A new organic plastic can allow electronics to function at extreme temperatures without sacrificing performance. Photo: Purdue University/John Underwood.
A new organic plastic can allow electronics to function at extreme temperatures without sacrificing performance. Photo: Purdue University/John Underwood.

From iPhones on Earth to rovers on Mars, most electronics only function within a certain temperature range. But by blending two organic materials together, researchers at Purdue University have now found a way to create electronics that can withstand extreme heat. Their new plastic material could reliably conduct electricity at temperatures up to 220°C (428°F), according to a paper published in Science.

"Commercial electronics operate between -40°C and 85°C. Beyond this range, they're going to malfunction," said Jianguo Mei, a professor of organic chemistry at Purdue University. "We created a material that can operate at high temperatures by blending two polymers together."

One of these is a conducting polymer, while the other is a conventional insulating polymer. To make this technology work for electronics, the researchers couldn't just meld the two polymers together – they had to tinker with ratios.

"One of the plastics transports the charge and the other can withstand high temperatures," said Aristide Gumyusenge, lead author of the paper and a graduate researcher at Purdue University. "When you blend them together, you have to find the right ratio so that they merge nicely and one doesn't dominate the other."

The researchers discovered a few properties that are essential for making this work: the two materials need to be compatible to mixing and should each be present in roughly the same ratio. This results in an organized, interpenetrating polymer network that allows the electrical charge to flow evenly but can also hold its shape at extreme temperatures.

The most impressive feature of this new material isn't that it conducts electricity at extreme temperatures, but that its performance doesn't seem to change. Usually, the performance of electronics depends on temperature – think about how fast a laptop would work in a climate-controlled office versus the Arizona desert. The performance of these new polymer blends remains stable across a wide temperature range.

Extreme-temperature electronics might be useful for scientists in Antarctica or travelers wandering across the Sahara, but they're also critical to the functioning of cars and planes everywhere. In a moving vehicle, the exhaust is so hot that sensors can't be located too close to it, meaning the fuel consumption must be monitored remotely. If sensors could be directly attached to the exhaust, operators would get a more accurate reading. This is especially important for aircraft, which have hundreds of thousands of sensors.

"A lot of applications are limited by the fact that these plastics will break down at high temperatures, and this could be a way to change that," said Brett Savoie, a professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. "Solar cells, transistors and sensors all need to tolerate large temperature changes in many applications, so dealing with stability issues at high temperatures is really critical for polymer-based electronics."

The researchers will now conduct further experiments to figure out what the true temperature limits are (high and low) for their new material. Making organic electronics work in the freezing cold is even more difficult than making them work in extreme heat, Mei said.

This story is adapted from material from Purdue University, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.