Adapted cellulose forms super capacitor material

Trees could soon play a role in making energy storage devices, claim scientists at Oregon State University.

OSU chemists have found that cellulose – the most abundant organic polymer on Earth and a key component of trees – can be heated in a furnace in the presence of ammonia, and turned into the building blocks for supercapacitors.

The use of supercapacitors – high-power energy devices with a wide range of industrial applications – has been held back primarily by cost and the difficulty of producing high-quality carbon electrodes.

The new approach discovered at Oregon State can produce nitrogen-doped, nanoporous carbon membranes – the electrodes of a supercapacitor – at low cost, quickly, and in an environmentally benign process. The only by-product is methane, which could be used as a fuel or for other purposes.

‘The ease, speed and potential of this process is really exciting,’ said Xiulei Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science, and lead author on a study announcing the discovery in Nano Letters. The research was funded by OSU.

‘For the first time we’ve proven that you can react cellulose with ammonia and create these N-doped nanoporous carbon membranes,’ Ji said in a statement. ‘It’s surprising that such a basic reaction was not reported before. Not only are there industrial applications, but this opens a whole new scientific area, studying reducing gas agents for carbon activation. We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product.’

Besides supercapacitors, nanoporous carbon materials also have applications in adsorbing gas pollutants, environmental filters, water treatment and other uses.