Sometimes a problem with science isn’t going to be solved head-on, but instead needs an alternative approach. Mobile phone manufacturers have been trying to extend the life of their devices’ batteries while simultaneously making them as small as they possibly can. But for most of us, the problem with a dead battery is less that we’re far from a power source – simply that it will take an hour or so of wired connection to charge it back up again, and taking the ‘mobile’ out of ‘mobile phone’ for that period.
But what if it only took five seconds to charge a battery to full capacity? Now that could make a big difference.
So, the theory. Graphene, the wonder material first isolated by Manchester University academics Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov back in 2005, has the potential to be used in supercapacitors that could hold enough power to run a mobile phone for a day or more.
A graphene supercapacitor cuts out the need for a chemical reaction to produce the power the way current lithium ion batteries do. Batteries can produce a relatively large amount of power for their size, but they release it slowly, which tends to mean that they also charge slowly. Capacitors don’t produce power internally, they need to have power deposited within them, and they simply retain that power until it’s needed.
At the moment, capacitors aren’t capable of retaining the kind of charge needed to power portable devices for a significant length of time. But among various projects happening worldwide, scientists at UCLA in California have demonstrated supercapacitors that can power a light bulb for more than five minutes at a time, after only a few seconds of charging.
And the catch? Well, nothing is ready for market yet and probably won’t be for a few years. But if we eventually make the switch from batteries to supercapacitors, it’s likely to revolutionise the way we use mobile devices.
Perhaps you could charge your phone and your electric car (not to mention your fold-out tablet computer) at the same time, in just a few minutes.
Since graphene can be exceptionally thin and flexible, that makes it perfect for wearable devices –the Apple Watch will seem positively clunky by comparison with what can be achieved with graphene. And since graphene’s made of carbon, it should be easily recyclable, unlike standard batteries today.
Of course, making it easier to charge our batteries is unlikely to encourage people to be circumspect with their power consumption – it’s more than likely that they’ll simply use more power and increase the need for more energy, which needs to be produced more sustainably and be more cost-effective. But we’re working on that…