Could electric clay be the world's next wonder-material?

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A fan of conductive clay? (Photo: Drexel University)

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Researchers at Drexel University have hit upon a conductive clay which they claim is an "exceptionally viable candidate" to one day replace the electrode materials used in batteries and supercapacitors. Sure, another day another super material, but MXene, as it's called, does boast some rather intriguing properties.

Why's it good, then?

You don't beat about the bush, do you? Very well. The three main properties of MXene that caught our eye are:

1. It's hydrophilic. That means, unlike graphene, it loves water. And that's good news because it means...

2. It's very malleable. You can mold it into complicated forms, or roll or press it very flat – both of which are potentially very handy for a material with conductivity supposedly up there with metals.

3. The material has a very healthy capacitance of 900 F/cm3 – and that's basically at the first attempt. The team has done nothing to improve that performance. But perhaps more intriguing still is the claim that MXene lost no capacitance after more than 10,000 charge cycles.

How do you say MXene?

The researchers pronounce it mex-een.

And this is a new material?

Yes and no. MXene was first discovered in 2011. It's a material composed of two-dimensional titanium carbide derived from MAX phases.

What's new is the researchers' ability to make it as a clay, a form which is not only useful, but much quicker and safer than the old method, and using readily-available materials. It used to take the researchers a day to make a MXene electrode. Now they can do it in 15 minutes.

What does it look like under an electron microscope?

This:

So we can expect clay batteries from tomorrow, then?

No. This is absurdly early stages for the material. And so far we've only read the press release, which tend not to emphasize any shortcomings or problems that may exist. We'll track down a copy of the paper and will update this article if we spot any major caveats.

All of that said, the researchers do seem rather excited. "We’re talking about quite a special lump of clay here," said doctoral student Maria Lukatskaya.

The short Drexel University film below is worth a watch.

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