Engineers create an energy-storing supercapacitor from ancient materials
Two of humanity's most ubiquitous historical materials, cement and carbon black (which resembles very fine charcoal), may form the basis for a novel, low-cost energy storage system, according to a new study. The technology could facilitate the use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and tidal power by allowing energy networks to remain stable despite fluctuations in renewable energy supply.
The two materials, the researchers found, can be combined with water to make a supercapacitor -- an alternative to batteries -- that could provide storage of electrical energy. As an example, the MIT researchers who developed the system say that their supercapacitor could eventually be incorporated into the concrete foundation of a house, where it could store a full day's worth of energy while adding little (or no) to the cost of the foundation and still providing the needed structural strength. The researchers also envision a concrete roadway that could provide contactless recharging for electric cars as they travel over that road.
The simple but innovative technology is described in a forthcoming paper in the journal PNAS, in a paper by MIT professors Franz-Josef Ulm, Admir Masic, and Yang-Shao Horn, and four others at MIT and at the Wyss Institute.
Capacitors are in principle very simple devices, consisting of two electrically conductive plates immersed in an electrolyte and separated by a membrane. When a voltage is applied across the capacitor, positively charged ions from the electrolyte accumulate on the negatively charged plate, while the positively charged plate accumulates negatively charged ions. Since the membrane in between the plates blocks charged ions from migrating across, this separation of charges creates an electric field between the plates, and the capacitor becomes charged. The two plates can maintain this pair of charges for a long time and then deliver them very quickly when needed. Supercapacitors are simply capacitors that can store exceptionally large charges.
The amount of power a capacitor can store depends on the total surface area of its conductive plates. The key to the new supercapacitors developed by this team comes from a method of producing a cement-based material with an extremely high internal surface area due to a dense, interconnected network of conductive material within its bulk volume. The researchers achieved this by introducing carbon black -- which is highly conductive -- into a concrete mixture along with cement powder and water, and letting it cure. The water naturally forms a branching network of openings within the structure as it reacts with cement, and the carbon migrates into these spaces to make wire-like structures within the hardened cement. These structures have a fractal-like structure, with larger branches sprouting smaller branches, and those sprouting even smaller branchlets, and so on, ending up with an extremely large surface area within the confines of a relatively small volume. The material is then soaked in a standard electrolyte material, such as potassium chloride, a kind of salt, which provides the charged particles that accumulate on the carbon structures. Two electrodes made of this material, separated by a thin space or an insulating layer, form a very powerful supercapacitor, the researchers found.
The two plates of the capacitor function just like the two poles of a rechargeable battery of equivalent voltage: When connected to a source of electricity, as with a battery, energy gets stored in the plates, and then when connected to a load, the electrical current flows back out to provide power.
"The material is fascinating," Masic says, "because you have the most-used human-made material in the world, cement, that is combined with carbon black, that is a well-known historical material -- the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with it. You have these at least two-millennia-old materials that when you combine them in a specific manner you come up with a conductive nanocomposite, and that's when things get really interesting."
As the mixture sets and cures, he says, "The water is systematically consumed through cement hydration reactions, and this hydration fundamentally affects nanoparticles of carbon because they are hydrophobic (water repelling)." As the mixture evolves, "the carbon black is self-assembling into a connected conductive wire," he says. The process is easily reproducible, with materials that are inexpensive and readily available anywhere in the world. And the amount of carbon needed is very small -- as little as 3 percent by volume of the mix -- to achieve a percolated carbon network, Masic says.
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