Conducting Plastic Can Replace Metal

The University of Chicago has announced they have created a material that behaves like plastic but conducts like metal. They also say they don’t fully understand why it works yet. Usually, good conductors like metals have very orderly atomic structures, something that plastics tend not to have.

The material is based on nickel, carbon, and sulfur. The resulting material was conductive and stable. However, the atomic structure isn’t orderly like a traditional conductor.

Described as “conductive Play-Doh,” the researchers report you can deform the material without changing its ability to conduct. Of course, what we want to know is if we could extrude it from a 3D printer and — almost as important — is there a way to make it not malleable like Play-Doh?

The team expects they can use different linkers and nodes in the polymer chain to alter the material properties, but we don’t know where the end of the research will lead. However, it is clear that there is more than one way to organize conductors at the atomic level. Understanding that process could lead to a new class of materials, better superconductivity, and much more.

While we have seen conductive plastic before, it is usually a polymer impregnated with some conductive material. Or, you can electroplate it, but that’s easy to understand and harder to actually do well.

45 thoughts on “Conducting Plastic Can Replace Metal

  1. “The material is based on nickel, carbon, and sulfur.”

    So… it’s an otherwise mundane metallic alloy with novel properties of malleability at room temperature?

    “…researchers report you can deform the material without changing its ability to conduct.”

    Like almost every other metal?

    1. Looking at the linked article, it’s a polymer compound where the molecules contain the three elements, rather than a metallic mass of nickel with carbon and sulphur mixed in. Those are very different things, chemically. According to my very old chemistry knowledge, metals conduct because in a metallic solid, the electrons come loose from the atoms and form a sea of free electrons. Motion of the electrons alows a flow of charge. In a molecule, the electrons are all fixed in place because they’re involved intra-molecular bonds, which is why conductive molecules are so rare.

      So, this does actually sound novel, and potentially very interesting. Like, does it work with metals other than nickel? But I will note that it’s not very conductive. The paper claims 10^5 S/m. Copper is about 6×10^7 S/m.

      (I did go look up how electricity conduction works in the currently known molecules and my very old chemistry knowledge was too old to understand it, but it’s something about how “the conjugated p-orbitals form a one-dimensional electronic band, and the electrons within this band become mobile when it is partially emptied”. So now you know.)

    2. Nope. Go take a look at molecular structure in the linked article and see how it’s more like a bunch of carbon and sulfur chains with an occasional nickel atom and not anything like a metallic alloy at all.

    3. So… No.
      Had you read the press release before commenting you would have seen that it is a polymer with the monomer being made of metallic atoms. It seems to behave like a putty, not at all like a malleable metal.
      Plus it seems to be stable with temperature, humidity and pH variations.

  2. What’s the point of articles like these if the actual paper is paywalled? If universities want people to be interested in what they’re doing, they should at least show their work.

    1. Universities don’t want people to be interested in what they are doing unless they donate. Scientists want you to be interested, but scientists need to publish in prestigious journals to keep their jobs, and prestigious journals make money by paywalling.

      1. “Universities don’t want people to be interested in what they are doing unless they donate.”

        I already did:

        Funding: Army Research Office, a directorate of U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory; U.S. Department of Energy; National Science Foundation.

    1. microplastics are a great carbon sink preventing additional CO2 from entering our atmosphere and providing easy access to energy sources for far future civilizations (reboot will be almost impossible without coal and oil).

  3. Can anyone comment on the density and weight of this material vs metallic conductors? The numbers in the article make it sound like it won’t be replacing metallic conductors any time soon. But if they can get it’s conductivity closer to metal, make it more solid, and it’s lighter than metallic conductors then I wonder if it could be used in things like aircraft or EVs to help reduce weight.

    1. This is the first discovery. If you want to compare it to flight, it’s like the first really documented and tested glider in Europe, which was about 1853, 50 years before the first powered flight. This is about 100 times less conductive than copper, so this is not going to be replacing wires. At the moment, it’s play dough and stays play dough, so it’s not going to be replacing wires. But who knows, in 10 years it might have a LOT of niche applications. Even better, this can be experimented on so that we understand how it works (chemically) which will direct us to find ways to manipulate it, and to do it at scale and cheaply. In the 90s I saw a talk about treating plastic to make it conductive. It could only be done to certain plastic, after it was solid, and it wasn’t specific, easy, cheap or mass producible. Once we know “how this works”, process engineers/chemists can work out whether there’s a cheap, safe and efficient way to use it. Perhaps we can dope an existing polymer or modified one, and then activate its ability to conduct when exposed to a laser or something so we can cast an object then print conductive traces on. But first probably, the conductivity levels need to be upped. This might also have huge applications in capacitors and/or batteries where conductive and non-conductive elements often live together, and being liquid, slush, goo, or putty isn’t as big an issue. But I expect a LOT of materials scientists/engineers will be jumping on this area after reading this paper, assuming it can be reproduced by other labs to validate that the results are real.

  4. I remember making a conductive borax based putty by adding a lot of carbon dust when I was younger. It’s not easy to get hold of borax washing powder these days. If I recall it also works with blutac, provided water is mixed in slowlyband thoroughly.

  5. It has nickel and carbon in it, and they don’t understand why it conducts electricity?
    *Scrolls up to double-check where this university is* ah yep, USA. That explains the lack of basic science education…

    1. Read the article before bashing things you now nothing of – or didn’t your oh-so-much-better education system teach you not to make wild accusations based on nothing more than your prejudices?

      1. Let the eurotrash embarrass themselves.

        Curless sounds British, land of Lucas. They don’t understand wires.

        GP do all molecules containing nickel and carbon conduct?

        That said, it’s an absolute shit conductor. Look for it soon in Jags and Land Rovers.

        Both Chinese cars. English (and Swedish) cars are getting better with each Chinese car company purchase. What fools the Chinese are, they’ll buy anything if you charge enough for it.

        1. > Curless sounds British, land of Lucas. They don’t understand wires.

          You got where I’m from correct, although living in Canada. I wonder why it is the UK has much safer power outlets, and, along with the rest of Europe, runs at 230V, kettles boil faster and EVs charge faster. Seems pretty impressive for a country that doesn’t understand wires? (yes, I know in NA you can get 230V, but in the UK you don’t need to use a dryer outlet or modify your house to do so)

          > GP do all molecules containing nickel and carbon conduct?

          Where did imply they do? Answer: I didn’t. But this material contains them, therefore it isn’t a far stretch to figure that their presence is why the material conducts.

          1. “I wonder why it is the UK has much safer power outlets, and, along with the rest of Europe, runs at 230V, kettles boil faster and EVs charge faster.”

            All the complainers have been electrocuted.

          2. If limeys understood wires they would use a lower voltage. Cheap outlets work fine if the voltage won’t kill you unless standing in a puddle with wet hands.

            Did you buy an English car? Why not?

        2. Forgot to add, it’s common knowledge that carbon, despite being non-metallic, is a conductor. A poor one, but a conductor nonetheless. Where I’m from this was taught to me, along with everyone else who paid any attention, in secondary school. It’s not exactly news that a non-metal could possibly conduct electricity….

          1. Carbon in the form of graphite conducts. Diamond does not conduct electricity, though it conducts heat wonderfully. Fullerenes, carbon fiber, etc. conduct to some degree. Amorphous carbon (soot, lampblack, carbon black) is a nonconductor. Conductive lampblack is available, I’ve used it…but it’s conductive because it has been partially graphitized.

  6. Hmm, planar chains involving ring structures composed partially of carbon… can’t it just be the same mechanism that drives graphite conductivity (pi bond electron delocalization)?

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