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Electricity-Conducting Plastic Could Lead to Hardier Gadgets

Cell phones and iPods could soon be made with all-plastic chips that would allow the gadgets to survive being dropped over and over, thanks to work of a Dutch researcher.

The added benefit of plastic is that it's cheap. The cost of our beloved tiny toys would drop.

Paulette Prins of the Delft University of Technology demonstrated that specially rebuilt plastic conducts electricity just as well as the silicon wafers that are commonly used to make the semiconductor chips that are the brains of cell phones, MP3 players and other portable consumer electronics.

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Other applications include electronic devices with flexible screens that can be rolled up, she noted in her doctoral dissertation, defended earlier this month, and in a paper published in April issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.

It will probably take several years for such products to reach the market, she said.

The limiting factor in making droppable electronics is the chips inside them, Prins said.

The reason iPods and cell phones stop working after being bounced on the pavement is that the chips contain many nearly-microscopic pathways that send operational signals throughout the device.

Those pathways are disturbed by substantial impacts. Plastic chips could absorb bounces better.

Currently, the chips inside electronics conduct electricity at least 1,000 times better than plastic.

Prins discovered that in plastics, the movement of electric charges was mainly hindered by the shape of the polymer, the chain-like molecular structure at the basis of each kind of plastic.

Prins extended the work of a German group that had reshaped a polymer to form a ladder-like structures.

By bombarding the specially developed plastic with electrons from a particle accelerator, she was able to study rapid electrical reactions and demonstrate the new plastic's ability to conduct electricity much better than regular plastic and as well as silicon chips.

"My research shows that the mobility of charges along isolated chains can be as high as the mobility of charges in conventional semiconductors," Prins told LiveScience. "When the organization of the polymer chains in electronic devices is optimized, all-plastic electronic devices can be developed that benefit from this high mobility."

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