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Scientists uncover a material that is plastic-like but conducts like metal

By: April Carson

Scientists from the University of Chicago have found a way to create an electricity-conducting material that can be manufactured like plastic.

On October 26, the findings of a study were published in the journal Nature which explore how to create a material out of molecular fragments that are jumbled and disordered, yet still conduct electricity very well.

This is a new way of making electrical wires, and it could have big implications for the electronics industry. The research team was inspired by a class of materials called topological insulators.

This finding goes against everything we know about conductivity—a scientist would see it as a car driving on water. However, it could still be useful. Oftentimes, the revolutionary invention process starts with discovering an entirely new material.

The implications of this discovery are still unknown, but it has scientists very excited for the potential applications. We could see a whole new world of electronics in the future, and it all started with some jumbled up molecules.

According to John Anderson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and the senior author on the study, “In principle, 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, the first author on the paper said, “This research suggests new ways we could use an important category of materials.”

The team was investigating a type of material called an organic metal. These are materials made up of both inorganic and organic molecules, and they have some interesting properties.

As Xie explains, “Organic metals are generally good conductors of electricity, but they’re also plastics—so they can be shaped and molded easily.

Conductive materials are key components in any electronic device, including solar panels, TVs, and iPhones. Metals like copper, gold, and aluminum have been used as conductors for centuries due to their superior conducting properties. About half a century ago, scientists developed conductors from organic materials through a process called "doping." This procedure involves incorporating different atoms or "impurities" into the material. The advantage of these materials over conventional metals is that they are more flexible and easier to work with; however, the downside is that they tend to be less stable and can lose their conduciveness if exposed to moisture or extreme temperatures.

Now, researchers from the University of Rochester have found a new material that is both plastic-like and conducts like metal. This breakthrough could lead to more efficient and durable electrical devices in the future.

Although organic and traditional metallic conductors have many differences, they both originate from straight, closely packed rows of atoms or molecules. This enables electrons to flow through the material quickly and easily, similar to cars on a highway. In fact, up until now scientists believed that a material had to be created with these straight, orderly rows in order for it to conduct electricity well.

Xie started experimenting with some materials that had been discovered years earlier, but were largely ignored since then. He strung nickel atoms into a string of molecular beads made of carbon and sulfur, and began testing them.

Xie and his team were surprised to find that this new material was an excellent conductor of electricity, even though it didn't have the traditional straight, orderly rows of atoms. This discovery could pave the way for a new generation of materials that are both plastic-like and conductive.

The scientists conducting the experiment were astonished to see that the material not only conducted electricity easily, but did so powerfully. Furthermore, it proved to be very stable. "We tried a variety of tests on it- exposure to heat and cold, humidity, even acid and base- and nothing had any effect," said Xie. This is enormously helpful for something that needs to function in everyday life.

The thing that struck the scientists most was how disordered the molecular structure of the material was. "From a fundamental perspective, that shouldn't be able to be a metal," said Anderson. "There isn't a solid theory to explain this."

This is a big deal because it opens up the possibility of developing all sorts of materials with new and improved properties. "The sky's the limit," said Xie. "We can now start thinking about how to design these disordered polymers for specific applications."

Xie, Anderson, and their colleagues tried to grasping how the material could conduct electricity throughout the university. They ran tests, simulations, and did theoretical work to come to the conclusion that the material forms layers somewhat like sheets of lasagna. Even if the sheets were rotated so they were no longer in a neat stack, electrons could still move horizontally or vertically--as long as there was contact between pieces.

"It's like conductive Play-Doh; you can squish it into place and it conducts electricity," Anderson said of the end result, unprecedented for a conductive material.

The reason the scientists are so ecstatic is because this discovery points to a totally different design paradigm for electronic devices. Because they play such a HUGE role, any new finding related to conductors suggests there could be all sorts of new applications for technology, the researchers explained.

"It's a completely different way of thinking about how to make electrical interconnects," said Deji Akinwande, co-author of the new study and an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

The material offers interesting new ways to process it that other metals don't. For example, usually metals have to be melted in order to fit the mold for a chip or device, which then limits what can be made from them since all the other components of the device have to also be able withstand melting.

The newly developed material doesn't have the same restrictions because it can be created at lower temperatures. It's also more versatile in what it can withstand (e.g. heat, acidity, etc.), which gives engineers a wider range of options to develop new technology that was previously not possible.

The team is also investigating the myriad of functions the material might perform, such as being two- or three-dimensional, porous, and/or other abilities imparted by adding various linkers or nodes.

"We think this is just the beginning," said Stupp. "We have a lot more to do to continue to explore the potential of these materials."

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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