The advantage of this new method is that the new material is several centimetres in size and remains scalable. “In principle you could use a piece of rubbery plastic of any size. However, you’d then also need correspondingly large containers and ovens,” says Fernández Rico.
The novelty of this material processing method is generating a lot of interest in the physics community. “We have a simple system made of only two ingredients, but the final structure obtained is very complex and controlled by the properties of the ingredients,” says Fernández Rico. “We have been approached by several theoretical groups that are proposing the use of physical models in order to understand the key physical principles of this new process and to predict its outcome.”
Longer battery life and improved filtration
The new material offers potential for technical and sustainable applications. Batteries are one possible field of application. Ions in batteries typically move between electrodes through a liquid called the electrolyte. One of the main reasons batteries lose their charging capacity over time, or even end up failing, is because the ions react with the liquid electrolyte, which causes the two electrodes to establish physical contact and damage the battery. Liquid electrolytes could be replaced by solid electrolytes with a network structure of interconnected channels – such as the one shown by the ETH Zurich researchers, which would avoid physical contact between electrodes, while maintaining good ion transport through the battery.
Water filters could be another application. Good transport properties across the interconnected channels and large surface areas are advantageous here. The ratio of surface to volume is enormous in the case of channel-like structures. This enables the efficient removal of contaminants such as bacteria or other particles from water.
Developing research in the direction of sustainability
“However, the product is still a long way from being ready for market,” says Fernández Rico. “While the rubbery material is cheap and easy to obtain, the oily phase is quite expensive. A less expensive pair of materials would be required here.”
Fernández Rico wishes to develop her future research with a view to sustainability: “Many natural polymers, such as cellulose or chitin, have a structure similar to the rubber used in our work.” However, working with a natural material such as cellulose is (more) environmentally friendly than with silicone rubbers derived from petroleum. The postdoctoral researcher therefore wishes to find out in future how such materials can be made more functional in order to exploit their potential.