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Technique could prevent overheating of laptops, mobile phones, and other electronics.

Plastics are excellent insulators, meaning they can efficiently trap heat — a quality that can be an advantage in something like a coffee cup sleeve. But this insulating property is less desirable in products such as plastic casings for laptops and mobile phones, which can overheat, in part because the coverings trap the heat that the devices produce.

Now a team of engineers at MIT has developed a polymer thermal conductor — a plastic material that, however counterintuitively, works as a heat conductor, dissipating heat rather than insulating it. The new polymers, which are lightweight and flexible, can conduct 10 times as much heat as most commercially used polymers.

 Engineers at MIT have developed a polymer thermal conductor — a plastic material that, however counterintuitively, works as a heat conductor, dissipating heat rather than insulating it. Image: Chelsea Turner/MIT

“Traditional polymers are both electrically and thermally insulating. The discovery and development of electrically conductive polymers has led to novel electronic applications such as flexible displays and wearable biosensors,” says Yanfei Xu, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Our polymer can thermally conduct and remove heat much more efficiently. We believe polymers could be made into next-generation heat conductors for advanced thermal management applications, such as a self-cooling alternative to existing electronics casings.”

Stretching Spaghetti

If you were to zoom in on the microstructure of an average polymer, it wouldn’t be difficult to see why the material traps heat so easily. At the microscopic level, polymers are made from long chains of monomers, or molecular units, linked end to end. These chains are often tangled in a spaghetti-like ball. Heat carriers have a hard time moving through this disorderly mess and tend to get trapped within the polymeric snarls and knots.

And yet, researchers have attempted to turn these natural thermal insulators into conductors. For electronics, polymers would offer a unique combination of properties, as they are lightweight, flexible, and chemically inert. Polymers are also electrically insulating, meaning they do not conduct electricity, and can therefore be used to prevent devices such as laptops and mobile phones from short-circuiting in their users’ hands.

Click here to read the full story on the MIT News website.

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