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Home, Sweet Supercapacitor

Researchers at Vanderbilt University are developing a new generation of supercapacitors that can function even when they are subject to weight and vibration stress. Translation: the drywall of the future will store enough electrical energy to power your home electronics and appliances. In a classic case of having your clean tech cake and eating it too, you won’t even need any power cords.

This is yet another reason why fossil fuels are toast. By toast we don’t mean that fossil fuels will totally disappear because for that matter, after thousands of years plenty of people are still burning firewood and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  However, just as coal, oil, and natural gas marginalized firewood in industrialized nations, the twin trends toward more efficient energy storage and cheaper, more sustainable energy sources make the marginalization of fossil fuels a historical inevitability.

Vanderbilt University supercapacitor news

Supercapacitor courtesy of Vanderbilt University.

Big Supercapacitor News From Vanderbilt University

CleanTechnica first took note of the Vanderbilt supercapacitor last October, when a research team reported the first successful attempt to make a supercapacitor out of silicon (a supercapacitor is an energy storage device that charges and discharges rapidly).

This is not your father’s silicon, though. The electrodes of the supercapacitor are made of silicon that has been chemically treated to create nano-pores on the inner surfaces, which are then coated with a nano-thin layer of carbon (not exactly graphene, but close to it).

Instead of the electrolyte goo you’d find in a battery, the charged ions are held in a reservoir of polymer film between the two silicon electrodes.

Now, normally that kind of “sandwich” setup would come apart under stress from load or vibration, but the polymer film acts as a kind of superglue. Here’s how Vanderbilt David Salisbury tells it:

When the electrodes are pressed together, the polymer oozes into the tiny pores in much the same way that melted cheese soaks into the nooks and crannies of artisan bread in a panini. When the polymer cools and solidifies, it forms an extremely strong mechanical bond.

Are you getting hungry? We are! As for how strong that bond is, let’s just say that it’s stronger than cheese

The new supercapacitor report from Vanderbilt was published in the journal Nano Letters on May 19. The team subjected its silicon supercapacitor to stress tests replicating vibrational accelerations of more than 80 g, which is more than you’d get if you were a turbine blade in a jet engine. They also went up to 44 psi for stress/pressure.

In both cases, the team found that the supercapacitor operated “flawlessly” in terms of charging and discharging, while maintaining its storage capacity.

It’s A Supercapacitor World, We Just Live In It (And We Built It!)

Because the Vanderbilt supercapacitor can withstand the rough-and-tumble of daily life, it could potentially be built into all sorts of devices, including portable electronics and vehicles.

However, we’re most intrigued by its potential for use as a building material.

That’s because under the current state of the technology, supercapacitors don’t give you anywhere near the storage capacity-for-weight deal that you can get from the gold standard, lithium-ion batteries (according to the Vanderbilt team, supercapacitors store ten times less than Li-ion).

The key advantage is that supercapacitors can last thousands of cycles longer than Li-ion batteries, which makes them likely to outlast whatever structure they are integrated into.


Pair that up with see-through solar windows and other building-integrated solar devices, and you’ve got yourself a killer combination (fossil fuel killer, that is).

And when you turn the key on your dream home/live-in energy harvesting and storage system of the future, don’t forget to pat yourself on the back. The Vanderbilt research was supported by National Science Foundation grants with additional resources from the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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