Breakthrough in energy storage technology could mean electric cars may soon have the same range as petrol and diesel cars

February 27, 2018

The development of new material for supercapacitors has the potential to raise driving range to that of petrol cars, and slash the amount of time it takes to charge an electric car. 

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Researchers at Bristol University and Surrey University have claimed a breakthrough in energy storage technology that could see electric cars driven as far as petrol and diesel cars, and have the ability to recharge in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

The two teams have developed a ‘next-generation’ material for supercapacitors, which store the electric charge and can be recharged faster than normal batteries. Electric cars could conceivably be recharged in 10 minutes, instead of the eight hours it can currently take to charge a lithium-ion battery.

The backers of the new technology are confident that it has sufficient energy density to exceed the 200-350 mile ranges that current battery-powered electric cars can achieve.

Dr Donald Highgate, the director of research at Superdielectrics – a company that worked with the universities on the research, said: “It could have a seismic effect on energy, but it’s not a done deal.”

Supercapacitors have been used to store and release power for years, and Tesla’s Elon Musk has gone on record to say that a breakthrough in transportation is more likely to come from supercapacitors than batteries.

Superdielectrics was originally working on developing a transparent polymer that can hold electronic circuits for use in Google Glass-style applications. However, after realising the energy storage capabilities of the polymer they decided to focus on that and have produced small demonstrations that can power an LED light bulb or tiny fan.

The technology may sound promising, but it is not yet ready to transform the motoring landscape. One clear drawback of the technology is that the supercap can lose charge if it is left without use for an extended period of time – so motorists returning to their car in an airport car park after a long holiday may find they don’t have much charge left to get home. For this reason, the researchers expect that early cars using their supercap would also have to have a small ‘reserve’ battery.

Dr Thomas Miller, an expert on supercapacitors at University College London, who was not involved in the project, said the next big challenge is to show the technology can be scaled up. “If a significant leap has been made in energy density, it would be an important achievement,” he said.

“One major consideration that is yet to be proven is the scalability, cost and sustainability of the new technology.”

Highgate said he was confident that prototype production of his supercaps could be under way within two years, initially for specialist use, such as by the military.

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