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issue: January 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

Materials Technology
Plastic Conductors


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 A moldable polymer blend is designed to do what no plastic has ever done before—conduct electricity.

As with most industries, engineers of electronic devices are focused on two main design elements—performance and cost. Trying to find components that actually achieve both of those usually results in some sort of trade-off. One company, however, claims to have developed a material that helps engineers meet their performance and cost goals, while also offering something that has never been available before: a lightweight plastic capable of reaching the same conductive performance as some of the finest metal conductors on the market.

Bellingham, WA, U.S.–based Integral Technologies (www.itkg.net) says its ElectriPlast moldable polymer blend can conduct electricity and may just revolutionize the electronics device world. “Other plastics have been able to conduct electricity before, but usually in the semiconductor realm,” says William Robinson, CEO. “ElectriPlast not only conducts electricity like aluminum, but can also carry ampier loads. The other products on the marketplace today are carbon-based, which at low loading of plastics, are very poor conductors.”

The polymer blend consists of small single pellets compounded with metal fibers that, when poured into a hot molding machine and shaped, may help streamline production of all electronics. Carrying electrical currents as capably as copper, while 80% lighter than traditional metal wires or batteries, the material could become a stand-alone replacement for metal in all types of electronics devices. “This achievement will mean everything to an industry that has never had a moldable or extrudable material that is truly conductive and is 80% lighter than copper and 40% lighter than aluminum,” Robinson says. “Engineers will now be able to design products that can be 3-D in form [and] that is now easily moldable in multi-cavity molds, which is the cheapest form of manufacturing.”

Although there are several potential applications for the new material, the company sees huge potential in audio devices. To increase sound fidelity, for example, design engineers could use wires made of the conductive plastic. The wires would be created from continuous conductive fibers that are between 7 and 12 μm in diameter. Grouped into multiple fiber bundles that characterize its equivalent wire gauge, the fibers could then be plated with copper, silver, gold, or other highly conductive metals, to a specific tolerance range. By increasing the surface area of the wires, the material’s performance possibilities are enhanced, thus creating a scalable AWG cable that has broader bandwidth while remaining lighter, noncorrosive, and significantly less expensive than traditional copper cables. In audio applications, the higher the audio bandwidth, the better the sound fidelity.

Another possible application is for laptop computers. Robinson says an engineer looking to design a laptop with a built-in GSM/GPS antenna and that allows very little outside interference would have a difficult time using today’s materials. “The end design would see several antennas protruding from the laptop,” he explains. “This could be solved by making the whole body of the laptop out of ElectriPlast. This includes the shielding, and then designing the antennas along the edges of the laptop to work for any and all related frequencies—a two-in-one solution with huge design freedoms.”

The conductive plastic took more than five years to develop, and Integral currently has 45 patents approved and 80 patents pending. Of course, the company is closely guarding its proprietary recipe, but it does name partner Jasper Rubber Products (Jasper, IN, U.S.; www.jasperrubber.com) as a vital contributor to the successful development of the polymer blend. “The key for success was finding a reputable manufacturer that understood the plastic and rubber industries,” Robinson confirms.

With more than 50 customer projects in the works now, Robinson says the material has yet to be rejected. “The freedom that [engineers] will finally get from using our material will become evident very quickly,” he says. However, he does note that there will likely be some applications in which the material will not work. “Sometimes the cheap way will win,” he says.

The conductive plastic material also allows engineers to think outside the box by designing one part to perform two functions. “A wireless handheld device can now be shielded and used as an antenna, creating an instant cost savings,” Robinson says.

 

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