If the recent dust-up between Tesla Motors and the New York Times is any indication, battery technology is the achilles heel of the electric car. However, a number of scientific discoveries in the field of nanotechnology could provide viable solutions to the big issues for automotive engineers - Today's batteries are slow charging, provide a small range and weigh too much. But tomorrow, things might be very different.
The secret sauce is Graphene. Composed of carbon linked together into sheets, Graphene can cover areas of many square meters yet only be as thick as an atom. Known for more than 50 years, only in 2004 did an effective method for crafting Graphene. Although seemingly improbable, discoverers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov used scotch tape to peel off graphene sheets from a block of common graphite.
Engineering researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have come up with a novel yet inexpensive method for decreasing the charging time for Lithium-ion batteries. The reason why it takes forever for your phone to charge and also why is doesn't give up all of it's energy at once (if given the chance) is that electrons are constrained by the architecture of the li-ion battery, with only one exist - the edges. Rensselaer's solution was to increase the number of exit points.
Researchers purposely etched cracks, pores and other imperfections with a laser. As and anode for a lithium-ion battery, this increased the number of edges for electrons to pass through, thus increasing the rate and capacity. According to their research, such batteries were performing fine after 1,000 charge/discharge cycles, which bodes well for future uses in automotive as well as power generation applications. For cars and solar cells, batteries are cycled multiple times a day.
Another group of researchers at the UCLA Kaner Laboratory have been exploring similar techniques with a far more 'DIY' approach than you'd expect. Using a DVD, the laser from a DVD player and graphene oxide, they have been able to make simple 'super supercapacitors'. Watch this short video to let them explain it better.
Is this where things are going? Graphene is the crucial element of all of these advances and is still one of the more expensive materials on the planet (it's so very unfair that all the cool engineering materials are expensive). In 2008 it cost $1000 for a wafer the size of human hair. Now you can go to 'Graphene Supermarket' and buy a 175 mL bottle of the same graphene oxide used in the video above for $395. At this rate, inexpensive graphene batteries could become commonplace in your phone, your (electric) car and your home solar panel system. Better Engineer and Design with these batteries in mind!
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