Soft con­tact lenses in­spire new ways to make su­per bat­ter­ies

The Witness - Wheels - - ELECTRIC - ALWYN VIJOEN

THE way in which soft con­tact lenses are made now also of­fers elec­tric car builders and cell­phone mak­ers hope of bet­ter bat­ter­ies.

This af­ter re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Sur­rey and Aug­mented Op­tics, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Univer­sity of Bris­tol, dis­cov­ered new ma­te­ri­als of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive to bat­tery power and proven to be be­tween 10 and a thou­sand fold more pow­er­ful than the ex­ist­ing bat­tery al­ter­na­tive — a su­per-ca­pac­i­tor.

Their re­search fol­lows on that of re­searchers at the Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, who in 2014 an­nounced a new car­bon-based su­per-ca­pac­i­tor.

Like the Aussies, Aug­mented Op­tics hope their de­vel­op­ment will trans­late into very high en­ergy den­sity su­per-ca­pac­i­tors, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to recharge your mo­bile phone, lap­top or other mo­bile de­vices in just a few sec­onds.

The new tech­nol­ogy could rev­o­lu­tionise elec­tric cars, al­low­ing the pos­si­bil­ity for them to recharge as quickly as it takes for a reg­u­lar non-elec­tric car to re­fuel with petrol. It cur­rently takes about six to eight hours to recharge.

Imag­ine, in­stead of an elec­tric car be­ing lim­ited to a drive from Pi­eter­mar­itzburg to Mooi River, the new tech­nol­ogy could al­low the elec­tric car to travel from the KZN cap­i­tal to Jo­han­nes­burg with­out the need to recharge — and when it did recharge for this op­er­a­tion to take just a few min­utes to per­form.

The re­searchers said in a state­ment su­per-ca­pac­i­tor buses are al­ready be­ing used in China, but they have a very lim­ited range, whereas this tech­nol­ogy could al­low them to travel a lot fur­ther be­tween recharges. In­stead of recharg­ing every two to three stops, this tech­nol­ogy could mean they only need to recharge every 20-30 stops and that would only take a few sec­onds.

Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX, has pre­vi­ously stated his be­lief that su­per-ca­pac­i­tors are likely to be the tech­nol­ogy for fu­ture elec­tric air trans­porta­tion.

The group said they be­lieve the present sci­en­tific ad­vance could make that vi­sion a re­al­ity.

The tech­nol­ogy was adapted from the prin­ci­ples used to make soft con­tact lenses, which Dr Don­ald High­gate (of Aug­mented Op­tics, and an alum­nus of the Univer­sity of Sur­rey) de­vel­oped fol­low­ing his post­grad­u­ate stud­ies at Sur­rey 40 years ago.

Su­per-ca­pac­i­tors, an al­ter­na­tive power source to bat­ter­ies, store en­ergy us­ing elec­trodes and elec­trolytes and 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 (roughly just one 20th of ex­ist­ing bat­tery tech­nol­ogy), they have, un­til now, been un­able to com­pete with con­ven­tional bat­tery en­ergy stor­age in many ap­pli­ca­tions.

Dr Bren­dan Howlin of the Univer­sity of Sur­rey ex­plained: “There is a global search for new en­ergy stor­age tech­nol­ogy and this new ul­tra ca­pac­ity su­per-ca­pac­i­tor has the po­ten­tial to open the door to unimag­in­ably ex­cit­ing de­vel­op­ments.” The ground-break­ing re­search pro­gramme was con­ducted by re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Sur­rey’s De­part­ment of Chem­istry where the project was ini­ti­ated by Dr Don­ald High­gate of Aug­mented Op­tics Ltd.

The re­search team was co-led by prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tors Dr Ian Hamer­ton and Dr Bren­dan Howlin. Dr Hamer­ton con­tin­ues to col­lab­o­rate on the project in his new post at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol, where the elec­tro­chem­i­cal test­ing to trial the re­search find­ings was car­ried out by fel­low Univer­sity of Bris­tol aca­demic David Fer­min, pro­fes­sor of Elec­tro­chem­istry in the School of Chem­istry.

Dr Hamer­ton, reader in poly­mers and com­pos­ite ma­te­ri­als from the De­part­ment of Aerospace En­gi­neer­ing, Univer­sity of Bris­tol, said: “While this re­search has po­ten­tially opened the route to very high den­sity su­per-ca­pac­i­tors, 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 this is a po­ten­tially game-chang­ing de­vel­op­ment.”

Jim Heath­cote, chief ex­ec­u­tive of both Aug­mented Op­tics Ltd and Su­per­ca­pac­i­tor Ma­te­ri­als Ltd, said the test re­sults from the new poly­mers sug­gest that ex­tremely high en­ergy den­sity su­per-ca­pac­i­tors could be con­structed in the very new fu­ture.

They are now seek­ing com­mer­cial part­ners in or­der to sup­ply poly­mers and of­fer as­sis­tance to build th­ese ul­tra-high en­ergy den­sity stor­age de­vices.

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