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Clutter is best: The chaotic structure of devices like batteries improves performance

Clutter is best: The chaotic structure of devices like batteries improves performance


The energy density of supercapacitors (battery-like devices that can be charged in seconds or minutes) can be improved by increasing the “clutter” of their internal structure.

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge used and computer modeling techniques to study porous carbon electrodes used in supercapacitors. They found that electrodes with more disordered chemical structures store much more energy than electrodes with highly ordered structures.

Supercapacitors are an important technology for the energy transition, potentially useful for managing certain forms of public transport and intermittent solar and wind power, but their low energy density has limited their deployment. Masu.

Researchers say the findings reported in the journal Science represent a breakthrough in the field and could reinvigorate the development of this important net-zero technology.

Like batteries, supercapacitors store energy, but while supercapacitors can be charged in seconds or minutes, batteries take much longer. Supercapacitors are much more durable than batteries and can withstand millions of charging cycles. However, due to their low energy density, supercapacitors are not suitable for long-term energy storage or continuous power supply.

“Supercapacitors are not a replacement technology for batteries, but a complementary technology to batteries,” said lead researcher Dr Alex Force from the Yusuf Hameed Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge. “Durability and very fast charging capabilities make it useful for a wide range of applications.”

For example, buses, trains, and subways equipped with supercapacitors can fully charge in the time it takes for passengers to board and disembark, providing enough power to reach the next stop. This eliminates the need to install charging infrastructure along the lines. However, before supercapacitors can be widely used, their energy storage capacity needs to be improved.

Batteries use chemical reactions to store and release charge, whereas supercapacitors rely on the movement of charged molecules between porous carbon electrodes that have a highly disordered structure. “Think of a sheet of graphene that has a highly ordered chemical structure,” Fors says. “When you roll a sheet of graphene into a ball, you create a chaotic mess, like the electrodes of a supercapacitor.”

Electrodes are inherently unwieldy, making it difficult for scientists to study them and determine which parameters are most important in improving their performance. The field is at an impasse due to a lack of clear consensus.

Many scientists have believed that the size of the tiny pores, or nanopores, in carbon electrodes is the key to improving their energy capacity. However, the Cambridge team analyzed a range of commercially available nanoporous carbon electrodes and found no relationship between pore size and storage capacity.

Folse and his colleagues took a new approach, using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, a type of “MRI” for batteries, to study electrode materials. They discovered that material clutter, long thought to be an obstacle, was actually the key to success.

“Using NMR spectroscopy, we found that energy storage capacity is correlated with how disordered the material is. The more disordered the material, the more energy it can store,” said the first author. said Xinyu Liu, a PhD candidate co-supervised by Professor Folse and Professor Dame Clare. gray. “Randomness is difficult to measure. It's only possible thanks to new NMR and simulation techniques. That's why it's a property that has been overlooked in this field.”

Analyzing electrode materials with NMR spectroscopy produces a spectrum with various peaks and valleys. The position of the peak indicates how ordered or disordered the carbon is. “It wasn't our plan to look for this. It was a big surprise,” Forse said. “When we plotted the position of the peaks against the energy capacity, a striking correlation was revealed: the most disordered material had almost twice the capacity of the most ordered material.”

So why is confusion good? Forse said that's what the team is working on next. The researchers hope to use these results to design better supercapacitors, since the more disordered the carbon, the more efficiently ions can be stored within the nanopores. Material clutter is determined at the time the material is composited.

“We want to look at new ways to make these materials and see how far we can go with the messiness in terms of improving energy storage,” Folse said. “This could be a turning point for a field that has been stagnant for some time. Claire and I started working on this topic more than a decade ago, but much of the basic research to date has no clear applications. I'm very happy to see it come to fruition.”

This research was partially supported by the Cambridge Trust, the European Research Council and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).




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