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Scientists transform cement into liquid metal

Laser beams and an aerodynamic levitator help scientists melt cement into a metallic-glass material that can act as a semiconductor.

This playful image composite released by Argonne National Laboratory imagines cement going into LCD displays.Photo by Argonne National Laboratory

It's not the same as turning lead into gold, but scientists at the Illinois-based Argonne National Laboratory and the Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute/SPring-8 have developed a method for turning cement into a liquid metal semiconductor.

The process sounds like a mad scientist's invention. It involves equipment like an aerodynamic levitator and a carbon dioxide laser beam. The levitator uses gas pressure to keep the material out of contact with any container surfaces. The carbon dioxide laser beam can heat the material to 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit.

The material in question is mayenite, a calcium aluminum oxide material that is part of alimuna cement. It was placed in the aerodynamic levitator and thoroughly cooked until it melted. It was then allowed to cool down into a glassy state. This method resulted in a material that traps electrons and allows for conduction, effectively turning cement into a semiconductor that behaves much like metal does.

"This new material has lots of applications, including as thin-film resistors used in liquid-crystal displays, basically the flat panel computer monitor that you are probably reading this from at the moment," Argonne physicist Chris Benmore said Monday in a statement.

The results is being published under the title "Network topology for the formation of solvated electrons in binary CaO-Al2O3 composition glasses" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Score one for modern alchemy.

Electron states
Close-up visualizations of (A) the HOMO and (B) LUMO single-particle electron states in the 64CaO glass.Photo by Argonne National Laboratory