HomeScience and ResearchScientific ResearchDiscovered Plastic That Conducts Electricity More Like A Metal

Discovered Plastic That Conducts Electricity More Like A Metal

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A breakthrough could lead to a new class of materials for electronics and devices.

University of Chicago researchers have figured out how to make a substance that can be used like plastic yet conducts electricity more like metal.

The study, which was published in Nature today, describes how to create a type of material with molecular fragments that are fragmented and disorganized yet nevertheless have excellent electrical conductivity.

This defies every conductivity norm that we are aware of; to a physicist, it’s comparable to witnessing a car traveling at 70 mph while traveling on water. But the discovery could also be very valuable; if you want to invent anything revolutionary, the process typically begins with the discovery of an entirely new substance.

John Anderson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and the study’s principal author, stated that in theory this “this opens up the design of a whole new class of materials that conduct electricity, are easy to shape, and are very robust in everyday conditions.” Jiaze Xie (PhD’22, currently at Princeton), the paper’s first author, remarked that it essentially “it suggests new possibilities for an extremely important technological group of materials.”

There’s no good way to explain this

Conductive materials are critical when creating any type of electrical gadget, whether it’s an iPhone, a solar panel, or a television. The metals, including copper, gold, and aluminum, make up the vast majority and oldest class of conductors. Then, some 50 years ago, scientists discovered a chemical process called “doping” that allowed them to introduce certain atoms or electrons into organic materials to produce conductors. The fact that these materials are more malleable and simpler to work with than conventional metals makes them attractive, but the problem is that they aren’t particularly stable and can lose their conductivity if exposed to moisture or if the temperature rises too high.

But fundamentally, there is a similarity between these organic and conventional metallic conductors. They are composed of rows of atoms or molecules that are straight and tightly packed. This indicates that electrons can move through the substance with ease, just like vehicles do on a highway. In reality, scientists believed that a material’s straight, regular rows were required for it to conduct electricity efficiently.

Then Xie started experimenting with certain substances that had been found years earlier but had largely gone unnoticed. In a string of molecular beads made of carbon and sulfur, he strung nickel atoms like pearls and started testing.

The substance carried electricity readily and powerfully, surprising the experts. Additionally, it was extremely stable. 

“We heated it, chilled it, exposed it to air and humidity, and even dripped acid and base on it, and nothing happened,” explains Xie. This is extremely useful for a device that must function in the actual world.

But what really caught the attention of the experts was how chaotic the material’s molecular structure was. 

“From a fundamental picture, that should not be able to be a metal,” adds Anderson. “There isn’t a solid theory to explain this.”

In an effort to comprehend how the substance may conduct electricity, Xie, Anderson, and their team collaborated with researchers from different departments at the university. Following experiments, simulations, and theoretical studies, they believe the material creates layers, similar to sheets in a lasagna. Electrons can still move horizontally or vertically as long as the sheets are in contact, even if they rotate sideways and are no longer arranged neatly like a lasagna stack.

This is the first time a conductive substance has achieved such a result. You can smush it into place and it transmits electricity, almost like conductive Play-Doh, Anderson remarks.

The discovery implies a fundamentally new design paradigm for electronic equipment, which excites the scientists. They highlighted that conductors are so crucial that almost any new discovery opens up new avenues of technology.

One of the great things about the material is that it can be used in new ways. For instance, metals are typically melted into the proper shape for a chip or device, which restricts the kind of devices you can create using them because other parts of the device must be able to survive the heat required to process these materials.

Due to its ability to be produced at room temperature, the new material does not have this limitation. It can also be employed in situations where the need for a device or component to endure heat, acid or alkalinity, or humidity traditionally hampered engineers’ ability to create new technologies.

The team is also investigating the potential forms and functions of the material. 

“We think we can make it 2-D or 3-D, make it porous, or even introduce other functions by adding different linkers or nodes,” adds Xie.

Source:10.1038/s41586-022-05261-4

Image Credit: Getty

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