Scientists with the University of Chicago have discovered a way to create a material that can be made like a plastic, but conducts electricity more like a metal.
The research, published Oct. 26 in Nature, shows how to make a kind of material in which the molecular fragments are jumbled and disordered, but can still conduct electricity extremely well.
This goes against all of the rules we know about for conductivity—to a scientist, it’s kind of seeing a car driving on water and still going 70 mph. But the finding could also be extraordinarily useful; if you want to invent something revolutionary, the process often first starts with discovering a completely new material.
“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,” said John Anderson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and the senior author on the study. “Essentially, it suggests new possibilities for an extremely important technological group of materials,” said Jiaze Xie (PhD’22, now at Princeton), the first author on the paper.
‘There isn’t a solid theory to explain this’
Conductive materials are absolutely essential if you’re making any kind of electronic device, whether it be an iPhone, a solar panel, or a television. By far the oldest and largest group of conductors is the metals: copper, gold, aluminum. Then, about 50 years ago, scientists were able to create conductors made out of organic materials, using a chemical treatment known as “doping,” which sprinkles in different atoms or electrons through the material. This is advantageous because these materials are more flexible and easier to process than traditional metals, but the trouble is they aren’t very stable; they can lose their conductivity if exposed to moisture or if the temperature gets too high.
But fundamentally, both of these organic and traditional metallic conductors share a common characteristic. They are made up of straight, closely packed rows of atoms or molecules. This means that electrons can easily flow through the material, much like cars on a highway. In fact, scientists thought a material had to have these straight, orderly rows in order to conduct electricity efficiently.
Then Xie began experimenting with some materials discovered years ago, but largely ignored. He strung nickel atoms like pearls into a string of of molecular beads made of carbon and sulfur, and began testing.