What if an electric car could be run off the power stored in its door panels? What if a jet could be powered by energy stored in its fuselage?
Researchers at Northern Arizona University have invented a unique multifunctional material that is capable of storing power while providing structural support for high-performance systems operating in a wide range of environments specific to the aerospace, automotive and renewable energy industries. Constantin Ciocanel, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Cindy Browder, associate professor of chemistry, have worked together for more than seven years to develop this innovative technology, which recently was awarded patents from the European Union and Australia. (U.S. patents are pending.)
The multifunctional material’s design combines elements of composite materials with a power storage mechanism specific to supercapacitors. Made of carbon fiber layers bonded with a solid polymer resin capable of conducting electricity, the multifunctional material can be molded without compromising strength or durability. A complementary technology integrates the mechanical strength properties of a honeycomb design with the lightweight characteristic of carbon fiber electrodes, resulting in a material that simultaneously exhibits both electrical energy/power storage capability and mechanical strength.
High-performance composite materials have been used widely in industrial applications for decades. Examples include making stronger, lighter aircraft and spacecraft components. More recently, researchers have begun to integrate other properties into composites, including sensing, actuation, computation and communication. Ciocanel’s brainchild was the idea of embedding the property of power storage into such composites.
The idea was triggered, Ciocanel says, “by the realization that we are surrounded by many structures with large surface areas. Building walls, solar panels and wind turbine blades, for example, all play a structural role. I wondered whether a structural material could be made that would still provide the mechanical strength required by these structures while simultaneously storing electricity, by taking advantage of the inherent large surface areas that are a key ingredient for power storage in supercapacitor-like systems.”
The potential for bringing this technology to market is exciting. According to the Energy Storage Association, the global energy storage market is growing exponentially, with an annual installation size of more than 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2022 – from an initial base of only 0.34 GW installed in 2012 and 2013.
Ciocanel and Browder are now seeking an industrial partner who can make the technology scalable to accommodate its potential for growth. “We think that this technology would be very attractive to companies like Tesla, Boeing, GM, BMW and Raytheon,” says Browder. “There’s growing interest in this field.”
While the researchers are busy developing prototypes of the multifunctional material for a variety of industrial applications, they’re also continuing to improve and diversify the technology. Recently, Ciocanel and Browder have been joined by colleague Gerrick Lindberg, an NAU assistant professor of chemistry who is applying computational physical chemistry methods to help understand the ion transport that is responsible for the resin’s conductivity. This work is enabling the team to change the formulation that renders the resin more affordable and ecologically sustainable.
For more information about licensing NAU’s structural supercapacitor technology, contact NAU Innovations, Northern Arizona University’s technology transfer unit, at NAUinnovations@nau.edu, or call 928-523-4620.
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