Electrical cables that store energy? New nanotech may provide power storage in electric cables, clothes

June 2, 2014, University of Central Florida
Jayan Thomas is a professor and scientist at the University of Central Florida. Credit: UCF

Imagine being able to carry all the juice you needed to power your MP3 player, smartphone and electric car in the fabric of your jacket?

Sounds like science fiction, but it may become a reality thanks to breakthrough technology developed at a University of Central Florida research lab.

So far electrical cables are used only to transmit electricity. However, nanotechnology scientist and professor Jayan Thomas and his Ph.D. student Zenan Yu have developed a way to both transmit and store electricity in a single lightweight copper wire.

Their work is the focus of the cover story of the June 30 issue of the material science journal Advanced Materials and science magazine, Nature has published a detailed discussion about this technology in the current issue.

"It's a very interesting idea," Thomas said. "When we did it and started talking about it, everyone we talked to said, "Hmm, never thought of that. It's unique.'"

Copper wire is the starting point but eventually, Thomas said, as the technology improves, special fibers could also be developed with nanostructures to conduct and store energy.

Dr. Thomas and his team light an LED using energy stored in the outside coatings of an electrical cable. Credit: UCF

More immediate applications could be seen in the design and development of electrical vehicles, space-launch vehicles and . By being able to store and conduct energy on the same wire, heavy, space-consuming batteries could become a thing of the past. It is possible to further miniaturize the or the space that has been previously used for batteries could be used for other purposes. In the case of launch vehicles, that could potentially lighten the load, making launches less costly, Thomas said.

So how did he get the idea about energy-storing cables? He was inspired during a routine evening walk in his neighborhood.

Thomas and his team began with a single copper wire. Then they grew a layer of nanowhiskers on the outer surface of the copper wire. These whiskers were then treated with a special alloy, which created an electrode. Two electrodes are needed for the powerful energy storage. So they had to figure out a way to create a second electrode.

They did it- this by adding a very thin plastic sheet around the whiskers and wrapping it around using a metal sheath (the second electrode) after generating nanowhiskers on it (the second electrode and outer covering). The layers were then glued together with a special gel. Because, of the insulationthe nanowhisker layer is insulating, the inner copper wire retains its ability to channel electricity, the layers around the wire independently store powerful energy.

In other words, Thomas and his team created a supercapacitor on the outside of the . Supercapcitors store powerful energy, like that needed to start a vehicle or heavy-construction equipment.

Although more work needs to be done, Thomas said the technique should be transferable to other types of materials. That could lead to specially treated clothing fibers being able to hold enough power for big tasks. For example, if flexible solar cells and these fibers were used in tandem to make a jacket, it could be used independently to power electronic gadgets and other devices.

"It's very exciting," Thomas said. "We take it step by step. I love getting to the lab everyday, and seeing what we can come up with next. Sometimes things don't work out, but even those failures teach us a lot of things. Still, I know how important getting out of the lab can be too. I won't be giving up those evening walks anytime soon. I get some great ideas during that quiet time."

Explore further: Solar cells based on stacked textile electrodes for integration into fabrics

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5 / 5 (2) Jun 02, 2014
"Hmm, never thought of that. It's unique.'"

Heh...That's what I was thinking when I started reading the article. The pylons that hold the wires might also be used as additional 'real estate' for storage solutions. Certainly not enough for the storage needed when going fully renewable, but it might be enough for short term fluctuations (i.e. stabilizing the net in the switchover phase during local interruptions)
1 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2014
Getting closer to walking the ley line. Altho the images on the desert floor in Peru is more apt.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2014
This is certainly an interesting concept. Though I fear that in practice it may be incredibly difficult.

Lets put aside all of the material science issues surrounding the new material (durability is a big question).

Since all of the overhead powerlines are AC turning them into enormous capacitors really screws up the power factor coming from the plant. Like, really really badly.

I think this is one of the big reasons why most grid-level capacity is projected to be DC (batteries) using inverters to go between the two.

I can't describe power factor sufficiently, so I suggest looking up the wiki...
not rated yet Jun 02, 2014
Hey Liam, are you sure you turned off the circuit breaker? ZZZZAP!
5 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2014
The numbers do not add up when you do the maths.
At best this would smooth out power variations on a short timescale (seconds)

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