Material discovery could lead to shock-resistant smart devices

Just a few layers of hexagonal boron nitride can be as strong as diamond but more flexible and lighter.
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Just a few layers of hexagonal boron nitride can be as strong as diamond but more flexible and lighter.

A team from Queen’s University Belfast has discovered a stretchy, rubbery material that could be used to create shock-resistant smart devices and scratch-resistant paint.

The team was led by Dr Elton Santos from Queen University’s School of Mathematics and Physics. Their research resulted in two findings.

Firstly, they found that just a few layers of hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN), a common lubricant used in automotive and industrial applications, to be as strong as diamond, but are more flexible, cheaper and lighter.

This means that h-BN layers can be the strongest thin insulator available, and the unique qualities of the material could also be used to create flexible and almost unbreakable smart devices, as well as scratch-proof paint.

It can easily be integrated in tiny electronic circuits or to reinforce structures as it is more robust against shocks or mechanical stress.

“We could see benefits such as material reinforcement to mixture in solutions such as ink for paint, which would give further strength against corrosion and could potentially mean scratch-proof cars in the future,” Santos explained.

This stretchy material could also be used in electronic devices and motor engines to reduce friction.

Secondly, the researchers found superlubricity in a few layers of graphene – a concept when friction vanishes or very nearly vanishes.

According to Dr Santos, superlubricity refers to a state where there is no friction on a surface. Examples of this include slippery surfaces caused by liquid such as water or oil.

“Normally, to generate friction some orbitals must overlap and heat, or some energy, must be released,” Dr Santos explained.

“Our key finding is that bilayer graphene develops a super-lubricity state where no heating is generated as the layers slide on top of each other. Just a few materials have these features and it looks like graphene has joined this exclusive club.”

The researchers say it could take around five to ten years to transform their discoveries into real products that could have a positive impact in the real world.