Published November 27 2023
The remarkable properties of graphene and the future of graphene batteries.
“It’s critical for the whole world.”
Nanotech Energy Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Maher El-Kady outlines the remarkable properties of graphene – and shares his powerful vision for the future of graphene batteries.
As a UCLA Researcher, your work focuses on the design and implementation of new materials in energy, electronics, and sustainability. For those who don’t know, can you explain what graphene is and why it is so remarkable?
Over the last two decades, graphene has garnered lots of interest in academia and industry because it has so many fascinating properties.
Essentially, it’s a single layer or flat sheet of carbon atoms. They’re tightly bonded together in a honeycomb structure and, because it’s only one atom in height, it’s the closest thing we have to a 2D material. It is incredibly thin, to the extent that you’d need 300,000 sheets of graphene stacked on top of each other to make something that’s the thickness of a sheet of paper. It also weighs only 0.76 milligrams per square meter, which is about 100,000 times lighter in weight than a sheet of paper.
In terms of its strength, graphene is almost 200 times stronger than steel. If you made a hammock from a single square meter of graphene – so that’s just one square meter of a material that’s only one atom thick – it would be able to carry the weight of a cat, but would only weigh about the same as one of its whiskers.
In short, graphene is the thinnest, strongest, lightest, and most conductive material ever discovered. It’s no wonder people call it the wonder material.
How do graphene’s qualities transfer into battery manufacturing? What makes it so suitable for this application?
Graphene conducts electricity better than any other known material at room temperature. Another interesting feature of graphene is that when cooled to temperatures near absolute zero, it transforms into a superconductor, allowing electricity to flow through it without any resistance.
Graphene is an essential component of Nanotech Energy batteries. We take advantage of its qualities to improve the performance of standard lithium-ion batteries. In comparison to copper, it’s up to 70% more conductive at room temperature, which allows for efficient electron transfer during operation of the battery. In lay terms, that means faster charging and discharging.
As well as being lightweight, it has a high surface area. An ounce of graphene would cover seven football fields. Having such a large surface area allows you to store or attach more active battery materials, meaning you can actually have a higher capacity battery within a similar volume.
Its strength also means it can be used to control the cracking that normally happens during the operation of a battery when anode and cathode particles expand and contract. That means you can use graphene to improve the overall cycle life of the battery, too.
Graphene also exhibits the highest thermal conductivity at room temperature. This means that graphene-enhanced batteries may be able to handle higher charging and discharging rates without overheating, which is essential for electric cars and high-power applications.
Lastly, graphene is composed of carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the universe, making it unlikely to ever run out.
How transformatory could graphene batteries be? What are the potential impacts?
Graphene stands as one of the most thermally conductive materials known to date. When integrated into lithium-ion batteries, its exceptional thermal conductivity allows for efficient heat dissipation during battery operation. This translates to a substantial reduction in the risk of overheating, keeping the battery temperature within safe limits, and improving overall battery performance and safety. Moreover, graphene has the potential to increase battery capacity and contribute to more reliable and longer-lasting energy storage solutions.
Could the use of graphene mean we see batteries being used in new settings?
Yes, that’s possible – graphene can definitely enable new applications that don’t exist with the current lithium-ion battery technology. Because it’s so flexible, graphene could be used to make batteries that can be integrated directly into textiles and fabrics – which would be ideal for wearable applications. The impact graphene can have on charging times is also likely to increase the adoption of electric cars in general.
We’ve also developed some research at UCLA looking at biodegradable graphene batteries that could be employed for as a power source for implantable medical devices. That’s incredibly exciting and holds promise in the field of healthcare.
What have been the biggest challenges in developing this new technology?
The first challenge was for the entire industry – learning how to isolate graphene from graphite. But the biggest challenge is how to keep it from restacking and behaving again just like graphite. Researchers have spent the last 20 years or so working on this. We’re doing the same at Nanotech Energy, trying to develop new methods that allow us to retain the intrinsic properties of a single layer of graphene, and it’s something we believe we’ve now solved.
Moving forward, the next challenge lies in effectively integrating graphene into a battery. Without having the right process for incorporating graphene into the battery, we cannot fully harness its potential benefits. Again, we now believe we’ve got a process that gives us the high energy density, long-term cycling, high-powered charging capability, and inherent safety that we’re looking for.
What excites you most about this work?
The profound impact it can have on our world. While semiconductors played an important role in the third industrial revolution, it has become increasingly clear that batteries are emerging as the defining technology of the 21st century. We’re facing global temperature rises and most countries around the world are committed to the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement for Climate Change. In effect, we’re collectively addressing a pressing global issue. What we’re engaged in extends far beyond the borders of the United States; it holds immense significance for the entire planet.
How do you see Nanotech developing over the next five or 10 years?
As being a global leader for the manufacturing of next-generation lithium-ion batteries, and providing environmentally friendly energy storage technologies for a vast range of applications. I want us to have a global reach and I’m confident we’ll get there.