Earthfix
4:49 pm
Mon April 7, 2014

'Silicon Forest' Could Gain New Meaning With High-Tech Uses For Trees

Scientists at Oregon State University may have discovered a new high-tech use for the state’s abundant forests: the trees could play a big role in making energy storage devices.

It's the cellulose found in trees that scientists have zeroed in on. That cellulose could be a key component in something called supercapacitors.

Supercapacitors are high-power energy devices with applications ranging from electronics to cars, aviation to alternative energy.

“We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product,” said Dr. David Ji, assistant professor of chemistry at Oregon State University.

He’s lead author of a study announcing the new research. It was published in “Nano Letters,” a journal of the American Chemical Society.

Ji says supercapacitors can be thought of like batteries. Both deliver power and store energy. And although supercapacitors hold less total energy than batteries, they can deliver higher power.

That’s particularly important for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.

When the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, Ji says supercapacitors could help level the load in the energy grid.

He added that supercapacitors could bring additional power to hybrid gas-electric vehicles – which have a reputation for handling more sluggishly than vehicles with only gasoline-powered engines.

But current methods of building supercapacitors are too expensive and highly polluting, traditionally using coal or oil. This has slowed the growth of the technology.

By using cellulose from trees and other organic matter, the process could become cheaper and greener.

Researchers say the only known byproduct is methane –- a key ingredient in natural gas and one that could be repurposed.

The new process goes like this: Cellulose is taken from many parts of trees or other plants.

That cellulose is then exposed to high heat and ammonia, which turns it into a nanoporous material that Ji says is required for building supercapacitors.

“There are many applications of supercapacitors around the world, but right now the field is constrained by cost,” Ji said. “If we use this very fast, simple process to make these devices much less expensive, there could be huge benefits.”

At Oregon State University, two post-doctorate fellows, four graduate students, and 11 undergraduate students contributed to the research.

Asked about the turnaround time from research to actual implementation of the new supercapacitators, Ji says it could be within five years – provided they’re able to secure funding from companies or agencies interested in the technology.

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