University of Chicago scientists discover material that can be made like a plastic but conducts like metal
A group of 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. Above, members of the Anderson lab at work. Credit: John Zich/University of Chicago

A group of scientists at the University of Chicago have found a way to make a plastic that conducts electricity like a metal.

A research published in October in Nature shows how to make a type of material that can conduct electricity even though it is messy.

It's kind of like seeing a car driving on water and still going 70 mph, it's against all of the rules for Conductivity. If you want to invent something revolutionary, the first thing you need to do is discover a completely new material.

John Anderson is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and the senior author on the study. The paper suggests new possibilities for an important technological group of materials.

There is not a good theory to explain this.

If you're making an electronic device, such as an iPad, a solar panel, or a television, it's important that you useconductive materials. The oldest and biggest group of conductors are the metals. Scientists were able to make conductors out of organic materials using a chemical treatment called "doping."

The advantage is that these materials are more flexible and easier to process than traditional metals, but the problem is they are not very stable and can lose their conductivity if the temperature gets too hot.

Both of these conductors have a common characteristic. They are composed of rows of atoms. The electrons can easily flow through the material. Scientists believed that a material had to have orderly rows in order to conduct electricity efficiently.

Xie began experimenting with materials that were discovered a long time ago. He strung nickel atoms into a string of beads made of carbon and sulfur.

The scientists were astonished by the material'sconduction. It was very stable, what more? Xie said that they heated it, chilled it, exposed it to air and humidity, and dripped acid and base on it. It's helpful for a device that has to work in the real world.

The scientists were struck by the fact that the material's structure was not straight. Anderson said that it shouldn't be a metal. There is not a good theory to explain this.

Xie, Anderson, and their lab collaborated with other scientists to understand how the material can conduct electricity. They think the material forms layers like sheets in a lasagna after testing, simulations, and theoretical work. Even if the sheets don't form a neat stack, electrons can still move vertically as long as the pieces are touching.

It's the first time a material like this has been done. Anderson said that it's almost like Conductive Play-Doh.

The scientists are excited because of the discovery. New developments open up new lines for technology because of the importance of conductors.

New options for processing are one of the appealing characteristics of the material. Since other components of the device have to be able to endure the heat needed to process these materials, they limit what you can make with them.

It is possible to make the new material at room temperatures. Engineers' options to develop new technology have been limited due to the need for a device or pieces of the device to be able to tolerate heat, acid or alkalinity.

The team is trying to figure out what the material might do. Xie said that they think they can make it 2D or 3D, make it porous, or even introduce other functions.

More information: John Anderson, Intrinsic glassy-metallic transport in an amorphous coordination polymer, Nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05261-4. Journal information: Nature