One of the big limitations in many electronics devices, from mobile gadgets to electric cars, is energy storage, or the capacity of the battery and the time it takes to recharge it. Supercapacitors, which are considered to be the future of high-power energy storage, could change all of that, by enabling rapid and effective charging of devices, but because of high costs and difficulty in manufacturing some of the components, we aren't seeing wide adoption of the technology, at least for consumer devices.
However, a breakthrough process developed by scientists at the Oregon State University (OSU) may enable supercapacitors to be produced much cheaper, and in larger quantities, by using cellulose from trees to make high-quality carbon electrodes for the devices.
“We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product." - Xiulei (David) Ji, assistant professor of chemistry at OSU
The team of chemists at OSU has discovered a simple process, using a basic reaction, that can turn the cellulose from trees into "nitrogen-doped, nanoporous carbon membranes" for use as electrodes in supercapacitors. By heating cellulose, said to be most abundant organic polymer on Earth, in a furnace in the presence of ammonia, this single-step reaction yields a quick and inexpensive process for producing one of the building blocks of the energy storage devices.
Supercapacitors aren't the only application for these nanoporous carbon membranes, as the material is also used in water treatment and environmental filtering, so this new process could decrease costs and increase adoption of other technology which requires it.
"There are many applications of supercapacitors around the world, but right now the field is constrained by cost. If we use this very fast, simple process to make these devices much less expensive, there could be huge benefits." - Ji
Another benefit of the process is that it is said to by "environmentally benign", with the only byproduct being methane, which can be used as a fuel or for other industrial purposes.