Recharge a battery in two minutes, not six hours

Nanotech researchers develop quick-charge design for mobile power

In what I'm sure was an absolutely accurate, tested-true off-the-cuff evaluation, Top Gear TV host Richard Hammond estimated that, because of its limited range and the amount of time it would take to recharge, it would take two days for him to drive a particular electric car home. Because I mainly watch the BBC TV series to see them race and wreck things like double-decker busses and campers, I wasn't paying close enough attention to remember which electric car it was or why it even came up (or what they were doing in this wind tunnel).

Suffice it to say neither he nor the other supercar-addled presenters likes electrics; not even the ones they build themselves.

Range is a big deal, but recharging time is a bigger one – whether you're talking about electric cars or laptops.

Once the charge peters out, you limp from electric outlet to electric outlet the rest of the day. Pathetic.

A trio of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are trying to solve that problem with a nanostructure design for batteries that could allow a lithium-ion battery to charge in two minutes rather than six hours.

Their approach combines the advantages of a capacitor – through which electricity can run at very high volume, so it could be charged quickly, if it could hold a charge – with a regular battery. Batteries hold a charge partly because of the mass inside them, but charge slowly for the same reason they can hold a charge in the first place.

The group developed a way to create a three-dimensional lattice into which it could pack very thin films of material that would charge quickly, because of its thinness, but hold a charge, because there was so much packed into a small space.

The technique is to pack as many tiny spheres as possible into a specific space. Packed together, they form a latticework with gaps where the spheres don't fit together neatly.

Metal is then packed around the spheres and the whole mess is melted, leaving a scaffolding that looks more like a sponge. Gaps in the sponge are bored out to make them bigger, and packed with material that is very thin, so it can be charged quickly, but is packed so densely that the resulting mass holds a charge.

The group, led by a professor of materials science and engineering named Paul Braun, published its results in the March 20 online edition of Nature Nanotechnology.

No telling when it will turn up as an actual product. Given the price-per-pound of mobile electronics, though, my bet would be that it will show up first in phones or tablets.

Cars, unfortunately, will have to wait.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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