A combined research team of professors from the University of Queensland and the UNSW School of Physics in Australia have developed a process that makes plastics capable of conducting electricity.
Most plastics can’t conduct electricity and are often used to insulate electrical cable. While plastics can be shaped to conduct electricity by connective punching and bending a metal sheet into the plastic, this is extremely difficult and results in an inflexible product. Even plastics such as polyaniline and polythiophene that conduct electricity without modification are inherently unstable and cannot be shaped. When combined with low conductive rates and a low tolerance for oxygen make these polymers undesirable at the least.
Neither process is cheap, and the benefits of creating conductive plastic material rarely outweigh the disadvantages. Still, a reliable and cheap way to make a conductive plastic is attractive enough that scientists have been researching it since the 1980s.
Most of of this research focused on using an ion beam in an attempt to increase connectivity in a process similar to the one used when making superconductors. Essentially, an ion beam strips the ions from the surface of a material in an attempt to expose their most conductive layers; this has been compared to “sandblasting” a surface on the molecular level.
The Australian team used this technique, but rather than stripping the plastic, they used an ion beam to mix a small amount of metal into the plastic. Cooling this mixture results in a polymer with no resistance to electrical current, essentially turning a piece of plastic into a superconductor. This process worked so well that when the researchers created electronic resistance thermometers that conformed to industry standards. When tested, the plastic thermometers proved to be more accurate than traditional ones.
Scientists can vary the electronic resistance to magnitude of 10, which means that plastic connectivity can be fine tuned 10 billion ways. This allows scientists to create materials as conductive as metals or as benign as plastics. This process is relatively cheap than older methods and produces materials capable of being exposed to oxygen.
Since you aren’t running to the store to buy electronic resistance thermometers, what does this mean to you? A lot. Plastic is very flexible, meaning that very soon all your electronics may contain cheaper plastic superconductors that indirectly lower the cost of your devices.
When conductive plastic (along with other materials) is used to make a touch screen, the result is a more responsive and thinner screen. Because this screen is made of plastic, it provides the same level of protection as your current screen. Some people even hypothesize that this type of material will eventually replace paper.
Don’t throw out your pens and pencils just yet, but be prepared to. After all, the future is now and the future is plastics.