KIGALI/ WASHINGTON – Most electronics, worldwide, only function within a certain temperature range. However, researchers at Purdue University, a public research university in Indiana, US, are working on a new app that can withstand extreme heat.
Rwandan researcher Aristide Gumyusenge is the lead author of the paper and graduate researcher at the same university. Along with his colleagues and led by Prof. Jianguo Mei, they have discovered polymers that can sustain extreme heat, higher than 220 Celsius.
Their discovery was published in one of the most prestigious US journals called Science Magazine. The weekly magazine was first published in 1880 and has a print subscriber base of around 130,000.
With this invention, companies like Samsung that have endured substantial losses due to overheating in circuits might be in luck.
The researchers also believe that this discovery will allow the fabrication of lightweight electronics usable in aircrafts, car engines, and other applications that require extreme thermal stability.
“Being part of a groundbreaking research, it would be an honor to be able to bring it to Rwanda. I am aware that we might not have the high-tech instruments to conduct such research, but I know we have big dreams and I am not afraid to dream with my home country,” exclaimed Gumyusenge when asked about his innovation.
Fruits hard work
The 27-year-old is one of the Rwandan presidential scholars, class of 2010, pursuing a PhD degree in materials chemistry.
Born on a small farm in Kamonyi District, Southern Province, Gumyusenge’s family survived the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Against all odds, he was a straight A student right from primary level.
He joined Petit Seminaire St Leon for high school where he majored in Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics and scored distinctions in all subjects in the national exams at the end of high school in 2010.
He especially scored the second best scores in chemistry that earned the Rwandan Presidential Scholarship to attend university in the USA.
“Winning the presidential scholarship was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I remember working so hard and studying every day for the national exams. At Petit Seminaire St Leon, it was a tradition that the first in the class gets the scholarship.
I was so excited, and I started learning spoken English right after the exams. It was an amazing accomplishment and I was very thankful for the Rwandan government for having provided such an opportunity for me and others,” Gumyusenge recalls.
He reveals that he taught himself how to speak English by listening to BBC and VOA stations and as a result, passed the interview as part of the 18 presidential scholars that were received by Hendrix Consortium.
He then attended Wofford College in South Carolina and majored in chemistry with a minor in mathematics. Finding the academic part of the college not too challenging, Aristide acquired a job as a librarian in order to financially support his sister and brother, to go through nursing school and civil engineering school, respectively.
“It was difficult at times,” he narrates, “but I always tried to approach life selflessly and kept my five siblings in mind after I had left Rwanda. While in college I had two jobs and would send the paycheck to them, while I used the scholarship money to buy whatever I needed.”
He continues: “I shared the little I had with my family, and I plan to keep it that way. It does come with a few sacrifices, for example, I have not been home since 2013. It’s always sad when I have to tell my mom that I won’t book any flight ticket until my younger brother’s tuition is covered, but it is okay. I know she understands that and I know she’s happy for me.”
As a college student, Gumyusenge was able to quickly integrate into the American culture, thanks to his host family, in Spartanburg SC. As a junior he did a summer research at the Center of Sustainable Materials Chemistry in Oregon, inspired by the work of the late American Scientist Linus Pauling.
He then decided to join Purdue University to pursue his PhD degree in organic chemistry, with a focus in materials chemistry. He joined the research team led by Prof. Jianguo Mei because he believes nano-materials hold significance in developing novel technologies.
Aristide aims to continue doing scientific research in materials chemistry.
“I am not sure if it’s merely passion for chemistry,” he says, “I think it was something that my mother always taught me: no matter what it is that you do, work hard and you will be rewarded no matter who gets the credit.”
“So chemistry being the easiest subject for me, I chose it and just concentrated on learning it, while also looking into how we can use science to make a difference. I think chemistry is a powerful tool that can impact people’s lives from medicine, technology, to sustainability; I always get motivated when it comes to making people’s lives better,” he adds.
About his research
“My current research,” Gumyusenge explains, “is looking into enabling technological advancement in fields that can revolutionise humankind, so it is a great honor to be part of it. I do believe it will eventually have an impact on my home country and it really keeps me motivated to think that my research work will one day be useful.”
In their research work, the group uses rigid polymers analogous like those used by NASA for the space capsules insulation. The researchers can form semiconducting nanocomposites that are thermally robust. Their electronics are functional from room temperature up to 250 °C.
Usually, the performance of electronics depends on temperature and the performance of these new polymer blend remains stable across a wide temperature range.
The most impressive feature about this new material isn’t its ability to conduct electricity in extreme temperatures, but that its performance doesn’t seem to change.
By blending two organic materials together, this new plastic material could reliably conduct electricity in up to 220 degrees Celsius (428 F).
One of these is a semiconductor, which can conduct electricity, and the other is a conventional insulating polymer, similar to regular plastic, but to make this technology work for electronics, the researchers couldn’t just meld the two together – they had to tinker with ratios.
Gumyusenge explains that one of the plastics transports the charge, while the other can withstand high temperatures.
The two materials need to be compatible to mixing and should each be present in roughly the same ratio. This results in an organized, interpenetrating network that allows the electrical charge to flow evenly throughout while holding its shape in extreme temperatures.