Newly developed micro-supercapacitors have the potential to power nomad electronics, wireless sensor networks, biomedical implants, active radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags and embedded microsensors, among other devices.
Supercapacitors, also called electric double layer capacitors (EDLCs) or ultracapacitors, bridge the gap between batteries, which offer high energy densities but are slow, and “conventional” electrolytic capacitors, which are fast but have low energy densities.
The newly developed devices described in Nature Nanotechnology have powers per volume that are comparable to electrolytic capacitors, capacitances that are four orders of magnitude higher, and energies per volume that are an order of magnitude higher. They were also found to be three orders of magnitude faster than conventional supercapacitors, which are used in backup power supplies, wind power generators and other machinery. These new devices have been dubbed “micro-supercapacitors” because they are only a few micrometers (0.000001 meters) thick.
Vadym Mochalin, research assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Drexel and co-author, said, “We use electrodes made of onion-like carbon, a material in which each individual particle is made up of concentric spheres of carbon atoms, similar to the layers of an onion. Each particle is 6-7 nanometers in diameter.”
This is the first time a material with very small spherical particles has been studied for this purpose. Previously investigated materials include activated carbon, nanotubes, and carbide-derived carbon (CDC).
“The surface of the onion-like carbons is fully accessible to ions, whereas with some other materials, the size or shape of the pores or of the particles themselves would slow down the charging or discharging process,” Mochalin said. “Furthermore, we used a process to assemble the devices that did not require a polymer binder material to hold the electrodes together, which further improved the electrode conductivity and the charge/discharge rate. Therefore, our supercapacitors can deliver power in milliseconds, much faster than any battery or supercapacitor used today.”
Electrochemical capacitors, also called supercapacitors, store energy in two closely spaced layers with opposing charges, and are used to power hybrid electric vehicles, portable electronic equipment and other devices. By offering fast charging and discharging rates, and the ability to sustain millions of cycles electrochemical capacitors bridge the gap between batteries, which offer high energy densities but are slow, and conventional electrolytic capacitors, which are fast but have low energy densities. Here, we demonstrate microsupercapacitors with powers per volume that are comparable to electrolytic capacitors, capacitances that are four orders of magnitude higher, and energies per volume that are an order of magnitude higher. We also measured discharge rates of up to 200 V s−1, which is three orders of magnitude higher than conventional supercapacitors. The microsupercapacitors are produced by the electrophoretic deposition of a several-micrometre-thick layer of nanostructured carbon onions with diameters of 6–7 nm. Integration of these nanoparticles in a microdevice with a high surface-to-volume ratio, without the use of organic binders and polymer separators, improves performance because of the ease with which ions can access the active material. Increasing the energy density and discharge rates of supercapacitors will enable them to compete with batteries and conventional electrolytic capacitors in a number of applications.