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.