Research: Conducting Plastics Make Way For Many New Technology Advances

We futurists are still waiting for our roll-up TVs and cellphones. The concepts have looked pretty spectacular – who wouldn’t want to fold his laptop up like a napkin or roll her TV into a pen for their pocket protector? So… why don’t we have this ability yet? What advances in technology need to happen to make it happen? And, even so, will it happen within our lifetime? A recent study from a group of researchers in Australia sets out to make the dream a reality.

The research published in the journal ChemPhysChem says that flexible plastic-like electronics can now be produced much more easily by the process of impregnating plastic with metal via ion beam. Since the 1980s, the success producing flexible electronics has been exiguous, if not costly and hard to produce on a large-scale. “What the team has been able to do here is use an ion beam to tune the properties of a plastic film so that it conducts electricity like the metals used in the electrical wires themselves, and even to act as a superconductor and pass electric current without resistance if cooled to low enough temperature,” says Professor Meredith. In the research, they used an “ion beam” on metal-coated plastic to produce the supposedly holy grail electrically-conducting plastic.

Shocking as it may seem, truly conducting plastics have existed for a long while. Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) are in many devices. These OLEDs are based primarily on conducting polymers, true plastics capable of conducting electricity. All-polymer electronics (without the need for precious metal resources) are on the near horizon – so near that you might find them in your body before you find them in your home.

Start-up companies, such as Biotectix, are commercializing conducting polymer-based electrodes for biomedical application: cochlear implants, pacemakers, neuromodulators, neural probes, and deep-brain stimulators. Metal-free electrodes are capable of complete integration into the human body, allowing cyborg-like modifications in the near future. Even more mind-blowing is the fact that they have shown it to be possible to grow conducting polymer networks (or plastic electronics) in brain tissue – literally laying the groundwork for an interface like those shown in “the Matrix”. It is possible that this technology could be used to fully repair damaged neurons, a feat thought of as impossible by modern medicine.

It is possible that the metal-plastic composite research may never be used in the world of end-user technology, but more than likely will contribute to furthering superconductivity research. In other words, it seems as though the metal-plastic research is purely academic — don’t expect Sony or Apple using the tech any time soon. However, this does not mean that electrically conductive plastics are not in our future.

By virtue of fully plastic conducting polymers, it is probable that thin, roll-able screens and foldable e-paper are likely in the near-term future. While the metal-plastic stuff is pretty neat, I think it might be better suited for superconductivity research. The real winner in-home (and in-body) is conducting polymers; no metals required.