In a move that would make the Alchemists of King Arthur's time green with envy, scientists have unraveled the formula for turning liquid cement into liquid metal. This makes cement a semi-conductor and opens up its use in the profitable consumer electronics marketplace for thin films, protective coatings, and computer chips.
"This new material has lots of applications including as thin-film resistors used in liquid-crystal displays, basically the flat panel computer monitor that you are probably reading this from at the moment," said Chris Benmore, a physicist from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory who worked with a team of scientists from Japan, Finland, and Germany to take the "magic" out of the cement-to-metal transformation. Benmore and Shinji Kohara from Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute/SPring-8 led the research effort.
This change demonstrates a unique way to make metallic-glass material, which has positive attributes including better resistance to corrosion than traditional metal, less brittleness than traditional glass, conductivity, low energy loss in magnetic fields, and fluidity for ease of processing and molding. Previously only metals have been able to transition to a metallic-glass form. Cement does this by a process called electron trapping, a phenomena only previously seen in ammonia solutions. Understanding how cement joined this exclusive club opens the possibility of turning other solid normally insulating materials into room-temperature semiconductors.
"This phenomenon of trapping electrons and turning liquid cement into liquid metal was found recently, but not explained in detail until now," Benmore said. "Now that we know the conditions needed to create trapped electrons in materials we can develop and test other materials to find out if we can make them conduct electricity in this way."