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Clay composites modelled in virtual lab

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By Jonathan Webb

Science reporter, BBC News

Scientists in London have constructed a computer model that predicts the useful, physical properties of clay composites from their atomic make-up.

Clay-polymer composites can be very strong, stiff and light, making them useful in components for cars and aeroplanes.

But they are usually developed by a costly process of trial and error.

The researchers say their virtual lab system could help take the guess-work out of making such new materials.

Their study is published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Composites that are made by mixing molecules of a polymer, such as nylon, with flaky layers of clay, can have properties that are very different from the separate ingredients.

Predicting those properties can be difficult - even when the molecular structure of the ingredients is well understood.

Some of the most obvious things about the world around us are harder to extract than youd think - even though weve had an atomic theory of matter for at least 120 years by now, said Prof Peter Coveney, whose team at University College London (UCL) conducted the research.

According to Prof Coveney, that difficulty in extrapolating from small properties (forces between atoms and molecules) to large ones (like hardness, density and conductivity) has held up the development of applications for exciting new materials - like superconductors, or graphene.

Quite often the modern-era Nobel Prizes are awarded to discoveries of interesting molecules, which are supposed to then have lots of interesting applications, he told BBC News.

But the actual delivery of those applications can take an awfully long time.

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