Preventing our electronic devices from overheating is a major challenge for manufacturers. Currently, the way they control that is by using materials that either conduct or insulate heat. That, however, is becoming increasingly difficult as electronics continue to shrink, leaving much less room for cooling or venting systems, which further complicates the challenge of keeping sensitive components away from those that heat up.
Seeking to find an answer to that problem, scientists at the University of Chicago have discovered a material that acts both as an insulator and a conductor, preventing heat from moving in one direction but allowing it to travel freely in another.
“One of the biggest challenges in electronics is to take care of heat at that scale, because some components of electronics are very unstable at high temperatures,” says study author Shi En Kim. “But if we can use a material that can both conduct heat and insulate heat at the same time in different directions, we can siphon heat away from the heat source — such as the battery — while avoiding the more fragile parts of the device.”
What made the breakthrough possible is a thin film of molybdenum disulfide. Typically the chemical compound is a great conductor of heat, but the researchers discovered that by stacking sheets of the material and then rotating each one slightly, the heat was completely unable to pass between layers vertically, while still being able to move horizontally through the sheet itself, explains New Atlas.
The material could find use in a variety of applications, including preventing batteries from heating up sensitive nearby components, while also keeping them from damaging themselves when overheating.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that the team is confident the effect could be replicated with compounds other than molybdenum disulfide, potentially opening the doors for a completely new class of useful materials.
Study source: Nature — Extremely anisotropic van der Waals thermal conductors