We all know that graphene – the atom thin carbon structures that were first manufactured in 2003 – is a miracle material which will apparently be used in everything from solar panels to microprocessors at some point in the near future, but real world applications of its high strength and conductivity have been few and far between so far.
How about an off-world use then? The European Space Agency (ESA) has just announced that it will be powering a spacecraft using graphene-based “ultracapacitor” batteries that offer 30 times the power per kilogram of traditional batteries.
The announcement came via a firm called Skeleton Industries, which has been researching graphene-based batteries for some time and first submitted its SpaceCap design to NASA for testing in 2011. Like all good space technologies, a battery developed for a spacecraft, which has to be robust, lightweight and able to storage as much energy per cubic centimetre as is physically possible also has ramifications for those of us back on Earth.
Skeleton Industries says that it uses a type of nanoporous carbon known as curved graphene in its batteries, and that the first spacecraft to use them may be launched in 2018.
Ultracapacitors, which store energy as an electrical charge rather than in a chemical compound, are highly efficient and can recharge and discharge faster than conventional batteries and lose less energy as heat. That, says Skeleton Industries, makes them ideal for use in space as they can be lightweight and top up quickly while an orbiting satellite is facing the sun.
Kilo for kilo, however, they don’t store more electricity than lithium ion batteries. Wikipedia says that at room temperature, curved graphene ultracapacitors contain as much charge as a nickel hydride battery. That makes them more suited for sudden bursts of power – for example in electric cars – rather than, at the moment, storage for home solar arrays.[Image – CC 3.0 AlexanderAlUS]