Molecular breakthrough in electronic plastics

Researchers have developed a new plastic that conducts electricity, may be simpler to manufacture than similar materials and easily accommodates chemical attachments to create new materials.

Developed by TDA Research in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, Oligotron polymers are said to be made of tiny bits of material that possess a conducting centre and two, non-conducting end pieces. The end pieces allow the plastic bits to dissolve in solvents and accommodate specialised molecules.

Researchers have spent years trying to craft electronics that use plastics instead of metal to transmit currents. In addition to the potential savings in weight and cost, conducting polymers could be manufactured in a variety of shapes, yielding innovations such as fabrics that transmit data and thinner video displays.

However, because conducting polymers are initially insoluble in liquids, they could not be manufactured as easily as could their common counterparts used in soda bottles and synthetic fibres. Recent discoveries resulted in a water-soluble conducting polymer called PEDOT (polyethylenedioxythiophene), yet water can corrode device parts during manufacturing and shorten the lifespan of the end product.

Oligotron contains a PEDOT centre, but it is soluble in non-corrosive chemicals and can attach new compounds to its end pieces, adding a variety of functions. For example, researchers have proposed end pieces that convert solar energy into electricity, ultimately creating a novel solar cell material.

“Through our research we discovered that by attaching molecules to the ends of the PEDOT, the chemical could easily disperse in organic solvents, something we have not seen with typical conducting polymers,” added Elliott.

Oligotron also has other properties that allow the material to be “printed” into various device shapes. When technicians shine a pattern of ultraviolet light, such as a complex circuit image, onto a film of dissolved Oligotron, the exposed areas of plastic become “fixed” like a photograph. Flexible and lightweight, the circuit is also said to be fully functional.

TDA researchers predict applications for the product that range from flexible television displays and smart cards to antistatic treatments and conducting fabrics.