Contact lenses in a stock photograph

Contact Lens Tech Could Revolutionize Electric Vehicles

Researchers at an English university have developed a polymer that could boost supercapacitor performance — a technology first trumpeted by Elon Musk back in 2011.

A plastic based on soft contact-lens technology could solve some of the biggest challenges facing electric vehicles by letting them recharge in seconds and travel from the more than 400 miles London to Edinburgh without stopping, scientists say.

Researchers at the University of Surrey developed a polymer that may dramatically boost the performance of supercapacitors, lightweight electronic components that store and distribute high volumes of power.

“We believe that this is an extremely exciting and potentially game-changing development,” said Ian Hamerton, who tested the technology at Bristol University’s Department of Aerospace Engineering.

In 2011, Tesla Motors Inc.’s founder Elon Musk said he would bet on supercapacitors over batteries to deliver a breakthrough for electric cars. They’re already providing bursts of energy to help propel trains and buses in some parts of the world.

In the future, supercapacitors may work alone to create EVs that travel similar distances to gasoline-powered cars, taking only seconds instead of hours to recharge, said Donald Highgate, 76, who helped commercialize soft contact lens technology in the 1970s. He’s a director at Augmented Optics Ltd., which also worked on the research.

While previous supercapacitor research by companies such as Skeleton Technologies GmbH focused on improving the area of electrode surfaces, this latest research seeks to replace the material used as an electrolyte, said Highgate.

The research showed it could boost the energy density of supercapacitors by anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times.

“This is a war on energy density,” said Jim Heathcote, CEO of Augmented Optics Ltd., a closely-held company based in Royston in Hertfordshire, England. 

Along with Highgate, he set up a company called SuperCapacitor Materials Ltd., which is seeking to start building a full-scale prototype next year. That could lead to a new factory in the U.K., requiring investment of as much as 25 million pounds ($31.77 million), he said.

Current supercapacitors have an energy density of about 5 watt-hours a kilogram, compared with the 100 watt-hours of lithium-ion batteries commonly used in electric vehicles, Heathcote said. Gasoline-powered cars have an energy density of 2,500 watt-hours per kilogram.

“If it’s 1,000 times more powerful, you can use it for buses,” he said. “If it got to 50 watt-hours, it would do general transportation. Anything above that is just blue sky. If this only translates into something 10 times better, that’s still huge.”

By Jessica Shankleman

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