MIT's new foam supercapacitor, better than lithium ion MIT

A new sponge could render Lithium-Ion batteries redundant and send tomorrow’s electric cars further, faster.

Researchers at MIT have produced the electrically-conductive Metallic Organic Framworks (MOF) and it could form the basis of supercapacitors that charge faster, and release their energy far more efficiently than the current Lithium-Ion batteries that power basically all the top line EVs.

Carbon isn’t the answer after all?

Existing double-layer supercapacitors all use carbon nanotubes or different types of graphene-activated carbon. This, then, is the first electric double-layer supercapacitor that has been produced from something other than carbon and it is all down to a new compound called Ni3(hexaminotriphenylene)2.

A supercapacitor’s performance is largely dependent on the surface area and this new compound offers a much larger surface area than carbon. In fact, the research team reckons that if they could theoretically unravel 1g of this sponge then it would cover more than 5317 square meters, which is the surface area of an American football field. As a point of comparison, 1 gram of activated carbon would cover just 3000 square meters.

The end of the carbon nanotube goldrush?

This is bad news for a number of research institutions that have invested fortunes in carbon nanotube technology. For years the scientific community has argued that if we can produce consistent, stable nanotubes, then we will break through the glass ceiling in terms of energy and material science.

The number of applications are mind-boggling and most of them probably still hold true, but the driving force for the research was always battery technology and now MIT has shown that they may have been chasing shadows the whole time.

Previous experiments with MOF concluded that it just wouldn’t work well as a conductor thanks to the vast amount of air contained in the sponge-like structure. New techniques have allowed the research team to engineer in a number of different properties, though, which has changed the way the foam works and opened up a whole new avenue in supercapacitor technology.

It’s more durable than carbon too

As well as discharging its energy more efficiently, the new material should also withstand the test of time. After 10,000 charge cycles, the prototype supercapacitors lost just 10% of their performance and that is about on a par with current commercial supercapacitors.

With a little fine tuning, though, the team at MIT think they can improve on that and give the MOF supercapacitor even greater durability. With the new construction techniques, the team can optimize almost every aspect of the material and could well unlock even greater performance.

This is a new dawn and a fresh challenge

So by the time this supercapacitor hits the market, it could technically be twice as powerful as a Lithium-Ion battery or even a commercial supercapacitor. We’ve just pulled back the curtain on MOF and everything is new. Now research teams from around the world have to learn about the material and experiment with the structure to find the best compromise of power and durability. The scientific community is excited, though, and that’s always a good sign.

“With carbons we know pretty much everything, and the developments over the past years were modest and slow. But the MOF used by Dinca is one of the lowest-surface-area MOFs known, and some of these materials can reach up to three times more [surface area] than carbons,” Vlad said.

“The capacity would then be astonishingly high, probably close to that of batteries, but with the power-performance [the ability to deliver high power output] of supercapacitors.”

Traditionally, the weak point of supercapacitors has been their capacity, which is lower than a Lithium-Ion battery of comparable size. But this new technology sweeps away that conundrum and could spell the end of the battery as we know it.

Tesla's massive battery installation in Aliso Springs

Lithium-Ion destined for the museum if this works

Essentially, these supercapacitors could make today’s Lithium-Ion batteries look like wind-up toys in the not too distant future. The likes of Tesla have worked hard to optimize these units, but now we’re on the cusp of a discovery that could give cars the kind of range that we can only dream of right now.

These supercapacitors could also change the way we look at powering buildings and the likes of the Tesla Powerpack could suddenly become a must-have item for utilities suppliers and even major companies.

We get carried away with new cars and applications, but much of it is window dressing. MIT has taken a fresh look at the basic building block that powers the EVs, buildings and even rocket ships of tomorrow and it really could be one of the biggest breakthroughs we’ve seen in recent times.

Before then, MIT has more treats…

The foam won’t be ready for the commercial market for a good long while, so before then MIT has something else up its sleeve. SolidEnergy Systems, a company formed to profit from the alchemists in the MIT labs will release a long-lasting lithium-ion battery for drones in November.

The new battery should mean that drones can stay in the air twice as long and the company based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will release another version for phones next year. This battery has the potential to power an EV for more than 400 miles on a single charge, too, and the team is working hard on a commercially viable version.

So even though we’ll have to wait for the quantum leap, we’re going to get a very solid stride just around the corner.

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