As the world moves increasingly to clean energy in a bid to cut costs and lessen the impacts of climate change, one of the biggest challenges for scientists is to devise new, more efficient ways of holding onto it. Energy storage systems (ESS) like Tesla's much-hyped Powerwall are a promising option, and researchers are now looking into how they can improve the efficiency of the batteries they run on.
One way we could do this is by using graphene ink to 3D-print longer-lasting ESS batteries with increased storage abilities, researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK have found. The university has just announced a new project to research the technology, funded with a £500,000 grant from the national Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Graphene, the so-called wonder material, was discovered only this century and features extremely high conductive properties that might allow it to more efficiently store charge. This could potentially lead to better batteries for personal devices, such as smartphones and tablets, but we'd see even more benefits in larger batteries designed for the storage of solar, wind, and wave power.
"Energy storage systems are critical to address climate change and, as clean energy is generated through a variety of ways, an efficient way to store this energy is required," one of the team, Craig Banks, a professor in electrochemistry and nanotechnology, said in a press release. "Lithium and sodium ion batteries and super/ultracapacitors are promising approaches to achieve this. This project will be utilising the reported benefits of graphene – it is more conductive than metal – and applying these into ESS."
One of the challenges for the researchers is working with graphene's molecular properties - the material is famous for being just one carbon-atom thick, which creates conductivity issues of its own relating to a poor surface area ratio. However, by using 3D printing to assemble cumulative layers of the substance, the researchers believe they'll be able to get around the problem.
"In addition to the choice of material, the overall architecture of ESS is? of critical importance. The architecture of ESS can be improved through the use of 3D structures, which have high surface areas, good electrical properties and hierarchical pore structures/porous channels," said Banks. "We're trying to achieve a conductive ink that blends the fantastic properties of graphene with the ease of use of 3D printing to be manipulated into a structure that's beneficial for batteries and supercapacitors."
If the 3D-printed batteries turn out as hoped, the applications could be massive. According to Banks, "Ideally, we could have the brilliant scenario where you just plug in and go – printing whatever structure you want out of graphene from a machine on your desk."
Amazing potential. We look forward to hearing how it turns out, with the research expected to run for three and a half years.
To read about a related discovery, make sure to check out our recent story on stanene, graphene's 'cousin', which could turn out to be the most efficient material ever made when it comes to conducting electricity.