Co.Design

Watch: 2 Scientists Accidentally Discover A World-Changing Super Material

The graphene supercapacitor is capable of charging up to 1,000 times faster than a normal battery.

Since a pair of Russian scientists won the Nobel Prize for discovering graphene in 2002, scientists have raced to find a more efficient way to make it. Among them were Ric Kaner and Maher El-Kady, two UCLA scientists who were searching for a better way to manufacture the super-strong material when they accidentally happened upon another holy grail in the science community: an efficient, biodegradable battery-like device—technically speaking, a supercapacitor.

Kaner and El-Kady are profiled in a new short film, talking about how they stumbled across their discovery. “There are only accidents in the sense that we were trying to find something else, and we realized what we had was better for a different application,” says Kader:

I think the eureka moment [was] when Mahar dragged me into the lab and said ‘take a look at this.’ He turned on a light bulb using this little piece of graphene. But the amazing thing is, it doesn’t stop working. After charging for two or three seconds, he ran this light for over five minutes. I thought, 'We have something very important here.'

They had accidentally created a graphene supercapacitor, which charges more quickly (and with more power) than regular batteries, making it a potential candidate to power a future generation of super-efficient gadgets, cars, and systems. While carbon nanotube capacitors are old hat, this supercapacitor solves the problem of electrical conductivity that has plagued other researchers. Kaner describes the device as “like a battery, but charges and discharges 100 to 1,000 times faster.” He imagines charging an iPhone in 30 seconds, or fully charging an electric car in minutes. Equally important are the supercapacitor’s environmental benefits: Unlike batteries, which contain toxic chemicals and metals, graphene is entirely biodegradable.

Perhaps the video’s biggest surprise, for me at least, was seeing the ingenious method that Kaner and El-Kady have devised to cure pure graphene. Seen at the beginning of the film, they coat a blank disk with graphite oxide and “cure” it using the laser from an off-the-shelf DVD drive—et voilà, graphene. Traditionally, it was possible to distill graphene by sticking a piece of Scotch tape into a pile of graphite. But this is faster, simpler, and cleaner—it’s also something that you could potentially do in your own home.

A more technical explanation of their discovery is here.

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11 Comments

  • Adam Bentounes

    I'm a french student working on batteries and I was wondering I this kind of supraconductors were going to be commercialized, and if yes, are there any dangers? If someone could answer me or give me more information, it would be really kind

  • Lucian Sitch

    I am an Australian secondary school student interested in experimenting with using graphene of use in a school project would anyone have any ideas of where i can get more info or preferably contact Ric Kaner or Maher El-Kady

  • Quentin

    Well, it's very interesting but... how can they dry the graphite oxide with the laser when the face with the graphite oxide is facing the floor ? Isn't it falling ?

  • James Griggs

    I think this is an interesting article.  But will the product ever be commercialized.  I mean it's really amazing, how long will it take to come to market.  We have been hearing things about super capacitors and nanotubes for more than a decade, and nothing has even come close to getting to market.  The greatest breakthrough will be when I can buy batteries made from this new material.

  • guest

    It will unfortunately not be commercialized for some time. The article is very vague, and does not account for any of the larger issues present with using graphene in supercapacitors. Reading the published paper would be best. Also, a supercapacitor is by no means a super battery. Batteries are still needed for their energy density, while supercapacitors are more used for applications which require higher power densities. There are also competing technologies such as psuedocapacitors using nickel oxides.

    Don't get me wrong, the research is great, however I would not expect it to solve our energy storage problems, as this article may lead us to believe.  

  • Siggi Sigbjornsson

    Scientific breakthroughs are like winning the lottery. "Oh no, I forgot to close the culture and now I've invented penicillin".