The electric car industry is on the verge of a revolution, if a breakthrough discovery of new super-fast battery charging technology fulfills its promise.

Research by the University of Surrey, Augmented Optics and the University of Bristol unearthed materials with a potential capacity between 1,000 and 10,000 times greater than existing supercapacitors, which are the current common alternative to conventional batteries.

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The findings are a potential game-changer for the electric car industry. The technology could power electric cars across similar distances to petrol vehicles, and recharge as quickly as it takes to fill up a petrol tank. The electric cars that are currently available take around six to eight hours to recharge their battery.

The project was initiated by Dr Donald Highgate, whose previous research into soft contact lens materials provided a platform for the development. Dr Highgate teamed up with principal investigators Dr Ian Hamerton and Dr Brendan Howlin to make the materials electrically-active.

Testing the conduction of materials at the University of Surrey soon sprung a surprise: their performance improved over time. Independent reports verified the electrical properties and recommended the development of high-energy density supercapacitors.

“We're not talking about something which will take five, 10, 15, 20 years to realise a device,” said Augmented Optics CEO Jim Heathcote. “We're talking about potentially getting into prototyped devices within a matter of months."

Power of the past

The lithium-ion batteries first commercialised by Sony in 1991 still drive the electric car industry of today, from established automakers such as Toyota to emerging players such as Tesla, which intends to begin battery production at its new Gigafactory in Nevada in 2017.

None of them can control their degradation over time and their limited temperature-resistance. Supercapacitors provide a solution. While traditional batteries store energy in a chemical reaction, supercapacitors do so on the surface of a material, supporting faster charges and longer life cycles.

Supercapacitors have powered buses in China since one was added to the engine of Shanghai’s number 11 in 2006. They could capture between $800 million to $1 billion of a high-power energy storage market that market research company IDTechEx predicts will grow from around $240 million today to $2 billion a year by 2026. 

But the limitations of the technology have until now made them unpractical for passenger vehicles. They can store just 5 percent of the energy that lithium-ion batteries can, which means they need a recharge every two to three bus stops.

Supercapacitors couldn’t previously compete with traditional chemical batteries due to their poor energy density per kilogram. The new technology could overcome this limitation. The supercapacitors would only need a recharge every 20-30 stops, from breaks that last for just a few seconds.

Another advantage of the supercapacitors is their performance under low temperatures, a particularly pertinent feature as the fluctuating functions of smartphones and energy systems create ever more variable power demands.

The initial application will likely use the two methods of electric power in conjuction. "Their first use is almost certainly going to be in additional to a lithium ion battery so you can flash charge half of your store quickly,” said Dr Highgate. “With more experience, they might take over entirely."

Competition for energy

The discovery couldn’t come sooner, because the competition for alternative power is hotting up. A mechanical engineering student from the University of Sussex won the Autocar-Courland Next Generation Award in November for his design of a stacked graphene battery, which could lead to smaller batteries with greater capacities and reduced charging times.

The same month, a team of scientists from the University of Central Florida designed a prototype for a supercapacitor that can charge a mobile phone in a few seconds and keep it live for more than a week.

But their innovations pale in comparison to the capabilities of this one, which could generate applications that go far beyond electric cars. The technology has the power to recharge phones and laptops in a few seconds if it translates into very high energy density supercapacitors.

The material doesn’t tend to catch fire, welcome news in these times of exploding phones. Aerospace, energy generation, screen electronic devices and biosensors are all other potential avenues of adoption.

“This is where everyone is aiming for at the moment,” said Heathcote. “We don’t know what the outcome of our work is going to show, but we have made a very important scientific advance.”

Making the discovery real

Next they hope to transfer the science into a real product. Once that’s been independently reviewed, Heathcote hopes to raise the money to build a factory to make the first supercapacitor in the UK.

“We’re now going to start the building of a full-scale prototype, and we hope to have it built in the spring,” he said.

“We are now actively seeking commercial partners in order to supply our polymers and offer assistance to build these ultra high energy density storage devices.”

The announcement will please the ears of business, energy and industrial strategy secretary Greg Clark, who said electric cars would be an “emblematic area of focus” at a meeting of local industry and political representatives at the University of Warwick on 24 November.

Outside the the Institution of Engineering and Technology on Savoy Place, where the plans were revealed, stands a statue of Michael Faraday, whose experiments in the early 19th century laid the foundations for the modern electric motor.

The internal combustion engine would go on to vanquish the electric car in the first battle of energy density. But this new breakthrough suggests the war was not lost.