Vanderbilt University develops novel supercapacitor made out of silicon
The supercapacitor claims to be the first that can be made out of silicon along with the microelectronic circuitry that it powers could also equip mobile phones with built-in power cells that recharge in seconds and work for weeks between charges.
The research breakthrough achieved by researchers at Vanderbilt University led by Assistant Professor Cary Pint is described in a paper published in the October 22 issue of the journal Scientific.
The scientists suggest that it should be possible to construct the power cells out of the excess silicon that exists in the current generation of solar cells, sensors, mobile phones and a variety of other electromechanical devices, providing cost savings.
“If you ask experts about making a supercapacitor out of silicon, they will tell you it is a crazy idea,” said Cary Pint, the assistant professor of mechanical engineering who headed the development. “But we’ve found an easy way to do it.”
Instead of storing energy in chemical reactions the way batteries do, ‘supercaps’ store electricity by assembling ions on the surface of a porous material. As a result, they tend to charge and discharge in minutes, instead of hours, and operate for a few million cycles, instead of a few thousand cycles like batteries.
These properties have allowed commercial supercapacitors, which are made out of activated carbon, to capture a few niche markets, such as storing energy captured by regenerative braking systems on buses and electric vehicles and to provide the bursts of power required to adjust of the blades of giant wind turbines to changing wind conditions. Supercapacitors still lag behind the electrical energy storage capability of lithium-ion batteries, so they are too bulky to power most consumer devices. However, they have been catching up rapidly.
“Constructing high-performance, functional devices out of nanoscale building blocks with any level of control has proven to be quite challenging, and when it is achieved it is difficult to repeat,” explained Assistant Professor Cary Pint.
Pint and his research team – graduate students Landon Oakes, Andrew Westover and post-doctoral fellow Shahana Chatterjee – opted to use porous silicon, a material with a controllable and well-defined nanostructure made by electrochemically etching the surface of a silicon wafer.
This approach allowed the team to create surfaces with optimal nanostructures for supercapacitor electrodes, but it left them with a major problem. Silicon is generally considered unsuitable for use in supercapacitors because it reacts readily with some of chemicals in the electrolytes that provide the ions that store the electrical charge.
With experience in growing carbon nanostructures, Pint’s group decided to try to coat the porous silicon surface with carbon. “We had no idea what would happen,” said Pint. “Typically, researchers grow graphene from silicon-carbide materials at temperatures in excess of 1400 degrees Celsius. But at lower temperatures – 600 to 700 degrees Celsius – we certainly didn’t expect graphene-like material growth.”
When the researchers pulled the porous silicon out of the furnace, they found that it had turned from orange to purple or black. When they inspected it under a powerful scanning electron microscope they found that it looked nearly identical to the original material but it was coated by a layer of graphene a few nanometers thick.
When the researchers tested the coated material they found that it had chemically stabilized the silicon surface. When they used it to make supercapacitors, they found that the graphene coating improved energy densities by over two orders of magnitude compared to those made from uncoated porous silicon and significantly better than commercial supercapacitors.
The graphene layer acts as an atomically thin protective coating.
“Despite the excellent device performance we achieved, our goal wasn’t to create devices with record performance,” said Pint. “It was to develop a road map for integrated energy storage. Silicon is an ideal material to focus on because it is the basis of so much of our modern technology and applications. In addition, most of the silicon in existing devices remains unused since it is very expensive and wasteful to produce thin silicon wafers.”
Pint’s group is currently using this approach to develop energy storage that can be formed in the excess materials or on the unused back sides of solar cells and sensors. The supercapacitors would store excess the electricity that the cells generate at midday and release it when the demand peaks in the afternoon.
The graph displays the power density (watts per kilogram) and energy density (watt-hours per kilogram) of capacitors made from porous silicon (P-Si), graphene-coated porous silicon and carbon-based commercial capacitors. (Cary Pint / Vanderbilt)
More information about the supercapacitor research at
Battery boost from coated silicon