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  • Writer's pictureMaher El-Kady

UCLA Chemistry: Graduate Student Maher El-Kady Puts the "Super" in "The Super Supercapacitor""

In “The Super Supercapacitor,” a three-minute video

made by award-winning director Brian Golden Davis as an

entry into the 2012 Focus Forward Filmmaker Competition

that has now gone viral, Maher El-Kady, a Ph.D. candidate

in Professor Richard Kaner’s group, can be seen throwing a

handful of batteries into the “battery recycling bin,” in favor

of running everyday gadgets with a superior replacement—

the graphene supercapacitor. Graphene supercapacitors are

not only biodegradable, but are also able to charge and

discharge about 100 to 1000 times faster than the average

alkaline battery.

“Think of electric cars—the higher the capacity of the

battery, the farther you can go on a single charge, and the

higher the power, the faster you can run your car,” El-Kady

said. “This is what you want in the end, so we ended up

making a supercapacitor that has twice as much energy

density as commercial supercapacitors, and twenty times as

much power.”

The look of enthusiasm on El-Kady’s face when he says,

“Let’s talk about the future,” during an interview in Davis’

film, is parallel to the large number of potential applications

that have been linked to graphene supercapacitors, and to

greener energy prospects, including flexible technology and

improved hybrid vehicles. Although Kaner’s group is not

the first to build graphene supercapacitors, the team’s

scalable, environmentally friendly method is the most likely

to be commercially reproduced at this time. El-Kady was

one of two recipients of the 2012 Herbert Newby McCoy

Award, which honors the most significant research of the

year, for his research with Kaner that piqued the interest of

scientific journals, major news outlets, industry

professionals, and Davis, a film director with Los Angelesbased

company DocRiot.

Davis was one of about 100 people who contacted Kaner

following the March 2012 publication of an article in

Science, which described how graphite pieces are

transformed into graphite oxide, and, finally, into graphene,

using common LightScribe software designed for printing

text and images on CDs and DVDs, thus providing the

active material in supercapacitors. Davis read an article

about Kaner and El-Kady’s research and wished to turn their

discovery into a human interest film, entering it into the

Focus Forward competition, which offered up to $200,000

in prizes to the best cinematographic features showcasing

pioneering research capable of world change.

Motors on their hybrid cars, and everyone there basically expressed

that the key to hybrid vehicles was developing a new type of

battery,” Davis said. “Since battery technology develops very

slowly, I was super excited to read about Ric and Maher's work. I

didn't think, and don't think, even now, that people realize how big

a discovery a new energy storage device is.”

Although “The Super Supercapacitor” did not win the grand

prize in the competition, it ranked as the second most viewed film

of 95 finalists, was viewed by over 1 million people on Web sites

such as Reddit, Vimeo, YouTube, and Upworthy, and was

translated into Portuguese, serving as a promotional vehicle for

possibilities to come.

“It's not exactly ‘Gangnam Style’ numbers, but for a threeminute

documentary on a science subject, it should be considered

very successful,” Davis said.

Following publication of Kaner and El-Kady’s Science article, a

leading supercapacitor company also offered them a contract and

large donation to fund further research on supercapacitors, for

potential applications in transportation and energy grid storage.

“If you go to China, the new buses run on carbon-based

supercapacitors, and the reason they do that is a supercapacitor can

be charged and discharged relatively quickly,” Kaner said,

describing one such application. “While people are getting on and

off at a bus stop, you can charge your bus, and instead of having an

entire grid system, you just make the bus stop the charging station.

As long as there’s a bus stop every 10 to 20 miles, where the bus

can be recharged, it’s very happy to go along, and you need very

little infrastructure.”

El-Kady and Kaner have made several more breakthroughs over

the past year. Although their graphene supercapacitors can already

be charged 1000 times faster than batteries, El-Kady is working on

further boosting their capacity by making a supercapacitor-battery

hybrid that requires limited charging time to store a large amount

of power.

“If you specially design the supercapacitor-battery hybrid, you

can get the best attributes of the two,” El-Kady said.

They also developed mini versions of their supercapacitors,

called micro-supercapacitors, which is especially important since

the current portable electronics trend has spurred the

miniaturization of various technologies. Standard micro-fabrication

techniques have enabled on-chip micro-supercapacitors, but the

devices are expensive and are produced in a labor-intensive

process, thereby limiting their commercial applications. Using the

inexpensive LightScribe technique, El-Kady was able to make

more than 100 micro-supercapacitors on a single DVD disc in less

than 30 minutes, a terrific feat that may lead to direct power source

integration into computer processing chips. This research was

published in Nature Communications on February 12, 2013.

“It’s something that I believe is a very important step forward

towards the commercialization of graphene microsupercapacitors,”

El-Kady said.

Kaner said El-Kady’s educational background played a crucial

role in the discovery that graphene was ideal for building

supercapacitors, enabling him to take the lead in the continuation

of their research, and making him more than deserving of the

McCoy award.

“This would not have come about unless Maher came with his

master’s degree in electrochemistry, and, literally, after measuring

the speed of electron transfer on graphene, realized that this was a

good application,” Kaner said. “I have some background in

electrochemistry–my Ph.D. was on making the first batteries out of

conducting polymers–but I hadn’t actually done much

electrochemistry since I’d been here, so it was refreshing to see

him come, and he definitely deserves whatever accolades come his


El-Kady has always pushed himself to succeed. An almost

middle child of a family of nine children, five boys and four girls,

El-Kady grew up in Egypt and was strongly encouraged to pursue

an education by his parents, both of whom lacked the opportunities

available to him.

“My mother didn’t get an education and my father didn’t get an

education either, although he later learned how to read and write

some words,” El-Kady said. “They made sacrifices so I could

pursue what I love to do. I would like to take this opportunity to

remember my father who passed away when I was about to join

UCLA. Without his help, I wouldn’t be here today. I would also

like to thank my mother, who gave me a lot of support during my

school studies to do something, to be an effective member of

society. Even though she didn’t know exactly what that could be,

she was giving me the support to get a nice education, because then

I would eventually know my way and do better than they did.”

El-Kady said science became a career path at an early age, as he

has looked up to Ahmed Zewail, the 1999 Nobel Laureate in

chemistry, since he was 12, and was first fascinated by his sixth to

eighth grade science teacher’s lab experiments. Fulfilling his

parents’ aspirations, he received his bachelor’s of science in

chemistry from Cairo University, in 2004, ranking as the top

student in his department and gaining a position as a professor at

Cairo University, to commence upon the completion of his

doctorate. His collaboration with Kaner, who he admired for his

work in conducting polymers, began while he was working on his

master’s thesis, as his committee selected Kaner as an external

reviewer. Soon after completing his master’s in physical chemistry,

in 2009, El-Kady received a graduate fellowship to earn his

doctorate in the United States, choosing to join Kaner’s group. He

intended to study conducting polymers, but became interested in

graphene, a newer material discovered in 2004.

“Ric started at the time when conducting polymers were

actually the golden material, but, after 40 years, most of their

interesting applications had been done already,” El-Kady said.

“Current research has taught us that graphene is the new star

material of our time. Measurements showed that graphene is one of

the strongest materials known to man, conducts electricity better

than copper, and is completely flexible. Most interestingly,

graphene has extrememly high surface area. For example, you can

cover an entire football field with less than one gram of graphene.

These interesting properties suggested that graphene could be used

for a variety of applications. However, the question was if we could

make a useful device out of graphene, and before that, we needed

to ask a more important question—could we make graphene using

an inexpensive and scalable process?”

Kaner originally set out to find a scalable method for making

graphene, as the one made famous by 2010 Nobel Laureates Andre

Geim and Konstantin Novoselov was difficult

to reproduce. Geim and Novoselov’s method used tape to peel

layers from a piece of graphite until one layer, graphene, resulted.

Kaner’s method instead involved chemical exfoliation of graphene

sheets from graphite oxide, documented in the most-cited article in

Nature Nanotechnology, and El-Kady said he wanted to take this

finding to the next step.

“My goal at that time was to make a graphene supercapacitor

that could store more energy than commercially available

supercapacitors and also provide more power,” El-Kady said.

However, researchers have faced the common challenge that

the single layers of graphene stick together, reducing its surface

area. To produce graphene sheets that remained separate once

combined into supercapacitors, El-Kady, Veronica Strong, a

former graduate student, Sergey Dubin, another Ph.D. candidate in

Kaner’s group, and Kaner decided to use a laser to convert

graphite oxide into graphene, settling on the laser inside a

LightScribe drive, because it was inexpensive and accessible. A

few years earlier, they discovered that graphite oxide could convert

into graphene when exposed to intense light, and the LightScribe

method provided control over the speedy conversion process.

“We looked at the microscopic structure of graphene and found

that the graphene sheets were separated nicely and were highly

conductive,” El-Kady said. “So I thought this was the material that

we were after for making an ideal battery or supercapacitor.”

El-Kady hurried to build a supercapacitor, running to Radio

Shack to buy several LEDs, ordering electrolytes, and using 10-

year-old electrolytes found in the lab for the time being. Once the

supercapacitor was ready, El-Kady charged it and attached it to an

LED. “Amazingly enough, it worked,” El-Kady said. “It lit up the

LED for several minutes, and I was so excited about it, so I called

Veronica (Strong) and said, ‘Here is the interesting application that

we’re after.’”

“I was convinced that it would be very important, because

you’re always wondering whether scientists can discover a

wonderful battery that you can have in your cell phone for several

days instead of one,” El-Kady added. “The second thing is that we

can make it completely flexible.”

Flexible technology suitable for roll-up displays has recently

gained popularity among researchers. While batteries could break

and lose conductivity if bent, graphene supercapacitors can be bent

in several directions and maintain conductivity, paving the way for

applications in military equipment and flat screen, bendable

displays, such as the Samsung Youm Flexible OLED Displays,

which were presented at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show


Kaner said El-Kady’s discovery prompted him to recall his own

days as a student, when his graduate advisor, Nobel Laureate Alan

MacDiarmid, would make him demonstrate his findings before

trusting that he had produced significant results.

“He didn’t believe anything until he could actually see or touch

it, so it just reminded me of when my advisor used to say, ‘Ok, you

say this battery works? I want to see how it works,’” Kaner said.

After graduating in June, El-Kady said he plans to return to

Egypt in time for Eid al-Fitr, the festival that follows Ramadan, to

celebrate the end of a month of fasting with

his family. Determined to apply his valuable

education to instruction at Cairo University, El-

Kady also said he intended to teach his students

various lab demonstrations. He even used his

McCoy award to stock up on textbooks, either

unavailable or too expensive in Egypt, which he

said would provide necessary updates to the

current curriculum. El-Kady will teach in Egypt

for a year, before attempting to secure a postdoctoral

position in the United States.

Although he is still interested in graphene, he

said he plans on finding applications for more

recent discoveries, such as water splitting, which

may lead to clean energy sources. He met Nobel

Laureate Sir Harold Kroto at the Lindau Nobel

Laureates Meeting in Germany, in 2009, and,

while at the meeting, was featured in another

short film, titled “Nanotechnology: Use and

Misuse,” in which he discussed similar research

interests with Kroto. He walked away with a

lesson he continues to utilize today–embrace the

scientific method, leaving others’ opinions


“(Kroto) liked the dogma in science that we

should not be affected by previous thoughts about

things,” El-Kady said. “I think that’s very

important. It was inspiring, because scientists had

a dogma about graphene; they thought that any

two-dimensional crystal should not exist in

nature, and that’s actually why graphene was

discovered very late. People considered it an

unstable form of carbon that shouldn't exist, but

the guys who won the Nobel Prize put an end to

these thoughts–graphene is stable–and it was like

a shock to the scientific community.”

Similarily, Kaner has urged his research group

to move forward in innovation, rather than finding

one solution to a problem and considering it

solved, something that El-Kady said he wished to

instill in his students.

“You can make a high surface material, and

stop and say, ‘Well this is a high surface material,

and it will make a very nice battery,’ but then you

need to prove that you made this material, and

that it will perform better than others in the

market or in previous literature,” El-Kady said.

“So that’s why Ric is always encouraging us to

find applications; we’re always after applications

that society is interested in, and if you talk about

them, they’ll get excited.”

The photo featured on p. 1 is a still from Brian

Golden Davis’ “The Super Supercapacitor.” The

short film can be viewed at:


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