Nano-scale Ultra Capacitors Challenge the Lithium-Ion Battery

James Mulroy

Mar 24, 2010 8:14 pm

Does your laptop battery die out right before you hit send on that important email? With scientists at MIT, Intel and other facilities researching microstructures (i.e. micro- or nano-scale pieces of computing hardware) it may be only a matter of time before nano-scale ultra-powerful capacitors challenge lithium-ion batteries.

Intel researchers have been working on “ultracapacitors with a greater energy density than today’s lithium batteries," according to EE Times. Intel is looking into producing these nano-scale ultracapacitors in high-volume manufacturing, meaning that if successful, they may be potentially capable of powering gadgets like smartphones and laptops.

Typically capacitors are used for short-term electrical storage (for example, on a solar powered calculator, a capacitor will collect and store electricity in case you go somewhere without light for a short period of time; depending on the storage capacity of the capacitors in the calculator this will typically be for a few minutes); however ultracapacitors are essentially the higher end models, capable of holding energy for longer periods of time thus competing with batteries.

Capacitors are often lighter-weight than batteries and maintain a longer overall physical lifespan. For example, capacitors seen on printed circuit boards (PCB) may last a lifetime. However, they typically do not maintain a charge for very long and this is why batteries are used to power most gadgets. But with ultracapacitors, this may change.

MIT’s Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity is working on a multitude of micro- and nano- scale manufacturing techniques. For example, researchers at the Precision Compliant Systems (PCSL) Laboratory at MIT are looking into multi-axis nanopositioning systems.

The PCSL describes nanopostitioners as “electromechanical systems...that position and orient components with [nanometer]-level accuracy.” While not directly related to the manufacture of nano-scale ultracapacitors, this technology may be able to include Intel’s nano-scale ultracapacitors on smaller-scale circuit boards, making your electronics smaller.

Nobody knows for sure what the full potential of these nano-scale ultracapacitors are--maybe they’ll drastically increase the lifespan of your laptop or smartphone--but the future sure looks bright.