Clemson University researchers said they have discovered a new way to optimize batteries that could change the way energy is stored and used in all sorts of applications.
One day soon, the products built in a Clemson science laboratory could revolutionize how tools, electronics and electric vehicles are made and how renewable energy sources are distributed, officials said.
Much of the group’s discovery boils down to a new use for a product found on grocery store shelves: aluminum foil. But it also involves growing and manipulating complex microscopic carbon structures in innovative ways that are still under development.
The primary group of three researchers at the Clemson Nanomaterials Center has developed a new capacitor built with organic and recyclable materials that can store energy for long periods of time and can release it much quicker and with more power than capacitors commonly used in today’s marketplace, officials said.
The capacitors could prolong life of batteries between charges and give extra bursts of energy when needed — for instance, when a car accelerates quickly or a saw begins slicing through a piece of wood.
They can also store energy for later use — like energy produced by the sun’s rays that can be used at night, officials said.
The Clemson research team hopes to partner with South Carolina manufacturers to turn their research into a larger-scale marketable technology that would bring new jobs to the state and could change how South Carolina views its renewable energy options.
Research started in 1999 when they discovered a way to grow organic carbon nanotubes that could be used to store energy for future use, said Dr. Raja Rao, a physics professor at the Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technology who leads the research team.
The team developed a way to grow the nanotubes and meld them onto narrow strips of aluminum foil, which are much cheaper than industrial aluminum used now in the industry, Rao said.
The team then cuts the foil into circles, inserts it into watch-battery sized cells and presses them together. After receiving a charge from a battery, the capacitor could light a small lightbulb or run a toy car.
The technology’s uses could be nearly endless and its impact on the environment may be felt most of all in its ability to lengthen the lifetime of batteries, said Dr. Mark Roberts, who came to Clemson three years ago after receiving his doctorate at Stanford.
“The capacitors themselves aren’t going to be the end-all solution, it’s going to be the capacitors that are going to support existing technology,” Roberts said.
“Increasing the lifetime of a battery, for example lead-acid, is going to have a huge environmental impact because of the waste generated from these batteries that are disposed.
“If we could just double the lifetime of every single battery by using capacitors in the right way, already you have an impact,” Roberts said.
Clemson secured a provisional patent on its niche process — the use of kitchen grade aluminum foil as a way to quickly produce rolls of the nanotubes. The team has also built two other processes to grow the carbon nanotubes; spray-coating a paper material or straining it onto a filter paper.
The next step is to figure out the best way to grow the carbon nanotubes and then build the technology to a larger scale that could be used for multiple purposes, Rao said.
As renewable energy sources continue to develop, the product could be a solution to the lingering question: how to store wind or solar power for use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
“We can surely use this to store energy and then release it when we need it,” said Dr. Ramakrishna Podila, who earned his doctorate at Clemson and has worked on the technology for seven years.
Last year, the team won a $1.2 million grant through the National Science Foundation to figure out the best use of the technology, train students on its use and prepare them for careers in nanomaterials engineering, Roberts said.
“By setting people up in the right training in these careers, I think in the long run will have more impact than through the specific research that we can accomplish in just a few years,” Roberts said.
The science foundation grant lasts for four years. The team’s goal is to optimize its processes this year and then partner with a local company to create the same processes on a larger scale and bring the research to industry, Rao said.
“There’s no point in getting an industrial partner yet until we can know what the best product is we can offer,” Rao said.
The group has presented its research at three top physics and engineering conferences and this year plans to submit up to 10 research papers for peer-reviewed publications.