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Why supercapacitors matter

o Stefan Hammond
21.02.2013 kl 19:12 | Computerworld Hong Kong


The brainiacs who created the building blocks for our current cybersphere began with soldering irons and basic components. Your spiffy iPhone 5 in its Hello Kitty case is the latest Apple product, and Apple started as a pair of shaggy guys in California connecting basic components to crunch numbers. Some CWHK readers will remember essential items like breadboards, microprocessors, resistors and capacitors.

The humble capacitor has been left behind in the digital gold rush, but in early 2013, the device is making a comeback. The new "supercapacitors" overcome a physical limitation: the charge-carrying capacity of a conventional capacitor is partly a function of the surface area of its plates, rendering miniaturization impossible.

How then are these new supercapacitors possible? Through advances in other technologies. Graphene--essentially a sheet of carbon one atom thick--makes them feasible, but the substance is difficult to work with. Until you let a bunch of researchers at UCLA's NanoSystems Institute fiddle around with the stuff and a DVD burner.

No point in nattering on about piezoelectricity, but if you're interested, here's a video on how they did it:

What this means

The new supercapacitors charge rapidly and discharge slowly. Miniaturizing them means desirable qualities in battery powered devices will become feasible. Mobile device out of juice? Plug it in and watch the charge-o-meter ramp up to "full" in a minute or two.

That's sweet, but consider the ramifications for electric vehicles. If an automobile can drive around Hong Kong all day and recharge fully in a brief period of time, does that not provide incentive for our government to promote usage of EVs? Burning liquid fossils to get from Point A to Point B hasn't been a selling point of late.

The technology is still under construction, but other uses are becoming apparent. For example, capacitors were traditionally used as "electricity buffers": their ability to handle spikes in electrical loads made them invaluable.

With appropriate miniaturization, supercapacitors can be placed in parallel across lithium-ion batteries, which would protect the battery from fast charging/discharging and allow more of its energy to be utilized. This can extend battery life and might even prevent the occasional flame-on--we've all read the stories the tech media loves: "Woman's mobile phone self-combusts, destroys Italian designer handbag."

This is disruptive technology. Engineers worldwide--including the guys at Shanghai Shi Long High-Tech--love the idea of a flexible, tiny capacitor capable of handling large electrical loads. The possibilities are intriguing.

Keywords: Components  
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