Photo courtesy of Flickr: U.S. Army RDECOM
Owning a mobile phone can be a lot like being in a bad relationship. Your first six months are great: Everything works the way it should, you are excited by all the features the phone has and the way it looks, and heck, maybe you even show it off to friends and laughingly suggest they get a similar model. Then, one day, you take a long hard look at your phone and notice the red battery light at the top of the phone and think to yourself, "Wasn't I just at 100% just a few hours ago?" The honeymoon phase is over: Nothing lasts forever, especially cell phone batteries.
Okay, so this may have started with a little doom and gloom, but the fact of the matter is, all batteries (even rechargeable ones) fade out and burn away at some point. They are a ticking time bomb of annoyance, especially for busy cell phone users who depend on them for their jobs (like yours truly). However, not all is bleak, as just over the horizon, there is a new technology looming that may well save us all from premature cell phone death. No more using Google Maps only to have your phone die halfway to your destination. No shutting off during an important conversation. Behold, my friends: Supercapacitors!
If the name sounds like that of a cape-wearing superhero, maybe that is a little bit appropriate, as supercapacitors promise to be a heroic answer to the villainy of short battery life. But what, exactly, are they, and what gives them the capacity to be so super?
How Do Supercapacitors Work?
Supercapacitors, also known as ultracapacitors, owe their ability to greatly extend battery life to the fact that they (for all intents and purposes) have twice the number of capacitors that traditional batteries due, thanks to a double layer of charge coating.
This results in the ability for ultracapacitors to store more energy and, at the same time, disperse the energy much quicker. Imagine a cell phone charge only taking a few seconds to reach full power.
On the flip side, supercapacitors are not yet capable of producing electrons: They can only store them. In addition, capacitors cannot currently hold the same amount of juice that a lithium ion battery can, meaning you would need multiple supercapacitors to equal the storage power of a regular battery.
So what does all that mean in layman's terms? Essentially, supercapacitors have the ability to become charged very quickly and then release that charge into a device quickly. However, their storage capacity is limited at the moment.
Scientists have recently made some breakthroughs that are bringing the ultracapacitor closer to commercial viability. In truth, supercapacitors do exist in the working world, being used as supplements to bus batteries (where a hybrid of capacitors and batteries are used) and even helping to power offshore wind turbines.
Despite their uses in current society, it may still be a while before we get the nifty chargers in our laptops and cell phones. It is unclear when this will happen, but scientists are banking on discovering ways to incorporate new materials in the near future to bring about the demise of batteries as the preferred charging apparatus.
In the meantime, you will just have to remember to charge your cell phone and hope it doesn't cut off in the middle of your invasion of your opponent's "Clash of Clans" village.