Engineers are nothing if not creative.

Significant research is going into improved ways of storing electricity, including alternatives to the currently dominant lithium-ion battery-cell chemistry in electric cars.

That includes using supercapacitors to substitute for storage batteries in some circumstances.

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A group of U.K. researchers recently identified an unlikely new material that could help improve the performance of these devices.

A plastic based on the polymer used in soft contact lenses could be the key to better supercapacitors, an advance that could in turn be applied to electric cars, reports Bloomberg.

The material borrowed from contact lenses was used to replace the electrolyte in supercapacitors.

Nissan prototype 60-kWh battery pack - Nissan Technical Center, October 2015

Nissan prototype 60-kWh battery pack - Nissan Technical Center, October 2015

The technology was tested by researchers at the University of Surrey, reportedly with encouraging results.

In tests, it appeared to show the ability to boost energy density 1,000 to 10,000 times over present levels.

Energy density represents the amount of energy that can be stored in a given volume. Greater energy density is desirable because it allows for increases in range without increasing the storage volume needed.

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Supercapacitors can charge and discharge more rapidly than battery cells, but today's versions have significantly lower energy density.

Current supercapacitors average an energy density of 5 watt-hours per kilogram, against an average 100 watt-hours per kilogram for lithium-ion cells, notes Bloomberg.

Donald Highgate—who helped commercialize soft contact lenses in the 1970s—and Jim Heathcote, two executives at U.K.-based Augmented Optics Ltd., hope to commercialize supercapacitors using the University of Surrey research.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

They recently started a company called SuperCapacitor Materials Ltd., which hopes to build a full-scale working prototype next year.

The company has discussed plans for a U.K. factory, with an estimated cost of 25 million pounds ($32 million).

However, the usual caveat over encouraging results from laboratory experiments applies here.

MORE: Tesla CEO: Super-capacitors Trump Electric Car Batteries. (Mar 2011)

A technology that looks promising in a lab may turn out not to be commercially viable, and the process of translating research into a marketable product can take years.

In 2011, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said supercapacitors would eventually overtake batteries as the main power source for electric cars.

But for now, Tesla is sticking with lithium-ion cells, throwing most of its resources into the Nevada "gigafactory" expected to manufacture them in volumes previously unheard of.


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