Scientists at the University of Central Florida have developed a way to both transmit and store electricity in a single lightweight copper wire.
Jayan Thomas, a professor at the University of Central Florida, and Ph.D student Zenan Yu created a supercapacitor on the outside of a copper wire as a means to store energy while allowing electricity to continue passing through the wire itself.
“It’s an interesting idea,” Thomas said. “When we did it and started talking about it, everyone we talked to said, ‘Hmm, never thought of that. It’s unique.'”
The special wire is comprised of a layer of nanowhiskers grown on the outer surface of a copper wire and then treated with a special alloy to create an electrode. To create the second electrode needed for successful energy storage, Thomas and his team wrapped an extremely thin plastic sheet around the whiskers using a metal sheath—the second electrode—after generating nanowhiskers on the sheath and outer covering. The layers were then glued together with a special gel. Because the nanowhisker layer is insulating, the inner copper wire retains its ability to channel electricity while the layers around the wire independently store energy.
The researchers see a number of immediate benefits to the design and development of electrical vehicles, space-launch vehicles and portable electronic devices. Most notably, wires able to both store and conduct energy could render heavy, space-consuming batteries obsolete. Removing the battery could make room for other components in electronics and even make it possible to further miniaturize certain devices. In the case of spacecraft, removing the battery could potentially lighten the load, making launches less expensive.
Though further research is needed, Thomas says the technique should be transferable to other types of materials, such as specially treated clothing fibers able to hold enough energy to power smartphones or portable music players.
“It’s very exciting,” Thomas said. “We take it step by step. I love getting to the lab everyday, and seeing what we can come up with next. Sometimes things don’t work out, but even those failures teach us a lot of things.”