A new smart device is tricking metals into behaving like more valuable metals used in electronic devices, helping with the metal shortage.
A new smart device is tricking metals into behaving like more valuable metals used in electronic devices, helping with the metal shortage. (PC Pixabay.com)

Smart Device is Tricking Metals to Behaving like Other Metals within Electronic Devices

Our society has become dependent on electronic devices. From cooking our food to entertaining us to helping us connect with others, these electronic devices help make our lives easier.

The process of making these electronic devices is complex and requires special metals with specific properties in order to work. To produce metals ready for devices, chemical processing often needs to happen, which can be costly and time-consuming.

Thankfully, researchers from the University of Minnesota may have found a solution in their new invention, which tricks one metal into behaving like another.

Background: Chemical Processing and Metals

Chemical processing allows now materials and metals to be transformed into useable devices. Many of these materials are precious metals, including palladium, platinum, rhodium, and others. What makes these metals unique is their electronic properties. The electrons that they have can allow them to interact with other electric fields or stimuli. But they can also be better controlled in the ways that they interact in chemical processing, making them quite valuable.

Because of this, many individuals try to obtain these metals from other sources. For example, the increase in the number of catalytic converters on cars is due to individuals stealing these converters for the rhodium and palladium inside the converter. Many of these special metals are in short supply or hard to source, driving individuals to go to extremes to find these materials and cash in on their value.

Analysis: Moving Electrons for Electronic Devices

Trying to solve this metal shortage, researchers at the University of Minnesota have invented a new device that can shift a metal’s properties, causing it to behave like a different metal. Called the catalytic condenser, the device allows the number of electrons to change on the metal. This process was not the easiest to accomplish. “Atoms really do not want to change their number of electrons,” explained the lead researcher and a professor at the University of Minnesota, Paul Dauenhauer. “But we invented the catalytic condenser device that allows us to tune the number of electrons at the surface of the catalyst. This opens up an entirely new opportunity for controlling chemistry and making abundant materials act like precious metals.”

To create the catalytic condenser, the researchers used a series of nanometer films that would move and then stabilize the electrons at the surface of the metal. According to a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota, Tzia Ming Onn: “Using various thin-film technologies, we combined a nano-scale film of alumina made from low-cost abundant aluminum metal with graphene, which we were able to tone to take on the properties of other materials.” Testing their new device, the researchers found that their device could not only shift a metal’s electronic properties but could also be used on a wider range of metal catalysts. “The substantial ability to tune the catalytic and electronic properties of the catalyst exceeded our expectations,”  Onn added.

Outlook: The Bigger Picture

The researchers are hopeful that their new device can be used to make chemical processing easier, which in turn could make electronic device manufacturing easier. “We view the catalytic condenser as a platform technology that can be implemented across a host of manufacturing applications,” explained the research team lead and University of Minnesota professor Dan Frisbie. “The core design insights and novel components can be modified to almost any chemistry we can imagine.”

This research project is a subset of similar projects being done by the U.S. Department of Energy looking for ways to produce cleaner resources If further research helps this device to be more accessible, it may play a key role in helping to preserve our future.

Kenna Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/