Polymers are usually the go-to material for thermal insulation. Think of a silicone oven mitt, or a Styrofoam coffee cup, both manufactured from polymer materials that are excellent at trapping heat.
Now MIT engineers have flipped the picture of the standard polymer insulator, by fabricating thin polymer films that conduct heat. In experiments, they found the films, which are thinner than plastic wrap, conduct heat better than ceramics and many metals, including steel.
The teams results, published in the journal Nature Communications, may spur the development of polymer insulators as lightweight, flexible, and corrosion-resistant alternatives to traditional metal heat conductors, for applications ranging from heat dissipating materials in laptops and cell phones, to cooling elements in cars and refrigerators.
The researchers not only had to come up with a way to fabricate heat-conducting sheets of polymer, but they also had to custom-build an apparatus to test the materials heat conduction, as well as develop computer codes to analyze images of the materials microscopic structures.
In the end, the team was able to fabricate thin films of conducting polymer, starting with a commercial polyethylene powder.