Lab creations: A plastic that acts like a metal

MIT researchers created a polymer that can conduct heat like metals. The type of plastic in your shopping bags might be used to make computer chips and electronics.

Polymers make good insulators, but MIT researchers have figured out how to make polymers act like a metal.

In other words, Gang Chen, can make plastic really hot.

Chen, director of MIT's Pappalardo Micro and Nano Engineering Laboratories, can make polyethylene, a common polymer conduct heat. Unlike metals that heat up in every direction, the fibers in this polymer line up in an orderly fashion.

Therefore, the polymer only heats up in one direction, making it more efficient than pure metal like iron. Compared to the "normal" plastic, the new material is 300 times more conductive.

The materials created in Chen's lab could have a huge impact in the electronics world. The polymer could replace cell-phone cases, the heat exchanger fins in household appliances, computer processor chips, and solar hot water collectors.

    But first, the group will have to figure out how to manufacture the fibers before this new polymer can ever be used for real.

    Image: Illustration courtesy of Gang Chen

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