What if your Fitbit or FuelBand were more like a slap bracelet? Many electronic components are already small enough to make this achievable, but batteries historically make it downright impossible. They take up the largest spaces within our devices today and are completely inflexible.
Enter James Tour of Rice University. Along with his colleagues, he’s developed an electrochemical capacitor that’s thinner than paper, bendable, and capable of storing enough electric energy to charge your phone — they say it could power the next generation of electronic devices.
We’re still waiting to see if flexible smartphones will ever take hold, but e-paper, bendable touch-sensitive screens, and plenty of wearable gadgets are already here and ready to benefit from such an invention.
The capacitor, recently published in the Journal Of The American Chemical Society, is made out of a thin film of nickel and fluoride, which enables it to store energy in an electric field. It’s covered in tiny holes called “nanopores” that enable ions to easily flow through it, which is what enables it to also function as a power source.
Researchers were able to bend and fold the film and recharged it thousands of times, demonstrating “little loss in performance,” they write in the paper. Here’s what it looks like:
You can see in figure B below that the capacitor is definitely bendable. And figure C shows a closeup of the nanoporous layer, which is where the ions flow and actually disseminate electric energy.
Ready for the main stage
If the trend is to continue to make our devices as small and unobtrusive as possible, a flexible capacitor is a hugely important development.
We don’t know for sure if Tour and company plan to turn this into a business, though the researchers mention that they believe their product “can be easily scaled up for mass production” and implementation in your next gadget.
As for what the immediate future holds, Tour said that he and his team are investigating other special properties of this material, including its potential application in generating energy with a process called “water splitting” in which a molecule of water is broken into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which can be used as fuel.
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