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New materials from sand plus antifreeze.

So many plastics and other petroleum-based products pervade our civilization that one might think of this as the age of carbon. But if a Michigan materials scientist has his way, silicon may one day challenge carbon as a ubiquitous building block for new materials.

Richard M. Laine has developed a simple technique that uses sand to create a reactive form of silicon. When sand is heated with an alkaline substance and ethylene glycol -- the main ingredient in antifreeze -- it transforms into a reactive silicon with five chemical bonds, report Laine and his colleagues at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the Oct. 17 NATURE.

The researchers have inserted ions into this silicon starting material to make a clear polymer film that can conduct electricity and may prove useful in batteries or self-defrosting windshields, Laine says. They have also made liquid-crystalline polymers, high-temperature silicon glasses and a silicon-based fire retardant.

"We can make compounds in pound quantities," Laine says. "I think this is a very simple way to make a lot of things."

Substances that take many steps to make when carbon serves as their starting material will be easier and perhaps cheaper to produce with this new silicon chemistry he predicts. Because sand and its constituents represent up to one-quarter of the world's minerals, Laine suggests that less developed nations may be able to produce silicon compounds more readily than they can petroleum-based ones.
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Title Annotation:new materials from silicon
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 2, 1991
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