The simple task of charging your phone and laptop by plugging them into a wall outlet may soon see a drastic change as researchers from Vanderbilt University have developed a structural supercapacitor that will allow energy to be stored directly in structural materials.

The supercapacitor, which looks unassuming as a small, gray wafer, could eventually make power charging cords and batteries obsolete. 

Developed by a team from Vanderbilt University led by Cary Pint, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and graduate student Andrew Westover, the supercapacitor would allow a wide variety of materials to be used as energy storage. This technology could lead to the development of laptops with casings that serve as their battery, electric cars that get their power from the chassis, or even homes where the walls provide the electricity to the appliances within.

"These devices demonstrate -- for the first time as far as we can tell -- that it is possible to create materials that can store and discharge significant amounts of electricity while they are subject to realistic static loads and dynamic forces, such as vibrations or impacts," said Pint.

The supercapacitor is composed of silicon electrodes that have been chemically treated to contain nanoscale pores in their inner surfaces. Unlike batteries that store power in chemical reactions, this supercapacitor stores energy through the assembly of electrically-charged ions on the surface of porous material.

Recent tests on the supercapacitor showed that it was able to store and release energy easily, even when the material was exposed to vibrational accelerations more than 80g and stresses of up to 44 psi.

The supercapacitor's invention opens up many possibilities across many industries, as Pint notes that technology design will no longer be limited by the access to external power sources. Pint adds that building materials that have no function aside from maintaining mechanical integrity will have additional roles.

"What if we could take the tons of materials used in homes and convert them to energy storage systems that were not more expensive, could perform the same mechanical function as building materials, but could have decades worth of energy storage capability built in?" asked Pint.

The research paper on the structural supercapacitor appeared online May 19 in the scientific journal Nano Letters. The other members of the research team are mechanical engineering professor Amrutur Anilkumar, postdoctoral associate Shahana Chatterjee, graduate student Landon Oakes, undergraduate mechanical engineering students Shivaprem Bernath, John Tian and Farhan Nur Shabab, and high school student Rob Edwards.

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