European researchers believe we can, and have just launched a €3.4 million project to develop a new material that could essentially allow phone housings and car bodies to act as their own power source. The effort, if successful, could enable credit-card-thin phones and electric cars far smaller, lighter and more efficient than those today.
The key to all these potential innovations lies with a new material made of carbon fibres and a polymer resin. Patented by Imperial College London, the material can both store and discharge electrical energy and is strong and lightweight enough to be used for car parts, mobiles, computers and other devices.
“We are really excited about the potential of this new technology,” said Emile Greenhalgh, a researcher at Imperial’s department of aeronautics and co-ordinator of the EU-funded project. “We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its bonnet or even the door, thanks to our new composite material. Even the Sat Nav could be powered by its own casing.
“The future applications for this material don’t stop there — you might have a mobile phone that is as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging. We’re at the first stage of this project and there is a long way to go, but we think our composite material shows real promise.”
The research project aims to refine the new material so it can replace the metal flooring in a car’s wheel well, which holds the spare tyre. Volvo, one of the project participants, is exploring the possibility of installing such a wheel well in prototype cars for testing. The innovation could reduce the number of batteries needed in hybrid cars and reduce vehicle weight by 15 per cent.
Another benefit of the new material is that, unlike conventional batteries, it doesn’t use chemical processes to hold and discharge electricity. That makes it quicker to recharge and less prone to degradation over time.
One of the first goals of the new research project is to improve the new material so it can store more energy. Researchers believe they can achieve that by growing carbon nanotubes on top of the carbon fibres, which would increase the material’s surface area and boost its energy storage capacity.