The wonder material of tomorrow might just have been unveiled yesterday, as researchers at Imperial College London announced a prototype battery material that is strong and light enough to be used as the bodies of cars and casings of computers.
The material, like any battery, can store and discharge electrical energy. However, unlike the lead-acid batteries found in most modern cars, this composite material is also ideal as a general construction material for car parts. This would greatly increase the efficiency of hybrid or electric cars that were built using the technology.
For instance, the Imperial College London team points to one of their partners, the Volvo Car Corporation. Volvo ultimately hopes to replace their metal wheel wells with ones built using the composite material. This would allow Volvo to reduce the number of internal batteries needed to power the car, making the car up to 15% lighter than current models. In turn, that would greatly increase the distance the car could travel before needing to recharge.
Project coordinator Dr Emile Greenhalgh doesn't hold back when it comes to what this new material could do (Americanisms added where needed):
We are really excited about the potential of this new technology. We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its bonnet [hood] or even the door, thanks to our new composite material. Even the Sat Nav [GPS] could be powered by its own casing. The future applications for this material don't stop there – you might have a mobile phone that is as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging. We're at the first stage of this project and there is a long way to go, but we think our composite material shows real promise.
But enough hype. How does this miracle material actually work? According to Imperial College:
The researchers say that the composite material that they are developing, which is made of carbon fibres and a polymer resin, will store and discharge large amounts of energy much more quickly than conventional batteries. In addition, the material does not use chemical processes, making it quicker to recharge than conventional batteries. Furthermore, this recharging process causes little degradation in the composite material, because it does not involve a chemical reaction, whereas conventional batteries degrade over time.
Although the researchers are very optimistic about the long-term potential of the technology, their immediate goals are a little more measured. They hope to grow carbon nanotubes on top of the carbon fibers, which will increase the surface area of the material and allow it to store more energy. Another priority is working out just how the material can be produced at a realistic cost at an industrial scale.