Engineering news

Polymer discovery leads to ultra-powerful supercapacitors


Technology could reduce the recharging time of electric cars from hours to minutes

British researchers have developed an electronically conducting polymer that can create high energy density supercapacitors proven to be up to 10,000 times more powerful than current technology on the market.

Dr Donald Highgate, alumnus of the University of Surrey, originally developed the polymer by adapting principles used to make soft contact lenses. Based on large organic molecules composed of repeated sub-units, which are bonded together to form a “three-dimensional network technology”, the polymer could significantly improve the performance of battery powered appliances such as electric cars.

Supercapacitors work by storing energy using electrodes and electrolytes and can both charge and deliver energy quickly, unlike conventional batteries which do so in a much slower, more sustained way. However, because of their poor energy density per kg (approximately just a twentieth of existing battery technology), supercapacitors have, until now, been unable to compete with conventional battery energy storage in many applications. For example, supercapacitor buses are already being used in China, but they have a very limited range and must recharge frequently between stops.

The University of Surrey and spin-off company Augmented Optics, in collaboration with the University of Bristol found that the new polymer shows promise of overcoming these drawbacks. For example, it is believed that electric cars powered by these high energy density supercapacitors could travel to similar distances as petrol cars without the need to stop for lengthy recharging breaks, which currently takes 6-8 hours. Instead, the car could recharge fully in the time it takes to fill a regular car with petrol.

Dr Ian Hamerton, reader in polymers and composite materials from the department of aerospace engineering at the University of Bristol, said: “While this research has potentially opened the route to very high density supercapacitors, these polymers have many other possible uses in which tough, flexible conducting materials are desirable, including bioelectronics, sensors, wearable electronics, and advanced optics.  We believe that this is an extremely exciting and potentially game changing development.”

Jim Heathcote, chief executive of Augmented Optics and the newly formed subsidiary Supercapacitor Materials, said: “The test results from the new polymers suggest that extremely high energy density supercapacitors could be constructed in the very near future. We are now actively seeking commercial partners in order to supply our polymers and offer assistance to build these ultra high energy density storage devices.”


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