Batteries are at the heart of our most important daily technologies. Your phone, your laptop, and eventually your car and home, all rely on storing energy in batteries. Current battery technology is great, but graphene batteries could solve their shortcomings.
What Exactly Is Graphene?
There’s a good chance you’ve heard about graphene in the media before. Every few years there are breathless predictions of how this wonder material will transform various technologies. What you may not know is that graphene is just carbon. The same stuff life on earth is based on and an incredibly abundant element on earth.
Graphene is a one-atom-thick crystalline lattice of graphite, which is essentially crystalline carbon. This sounds like something incredibly fancy, but you can make flakes of graphene with a pencil and some sticky tape. The Nobel prize for doing so, though, has already been awarded.
Graphene has several properties that make it very exciting as a potential part of future technology. It has high thermal and electrical conductivity. So if you want to move electricity or heat with high efficiency, it’s a promising choice.
Graphene also exhibits a high level of hardness and strength. It’s very flexible and elastic. It’s also transparent and can be used to generate electricity from sunlight.
Graphene Is Hard to Mass-Produce
This all sounds wonderful, but there’s a big roadblock. Although it’s trivial to create graphene flakes or small sheets for research in a lab, mass production is proving difficult. If it weren’t for the challenges of mass-producing this nanomaterial reliably, it would have been in products ages ago.
The good news is that there are several promising avenues to mass production that could make graphene cheaper enough to hit the mass market. Graphene-infused fiber can now be made in reasonable quantities. Graphene can also be produced using solvents, although these are highly toxic. Researchers have been looking into safer solvents and that seems promising as well.
Graphene is currently often made using chemical vapor deposition. Here the graphene forms as a layer on a substrate material. The problem with this is that the defect rate in the graphene is high. New research using liquid (with its perfectly flat surface,) as a substrate might solve the defect rate problem. So assuming that we eventually crack graphene mass production, why do we want it in batteries?
Lithium-Ion Batteries Have Problems Graphene Won’t
Lithium batteries are the most energy-dense battery you can find in consumer electronics. They make devices like smartphones, drones, and electric cars possible. However, lithium. batteries are volatile and need extensive safety circuitry to keep them stable.
They also degrade with every recharge, there’s a limit to how much power they can deliver at once, and they have to be charged slowly lest the battery overheat and explode.
Batteries enhanced with graphene can fix or mitigate many of these issues. Adding graphene to current lithium batteries can increase their capacity dramatically, help them charge quickly and safely, and make them last much longer before they need replacement.
Solid-state batteries have no liquid electrolyte. That’s the substance that sits between the two terminals of a battery and stores the chemical energy that’s converted to electrical current. Creating large practical solid-state batteries for commercial use is still an ongoing research goal, but graphene could be the right candidate to make solid-state batteries a mass-market reality.
In a graphene solid-state battery, it’s mixed with ceramic or plastic to add conductivity to what is usually a non-conductive material. For example, scientists have created a graphene-ceramic solid-state battery prototype that could be the blueprint for safe, fast-charging alternatives to lithium-ion batteries with volatile liquid electrolytes.
Graphene Batteries You Can Buy (Sort Of)
Graphene batteries sound awesome, like something from science fiction. The good news is that you don’t actually have to wait to experience the benefits of graphene. Although solid-state graphene batteries are still years away, graphene-enhanced lithium batteries are already on the market.
For example, you can buy one of Elecjet’s Apollo batteries, which have graphene components that help enhance the lithium battery inside. The main benefit here is charge speed, with Elecjet claiming a 25-minute empty-to-full charge. These batteries are only slightly enhanced with a little graphene, but their cost isn’t so high to put them out of reach of regular consumers.
Over the next few years, as the cost of graphene production drops, we expect to see more devices beef up their lithium batteries with this wonder material. One day soon, perhaps solid-state graphene batteries will become the next great revolution in power storage.
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