The tech blogs have been aTwitter with news of a potential portable energy breakthrough. Heralded as possibly bringing "The End of Batteries," researchers at UCLA have succeeded in creating high-energy-density graphene micro-supercapacitors with a ridiculously cheap fabrication tool: The laser in an off-the-shelf DVD burner.
Let me back up a sec and cut through the tech jargon. What these supercapacitors can do is quickly absorb, store, and release energy. If they could be produced inexpensively—which they now can—they promise to do the same things batteries do, but way better. A supercapacitor-equipped cell phone would charge in seconds, not minutes. If scaled up to integrate with an electric car, overnight top-ups would become a thing of the past.
As far as the impact on product design, supercapacitors are made of graphene, which is thin, flexible and super-strong. Battery real estate is one of the big constraints in the design of portable objects, whether we're talking about cell phones, cordless drills or emergency lighting; imagine the freedom of form possible when that barrier is minimized.
But the greatest benefit of supercapacitors would be realized not just by individuals, but by the planet. Batteries use up metal and contain nasty chemicals required to create portable juice, and creating/disposing of these things causes environmental problems. Graphene, however, is just carbon—biodegradable and compostable. When you're done with the thing, throw it outside and let it go back into the Earth.
Here are the two researchers, professor Richard Kaner and grad student Maher El-Kady, explaining the possibilities: