Conducting the Future

Innovation: Conductive plastics; Available: Now

Plextronics may be sitting on the next (small) thing. Thanks to nanotechnology, the Pittsburgh-based startup has figured out how to make plastic carry a charge. Inherently conductive polymers (ICPs) could be the building blocks for a new era of cheap and efficient technology.

Ironically, the first plastics were hailed for their lack of conductivity. But Plextronics CEO Andy Hannah hopes to market a pulverized plastic powder that will endow media with conductive properties. Consider the applications: RFID chips printed on a desktop printer, flat-panel screens that roll up like paper, solar cells with twice the current efficiency.

Sherwin-Williams, for one, expects to incorporate the powder by early 2005 in a coating that will ground the floors of chip-manufacturing warehouses or appliance assembly shops, protecting them from static electricity. Future plastic-paints could be used to coat metal, providing protection from oxidation. One possible outcome: rustproof bridges.

Plextronics says printable RFID tags made of conductive plastics could cost one-fifth the price of silicon versions. ICPs can be tweaked to soak up solar power at twice the efficiency of solar cells. Further out, look for paint-on lighting and milk cartons that change color after their expiration date. Look for rivals, too: Xerox and HC Starck are both in the hunt.

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