We’ve been hearing about the potential of graphene for decades, and yet very few of the big promises have come to pass. But a new aluminum graphene battery design is coming out this year that could charge a phone in less than a minute, and it may be the future of energy storage.
This is a paperclip. The average paperclip weighs about a gram. And it’s made out of steel, which is electrically conductive. So you don’t want to stick one in a light plug.This is a paperclip. The average paperclip weighs about a gram. And it’s made out of steel, which is electrically conductive. So you don’t want to stick one in a light plug.
Materials are electrically conductive because electrons move freely across its surface. The more surface area, the more electrons it can hold.
A paperclip obviously doesn’t have a lot of surface area, if you pounded it as flat as possible, you can imagine getting maybe a square foot of surface area? Maybe?
Then there’s graphene. You’ve probably heard graphene described as a wonder material that’s going to change the world, well here’s one of the reasons why. It’s literally only one atom thick.
So if you folded up one gram of graphene, it would have the same surface area… of not one… not two… But TEN tennis courts.
That’s a lot of electrons. And a lot of potential.
Mo Li-ion, Mo Problems
Saying the words “lithium-ion” before “battery” is practically redundant these days. I mean, let’s face it, lithium ion won, these are the batteries that run our cell phones, tablets, computers, even our cars. We are officially a world run by lithium ion.
You might say they have the li-ion’s share of the market. (shit-eating grin)
But Lithium-ion batteries aren’t perfect. I mean, they’re Goodenough (Picture of John B Goodenough; smirk)… But they have their downsides
Are all my puns giving you a… charge? I’ll stop.
One problem we continue to have with lithium ion is safety.
These batteries run hot. And yes, if not properly configured, they can burst into flame. You might remember in 2016, 2.5 million smart phones were recalled after some of them burst into flames in peoples’ pockets and bags.
Don’t get me wrong, they’ve gotten safer over the years, but it comes with a cost.
EV batteries for example have extensive cooling systems woven into them to keep their temperatures at optimal levels.
This not only complicates the design and makes it more expensive, the cooling systems take up space that could be used storing energy, which lowers the pack density.
And don’t get me going on how much it complicates recycling these batteries, (get more frantic) they’ve gotta break it all apart and there’s all this gel that has to be separated from the recyclable metals which is super important because — Yep, you did it, you got me going now…
Ethics and Recycling
Battery recycling is super important because the materials in the batteries are not easy to come by.
For example I did a whole video on the cobalt problem in lithium ion batteries, how a lot of it comes from artisanal mines in the Congo that exploit child labor in really dangerous conditions.
A lot of work has been done to source cobalt more ethically, and battery makers are cutting down on the use of cobalt but it’s still an issue.
The point being, these batteries do have a finite life cycle and we need to be able to recycle them, but for all the reasons I just pointed out, it’s still far more expensive to recycle lithium ion batteries than just build new ones.
In fact when I looked, I could only find that 10% of lithium-ion batteries get recycled. To be fair this was from an article in 2016 so hopefully it’s gotten better since then?
And all of these issues are on top of the fact that… well… They have a lot of room for improvement.
Look, let’s be fair, the reason they won out is because they were leaps and bounds above the options we had before, but still, 2 hours to charge your phone? What is this, the stone age?
It’s not the stone age, it’s the phone age! Yeah, I know…
The Promise of Graphene
So researchers around the world are working on the next big thing in energy storage, there’s like half a million new battery chemistries being worked on, I’ve covered most of them already.
But the battery I want to talk about today is different because it does its magic using graphene, (get worked up) and let me tell you something, when I hear about a new technology that uses graphene… I… don’t know how to feel about it.
Because we’ve been hearing about how graphene is going to change the world for SOOO LOOOOONG, it’s really starting to feel like a football we just can’t kick.
Like the potential of graphene is off the charts, it could potentially revolutionize everything from construction materials, semiconductors, clothing, even make a space elevator possible.
So much potential and yet…
Graphene is like that gifted kid that was always told they had so much potential but just… never learned how to apply themselves or didn’t believe in themselves enough to execute on that potential so they just kinda flounder around on the internet, eventually becoming a mid-tier content creator in his forties…
But hey, producing graphene is hard. Which is what makes this battery interesting, the company who designed it is a graphene manufacturer.
So not only are they some of the biggest experts in the world on graphene, they make it in-house so they don’t have to pay retail for it, making the batteries cheaper to make.
Now, before I get into the battery itself, let’s back up a second and talk about why graphene has these wonder properties to it in the first place – it’s kind-of important to the rest of it.
Graphene is basically carbon, which makes up about 12% of your body. So you’re familiar with it.
But unlike the carbon in your body, in graphene, carbon atoms are arranged in a honeycomb pattern literally one atom thick, and this is where it gets its crazy properties.
The bonds in this pattern give graphene more than four times the tensile strength of steel while being extremely flexible and light.
It also makes it an excellent conductor of electricity and heat. Good things to have in a battery, but even better things to have in a supercapacitor.
So, capacitors are devices that store energy, similar to batteries, except instead of storing the energy in chemical reactions, they store it on the surface of electrodes.
This means they can be charged extremely quickly, because they don’t have to rely on chemical reactions to store the energy.
The downside is energy density. As in, they don’t have much of it.
The energy density of a typical capacitor is about one-third of a Watt-hour per kilogram
For comparison, a one kilogram lithium-ion battery can store hundreds of Watt-hours
The Graphene-Aluminum Hybrid
So the trick to getting a capacitor to increase its energy density is to increase the surface area of the electrodes, and for that, you need an extremely thin and flexible material that is electrically conductive and manages heat really well that you can fold up into a tiny space.
Here’s how bonkers graphene is. One gram of graphene has a surface area of 2629 square meters. That’s roughly the same as 10 tennis courts.
I’ve been talking about capacitors here, supercapacitors are obviously capacitors that have been turned up to eleven. And then there’s ultracapacitors, which are turned up to… (confused) more than eleven.
But even a massively upsized supercapacitor can’t compete with the energy density of an advanced chemical batteryWhich is why researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have developed a graphene-based, supercapacitor/battery hybrid.
The battery part uses aluminum, so it’s generally referred to as a graphene-aluminum battery– earlier research that gives problems with graphene that maybe UQ has solved NOTE: this is where my comprehension ran out, so I contacted GMG to ask if they can clarify the benefit
Now, I would love to go into the details of the design and how it works but a lot of it is proprietary and what I did find went way over my head but I can say that it involves embedding aluminum ions into perforations in the graphene mesh.
This creates a graphene-aluminum layer that acts as the cathode, with an anode of just plain aluminum foil.
The battery as a whole has an energy density of 150-160 Watt hours per kilogram, and it can still charge extremely fast.
Cell vs Pack Density
Sounds great, but Tesla’s new 4680 battery cell is closer to 265 Wh/kg. So there’s definitely still a gap there. BUT… it might not be as big of a gap as you’d think.
Because that’s cell density. You also have to think about pack density.
Like I was saying before, lithium ion batteries have to have massive cooling systems built in to their battery packs to keep it from overheating. This battery wouldn’t have that issue.
So all that extra space could be taken up by energy-storing batteries. It might not put it even with a Tesla pack, but it does close the gap a bit.
So the University of Queensland developed the battery, but I mentioned before that a graphene manufacturer was producing it, that company is called the Graphene Manufacturing Group, or GMG.
They’ve built a prototype that can reportedly charge 60 times faster than lithium-ion.
So while their battery pack might not take an EV quite as far, charging would be a lot closer to the experience of filling up at the gas pump, which could open up EVs to more people who don’t have access to home chargers today.
Of course I’m spending all this time talking about EVs, it would be just as world changing for everything else we use; our phones, our watches, our computers… You could plug in your laptop while you take a leak and it’ll be fully charged by the time you’re done.
Also keep in mind everything I’m talking about here applies to their prototype battery. It’s still the very early days of this technology.
In a presentation back in March to The Graphene Council, Founder and CEO Craig Nicol said the energy density of the battery has a theoretical upper limit of 1050 Wh/kg, and that their team is currently testing 300,000 variations on the battery’s design in pursuit of better performance.
Prototypes and Further Advantages
I can only imagine that AI is involved in that in some way, but those tests are happening at a pilot plant the company opened in December 2021.
And here’s where it does get kinda exciting – they are actually producing batteries at this plant. Right now.
They’ve started manufacturing coin batteries, which are being shipped to customers for testing and feedback, and they plan to begin manufacturing pouch pack batteries by the end of June 2022.
Pouch pack batteries are housed in a polymer bag instead of a solid case, but these are the kind of batteries that you see in phones and tablets and other small electronics.
Although, there are some EVs that run on pouch pack batteries, including the Chevy Bolt.
Not for nothing but late last year, Chevy issued a $1.8 billion recall of the bolt over issues that their batteries were catching on fire. This wouldn’t have that problem.
And as if all that wasn’t enough to give you a tech nerd stiffy, there’s also the fact that the batteries are fully recyclable and made from abundant, easy to source materials. So what’s the catch?
Isn’t Graphene Expensive?
As Rocky Balboa once said, life ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. Of course there’s a catch. And the catch in this case is the price of graphene.
Right now graphene costs about $1000 per kilogram, that’s for the highest quality graphene that you need for these batteries.
Lithium is selling for about $80 per kilogram. Of course that’s just one component of the lithium-ion battery but still.https://www.lme.com/en/metals/ev/about-lithium
That’s been the major drawback of all graphene technologies this whole time, it has to be synthesized. You can’t just dig graphene out of the ground, the only way to make is feasible is to reduce the cost of making it.
GMG for example has patented a process for making graphene out of methane, but they’re being kinda cagey about exactly how much it saves them in production costs.
But if you’re going to compare the price of graphene with that of lithium ion, it’s only fair to keep in mind that once upon a time, lithium ion was prohibitively expensive.
The price of lithium ion battery storage has plummeted over the last couple of decades, and now it’s flirting with $100 per kilowatt-hour.
It’s more than possible that graphene could follow the same trajectory once a sustainable, inexpensive process is perfected. And there’s a lot of projects working on that.
Graphene From Trash
One that’s worth talking about is a team from Rice University in collaboration with Ford, who are working on recycling plastic into graphene.
Kill two birds with one stone? Yes please.
Professor James Tour and the team were able to turn plastic into graphene car parts, and they were able to recycle old graphene into new
The question, of course is if the graphene is high enough quality for these type of batteries.
We wanted to get the answer to that so my writer, Ryan emailed Professor Tour and asked if their flash joule heating method is of high quality. And he was kind enough to respond and said, “Flash graphene is one of the purest graphene forms you can get.”
But while he agreed that their method could make graphene prices drop, he was careful to say only as much as the market will bear.
And it’s going to be a while before the supply catches up to the demand, so you won’t be flossing with graphene thread anytime soon.
Some Hurdles Remain
There is also one more problem with GMG’s graphene battery, and that’s voltage.
Their coin cell that hits the market this year delivers 1.7 Volts, and most small electronics require at least 3 volts.
Now that doesn’t mean they can’t be used, you can combine cells to get what you need, this is true of other types of batteries too.(AAA, AA, C, and D cells are 1.5V)
But there are some devices that only take a single cell; computer chips, watches, some toys, and GMG wants to power these without the manufacturers having to change the design.
They’re confident one of the 300,000 variations they’re working on will do the job, they just need the time to find which one.
Of course battery technology is evolving and advancing so fast, it’s possible some other breakthrough could make all of this irrelevant.
I feel like that could be said about pretty much anything these days though.
But hey, let’s focus on the good news, there is an actual graphene-based battery hitting the market this year.
I feel like I didn’t mention that GMG does have partnerships with some big-name companies, including the tool manufacturer Bosch and mining company Rio Tinto.
So let’s hope something actually comes of this because I mean, an ethically sourced, fully recyclable, fast charging battery would be a game changer.
And it’ll be nice to finally see this supermaterial we’ve been hearing about for decades in action.
I mean, I’m still holding out for that space elevator. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
But I don’t know, what do you think? Is this worth getting excited about? Or are we just gonna get the football yanked away from us once again? Sound off in the comments and let me know.