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Laser-Engraved Graphene Could Power New Kinds of Electronics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Advances in delivering and storing electricity are crucial to the future of electric cars and otherwise reducing reliance on energy produced from burning fossil fuels. Yet a powerful means of running electronics that can charge and discharge quickly while also storing large amounts of energy has long eluded scientists.

This predicament could be changing, thanks to new research. A team from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Egypt’s Cairo University describe in the March 16 issue of Science a new laser-based technique for making flexible, durable and highly conductive electrochemical capacitors—also known as ultracapacitors or supercapacitors—out of graphene. Electrochemical capacitors handle frequent charge/discharge cycles well but have been unable to store lots of energy. (Lithium-ion and other conventional batteries can store large amounts of energy but have short life cycles and are filled with hazardous chemicals known to catch fire under certain conditions.)

Electrochemical capacitors made using graphene—a one-atom-thick sliver of graphite—began showing potential to boost storage capacity a few years ago. Individual graphene sheets create a larger surface area than when they are stacked together as a piece of graphite. This larger surface area increases energy storage capacity. Yet the strong electrostatic attraction between graphene sheets makes graphene a difficult material to work with because it tends to cause them to stack back together into their original graphite form.

The researchers, led by UCLA Ph.D. candidate and Cairo lecturer Maher El-Kady and Richard Kaner, a professor in UCLA’s Chemistry & Biochemistry and Material Sciences & Engineering departments, found a way to avoid this re-stacking. They covered an ordinary compact disk with a sheet of plastic, coated that plastic with graphite oxide and used a LightScribe DVD optical drive to locally heat the coating to turn it into a graphene film that can store energy in a highly-reversible electrical form important for many present and emerging applications.

Electrodes made from laser-scribed graphene can also be bent without any obvious change in their electrical properties, the researchers say. This holds promise not only for improved electrochemical capacitors but also for flexible gadgets, such as roll-up computer displays and keyboards as well as wearable electronics.

Such thin, highly flexible energy storage devices could lead to fabric electrochemical capacitors that store harvested body movement energy, potentially useful for making garments or military uniforms with embedded electronics, observes John Miller, president of JME, Inc., a Beachwood, OH, firm that offers engineering, performance testing and other services to electrochemical capacitor makers, in a commentary accompanying the Science report. Imagine car seats that heat up without a driver needing to flip a switch or electronic wallpaper that could change patterns or alter its brightness depending upon lighting conditions, Miller adds.

Graphic demonstrating graphene’s ability to store electrical energy through the interaction with ions in an electrochemical capacitor courtesy of Science/AAAS

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bvnjf8ds9a 10:50 pm 03/15/2012

    Graphic demonstrating graphene’s ability to store electrical energy through the interaction with ions in an electrochemical capacitor courtesy of Science/AAAS

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  3. 3. Koltrast 10:01 am 03/16/2012

    Finally, the old radio ham dream of storing huge amounts of electrical energy in a capacitor just might come true. If this works, charging at a “station” should take less time than filling a tank with gasoline.

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  4. 4. bradster 4:33 pm 03/16/2012

    YEP, you would need only 4 capacitors for a small engine to run a range of 500 miles per day! GOOD DEAL, now, lets HOPE the car doesn’t go over 20 grand since it’s relatively CHEAP to build gadgets/capacitors with graphene using a DVD optical drive to heat it up!!!

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  5. 5. charwiz 8:08 pm 03/16/2012

    What problem will this solve. You still have to use fossil fuels to creat the electricity. Maybe this and coal plants that store carbon underground and or more nuclear reactors. Or maybe we could harness h-3 from the moon. This does sound very interesting.
    500 miles on one electric fuel up. I wonder if my electric bill will cost more than the 5 dollars a galon of gass I pay now.

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  6. 6. Rickster3 11:07 pm 03/16/2012

    This sounds like Deja Veux all over again. What ever happened to Lees Ultra-Capacitor which was supposed to employ nanotubes to hold large charges? That was several years ago. It would be great if one of these Ultra-capacitors panned out. But it sort of feels like all those articles about how fusion power is “5 to 15 years off” that we’ve been reading for the last 50 years.

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  7. 7. Jürgen Hubert 4:22 am 03/17/2012

    charwiz, you only need to use fossil fuels to create the electricity if you use an outdated power infrastructure.

    Germany is currently in the process of rebuilding its infrastructure with the goal of eventually providing _all_ of its energy needs from renewable sources. And this kind of technology is certainly a welcome addition…

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  8. 8. phalaris 6:12 am 03/17/2012

    Rickster is right: no week passes without an announcement of a breakthrough in battery, capacitor or other storage technology, and that’s been going on for decades. Enormous sums of money has been thrown at research in these areas, but some physical chemists have expressed doubts as to whether the sort of improvements necessary are likely to be possible with nature as we currently know it.

    And one ought to be clear about it, for grid level power applications, it’s going to be an increase in performance of an order-of-magnitude or two that’s needed.

    Germany is a rich country with a successful economy, and it’s only right that it should be the first country to experiment with the all-renewable dream. And it is surrounded by countries that are likely to be sticking to other options, which can pump the electricity in when needed. At the moment, though, the only result of Germany’s experiment is that millions of tons more of CO2 has been dumped in the atmosphere than otherwise would have been the case.

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  9. 9. Jürgen Hubert 7:02 am 03/17/2012

    Currently, Germany is producing 20% of its electricity from renewable sources, and that number is climbing fast. I do consider that to be a significant result.

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  10. 10. phalaris 9:10 am 03/17/2012

    Jürgen Hubert
    for a more balanced view on Germany’s great experiment, take a look at this:

    Admittedly, bravenewclimate is a pro-nuclear forum, but they demand that all allegations are backed up with verifiable references.

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  11. 11. And Then What? 9:22 am 03/17/2012

    Ok now this is getting interesting. What if we were to place a fleet of enormous Graphene super capacitor-charging stations in predetermined orbits and have them convert solar power into electricity on a continuous basis. They could be used as space based charging stations for deep space Ion powered Spacecraft. The orbits of the charging stations could be set to carry them close to the sun so as to increase the energy conversion output. Spacecraft could then rendezvous with them farther out in space, on their outward or homeward course and fill-up, This would allow the spacecraft to travel at higher velocity both outward and inward since they would be freed from fuel conservation issues.

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  12. 12. northernguy 12:49 am 03/18/2012

    #7 Jürgen Hubert said:

    Germany is currently in the process of rebuilding its infrastructure with the goal of eventually providing _all_ of its energy needs from renewable sources. endquote..

    Not any more.

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  13. 13. Jürgen Hubert 3:19 am 03/18/2012

    So Germany won’t be meeting its CO2 reduction targets for 2020. That doesn’t mean that Germany won’t be reducing its CO2 emissions at all during that time span – even the quoted articles say that 30-33% are likely.

    And I really doubt additional overall fossil fuel generation capabilities will be needed – we already got over the past winter with 8 less nuclear power plants and without any blackouts, and the portion of renewable energy will only increase. What is more likely is a shift from coal power plants to gas turbines, which are more environmentally friendly, don’t need to be fired up that often, and which ultimately can be powered by methane generated from excess energy late at night, thus making them another renewable energy source in the long run.

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  14. 14. phalaris 4:48 am 03/18/2012

    Jürgen Hubert
    If you know how to get methane from electricity at any useful yield rate, you are sitting on a gold mine: I’d apply for a patent immediately.
    But in the greeny dream world arithmetic runs to other rules, doesn’t it?
    Here is this world some of us are worried about global warming, but I know that doesn’t apply to the German greens, who’ve made hay (with the help of the media) by fomenting public hysteria.

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  15. 15. Jürgen Hubert 8:04 am 03/18/2012

    Oh, it’s not _my_ line of work – but that of some of my co-workers. I do believe they have developed some patents in that area, though I will have to check that tomorrow when I’m back at work.

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  16. 16. Johnay 12:22 pm 03/18/2012


    The more general advantage to electric vehicles is that they are more, much more, flexible in regards to ultimate energy sources. A gasoline or diesel powered vehicle has to be powered by gasoline or diesel; you can’t change its energy source without a fundamental conversion. Once you have an electric vehicle infrastructure in place you’re not stuck with generating the electricity via any particular means; you can progress from one source to the next, mixing them as needed in different areas, without having to adapt the vehicle-charging stations to further changes. Fossil fuels, wind, solar, nuclear, or whatever else our kids come up with later, all will provide compatible electricity.

    If later cars are capable of taking a greater charge faster than earlier cars, that may require more advanced charging systems, but I figure they would be made to also be able to charge at older-tech stations too, if more slowly. With proper charging connecter design it should be even easier than choosing the proper gasoline or diesel pump; just plug in and the system detects what voltage & current to send and for how long.

    As for cost, think of hybrid vehicles. They are more fuel-efficient than simple fuel-burning vehicles because they are moved by electric motors while the engine generates electricity from the fuel. The engine is tuned to maximize the electricity generated per gallon rather than a compromise between a range of power needs if it were driving the wheels directly. Diesel locomotives work that way too. With an all-electric plug-in system the electricity is generated, in in our current infrastructure, on even larger scales by even more-efficient generators, professionally monitored & maintained by people with a close eye on efficiency. IIRC, even current plug-ins report lower cost-per-mile than hybrids. Once the tech becomes scalable to cheaper mass-production (which is why there are so many technologies being tried – think of Edison and his search for a good light bulb filament) that will be a huge advantage. It’s the way to go; the only question is our exact path there.

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  17. 17. Crisp 12:12 am 03/19/2012

    Every article I’ve read about graphene offer tantalizing potential capabilities, but with the most mundane, sedentary applications imaginable. Self-heating car seats? Pattern-changing wallpaper? Flexible computer screens? Are these the frontiers we should really be exploring with a new wonder material? Will these products solve our socioeconomic problems?
    If it carries such advantageous electrical properties, could we modernize our nation’s power grid? If a sheet of this stuff is so strong, light and gas-tight, could we build vacuum airships with it? Space elevator at last? Could solar cells be ‘etched’ cheaply & efficiently, and home storage capacitors manufactured cheaply, allowing our homes to generate & store all the power we need, using this rather non-exotic element in a new, very exotic form?
    I don’t see dynamic wallpaper and warm car seats delivering us from our problems anytime soon.

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  18. 18. bucketofsquid 10:29 am 03/19/2012

    It is nice to see more progress being made but I wonder how long it will be before something useful is on the market.

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