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Power of a new ocean current

Technology being developed by Professor George Chen and colleagues at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China could offer a carbon-neutral alternative for use at home, at work and on the move.

Ningbo is the world’s busiest port, handling more cargo than any other. Yet emissions from the diesel engines of thousands of cargo ships docking at the Chinese city have a heavy environmental price, not least in contributing to its chronic air pollution.

New technology invented by scientists at the Universityof Nottingham Ningbo China offers a solution: the supercapattery. This would allow ships to switch to cleaner electric batteries from their diesel engines as they manoeuvre in and around port.

The supercapattery is an electricity storage device that combines the best features of a battery (high energy density but lacking power) and a supercapacitor (powerful, yet low energy density) to create a device that offers high power plus high energy density.

This has huge potential for electric transport, such as buses, light rail and underground trains – and shipping, as emissions from maritime diesel engines, many powering supertankers of over 100,000 tonnes, become much more concentrated in port.

Professor George Chen explained: “When the ships come into the port, they could turn off their diesel engines to stop their emissions and engage their on-board electricpower and storage systems. Switching to a hybrid system not only reduces emissions, it will also make fuel consumption more efficient.”

The scale and needs of Ningbo makes the port an ideal test bed for supercapattery technology and its potential to be adopted as a viable on-board energy storage solution for ships across the world.

A team led by Professor Chen and Li Dak Sum, Chair Professor in Electrochemical Technologies is collaborating with materials experts from the Universityof Nottingham, UK. The Ningbo Science and Technology Bureau is also supporting the project.

The next stage is to take the supercapattery technology from the laboratory and make it a commercial reality.

Car and battery manufacturers, as well as research partners, will draw on the University’s leadership in this field.

"There is a pressing global need to find clean alternatives to fossil fuels for industry, domestic use and transportation."
Professor George Chen

Professor Chen said: “The work we’re doing is not only for China, it’s suitable for global markets because the demand for high energy and high power electric power sources is broad. We’re hoping to build on our preliminary supercapattery work to find a more efficient way of converting, for example, solar energy into electricity. Car manufacturers, battery producers and resources suppliers are all interested in our research.

“The benefit of electric cars is obvious. You can use solar panels on your roof to collect electricity from sunlight in daytime and store it in the supercapattery, using that stored electricity to charge your car’s battery during the night. You are generating your own energy – isn’t that exciting?”

The supercapatteries are based on a modular system, which can be combined to build large-scale storage devices for use in homes and mobile phones among a host of other applications. The University of Nottingham Ningbo China team is also building on their preliminary work on supercapatteries to find amore efficient ways of converting solar energy into electricity, as well as examining other research areas on renewable energy.

Professor Chen welcomes collaborators to join forces with his team to set up physical demonstrators, showing how the supercapattery technology performs under operating conditions. The demonstrators will help to show the potential of the technology, while delivering innovation and competitiveness for industry partners.

“There is a pressing global need to find clean alternatives to fossil fuels for industry, domestic use and transportation,” said Professor Chen. “But as the world becomes more complex, problems become more challenging to solve. And that’s why collaboration – across disciplines, institutions and industrial partnerships – is the way forward.”

George Chen

George Chen is Li Dak Sum Professor in Electrochemical Technologies. His research focuses on electrical power sources and storage, and how chemistry and engineering can help support these cleaner energy sources.

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