Yes, CT readers, it’s another article about breakthroughs in the laboratory that may dramatically impact our lives — someday. We publish these articles not to proclaim that a technological revolution is knocking on the door but rather to keep you abreast of the latest developments so you are better informed. Sometimes, technology news comes via some unknown source, like Bob’s Science Digest, but when it grabs the attention of a major news source like The Guardian, maybe it’s time to pay attention.
Researchers at Bristol University and Surrey University claim to have invented a new material for supercapacitors they claim will allow electric vehicles to travel 200 miles or more after only 10 minutes of charging. If they are correct, that could move the EV revolution along quickly, since one of the ongoing rationales for not driving an electric car is that they take too long to charge.
Why spend an hour charging my battery when I can fill my tank with gasoline or diesel fuel in 10 minutes or less and be on my way?” is the refrain we hear all the time. It is the number one reason why so many companies are pushing hydrogen fuel cells. Apparently, convenience is more important to many people than preventing the extinction of every species currently living on Earth with the possible exception of cockroaches.
Like most breakthroughs in the lab, this one began with a search for something else — a transparent substrate that could contain electrical circuits for new electronic devices like Google Glass. The technology has sufficient energy density to comfortably surpass the 200 to 350-mile ranges of leading battery-powered cars such as Teslas, according to its backers. But what he came up with was a new polymer with an energy density of 180 watt-hours per kilogram. Today’s lithium ion batteries for commercial applications typically have an energy density of between 100W⋅h/kg and 120W⋅h/kg.
Using Highgate’s polymer as a starting point, researchers at Bristol University and Surrey University created a new version of supercapacitors they say can be charged in minutes rather than hours. They think they can store enough energy to allow an electric car to drive at least 200 miles and possibly as much as 350 miles on a single 10-minute charge. Highgate has looked at the research and says, “It could have a seismic effect on energy, but it’s not a done deal.”
One drawback is that supercapacitors cannot store a charge as long as an traditional battery can. So if you left a car powered by a new generation supercap at the airport for a month, it would be fully discharged when you return. (Of course, by the time this technology comes to market, wireless charging will be standard at all airports, but that’s a separate story.)
Dr Thomas Miller, an expert on supercapacitors at University College London, who was not involved in the work, said the technology would have to scale up to compete. “If a significant leap has been made in energy density, it would be an important achievement,” he said. “One major consideration that is yet to be proven is the scalability, cost and sustainability of the new technology.”
Which brings us back to the beginning of this post. Near the end of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Future, “Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only.” Elon Musk said back in 2011 that the big breakthrough in electric transportation would involve supercapacitors, not batteries. Reports of advanced supercapacitors are the shadow of things that may be but not necessarily things that will be.
Highgate says he is confident prototypes of the new generation supercapacitors will be in production within two years, initially for specialized uses, perhaps by the military. Fortunately, there is always money for military research, even if we need to eviscerate health care, Social Security, food stamps, child care, and the entire public education system to give the generals what they need to continue bringing peace to the world.