The next big thing for batteries may have fizzled out years ago.
Remember graphene? The advanced material – made up of a lattice of carbon atoms – may be poised for a comeback, albeit a quiet one, Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Julia Attwood said in a presentation at the BNEF Future of Energy Summit recently. Researchers are studying ways to use graphene in batteries, and the material has the potential to significantly boost performance in a much-needed technology.
Super lightweight, highly conductive of heat and electricity and, pound for pound, stronger than steel, it was all the rage a decade ago. In 2010, the scientists who first extracted it won the Nobel Prize in Physics. “The perfect atomic lattice,” the announcement said.
Fame and fortune followed. Money poured in, patent filings skyrocketed and hopes were raised that graphene could change everything from electronics to carbon-fibre composites to biotechnology. Then, just as fast as the hype came, it stopped because the supply chain was difficult and the material expensive to produce.
“Graphene was supposed to be everything,” Attwood, an emerging technologies analyst, says in an interview. “It really is suffering from people thinking it’s not living up to its potential, which isn’t quite true.”
While graphene wasn’t yet ready for the big time then – for one thing, it’s still pretty expensive to process – researchers have quietly advanced the technology in recent years and it’s starting to make inroads in energy storage. There, it can help battery makers – who have already invested billions into mass-production techniques aimed at cutting costs – achieve new improvements in charging times and storage capacity.
In November, the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology announced that its researchers had developed a “graphene ball”, a material that would allow lithium-ion batteries to charge five times faster and have 45 per cent more capacity. That alone could have a big impact on consumer electronics and the automotive industries.
“People are concerned about the comparison of filling up the gas tank and charging your car battery,” Attwood says. “Suddenly that’s not a problem because you only have to stop for 10 minutes and you can get another 200, 300 miles out of your car.”
Given its wild ride in the past decade, graphene also offers a unique case study in how start-ups in emerging technologies can withstand fickle public interest. One company, Skeleton Technologies, of Estonia, has zeroed in on energy storage – “an industry that needs innovation at any cost”, Attwood says. Another company, Applied Graphene Materials, raised $US18 million in an initial public offering. “Their stock price has dropped off a lot, but they’re an established name in the industry now and are ready to ride a graphene resurgence,” Attwood says.
One day, graphene might enable all sorts of cool gadgets, from bendy phones to magazines that connect to the internet. Until then, it’ll probably keep on improving things quietly, very differently from its moment in the limelight a decade ago.
“I actually quite like that it will change a lot of stuff without us noticing,” Attwood says. “That’s what a good material is. It shouldn’t be obvious in its improvements. It should be part of the furniture, literally.”