Microtechnology: Flexible Supercapacitor with Potential for Wearables


Scientists have taken a large step toward making a fiber-like energy storage device that can be woven into clothing and power wearable medical monitors, communications equipment or other small electronics.

The device is a supercapacitor – a cousin to the battery. This one packs an interconnected network of graphene and carbon nanotubes so tightly that it stores energy comparable to some thin-film lithium batteries – an area where batteries have traditionally held a large advantage.

The product's developers, engineers and scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, Tsinghua University in China, and Case Western Reserve University in the United States, believe the storage capacity by volume (called volumetric energy density) is the highest reported for carbon-based microscale supercapacitors to date: 6.3 microwatt hours per cubic millimeter.

The device also maintains the advantage of charging and releasing energy much faster than a battery. The fiber-structured hybrid materials offer huge accessible surface areas and are highly conductive. The researchers have developed a way to continuously produce the flexible fiber, enabling them to scale up production for a variety of uses. To date, they have made 50-meter long fibers, and see no limits on length.

They envision the fiber supercapacitor could be woven into clothing to power medical devices for people at home, or communications devices for soldiers in the field. Or, they say, the fiber could be a space-saving power source and serve as "energy-carrying wires" in medical implants.

Yuan Chen, a professor of chemical engineering at NTU led the new study, working with Dingshan Yu, Kunli Goh, Hong Wang, Li Wei and Wenchao Jiang at NTU; Qiang Zhang at Tsinghua; and Liming Dai at Case Western Reserve.

Dai, a professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve and a co-author of the paper, explained that most supercapacitors have high power density but low energy density, which means they can charge quickly and give a boost of power, but do not last long. Conversely, batteries have high energy density and low power density, which means they can last a long time, but do not deliver a large amount of energy quickly.

Microelectronics to electric vehicles can benefit from energy storage devices that offer high power and high energy density. That is why researchers are working to develop a device that offers both. To continue to miniaturize electronics, industry needs tiny energy storage devices with large volumetric energy densities.

By mass, supercapacitors might have comparable energy storage, or energy density, to batteries. But because they require large amounts of accessible surface area to store energy, they have always lagged badly in energy density by volume. To improve the energy density by volume, the researchers designed a hybrid fiber.

A solution containing acid-oxidized single-wall nanotubes, graphene oxide and ethylenediamine, which promotes synthesis and dopes graphene with nitrogen, is pumped through a flexible narrow reinforced tube called a capillary column and heated in an oven for six hours. Sheets of graphene, one to a few atoms thick, and aligned, single-walled carbon nanotubes self-assemble into an interconnected porous network that run the length of the fiber. The arrangement provides huge amounts of accessible surface area – 396 square meters per gram of hybrid fiber – for the transport and storage of charges.

But the materials are tightly packed in the capillary column and remain so as they are pumped out, resulting in the high volumetric energy density. The process using multiple capillary columns will enable the engineers to make fibers continuously and maintain consistent quality, Chen said.

COMPAMED.de; Source: Case Western Reserve University