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Vanadium Dioxide Defies Our Understanding Of Physics In Very Useful Ways

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There's a law in physics that says anything that's a good conductor of electricity will be an equally good conductor of heat. Well, sorry physics: researchers have discovered that a familiar material called vanadium dioxide can conduct electricity without conducting heat. And that's just the latest news about vanadium dioxide's mind-boggling abilities.

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Vanadium Dioxide Don't Care

Physical laws? Have fun with that. Vanadium dioxide (VO2) will be over here conducting electricity without conducting heat in brazen defiance of one of the most fundamental rules of conductors: the Wiedemann–Franz law. There are a few other materials that can conduct electricity better than they conduct heat, but they require such frigid temperatures to do it that they're pretty impractical. VO2, meanwhile, conducts electricity exclusively when it's above room temperature, while producing virtually no heat.

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How? Junqiao Wu, a researcher on the study that was published in the January 2017 issue of Science, explains: "For electrons, heat is a random motion. Normal metals transport heat efficiently because there are so many different possible microscopic configurations that the individual electrons can jump between. In contrast, the coordinated, marching-band-like motion of electrons in vanadium dioxide is detrimental to heat transfer as there are fewer configurations available for the electrons to hop randomly between." Even better, you can control how much electricity and heat VO2 conducts by mixing it with other materials. That means we might be able to make it into an insulator that only dissipates heat once the temperature gets to a certain point—a very handy thing for building engines, for instance.

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What Can't It Do?

If conductors are a little too technical for you, try this one on for size: transparent glass that keeps out the heat of the sun. Vanadium-dioxide based "smart glass" can block infrared light—what we know as heat—without blocking visible light. It all comes down to two strange qualities: VO2 becomes transparent at temperatures below 30ºC (86ºF) and reflects infrared light at temperatures higher than 60ºC (140ºF). In 2013, scientists found a way to trigger that infrared-light-reflecting power with a static voltage instead of raising the temperature, enabling the glass to block heat without turning opaque. Another plus: because it uses electricity to trigger the change, future windows could use a simple switch to control whether or not they let in heat. Vanadium dioxide is the hero the world needs.

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