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Researchers at Purdue University have developed a new form of plastic that could revolutionize how energy is used and stored.
Called “radical polymer,” it’s being tested for use in inexpensive, transparent solar cells, light and flexible batteries and paper-thin skins for equipment ranging from aircraft to cellphones.
Semiconducting polymers already exist, but the researchers have developed a new one called PTMA that’s 10 times more conductive and simple to manufacture, according to Bryan Boudouris, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Purdue.
“It’s a polymer glass that conducts charge, which seems like a contradiction because glasses are usually insulators,” Boudouris told Purdue University’s news department.
In fact, PTMA is more akin to Plexiglas, the transparent, inexpensive plastic that’s a shatter-resistant substitute for glass. But that’s where the similarity ends, because PTMA also conducts electricity. Like plastic, it can be used in a wide variety of electrical or electronic devices.
“We make billions of tons of plastic every year,” Boudouris said. “So imagine if you could produce that same kind of material at that same scale, but now it has electronic properties.”
The Purdue research was published in the journal Macromolecules.
Just for starters, this radical polymer could be used as an anti-glare, anti-static coating for smartphone displays, flexible data-storing flash drives, anti-static coating to protect airplanes from lightning strikes, and even in thermoelectric devices, which use heat to generate electricity. It can even be used for batteries.
There’s a drawback, though. Despite PTMA’s increased conductivity over other semiconducting polymers, it’s still not conductive enough. Boudouris said that if it’s to be useful in practical applications, its conductivity has to be increased between 100 and 1,000 times.
Polymers are chains of molecules from which dangle structures called “pendant groups.” In radical polymers, the pendant groups can conduct electrical currents. To create radical polymers, the Purdue team took a conventional polymer and substituted an oxygen atom in the pendant group for a specific hydrogen atom. This process is called “deprotection.”
The importance of replacing a hydrogen atom with an oxygen atom has to do with the number of electrons surrounding an atom’s nucleus. Ordinarily, a nucleus is encased in a “shell” of two electrons. In PTMA, however, the oxygen atom has only one electron, making its pendant group suitable for conducting electricity.
The Purdue team discovered that deprotection can cause four distinct chemical functionalities in the radical polymer, and that two of them show encouraging signs of conductivity.
Boudouris says that as long as those creating the radical polymer carefully control the deprotection process, they can count on reliable conductivity.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com