More than a decade ago, materials scientist Hideo Hosono at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and colleagues plucked an oxygen atom from a crystal of C12A7 oxide, which turned the transparent insulating material into a transparent conductor. This switch is rare because the conducting material is transparent: Most conductors are not transparent (think metals) and most transparent materials are not conductive (think window glass).
Back in the crystal, C12A7 oxide's departing oxygen leaves behind a couple electrons and creates a material known as an electride. This electride is remarkably stable in air, water, and ambient temperatures. Most electrides fall apart in these conditions. Because of this stability, materials scientists want to harness the structure and properties of C12A7 electride. Unfortunately, its crystalline nature is not suitable for large-scale industrial processes, so they needed to make a glass equivalent of C12A7 electride.
And several years ago, they did. Hosono and colleagues converted crystalline C12A7 electride into glass
. The glass shares many properties of the crystalline electride, including the remarkable stability.
Crystals are neat and tidy, like apples and oranges arranged orderly in a box, but glasses are unordered and messy, like that same fruit in a plastic grocery bag. Researchers make glass by melting a crystal and cooling the liquid in such a way that the ordered crystal doesn't reform. With C12A7, the electride forms a glass at a temperature about 200 degrees lower than the oxide does.
This temperature – when the atoms stop flowing as a liquid and freeze in place – is known as the glass transition temperature. Controlling the glass transition temperature allows researchers to control certain properties of the material. For example, how car tires wear down and perform in bad weather depends on the glass transition temperature of the rubber they're made from.
Sushko, his PNNL colleague Lewis Johnson, Hosono and others at Tokyo Tech wanted to determine why the electride's glass transition temperature was so much lower than the oxide's. They suspected components of the electride known as electron anions were responsible. Electron anions are essentially freely moving electrons in place of the much-larger negatively charged oxygen atoms that urge the oxide to form a tidy crystal.