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Now, cables that can store electrical energy

Press Trust of India  |  Washington 

Imagine being able to power your MP3 player, smartphone or electric car using the fabric of your jacket?

In a breakthrough, scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have developed a way to both transmit and store electricity in a single lightweight copper wire.

So far electrical cables are used only to transmit electricity.

Copper wire is the starting point but eventually as the technology improves, special fibres could also be developed with nanostructures to conduct and store energy, according to Professor Jayan Thomas at University of Central Florida.

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 a thing of the past.

It is possible to further miniaturise 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.

Thomas and his Ph.D student Zenan Yu began with a single copper wire. 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 did it by adding a very thin plastic sheet around the whiskers and wrapping it around using a metal sheath (the second electrode) after generating nanowhiskers on it (the second electrode and outer covering).

The layers were then glued together with a special gel. Because, of the insulation the nanowhisker layer is insulating, the inner copper wire retains its ability to channel electricity, the layers around the wire independently store powerful energy.

In other words, Thomas and his team created a supercapacitor on the outside of the copper wire. Supercapacitors store powerful energy, like that needed to start a vehicle or heavy-construction equipment.

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 fibres being able to hold enough power for big tasks.

For example, if flexible solar cells and these fibres were used in tandem to make a jacket, it could be used independently to power electronic gadgets and other devices.

The research is published in the journal Advanced Materials.

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First Published: Tue, June 03 2014. 16:24 IST