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Student researching graphene to help store renewable energy

Canterbury student researching graphene to help store renewable energy

August 25, 2014

A University of Canterbury PhD student is investigating ways to unleash energy storage potential of thin sheeted carbon graphene.

The world’s energy demands are increasing exponentially and developing a sustainable future for energy has become critical, postgraduate chemistry researcher Anna Farquhar says.

The world’s rapidly depleting fossil fuel supply means renewable energy technologies are increasingly urgent. Developing renewable energy technologies such as sun, wind and water is only part of the challenge, as many of these technologies demand energy storage well beyond current capabilities.

``This means even if we were to generate a large amount of power from a renewable source like the wind, much would be wasted as we don’t have the storage capacity,’’ Farquhar says.

Her research explanation won the University of Canterbury’s recent annual three minute thesis presentation competition.

In New Zealand, being able to efficiently harness energy from renewable sources is important so we must optimise energy storage processes, because we cannot rely heavily on non-renewable resources like oil and gas forever.

``Graphene will be an important material for energy storage devices. To efficiently store renewable energy, supercapacitors need to be improved, and graphene is, we believe, the best material to do this. But first we need to overcome the problems associated with it.

``Scientists have been developing a new class of materials aimed at improving the performance of supercapacitor storage devices. These devices may play a major role in the future solution to storing energy from renewable sources.

``At the moment, supercapacitors have a lower energy storage than traditional batteries but they can be recharged quickly and have long charge-recharge lifetimes and should be able to efficiently store energy from renewable sources.

``The key feature to building improved supercapacitors with high energy storage capability is electrodes with a large surface area. This is where my work comes in. I’m looking at making supercapacitors from the newly discovered material known as grapheme which is a single layer of graphite.

``To picture it, imagine a sheet of chicken wire, where each join is a single carbon atom, and then shrink this wire a million times and you have graphene. Unfortunately, graphene tends to form clumps or aggregates, so we can’t take advantage of the full surface area. We need to design 3D-graphene architectures that expose the surface area on the front and back of every graphene sheet.

``The first step in my research is to make graphene, which I have been working on over the past few months. This involves a high temperature (1050oC) process, where a film of graphene is grown from a carbon containing gas. After I’ve made the graphene, the next step is to add different molecules that can act as either anchors or struts for when we assemble devices from graphene.

``We hope to advance our research so we can create devices that can store massive amounts of energy, so they support the world’s rapidly advancing technologies and help to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuel,’’ Farquhar says.

Her research is being supervised by Professor Alison Downard and Dr Paula Brooksby who have received a Marsden Fund grant to research supercapacitors as energy storage devices.


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