UCF and NASA researchers design charged ‘electric suits’ for electric vehicles and spacecraft

Like the charged electric suit worn by Marvel Comics’ Black Panther, UCF researchers advanced NASA technologies to develop an electric suit for an electric car that’s as strong as steel, lighter than aluminum, and that helps to increase the power capacity of the vehicle.

The suit is made of a layered carbon composite material that functions as a hybrid supercapacitor-energy storage battery device due to its unique nanoscale design.

The development recently appeared as a cover story in the newspaper Small and could have applications in a range of technologies that require lightweight power sources, from electric vehicles to spacecraft, aircraft, drones, portable devices and wearable technology.

“Our idea is to use the body wraps to store energy to supplement the energy stored in the batteries,” says study co-author Jayan Thomas, team leader and professor at NanoScience Technology Center and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UCF.

“The benefit is that this composite can reduce the weight of your car and increase miles per charge,” he says. “It’s as strong or even stronger than steel but much lighter.”

lightweight supercapacitor-battery hybrid composite material shown on an electric car
The energy storage material, when used as a body shell, could increase the range of an electric car by 25%, meaning a 200 mile vehicle per charge could travel an additional 50 miles and reduce its overall weight. Image credit: Wiley-VCH GmbH

The material, when used as a body shell, could increase an electric car’s range by 25%, meaning a 200-mile-per-charge vehicle could travel an extra 50 miles and reduce its overall weight.

As a supercapacitor, it would also increase the power of an electric car, giving it the extra boost it needs to go from zero to 60 mph in 3 seconds.

“This application, along with many others, could be on the horizon one day as the technology advances in its readiness,” says Luke Roberson, study co-author and principal investigator for Research and Development. development at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

These materials could be used as frames for cubic satellites, structures on off-world habitats, or even as part of futuristic glasses, such as mixed and virtual reality headsets.

“There are many potential infusion points in the economy as well as for future space exploration,” Roberson said. “This is, in my view, a huge leap forward in technological readiness to get us to where we need to be for NASA’s mission infusion.”

On cars, the supercapacitor’s composite material would be powered by the load, like a battery, as well as when the car brakes, Thomas says.

“Its charge-discharge life cycle is 10 times longer than an electric car battery,” he says.

The materials used are also non-toxic and non-flammable, which is very important for passenger safety in the event of an accident, he says.

“This is a huge improvement over previous approaches that suffered from problems with toxic materials, flammable organic electrolytes, low life cycles, or poor performance,” says Thomas.

Due to its unique design that uses multiple layers of carbon fiber, the material has significant impact and flex strength, essential to withstand a self-collision, as well as significant tensile strength.

To construct the material, the researchers created layers of positively and negatively charged carbon fibers, which, when stacked and attached alternately, create a strong, energy-storing composite.

Nanoscale graphene sheets bonded to carbon fiber layers allow for increased charge storage capacity, while metal oxides deposited on bonded electrodes improve voltage and provide higher energy density. This gives the supercapacitor-battery hybrid its unprecedented energy storage capacity and charge life cycle, says Thomas.

Deepak Pandey, the lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Thomas’s lab, worked on forming, shaping and optimizing the composite, as well as developing the method for adding metal oxides to the carbon graphene strips.

Study co-author Kowsik Sambath Kumar, a PhD student in Thomas’s lab, developed a way to vertically align graphene at the nanoscale on carbon fiber electrodes.

Kumar says one of the most important developments of this supercapacitor composite is that it is lightweight.

“Now in electric cars, the battery is 30% to 40% of the weight,” he says. “With this energy storage composite, we can get extra mileage without increasing battery weight, furthermore, it reduces vehicle weight, while maintaining high tensile, flex and impact strength. Every time you reduce that weight, you can increase range, which has huge applications in electric cars and aviation.

Pandey agrees and points to its usefulness to the space sector.

“Making a cubic satellite out of this composite will make the satellite light and help eliminate the heavy battery,” he says. “This could save thousands of dollars per launch. Additionally, the free space gained by removing the large batteries could help integrate more sensors and test equipment, thereby increasing the functionality of the satellite,” Pandey said. “The supercapacitor-battery hybrid behavior is ideal for cubesats because it can recharge in minutes when a satellite orbits above the sunlit side of Earth.

Roberson says the technology is currently at a technology readiness level of five, which means it has been tested in a relevant environment before moving on to testing in a real environment, such as during a spaceflight, which would be a level six test.

Passing the final level of testing, level nine, and reaching the commercial environment, will require further development and testing focused on commercial applications, he said.

The study’s co-authors also included Leaford Nathan Henderson, a UCF materials science and engineering doctoral candidate; UCF aerospace engineering undergraduate Gustavo Suarez; Patrick Vega, research assistant at the NanoScience Technology Center for the duration of the study; and Hilda ReyesSalvador ’20graduated from UCF’s undergraduate biomedical sciences program.

The research was funded by the US National Science Foundation.

Thomas joined UCF in 2011 and is part of the NanoScience Technology Center with a cross-appointment to the College of Optics and Photonics and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Previously, Thomas was at the University of Arizona in its College of Optical Sciences. He holds several degrees including a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science from Cochin University of Science and Technology in India.