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New carbon material sets energy-storage record likely to advance supercapacitors

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have used machine learning to design a carbonaceous supercapacitor material that stores four times more energy than the best commercial material. A supercapacitor made with the new material could store more energy—improving regenerative brakes, power electronics and auxiliary power supplies.

By combining a data-driven method and our research experience, we created a carbon material with enhanced physicochemical and electrochemical properties that pushed the boundary of energy storage for carbon supercapacitors to the next level.

—Tao Wang of ORNL and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville


a Ragone plot for supercapacitors, batteries, and conventional electrical capacitors. b Data structure and capacitance boundary predicted by the ANN model for N/O co-doped carbon electrodes in 1 M H2SO4 electrolyte. c Experimental design for the synthesis of the target hyperporous carbons predicted by the ANN model. Wang et al.

Wang led the study, published in an open-access paper in Nature Communications, with chemist Sheng Dai of ORNL and UTK.

The researchers conducted the study at the Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and Transport Center (FIRST), an ORNL-led DOE Energy Frontier Research Center that operated from 2009 to 2022. Its partners at three national labs and seven universities explored fluid-solid interface reactions having consequences for capacitive electrical energy storage.

Capacitors store energy as an electric field; they cannot store as much energy as batteries in a given volume, but they can recharge repeatedly and do not lose the ability to hold a charge. Supercapacitors, such as those powering some electric buses, can store more charge than capacitors and charge and discharge more quickly than batteries.

Commercial supercapacitors have two electrodes—an anode and cathode—that are separated and immersed in an electrolyte. Double electrical layers reversibly separate charges at the interface between the electrolyte and the carbon. The materials of choice for making electrodes for supercapacitors are porous carbons. The pores provide a large surface area for storing the electrostatic charge.

The ORNL-led study used machine learning to guide the discovery of the superlative material. Runtong Pan, Musen Zhou and Jianzhong Wu from the University of California, Riverside, a FIRST partner university, built an artificial neural network model and trained it to set a clear goal: develop a “dream material” for energy delivery.

The model predicted that the highest capacitance for a carbon electrode would be 570 farads per gram if the carbon were co-doped with oxygen and nitrogen.

Wang and Dai designed an extremely porous doped carbon that would provide huge surface areas for interfacial electrochemical reactions. Then Wang synthesized the novel material, an oxygen-rich carbon framework for storing and transporting charge.

The carbon was activated to generate more pores and add functional chemical groups at sites for oxidation or reduction reactions. Industry uses activation agents such as potassium hydroxide that require a very high temperature, around 800 degrees Celsius, which drives oxygen from the material. Five years ago, Dai developed a process using sodium amide as the activation agent. It works at a lower temperature, near 600 degrees Celsius, and creates more active sites than the hotter industrial process.

The synthesized material had a capacitance of 611 farads per gram—four times higher than a typical commercial material. Pseudocapacitance is storage of charge based on continuous, fast and reversible oxidation-reduction reactions at the surface of electrode materials. Pseudocapacitance from such reactions at the oxygen/nitrogen sites contributed to 25% of the overall capacitance. The material’s surface area was among the highest recorded for carbonaceous materials—more than 4,000 square meters per gram.

The data-driven approach allowed Wang and Dai to achieve in three months what would have previously taken at least a year.

The key to success was achieving two kinds of pores—mesopores between 2 and 50 nanometers and micropores tinier than 2 nanometers. In experimental analyses, the chemists found that the combination of mesopore and micropores provided not only a high surface area for energy storage but also channels for electrolyte transport. Miaofang Chi and Zhennan Huang at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a DOE Office of Science user facility at ORNL, performed scanning transmission electron microscopy to characterize the mesopores, but the micropores were too small to see.

Microscopically, the material looks like a golf ball with deep dimples. The dimples represent mesopores, and the micropores exist in the material between the dimples.

You are building a highway for ion transport. Supercapacitors are all about high-rate performance—fast charging, fast discharging. In this structure that Tao and I designed, you have a larger pore, which you can view as a superhighway. This is connected to smaller roads, or tinier pores.

—Sheng Dai

The smaller pores provide a larger surface for storing charge, but the larger pores are like a highway that can speed up the charge/discharge rate performance. A balanced amount of small and large pores can realize the best performance, as predicted by the artificial neural network model.

—Tao Wang

To characterize the electrolyte’s transport in the carbon pores, Murillo Martins and Eugene Mamontov of the Spallation Neutron Source, a DOE Office of Science user facility at ORNL, performed quasielastic neutron scattering. Neutron scattering revealed the electrolyte moved at different speeds: quickly in the mesopores and slowly in the micropores.

Wang quantified the capacitance contributions from pores of different sizes and oxidation-reduction reactions at their surfaces via modified step potential electrochemical spectroscopy, a technique that can be done in only a few places in the world. The team found that mesopores doped with oxygen and nitrogen contribute most to the overall capacitance.

The FIRST team performed other studies of the physicochemical properties. Jinlei Cui and Takeshi Kobayashi from Ames National Laboratory used nuclear magnetic resonance to analyze the structure of polymer precursors. Bishnu Thapaliya of ORNL and UTK conducted Raman analysis, revealing the carbon’s amorphous, or disordered, structure.

Zhenzhen Yang of UTK and ORNL and Juntian Fan of UTK participated in the surface area measurements.

This work was supported as part of the FIRST Center, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the DOE Office of Science at ORNL.


  • Wang, T., Pan, R., Martins, M.L. et al. (2023) “Machine-learning-assisted material discovery of oxygen-rich highly porous carbon active materials for aqueous supercapacitors.” Nat Commun 14, 4607 (doi: 10.1038/s41467-023-40282-1



Such breakthroughs in supercapacitors with exceptional power densities can well-augment lithium batteries that perform best at low current draws. These supercapacitors can provide for both peak power needs and sustained power, with an associated battery and regenerative braking used to recharge the supercapacitors. The combination of very high regenerative braking and a supercapacitor capable of absorbing their power output can render unnecessary traditional friction braking. It would have been interesting to hear a bit more about the expected economics and time frame.


Friction brakes will always be needed, and if they are there, it doesn't make much sense if you use them ~10% of the time (only battery) or only 2% of the time (supercap). A battery in a EV in the near future will be capable of absorbing 100+ kW, that basicly covers all normal driving scenarios for braking, the problem with regen braking is that you have diferential, it will slip. If you wan't to go with bigger regen power then you absolutly need 4 motors and control them individually, like the ABS is doing it today with friction brakes.

Supercaps would be great in other aplications, but I don't see a good use case in EVs.

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