Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Supercapacitor in Body Panels Boost Power in Electric Cars

A car powered by its own body panels could soon be driving on our roads after researchers at Queensland University of Technology developed lightweight "supercapacitors" that can be combined with regular batteries to dramatically boost the power of an electric car.

The supercapacitors – a "sandwich" of electrolyte between two all-carbon electrodes – were made into a thin but extremely strong film with a high power density (ability to release power quickly). The film could be embedded in a car's body panels, roof, doors, bonnet and floor, storing enough energy to turbocharge an electric car's battery in just a few minutes.

PhD researcher Marco Notarianni said that the findings, published in both the Journal of Power Sources and the journal Nanotechnology, mean that a car partly powered by its own body panels could be on the road within 5 years.

"Vehicles need an extra energy spurt for acceleration, and this is where supercapacitors come in,” he said. “They hold a limited amount of charge, but they are able to deliver it very quickly, making them the perfect complement to mass-storage batteries.

“Supercapacitors offer a high-power output in a short time, meaning a faster acceleration rate of the car and a charging time of just a few minutes, compared to several hours for a standard electric car battery."

Team member Dr Jinzhang Liu said that while the energy density of a supercapacitor is currently lower than a standard lithium ion (Li-Ion) battery, its power density is "far beyond" a conventional battery. "Supercapacitors are presently combined with standard Li-Ion batteries to power electric cars, with a substantial weight reduction and increase in performance," he said. "In the future it is hoped the supercapacitor will be developed to store more energy than a Li-Ion battery while retaining the ability to release its energy up to 10 times faster – meaning the car could be entirely powered by the supercapacitors in its body panels.

"After one full charge this car should be able to run up to 500 km – similar to a petrol-powered car and more than double the current limit of an electric car."

Liu said the technology would also potentially be used for rapid charges of other battery-powered devices. "For example, by putting the film on the back of a smartphone to charge it extremely quickly," he said.

Prof Nunzio Motta said that the discovery may be a game-changer for the automotive industry. "We are using cheap carbon materials to make supercapacitors, and the price of industry-scale production will be low," he said. “The price of Li-Ion batteries cannot decrease a lot because the price of lithium remains high. This technique does not rely on metals and other toxic materials either, so it is environmentally friendly if it needs to be disposed of."