Scientists at the University of Chicago have discovered a way to create a material that can be made like a plastic, but conducts electricity like a metal.
It's a kind of conductive "Play-Doh": it could lead to a whole new class of electronic devices.
The research, published October 26 in Nature (I link it to you here), shows how to create a type of material where the molecular fragments are confused and disordered, but can still conduct electricity very well.
This goes against all the rules we know for conductivity: for example, for scientists it is like seeing a car that goes off the road, ends up on the water and continues to run at 100 per hour without changing its behavior.
Towards modelable electrical devices?
The discovery made in Chicago is partially inexplicable and partially fortuitous: just like all great discoveries. It could be of extraordinary use.
"In principle it opens up to the design of totally new devices," he says John anderson, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and senior author of the study. "We will be able to obtain materials that conduct electricity, are easy to model and are very robust for everyday use."
"There is no theory to explain this"
We know: conductive materials are crucial for TVs, cell phones and other electronic devices. The best known and most popular are metals: copper, gold, aluminum.
About 50 years ago, scientists were able to create conductors made from organic materials, with a chemical treatment known as "doping". In summary, by spraying several atoms or electrons through the material. This has led to more flexible and malleable materials than traditional metals, but the problem is that they are not very stable: they can lose their conductivity when exposed to moisture or if the temperature becomes too high.
All these organic metallic conductors have one common feature: they are made up of straight and closely spaced rows of atoms or molecules. And scientists thought that this was the optimal configuration for conducting electricity well.
When the first author of this study, Jiaze Xie, began experimenting with some materials discovered years ago, but largely ignored, he discovered something surprising.
By threading nickel atoms like pearls into a molecular "necklace" made of carbon and sulfur, he noticed that the resulting material was conducting electricity. And he did it very well.
"We heated it, cooled it, exposed it to air and humidity, even sprayed it with acid, but nothing happened," say the scientists. And, even more surprisingly, the molecular structure of the material is disordered. "This shouldn't be metal," Anderson says. "There is no solid theory to explain this."
Scientists go crazy
Xie, Anderson and colleagues are trying to figure out how this "stuff" can conduct electricity. The hypothesis is that the material forms layers, like sheets in a lasagna. For this reason, even by manipulating it, the electrons can still move inside it as long as these thin layers are in contact.
The end result is unprecedented for a conductive material. As mentioned, it's almost like a conductive Play-Doh: you can squeeze it into place and it just keeps doing its job.
Scientists are excited because the discovery suggests a fundamentally new design principle for electronic technology. A principle that has practically infinite applications.
What's more: While metals usually need to be melted before getting the right shape for a chip or device, this new material has no such limitations - it can be produced at room temperature.