Plastics, as we would commonly identify them, have been around since 1907. They didn’t really find mainstream uses until the late 1940s, and have since taken on a number of forms ranging from PVC to Kevlar. More recently, a number of proprietary plastic resins have been developed for 3D printing applications.
The primary driver of plastics’ expanded use is its durability and lightweight construction. This makes it appealing for automotive and aerospace applications where less weight equates to lower fuel consumption and better, more cost-effective operation. The primary restriction is that plastics are horrible at handling heat.
However, University of Michigan researchers recently unveiled a new study that could help address this concern. In preliminary tests, they were able to construct a polymer that is six times better at dissipating heat than the same polymer without their treatment.
The new process is unique in that it avoids the use of expensive metallic or ceramic fillers that have been substituted in the past. The team first dissolves the polymer in water and then adds electrolytes to the solution. The causes the monomers, or the glue that holds the particles of a polymer together, to repel each other.
The water and polymer solution is then sprayed onto plates using a common industrial process called spin casting, which reconstitutes it into a solid plastic film. This loosens the composition of the plastic and allows heat to pass through it more easily. This process also seems to pack the molecules together more tightly, allowing it to conduct more heat.
Although a commercial product is likely several years away, the ability of a plastic to dissipate more heat could revolutionize its uses, especially in transportation. Fuel efficiency is a universal goal, and lighter weight materials allow for increased gains, whether that fuel is derived from gasoline, an electric motor, or renewable sources like wind and solar.