Video Source: The American Chemical Society

The iridescent shimmer of a string of pearls may one day be more than pretty adornment. Scientists now report in ACS Applied Nano Materials a hybrid material consisting of imitation pearl combined with silver nanowires that works as a heater, with the added benefit of high flexibility, suggesting a potential role in wearable devices.  

Nacre, otherwise known as mother of pearl, makes up the opalescent exterior coating of a pearl and the inner coating of mollusk shells. Scientists have long been interested in this lightweight, yet strong material for a range of applications, manufacturing substances that imitate nacre for use as fire retardants, gas barriers and conductors. Flexible conductors made from silver nanowires and a flexible plastic substrate called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are being developed in laboratories, but researchers are running into problems with adhesion between PET and the silver nanowires. So, Hongwei Duan and colleagues wanted to explore a nacre mimetic as the substrate for silver nanowires to develop a flexible resistive heater.   

The researchers prepared the nacre mimetic from a synthetic nanoclay coated with a polyvinyl alcohol polymer that self-assembled upon water removal, generating a flexible transparent sheet. Then, they transferred silver nanowires from a filter membrane to the nacre mimetic sheet by hot pressing the pearly substrate against the membrane. The silver nanowires adhered to the new material better than to traditional flexible plastic substrates, resisting removal with scotch tape, a standard test of adhesion. The composite material showed excellent heating properties, producing heat as electric current was passed through the silver nanowires, even when bent repeatedly or when rolled up into a tube. In a proof-of-concept experiment, the researchers placed a heat-sensitive antibiotic-loaded hydrogel patch onto the heater. Turning up the temperature triggered a phase change in the patch, releasing the antibiotics.