Breakthrough technology makes batteries safe and sustainable

Breakthrough technology makes batteries safe and sustainable
The BEST supercapacitor has an improved ability to quickly charge and discharge energy, and it can store significant power for longer. Credit: Swinburne University of Technology

As exploding batteries in mobile phones, computers and headphones continue to make headlines, researchers at Swinburne's Centre for Micro-Photonics are one step closer to producing commercially viable, chemical-free, long-lasting, safe batteries.

Professor Baohua Jia and Dr Han Lin lead a team developing the Bolt Electricity Storage Technology (BEST) – a graphene oxide-based supercapacitor offering high performance and low-cost energy storage.

The technology could, according to one investor, make chemical batteries a thing of the past.

"The battery is very thin, it's carbon based and it's environmentally friendly," Professor Jia says. "We filed a patent on the technology last year."

The technology is on the brink of becoming a commercial prototype.

Investment in its development will soon be under way through Graphene Solutions, a joint venture between graphite miner First Graphite Resources (FGR) and Melbourne electronics company Kremford Pty Ltd.

The seeds of the BEST project were sown in 2015, with a $375,000 Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant for direct laser printing of thin films of activated graphene oxide. Graphene material is very porous, which gives it a hugely increased surface area on which to store electrical charge. The project aims to create a supercapacitor that could more efficiently collect, store and discharge the energy collected by solar cells.

"Our centre has a history of making very good solar cells," Dr Lin says. "But there's a challenge in storing the energy generated from them. Sunshine changes all the time, depending on the weather, and that makes the current and voltage unstable. That's no good for batteries."

Existing batteries generally can't store all the energy that a solar cell generates, so a proportion is wasted. The batteries have to be extremely large to store sufficient energy, and they can be damaged by fluctuations in the amount of sunlight being converted. They also have a limited lifetime, reduced by a cycle of charging during the daytime and discharging at night.

Chemical batteries, invented more than 200 years ago, are toxic to the environment. The chemicals degrade as they are used, producing spent, un-rechargeable batteries as waste products. Modern uses require batteries that charge and discharge quickly, too.

The BEST supercapacitor has an improved ability to quickly charge and discharge energy, and it can store significant power for longer. It's safer than current battery technology, as it is able to function without overheating or resulting in explosions or fires. The porous graphene surface stores charged atoms (ions) and moves them from one electrode to another.

"In this process, no ions are being generated or being killed," Dr Lin says. "They are maintained by charge and discharge, and are just moved around. Moving ions doesn't degrade the supercapacitor, so it can charge millions of times, in theory. Usually, a supercapacitor can work for at least 10,000 life-cycles."

That "in theory" is important. The efficacy of graphene oxide has been proven in the laboratory.

Making a commercial prototype is the next step.

Kieran Harford, of Kremford Pty Ltd, thinks that step is very close. "We're pretty sure we can handmake a prototype within eight weeks," Mr Harford says. "But we need to be able to make it commercially."

On completion of the project, Kremford will own 40 per cent of Graphene Solutions; FGR will own the other 60 per cent.

"Warwick Grigor of Far East Capital has just raised $3.5 million for FGR, $2 million of which is earmarked for this project," Mr Harford says. "We'll be working with Baohua to make the prototype over a two-year period."

FGR issued a media release in March advising that due diligence on the BEST battery project had been completed on the science and facilities. Licence and co-operation agreements were signed at the end of May.

Kremford's electronics expertise will be key to the project. "Kremford has some ideas how to automate the process. It's early days yet, but we believe we can set up world-class manufacturing plants in Australia rather than off shore," Mr Harford says.

Further investment will be needed a few years down the track, but Mr Harford says battery and storage device businesses, or electronics and related industries, will be keen to get on board.

"A lot of people in the market are trying to do what we're doing. What's given us the advantage is Professor Jia and Dr Lin's innovations. If it comes out the way we're planning, we could get rid of chemical batteries from the environment. It's phenomenal."

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Jun 14, 2017
Wow! No chemicals are used! Must be like ball lightning, held together by its own EM fields

Jun 14, 2017
Well, I'd call it vapor-ware, except that vapor has chemicals. Vacuum-ware? Wow indeed. Historically, capacitors don't have as much capacity as chemical batteries. I guess the news here vs. the linked PO story from last year is that they are nearing the industrial prototype phase.

It does sound like they are developing an ideal device, but...
So many battery stories, so few real world advances.

Jun 14, 2017
Sounds great! Hopefully it will scale up at low cost.

Jun 14, 2017
This is a pretty big deal, if they can commercialize it.

On a related front, EEStor seems to be making some progress, though it's much slower than many hoped a decade ago. They have some independent results that are pretty good, and somewhat more realistic than they were a while back. They've also gotten some new funding; $3 million worth, according to the news. So we'll have to see. This is a different technology than the one in the current article; it's a Composition Modified Barium Titanate composed of nanoparticles coated with alumina and suspended in epoxy. Apparently the cracking problems have been solved by a new hire polymer specialist.

Jun 15, 2017
High energy density supercapacitors are bombs in and of themselves, because shorting them out releases all the stored energy in a very short timespan. Breaking the dielectric layer allows the charges to combine rapidly, which results in a massive release of heat and the evaporation of the capacitor contents. The reaction is more violent than the chemical fire from regular batteries.

On a related front, EEStor seems to be making some progress

They're always making "progress". EEStor is an investment scam. Their high-k dielectric claims have been debunked many times over as fake, because the dielectric constant of the material depends on the voltage applied to it and drops down at the thousands of volts they claim to achieve.

Jun 15, 2017
Reading up on it to refresh my memory...

Apparently the cracking problems have been solved by a new hire polymer specialist.

The "cracking problem" is ad-hoc to the scam, because when they first published their claims the other scientists and commentators pointed out that the dielectric material should start cracking under the stresses, yet there was no mention of the issue at all.

So now the new hires are there to "solve" a problem that they didn't have - because their invention was totally made up so they couldn't recognize the problem. Now they're taking the criticism leveled against them and pretending that it didn't expose them as frauds, but instead spinning a new yarn from it.

It's like saying "I invented these shoes that let me run 50 mph! Wanna invest?", and when someone asks how did you do that without breaking your legs, you go "I got this guy who's working on that problem right now and he's making great progress... wanna invest?"

Jun 17, 2017
@Eikka, perhaps you should take a look at the two most recent independent analyses instead of knee-jerking against new technology like you always do.

Jun 17, 2017
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Jun 17, 2017
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Jun 17, 2017
Natural graphite is only used because it is currently cheaper.

"The graphite can be sourced from natural flake graphite or from synthetic graphite, which is usually made from petroleum coke. In the past, battery makers for high-end automotive applications have tended to favour the use of synthetic graphite because of variations in quality and restrictions on supply of natural graphite, most of which is produced by small-scale mining operations in China.

"However, the trend is towards the use of less expensive natural graphite, which now takes up about 65% of the battery-grade graphite market."

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