So Kim and his team developed a liquid crystalline polymer solution. When brushed like paint over a surface with a silicon blade, the molecules in the solution lined up in the direction of the stroke. This helped form high-performance networks, ultimately contributing to a plastic film that was both thin and conductive.
"As far as I know, the directed polymer alignment has never been achieved," said Bong-Gi Kim, lead author of the study recently published in Nature Materials.
To accomplish this, researchers designed a smarter polymer -- one that was slippery and had a natural twist. Ordinary polymers are flat, like linguine, and tend to stick together.
"They aggregate very badly," said Jinsang Kim. "Once they aggregate, no individual chain can be aligned."
Designing slippery, twisted polymers kept them from glomming together. Researchers also added flexible "arms" that extended off the sides of the polymers that give them elbow room.
But researchers still needed the polymers to align. For that to happen, the polymers needed to subtly attract one another. Knowing that a flat surface would allow this to happen, the group designed the polymers to untwist as the solution dried.