Technology | Graphene Batteries

Graphene battery technology – How it’s changing the world

Words by Martin Kelman
Graphene battery technology – How it’s changing the world

Graphene is a truly remarkable substance. Whatever way you spin it, it sounds like something out of sci-fi. The fact that it has real, applicable uses and could revolutionise numerous technologies is just the icing on a very cool technological cake.

What is graphene?

Graphene is a single atom thick sheet made up of a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms. Let that sink in. A single atom thick. That makes graphene, to all intents and purposes, 2D. It’s as flat as a substance can be without turning into nothing at all.

Beyond the fact that it’s a technological marvel in its own right, it has a number of characteristics that make it very useful in a variety of technologies. Despite being incredibly thin, it’s tensile strength makes it essentially the strongest material ever discovered. This doesn’t make it the toughest, almost paradoxically, but it means it’s capable of diverse and rigorous use.

It is also an excellent electrical conductor, which is obviously key to the subject at hand. The conductivity of graphene is roughly 70% higher than that of copper, one of our most widely used electrical conductors. Combine this with graphene’s other unique qualities and you have a versatile, strong, flexible, adaptable and, above all else, light alternative to current electrical components.

For information on some other potential battery technologies, check out the episode of the Atlas Podcast where we discuss hydrogen fuel cells.

What is a graphene battery?

There are currently two main answers to this question. The first is already appearing in the market, and the second is no longer a pipe dream, but still not commercially available.

  • Graphene-metal oxide hybrids / Graphene composite batteries
  • Full graphene batteries

What is a graphene composite battery?

A graphene composite battery takes existing technology and augments it using graphene. For example, there are power packs available to purchase today that use traditional li-ion battery technology for the storing of energy, but use graphene technology in the electrodes that allow for ultra fast charging and discharging.

This is an important step as charging times will inevitably need to improve as storage capacity improves. We already have phones, laptops, tablets and other personal devices that have fast charging and relatively long battery lives. But these devices carry and require a smaller amount of energy than, for example, a car.

Obviously it takes a lot more electricity to move a Tesla across the country than it does to read a book on your Kindle. That means a bigger battery to provide utility, but also a fast charging time to provide convenience. Graphene composites might be able to take care of that second point by allowing for charging many times quicker than conventional li-ion technology.

What is the benefit of a full graphene battery?

A graphene battery has the potential to hold a much larger charge than li-ion batteries, as well as being able to charge and discharge faster. Many scientists are pointing to full graphene batteries as the technological leap which will make widespread electric vehicle use a reality.

These are batteries built based entirely on graphene technology. That means the actual materials holding the charge will be graphene and the materials necessary for it to function. This could make stopping to charge your electric vehicle as quick as stopping to fill up your petrol tank, making them more commercially viable and approachable as a prospect for general road users.

Why aren’t graphene batteries used more?

As with most technological advancement, time and money are the key factors here. While graphene has come down a lot in price, it’s still relatively expensive. The cost has gone from tens of thousands of dollars for a postage stamp size piece in 2010 to around $100 per kg today, depending on quality and application. Still, mass producing it is tricky and expensive.

This is partly due to the time investment. Each kg of graphene takes a long time to produce at the moment and we haven’t yet developed effective means of mass producing it yet.

We have mass production of other materials because we’ve been working with them for decades or, in some cases, centuries. We can produce iron and steel in vast quantities in near-automated factories around the globe, but we started producing it in handmade equipment somewhere back beyond the dark ages.

Because we’ve only just started working with graphene, relatively speaking, we’re closer in many ways to those early pioneers playing with recently discovered ores. While our science overall may be capable of producing incredible results, graphene is new and producing it in commercially viable quantities is a process that’s maturing.

What’s next for graphene batteries?

Well, hopefully a lot. I for one would love to have a phone that charges in seconds and a car I can ‘top up’ with electricity while I grab a coffee in the ‘lectric station. But we’re not quite there yet. It seems like almost every major tech company is eyeing up graphene, with Samsung, Tesla, GAC and more making their intentions towards the wonderful new substance known. But, as it stands, we’ve got a short wait on our hands yet.