A research team has developed a method to turn common red bricks into an energy storage solution. (Image credit: University of Washington)


The growth of solar panels and wind turbine energy solutions may be great for renewable energy, but it poses a new problem: what do you do with the excess electricity? Some solutions include battery banks, fast-spinning flywheels, and underground vaults of air. One team of researchers has an unconventional solution that may work. All you need is a lot of bricks.


The research team from the University of Washington in St. Louis recently transformed red fired bricks into supercapacitors that can illuminate a light-emitting diode. Though it sounds weird, the brick’s porous texture and pigmentation from iron oxide provide ideal conditions for growing and hosting conductive polymers. Supercapacitors are ideal for energy storage because they emit fast bursts of power and recharge quickly. But unlike batteries, they store little energy.


Red bricks were transformed by having its pores filled with vapors. They were then heated in the oven at 160 Celsius. This caused the iron oxide to trigger a chemical reaction, which coated the brick’s cavities with thin layers of PEDOT. PEDOT is poly(3,4- ethylenedioxythiophene), a polymer.  Once the bricks were done baking, the team attached copper leads to the coated bricks. A thin sheet of polypropylene was used to separate the bricks to prevent them from shorting out when stacked together.


A sulfuric acid-based solution was used as a liquid electrolyte, and the bricks were connected to a AAA battery for one minute. When they were charged, the bricks could power a white LED for 11 minutes. It doesn’t match the scale of other megawatt-scale storage projects, but with further study, it could be a viable solution.


If applied to 50 bricks, the supercapacitor could power three watts’ worth of lights for about 50 minutes. Right now, the bricks can be recharged 10,000 times and still retain about 90 percent of its original capacitance. Next, researchers will work on the polymer’s chemistry in an effort to reach 100,000 recharges.


Bricks aren’t the only common material being turned into supercapacitors. A team at the University of Glasgow is working on a flexible device that can be charged with human sweat. A thin layer of PEDOT is applied to a piece of polyester cellulose cloth that absorbs perspiration and creates an electrochemical reaction. Meanwhile, the Indian Institute of Technology-Hyderabad is looking into using corn husks in high-voltage supercapacitors.


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