University of Central Florida nanotechnology scientists Professor Jayan Thomas and his Ph.D. student Zenan Yu have developed a way to both transmit and store electricity in a single lightweight copper wire. Sounds incredible, but it may become a reality. Today electrical cables are used only to carry electricity.

This is a very impressive research feat. Nature has published a discussion about this technology in the current issue. Their study paper is the focus of the cover story of the June 30 issue of the material science journal Advanced Materials. The team and their accomplishment deserves the notoriety.

Wire Electrical Storage Diagram and Test Views. Click image for more info.

Wire Electrical Storage Diagram and Test Views. Click image for more info.

Professor Thomas in an unassuming way said, “It’s an interesting idea. When we did it and started talking about it, everyone we talked to said, ‘Hmm, never thought of that. It’s unique.'”

Copper wire is the starting point but eventually, Thomas said, as the technology improves, special fibers could also be developed with nanostructures to conduct and store energy.

Thomas and Yu began with a single copper wire. Then they grew a layer of nanowhiskers on the outer surface of the copper wire. These whiskers were then treated with a special alloy, which created an electrode. Two electrodes are needed for the powerful energy storage. So they had to figure out a way to create a second electrode.

They came up with a second electrode by adding a very thin plastic sheet around the whiskers and then wrapping it around using a metal sheath with nanowhiskers grown on it becoming the second electrode 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, the layers around the wire independently store a powerful dose of energy
In other words, Thomas and his team essentially created a kind of supercapacitor or fast acting battery on the outside of the copper wire.

Although more work needs to be done, Thomas said the technique should be transferable to other types of materials. That could lead to specially treated clothing fibers being able to hold enough power for big tasks. For example, if flexible solar cells and these fibers were used in tandem to make a jacket, it could be used independently to power electronic gadgets and other devices.

“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.”

More immediate applications could be seen in the design and development of electrical vehicles, space-launch vehicles and portable electronic devices. By being able to store and conduct energy on the same wire, heavy, space-consuming batteries could become less necessary. It would be possible to further miniaturize the electronic devices or the space that has been previously used for batteries could be used for other purposes. In the case of launch vehicles, that could potentially lighten the load, making launches less costly, Thomas said.

Yu is the co-author of the study. He works in Thomas’ Nano Energy-Photonics Group. It conducts research focused primarily on nanostructured supercapacitors and Lithiuim-ion batteries, nanoarchitectured light-trapping solar cells, photorefractive polymers for 3D display applications, and nonlinear optical materials.

Its a fresh lab development, a ways off from wide commercialization. Still this isn’t looking vastly complex from a manufacturing process perspective. There are a wealth of materials to explore and experiment with. These two have hit on a very significant concept that is sure to permeate the electronics and electrical storage fields soon and be in products sooner than we might expect.

Congratulations are in order, earnestly given and richly deserved.


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