Are coal-based electronics the next big thing?


MIT researchers have found a way to treat different types of coal into semi-conductors with different properties. Bill Condie reports.


Anthracite is one of four types of coal. It is the hardest type of coal with the highest carbon content. – Science Photo Library

Instead of a climate-poisoning pollutant, coal could become the raw material for a myriad of electronic devices, new research suggests.

“When you look at coal as a material, and not just as something to burn, the chemistry is extremely rich,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology Jeffrey Grossman says.

And we should be leveraging off that rich chemistry for a range of high-tech uses, from solar panels to batteries, he tells MIT News.

Grossman, doctoral student Brent Keller and research scientist Nicola Ferralis demonstrated one of the possibilities by using thin films of coal to make a simple electrical heating device that could be used for defrosting car windows or airplane wings, or as part of a biomedical implant.

The team found that the naturally occurring coal varieties, such as anthracite, lignite, and two bituminous types, have a range of electrical conductivities – millions of them.

And all that can be harnessed without the refining that is needed to make electronic devices out of silicon.

This means that, by selecting the type of coal with specific electrical properties, it can be used for a specific electronic component.

Scientists have created a thin-film version of coal that may be cheaper to use in electronic devices than silicon. – MIT

The team’s breakthrough came in figuring out how to treat the material. In a series of steps, the scientists crush it to a powder, put it in solution, then deposited it in thin films on a substrate.

“The material has never been approached this way before to find out what the properties are, what unique features there might be,” Keller told MIT News.

The team says that they would like to see further research into the potential applications for the material.

The findings were reported in the journal NanoLetters.

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Bill Condie is head of publishing at The Royal Institution of Australia and former publisher of Cosmos.
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