A newly developed treatment for plastic could one day allow it to be used in many more applications, according to a recent study.

Engineers from the University of Michigan said that the new process allows plastic to conduct and dissipate heat about as effectively as glass.

Although that remains less conductive than metals or ceramic materials, researchers wrote that the treated plastic could still be used in many more applications than conventional plastic — at a fraction of the cost of alternative materials.

"While heat flow in materials is often a complex process, even small improvements in the thermal conductivities of polymers can have a large technological impact," said engineering professor Kevin Pipe.

Previous attempts to make plastic more conductive added metallic or ceramic fillers, but those materials are expensive and could result in unwanted changes to the plastic.

The research team instead altered plastic at the molecular level by dissolving a polymer in water, then adding electrolytes to the solution to make it alkaline. The links in the polymer's molecular chain took on a negative charge, which caused them to straighten out.

"Polymer molecules conduct heat by vibrating, and a stiffer molecule chain can vibrate more easily," said graduate student Apoorv Shanker.

The solution was then sprayed onto plates to reconstitute it into solid plastic that conducts heat six times better than untreated plastic.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, also indicated that the technique is both inexpensive and scalable.

Although a commercial product is likely a few years away, researchers said that new composites resulting from the process could make plastic a viable option in electronics, lighting, vehicles and other industries.

"We believe that the concept of using electrolytes to thermally engineer polymers is a versatile idea that will apply across many other materials," said graduate researcher Chen Li.