Researchers Announce Nanotech Material Breakthrough Could Double Energy Storage Capacity for Renewables

Researcers develop new graphene material increasing capacity of ultracapacitorsResearch scientists at the University of Texas at Austin announced today a possible nanotech breakthrough for a carbon material structure only one atom thick that could help accelerate the growth of renewable wind and solar power installations.

The new material, called “grahene”, could double the capacity of ultracapacitors, an energy storage device similar to a battery. But where batteries store electrical energy chemically, utlracapacitors store charges electrostatically.

While used increasingly in commerical applications, ultracapacitors are not as widely known as their battery counterparts. Current uses include energy recovery for regenerative braking in vehicles or providing short bursts of power for acceleration and hill-climbing. Ultracapacitors can also be used in conjunction with batteries to prolong battery life.

Researchers at UT Austin are hopeful that graphene-based ultracapacitors could help spur development of renewable energy power generation.

The problem of storage

It’s almost become cliche about renewable energy: the problem of “when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine”. Storage is key, and according to the U.S. Department of Energy, remains a principal challenge in rolling out solar and wind energy technology.

Graphene may be a key element in meeting that challenge.

Say Rod Ruoff. a mechanical engineering professor and physical chemist at the University:

“Through such a device, electrical charge can be rapidly stored on the graphene sheets, and released from them as well for the delivery of electrical current and, thus, electrical power. There are reasons to think that the ability to store electrical charge can be about double that of current commercially used materials. We are working to see if that prediction will be borne out in the laboratory”

With financial support from the Texas Nanotechnology Research Superiority Initiative, Ruoff and his team have tested ultracapacitors using chemically altered graphene and several types of common electrolytes that have already achieved capacities of existing devices. Computer modeling suggests that it is possible to double that capacity.

“Our interest derives from the exceptional properties of these atom-thick and electrically conductive graphene sheets, because in principle all of the surface of this new carbon material can be in contact with the electrolyte,” says Ruoff.

A 1/500th pound of the graphene material nearly equals the surface area of a football field. This property, Ruoff explains, means a greater number of positive and negative ions can form on a sheet of graphene, leading to “exceptional levels of stored charge”.

Greater efficiency in hybrids and electric vehicles

The material could also lead to increased efficiency and performance in electric and hybrid cars, buses, trains, trams and, as graduate student Meryl Stoller says, “even office copiers and cell phones”.

Keeping renewable energy on track

The American Wind Energy Association reports that wind power installation grew 45 percent in 2007. Ruoff points out that if wind energy production could maintain that level of growth for the next 20 years, the total energy production from wind alone would nearly equal the world’s entire energy production from all sources in 2007.

While I can’t speak to the feasibility of maintaining 45% annual growth for two decades, Ruoff’s enthusiasm for renewable energy is a reminder how important it is that Congress pass a long term extension of the Production Tax Credit.

Every day researchers like Ruoff and his team, along with visionary business leaders, entreprenuers, and investors all across the country are building the bridge to the new energy economy. Or at least trying to. They are doing their part.

Our national leaders must do their part.

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Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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