Engineers at Princeton University have developed a new technique for producing plastics that conduct electricity, paving the way for much cheaper solar panels.
Until now, plastics that achieved all three key attributes -- translucent, malleable and conductive -- were difficult to manufacture.
Often, the first two traits came at the expense of the third.
"People didn't understand what was happening," professor Yueh-Lin Loo said in a statement. "We discovered that in making the polymers moldable, their structures are trapped in a rigid form, which prevented electrical current from traveling through them."
The researchers then developed a way to relax the structure of the plastics by treating them with an acid once they were processed into the desired form.
The researchers were able to make a plastic transistor by printing the electrodes from plastic onto a surface.
(Current transparent metal conductors are made of an increasingly expensive material called indium tin oxide, or ITO.)
The advancement, which is in the field of "organic electronics," shows promise for developing new types of manufacturing technologies for electronic devices.
The researchers say the technique could be scaled up for mass production -- kind of like a printing press -- and could be used in flexible displays or biomedical sensors that display a certain color to indicate infection.
Their research was published on March 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.