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This New Aussie Technology Could Mean Never Having To Charge Your Phone Again

The electrode boosts solar storage capacity by 3000 per cent.

21/04/2017 7:42 AM AEST | Updated 21/04/2017 11:26 AM AEST

Phones that never run out of battery, electric cars that do not need charging stations and whole buildings that self-power.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but the groundbreaking work of a group of researchers at a Melbourne university could see it become reality.

Researchers at RMIT University have developed an electrode which they say can boost the capacity of solar storage by 3,000 per cent.

The graphene-based device is flexible and can be attached to solar cells, meaning that we are one step closer to mobile phones and laptops that are powered by the Sun and never run out.

As one of the sunniest places on Earth, Australia has enough solar radiation to provide all our energy needs 10,000 times over.

Currently, the major drawback -- and what prevents it from being used as a major power source in Australia -- is our inability to efficiently store, and then release, solar power on a large scale. This makes it an unreliable source of energy, as it relies on consistent sunshine.

Richard Fairless via Getty Images
Australia gets enough sunshine to power the nation 10,000 times over. The problem is being able to capture, store and release that energy effectively.

"There are number of technologies to store solar energy. Batteries are one of them and the other is a supercapacitor," lead researcher, Professor Min Gu, told the Huffington Post Australia.

"The battery gives lots of energy, but takes a long time to charge and store energy. The supercapacitor cannot store such a large amount of energy but they can discharge power much faster."

But this new technology changes all of that. The electrode is designed to work with a supercapacitor, providing it with a capacity comparable to that of a battery, but with the advantage of being able to quickly charge and release energy. Essentially, it's the best of both worlds.

The researchers got the idea for the electrode from investigating how plants held so much energy in such a small space. Their testing found that the fractal structure of the veins of a western swordfern leaf -- a plant with extremely efficient energy storage -- would maximise the energy capacity of the storage device.

"We tried many different fractals from many different trees, but we found that this fern tree had the best results," explained Professor Gu, who is the leader of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence Nanophotonics at RMIT and headed up the research.

RMIT University
A close-up of the western swordfern left, showing self-repeating fractal pattern of its veins.

Gu compared the fractal structure to a tiny, intricate maze, where the fractal structure provided the maximum number of possible pathways in the maze. The greater the number of pathways, the more energy the supercapacitor is able to store.

Lead author PhD researcher Litty Thekkekara said that the prototype had a huge number of potential real-world applications because it was based on flexible thin film technology.

"The real future lies in integrating the prototype with flexible thin film solar – technology that is still in its infancy," she explained.

"Flexible thin film solar could be used almost anywhere you can imagine, from building windows to car panels, smart phones to smart watches. We would no longer need batteries to charge our phones or charging stations for our hybrid cars."

Since the research was published in Scientific Reports on March 31, Professor Gu says they have been contacted by numerous businesses in Silicon Valley, India, Germany, the UK, and Malaysia interested in further developing the prototype.

RMIT University
Professor Min Gu (right) and PhD researcher Litty Thekkekara with the electrode prototype.

The RMIT team are now turning their focus to developing flexible thin-film solar, to allow the technology to be built into electronic devices.

Self-powering cars are a way off yet -- they would need to develop larger storage devices for a start (the current prototype is just 4cm by 4cm in size). Nevertheless, the new technology is an indication of what is possible in a world increasingly searching for reliable, green alternatives to fossil fuels.


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