An Irish physicist has made a major discovery using children’s Silly Putty.

Professor Jonathan Coleman, who works in Trinity College Dublin’s School of Physics, is an investigator in a research centre called AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research).

Prof Coleman, along with postdoctoral researcher Conor Boland, added a special material, known as graphene, to Silly Putty (polysilicone) — and the two substances combined to give a quirky result.

“When we added the graphene to the Silly Putty, it caused it to conduct electricity, but in a very unusual way,” Prof Coleman said.

Graphene is simply a thin layer of pure carbon. However, it has several remarkable properties in that it is the thinnest compound known to man (at one atom thick), the strongest compound that has been discovered and the best-known conductor of electricity.

The graphene-infused putty, G-putty, also proved very sensitive to the slightest deformation or impact.

In short, this so-called G-putty, works as an extremely sensitive sensor and the discovery could be applied in the creation of new and inexpensive medical devices.

“What we are excited about is the unexpected behaviour we found when we added graphene to the polymer, a cross-linked polysilicone. This material is well known as the children’s toy Silly Putty .

“It is different from familiar materials in that it flows like a viscous liquid when deformed slowly but bounces like an elastic solid when thrown against a surface,” Prof Coleman said.

The researchers applied it in several ways to test what this G-putty could do. They placed it onto people’s chests and necks, using it to measure their breathing, pulse and blood pressure.

The G-putty was also able to detect the footsteps of small spiders, such is its sensitivity to the lightest of impacts. It is hundreds of times more sensitive compared with other sensors.

The researchers believe that the Silly Putty and graphene combined will find applications in a range of medical devices and manufacturing worldwide.

“While a common application has been to add graphene to plastics in order to improve the electrical, mechanical, thermal or barrier properties, the resultant composites have generally performed as expected without any great surprises,” the professor said.

“The behaviour we found with G-putty has not been found in any other composite material. This unique discovery will open up major possibilities in sensor manufacturing worldwide.”

AMBER, the Trinity-based research centre behind the discovery, is funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

AMBER connects scientific researchers from places such as University College Cork with those working in industry, with the aim of developing new materials and devices to be used in a whole host of sectors from IT to the medical sector.

The director of AMBER Professor Mick Morris heralded the centre’s “scientific breakthrough”.

“This exciting discovery shows that Irish research is at the leading edge of materials science worldwide,” Prof Morris said.

“Jonathan Coleman and his team in AMBER continue to carry out world-class research and this scientific breakthrough could potentially revolutionise certain aspects of healthcare,” he added.


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