A magical material that can supercharge your iPhone (or Prius)

supercapacitors

Imagine a power source that could charge your phone in 30 seconds and your electric car in three minutes — one that is so environmentally-friendly that it can eventually be tossed in the compost bin.

Sound too good to be true? That game-changing technology is in development by Nanotech Energy. The startup emerged from a discovery that materials scientist Maher el-Kady stumbled upon while doing his Ph.D. research at UCLA.

El-Kady was experimenting with graphene, a promising material that has proven stubbornly difficult to process. His ingenious, if low-tech solution: coat compact discs in liquid graphite, and run them through a household CD player. The player’s lasers zap the material and turn it to graphene.

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Along the way, El-Kady noticed something curious: the laser-scribed graphene that emerged from the CD player had an uncanny ability to conduct and hold energy. After charging for just a few seconds, a tiny piece of the material could power a light for five minutes.

That’s when the light bulb went on.

El-Kady and his colleague, UCLA faculty member Ric Kaner, realized they had stumbled onto a material with properties that the electronics industry has long desired: a power source that is both quick to charge and able to meet hefty energy demands.

From the findings, Los Angeles-based Nanotech Energy has developed graphene supercapacitors that can charge electronic devices up to 1,000 times faster than a normal battery. The company has created prototypes and is now looking to scale up production.

Nanotech Energy is just one company to emerge from UC graduate student research.