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Nitrogen Supercharges Supercapacitors

Quick-charging devices might finally match lead-acid batteries for energy storage

2 min read
Nitrogen Supercharges Supercapacitors
Pores of Power! Carbon tubes, laced with the occasional nitrogen atom, make for supercapacitors that store a lot of energy.
Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences/Science

In lots of situations, theideal energy storage device is not a battery, which stores lots of energy but can’t deliver it particularly quickly. Nor is it a supercapacitor, which has limited storage but delivers what it’s got quickly. Instead it would be something that could do both. Scientists in China and the United States recently took a big step toward that ideal component when they showed that nitrogen can triple the energy storage capacity of carbon-based supercapacitors, potentially making them competitive with some batteries in terms of the amount of energy stored.

Most supercapacitors in use today rely on carbon-based electrodes because their large surface area stores more charge. “We are able to make carbon a much better supercapacitor,” says Fuqiang­ Huang, a material chemist at the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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