Conductive polymers could make their way into TVs and sensors

Looking at a single conductive polymer could change the way we make electronics. Sensors for detecting toxins or materials for solar cells would benefit.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Conductive polymers are long organic molecules that can conduct electricity. More commonly called nanowires, conductive plastics have garnered interest ever since their discovery in the 1970s.

It's not like your plastic bottle is going to magically conduct electricity. (See, Lab creations: A plastic that acts like a metal.)

To become electrically conductive, the plastic must be modified. The scientists who figured out just how to do that won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Recently, researchers have been interested in developing organic light emitting diodes (OLED) and organic/hybrid solar cells out of this material.

Recently, British researchers showed off roll-out solar cells that could be placed over windows to power homes. The solar cells are made with semiconducting plastic. The flexible solar cells were born out of the Cavendish lab, which specializes in the production of plastic electronic devices on flexible materials. The roll-out solar cells could give people power where there is no power grid.

On the other side of development, McGill University researchers want to know just how a single conductive polymer molecule transports energy. To do this, the team used optical and electron microscopes to see what happens when polymer molecules are put into tiny vesicles.

It is known that when polymers coil together, the backbone can pass on energy. But when the polymer is longer, the process doesn't work as well.

“This research is novel because we are able to look at energy transport in individual polymer molecules rather than obtaining measurements arising from a collection of billions of them. It’s like looking at the characteristics of a single person rather than having to rely on census data for the entire world population,” McGill's chemistry professor Gonzalo Cosa said in a statement.

In addition to solar cell applications, knowing more about the individual polymer could lead to the development of better biomedical sensors and improve TV displays.

In the future, if the conductive polymers could be used to build molecular electronics, our computers could shrink to the size of your smart phone.

Imagine if smart fibers made your clothes more intelligent: your clothes could record your surroundings, hear your heart beat, or create energy from movement.

When you give polymers some charge, anything seems possible.

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Photo: Carbon Trust

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