Dong Su and Eric Stach use a powerful electron microscope to analyze samples of activated graphene at Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials. Says Stach: “The CFN provides access to scientists around the world to solve cutting-edge problems in nanoscience and nanotechnology. This work is exactly what this facility was established to do.” Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven
National Laboratory have helped to uncover the nanoscale structure of a novel
form of carbon, contributing to an explanation of why this new material acts
like a super-absorbent sponge when it comes to soaking up electric charge. The
material, which was recently created at The Univ. of Texas – Austin, can be
incorporated into “supercapacitor” energy-storage devices with high storage
capacity while retaining other attractive attributes such as fast energy
release, quick recharge time, and a lifetime of at least 10,000
“Those properties make this new form of carbon particularly
attractive for meeting electrical energy storage needs that also require a
quick release of energy—for instance, in electric vehicles or to smooth out
power availability from intermittent energy sources, such as wind and solar
power,” said Brookhaven materials scientist Eric Stach, a co-author on a paper
describing the material published in Science.
Supercapacitors are similar to batteries in that both store
electric charge. Batteries do so through chemical reactions between metallic
electrodes and a liquid electrolyte. Because these chemicals take time to
react, energy is stored and released relatively slowly. But batteries can store
a lot of energy and release it over a fairly long time.
Supercapacitors, on the other hand, store charge in the form of
ions on the surface of the electrodes, similar to static electricity, rather
than relying on chemical reactions. Charging the electrodes causes ions in the
electrolyte to separate, or polarize, as well—so charge gets stored at the
interface between the electrodes and the electrolyte. Pores in the electrode
increase the surface area over which the electrolyte can flow and interact—increasing
the amount of energy that can be stored.
But because most supercapacitors can’t hold nearly as much
charge as batteries, their use has been limited to applications where smaller
amounts of energy are needed quickly, or where long life cycle is essential,
such as in mobile electronic devices.
The new material developed by the UT-Austin researchers may
change that. Supercapacitors made from it have an energy-storage capacity, or
energy density, that is approaching the energy density of lead-acid batteries,
while retaining the high power
density—that is, rapid energy release—that is characteristic of
Atomic resolution electron micrograph of activated graphene. The images show that the material is composed of single sheets of crystalline carbon, which are highly curved to form a three-dimensional porous network. Image: Brookhaven National Laboratory
“This new material combines the attributes of both electrical storage
systems,” said Univ.
of Texas team leader
Rodney Ruoff. “We were rather stunned by its exceptional performance.”
The UT-Austin team had set out to create a more porous form of
carbon by using potassium hydroxide to restructure chemically modified graphene
platelets—a form of carbon where the atoms are arrayed in tile-like rings
laying flat to form single-atom-thick sheets. Such “chemical activation” has
been previously used to create various forms of “activated carbon,” which have
pores that increase surface area and are used in filters and other
applications, including supercapacitors.
But because this new form of carbon was so superior to others
used in supercapacitors, the UT-Austin researchers knew they’d need to
characterize its structure at the nanoscale.
Ruoff had formed a hypothesis that the material consisted of a
continuous three-dimensional porous network with single-atom-thick walls, with
a significant fraction being “negative curvature carbon,” similar to inside-out
buckyballs. He turned to Stach at Brookhaven for help with further structural
characterization to verify or refute this hypothesis.
Stach and Brookhaven colleague Dong Su conducted a wide range of
studies at the Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), the National
Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), and at the National Center
for Electron Microscopy at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, all three
facilities supported by the DOE Office of Science. “At the DOE laboratories, we
have the highest resolution microscopes in the world, so we really went full
bore into characterizing the atomic structure,” Stach said.
“Our studies revealed that Ruoff’s hypothesis was in fact correct,
and that the material’s three-dimensional nanoscale structure consists of a
network of highly curved, single-atom-thick walls forming tiny pores with widths
ranging from 1 to 5 nm.”
The study includes detailed images of the fine pore structure
and the carbon walls themselves, as well as images that show how these details
fit into the big picture. “The data from NSLS were crucial to showing that our
highly local characterization was representative of the overall material,”
“We’re still working with Ruoff and his team to pull together a
complete description of the material structure. We’re also adding computational
studies to help us understand how this three-dimensional network forms, so that
we can potentially tailor the pore sizes to be optimal for specific
applications, including capacitive storage, catalysis, and fuel cells,” Stach
Meanwhile, the scientists say the processing techniques used to
create the new form of carbon are readily scalable to industrial production. “This material—being so easily manufactured from one of the most abundant
elements in the universe—will have a broad range impacts on research and
technology in both energy storage and energy conversion,” Ruoff said.