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05/28/2013

How to turn cement into metal

Network topology for the formation of solvated electrons in binary CaO–Al2O3 composition glasses.”

As titles go, this one isn't likely to engage the masses. But that science-ese is hiding a neat story: how researchers from the U.S., Japan, Finland and Germany managed to turn cement into metal, or at least give it the properties of a semi-conductor like metal.

That means the material can be used for applications like the liquid-crystal displays used in flat-screen computers and televisions, the laboratory involved in the findings announced in a press release. It also leaves open the question of whether other materials can be converted. 

The science team, led by a physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and a researcher at the Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute, studied mayenite, a mineral found in a certain type of calcium- and aluminum-oxide-based cement.

They melted it at 2,000 degrees Celsius with -- and it's best to quote here -- "an aerodynamic levitator with carbon dioxide laser beam heating" (what researchers lack in title pizazz they make up for in cool tool names). 

The researchers carefully cooled the resulting liquid in ways that allowed it to trap electrons so that it could become an electronic conductor.

“This phenomenon of trapping electrons and turning liquid cement into liquid metal was found recently, but not explained in detail until now,” said Argonne's Chris Benmore, a co-author, in a press release announcing the findings. “Now that we know the conditions needed to create trapped electrons in materials we can develop and test other materials to find out if we can make them conduct electricity in this way.”

The research findings were published in the May 27 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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