is why it takes forever to charge them. The opposite is true of capacitors, which have small storage capacities, but charges and discharges at rates 100-1000 times faster than a battery. Supercapacitors on the other hand, have the high energy storage combined with the fast charge and discharge rate, meaning your phone could last you throughout the whole day, but should you begin to run low you simply plug it in for thirty seconds and you’re back on your way with a full charge.
Outside of the fact supercapacitors have the potential to solve many of our charging inconveniences we face today, they may also simultaneously help the environment on a grander scale than anyone has ever conceived. Kaner is hopeful that through refinement and further exploration of graphene, they’ll not only be able to replace the batteries in your phone, but also the ones in your car because the best feature of graphene is that as a carbon based material, it’s completely compostable. In the future, when your graphene runs out of energy, you’ll literally be able to take it out and toss it in your backyard where it will decompose into the surrounding dirt. Imagine all of the emissions given off by gas powered vehicles being instantly taken off the road, without the what to do with lithium battery cells and their effect on ecosystems, simply phrased, it would be revolutionary.
My only wish is that this had come about a decade earlier so I wouldn’t have had to carry a pack of ‘Double A’s’ with me everywhere i went as Pokemon sucked the life out of my GameBoy color. Alas, better late than never.