Category Archives: energy

A tattoo that’s a biobattery and a sensor?

It’s going to be an American Chemical Society (ACS) 248th meeting kind of week as yet another interesting piece of scientific research is bruited (spread) about the internet. This time it’s all about sweat, exercise, and biobatteries. From an Aug. 13, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

In the future, working up a sweat by exercising may not only be good for your health, but it could also power your small electronic devices. Researchers will report today that they have designed a sensor in the form of a temporary tattoo that can both monitor a person’s progress during exercise and produce power from their perspiration.

An Aug. 13, 2014 ACS news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the inspiration (as opposed to perspiration) for this technology,

The device works by detecting and responding to lactate, which is naturally present in sweat. “Lactate is a very important indicator of how you are doing during exercise,” says Wenzhao Jia, Ph.D.

In general, the more intense the exercise, the more lactate the body produces. During strenuous physical activity, the body needs to generate more energy, so it activates a process called glycolysis. Glycolysis produces energy and lactate, the latter of which scientists can detect in the blood.

Professional athletes monitor their lactate levels during performance testing as a way to evaluate their fitness and training program. In addition, doctors measure lactate during exercise testing of patients for conditions marked by abnormally high lactate levels, such as heart or lung disease. Currently, lactate testing is inconvenient and intrusive because blood samples must be collected from the person at different times during the exercise regime and then analyzed.

The news release goes on to describe the research process which resulted in a temporary tattoo that could be used to power small scale electronics,

Jia, a postdoctoral student in the lab of Joseph Wang, D.Sc., at the University of California San Diego, and her colleagues developed a faster, easier and more comfortable way to measure lactate during exercise. They imprinted a flexible lactate sensor onto temporary tattoo paper. The sensor contained an enzyme that strips electrons from lactate, generating a weak electrical current. The researchers applied the tattoo to the upper arms of 10 healthy volunteers. Then the team measured the electrical current produced as the volunteers exercised at increasing resistance levels on a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes. In this way, they could continuously monitor sweat lactate levels over time and with changes in exercise intensity.

The team then went a step further, building on these findings to make a sweat-powered biobattery. Batteries produce energy by passing current, in the form of electrons, from an anode to a cathode. In this case, the anode contained the enzyme that removes electrons from lactate, and the cathode contained a molecule that accepts the electrons.

When 15 volunteers wore the tattoo biobatteries while exercising on a stationary bike, they produced different amounts of power. Interestingly, people who were less fit (exercising fewer than once a week) produced more power than those who were moderately fit (exercising one to three times per week). Enthusiasts who worked out more than three times per week produced the least amount of power. The researchers say that this is probably because the less-fit people became fatigued sooner, causing glycolysis to kick in earlier, forming more lactate. The maximum amount of energy produced by a person in the low-fitness group was 70 microWatts per cm2 of skin.

“The current produced is not that high, but we are working on enhancing it so that eventually we could power some small electronic devices,” Jia says. “Right now, we can get a maximum of 70 microWatts per cm2, but our electrodes are only 2 by 3 millimeters in size and generate about 4 microWatts — a bit small to generate enough power to run a watch, for example, which requires at least 10 microWatts. So besides working to get higher power, we also need to leverage electronics to store the generated current and make it sufficient for these requirements.”

Biobatteries offer certain advantages over conventional batteries: They recharge more quickly, use renewable energy sources (in this case, sweat), and are safer because they do not explode or leak toxic chemicals.

“These represent the first examples of epidermal electrochemical biosensing and biofuel cells that could potentially be used for a wide range of future applications,” Wang says.

The ACS has made a video about this work available,

It seems to me this tattoo battery could be used as a self-powered monitoring device in a medical application for heart or lung disease.

Hemp as a substitute for graphene in supercapacitors

As a member of the Cannabis plant family, hemp has an undeserved reputation due to its cousin’s (marijuana) notoriety and consciousness-altering properties. Hemp is, by contrast, the Puritan in the family, associated by the knowledgeable with virtues of thrift and hard work.

An Aug. 12, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights a hemp/supercapacitor presentation at the 248th meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS),

As hemp makes a comeback in the U.S. after a decades-long ban on its cultivation, scientists are reporting that fibers from the plant can pack as much energy and power as graphene, long-touted as the model material for supercapacitors. They’re presenting their research, which a Canadian start-up company is working on scaling up, at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society.

David Mitlin, Ph.D., explains that supercapacitors are energy storage devices that have huge potential to transform the way future electronics are powered. Unlike today’s rechargeable batteries, which sip up energy over several hours, supercapacitors can charge and discharge within seconds. But they normally can’t store nearly as much energy as batteries, an important property known as energy density. One approach researchers are taking to boost supercapacitors’ energy density is to design better electrodes. Mitlin’s team has figured out how to make them from certain hemp fibers — and they can hold as much energy as the current top contender: graphene.

An Aug. 12, 2014 ACS news release features David Mitlin, formerly of the University of Alberta (Canada) where this research took place,, Mitlin is now with now with Clarkson University in New York,

“Our device’s electrochemical performance is on par with or better than graphene-based devices,” Mitlin says. “The key advantage is that our electrodes are made from biowaste using a simple process, and therefore, are much cheaper than graphene.”

The race toward the ideal supercapacitor has largely focused on graphene — a strong, light material made of atom-thick layers of carbon, which when stacked, can be made into electrodes. Scientists are investigating how they can take advantage of graphene’s unique properties to build better solar cells, water filtration systems, touch-screen technology, as well as batteries and supercapacitors. The problem is it’s expensive.

Mitlin’s group decided to see if they could make graphene-like carbons from hemp bast fibers. The fibers come from the inner bark of the plant and often are discarded from Canada’s fast-growing industries that use hemp for clothing, construction materials and other products. …

His team found that if they heated the fibers for 24 hours at a little over 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and then blasted the resulting material with more intense heat, it would exfoliate into carbon nanosheets.

Mitlin’s team built their supercapacitors using the hemp-derived carbons as electrodes and an ionic liquid as the electrolyte. Fully assembled, the devices performed far better than commercial supercapacitors in both energy density and the range of temperatures over which they can work. The hemp-based devices yielded energy densities as high as 12 Watt-hours per kilogram, two to three times higher than commercial counterparts. They also operate over an impressive temperature range, from freezing to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We’re past the proof-of-principle stage for the fully functional supercapacitor,” he says. “Now we’re gearing up for small-scale manufacturing.”

I have not been able to confirm the name for Mitlin’s startup but I think it’s called Alta Supercaps (Alta being an abbreviation for Alberta,, amongst other things, and supercaps for supercapacitors) as per the information about a new startup on the Mitlin Group webspace (scroll down to the July 2, 2013 news item) which can still be found on the University of Alberta website (as of Aug. 12, 2014).

For those who would like more technical details, there is this July 2013 article by Mark Crawford for the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers); Note: A link has been removed.

Activated carbons, templated carbons, carbon nanofibers, carbon nanotubes, and graphene have all been intensively studied as materials for supercapacitor electrodes. High manufacturing costs is one issue—another is that the power characteristics of many of these carbons are limited. This is a result of high microporosity, which increases ion transport limitations.

“It is becoming well understood that the key to achieving high power in porous electrodes is to reduce the ion transport limitations” says Mitlin. “Nanomaterials based on graphene and their hybrids have emerged as a new class of promising high-rate electrode candidates—they are, however, too expensive to manufacture compared to activated carbons derived from pyrolysis of agricultural wastes, or from the coking operations.”

Biomass, which mainly contains cellulose and lignin by-products, is widely utilized as a feedstock for producing activated carbons. Mitlin decided to test hemp bast fiber’s unique cellular structure to see if it could produce graphene-like carbon nanosheets.

Hemp fiber waste was pressure-cooked (hydrothermal synthesis) at 180 °C for 24 hours. The resulting carbonized material was treated with potassium hydroxide and then heated to temperatures as high as 800 °C, resulting in the formation of uniquely structured nanosheets. Testing of this material revealed that it discharged 49 kW of power per kg of material—nearly triple what standard commercial electrodes supply, 17 kW/kg.

Mitlin and his team successfully synthesized two-dimensional, yet interconnected, carbon nanosheets with superior electrochemical storage properties comparable to those of state-of-the-art graphene-based electrodes. “We were able to achieve this by employing a biomass precursor with a unique structure—hemp bast fiber,” says Mitlin. “The resultant graphene-like nanosheets possess fundamentally different properties—such as pore size distribution, physical interconnectedness, and electrical conductivity—as compared to conventional biomass-derived activated carbons.”

This image from Wikimedia was used to illustrate the Crawford article,

Hemp bast fiber is a low-cost graphene-like nanomaterial. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hemp bast fiber is a low-cost graphene-like nanomaterial. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It seems to me that over the last few months there have been more than the usual number of supercapacitor stories, which makes the race to create the one that will break through in the marketplace fascinating to observe.

Wearable solar panels with perovskite

There was a bit of a flutter online in late July 2014 about solar cell research and perovskite, a material that could replace silicon therefore making solar cells more affordable, which hopefully would lead to greater adoption of the technology. Happily, the publishers of the study seem to have reissued their news release (h/t Aug. 11, 2014 news item on Nanwerk).

From the Wiley online press release Nr. 29/2014,

Textile solar cells are an ideal power source for small electronic devices incorporated into clothing. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, Chinese scientists have now introduced novel solar cells in the form of fibers that can be woven into a textile. The flexible, coaxial cells are based on a perovskite material and carbon nanotubes; they stand out due to their excellent energy conversion efficiency of 3.3 % and their low production cost.

The dilemma for solar cells: they are either inexpensive and inefficient, or they have a reasonable efficiency and are very expensive. One solution may come from solar cells made of perovskite materials, which are less expensive than silicon and do not require any expensive additives. Perovskites are materials with a special crystal structure that is like that of perovskite, a calcium titanate. These structures are often semiconductors and absorb light relatively efficiently. Most importantly, they can move electrons excited by light for long distances within the crystal lattice before they return to their energetic ground state and take up a solid position – a property that is very important in solar cells.

A team led by Hisheng Peng at Fudan University in Shanghai has now developed perovskite solar cells in the form of flexible fibers that can be woven into electronic textiles. Their production process is relatively simple and inexpensive because it uses a solution-based process to build up the layers.

The anode is a fine stainless steel wire coated with a compact n-semiconducting titanium dioxide layer. A layer of porous nanocrystalline titanium dioxide is deposited on top of this. This provides a large surface area for the subsequent deposition of the perovskite material CH3NH3PbI3. This is followed by a layer made of a special organic material. Finally a transparent layer of aligned carbon nanotubes is continuously wound over the whole thing to act as the cathode. The resulting fiber is so fine and flexible that it can be woven into textiles.

The perovskite layer absorbs light, that excites electrons and sets them free, causing a charge separation between the electrons and the formally positively charged “holes” The electrons enter the conducting band of the compact titanium dioxide layer and move to the anode. The “holes” are captured by the organic layer. The large surface area and the high electrical conductivity of the carbon nanotube cathode aid in the rapid conduction of the charges with high photoelectric currents. The fiber solar cell can attain an energy conversion efficiency of 3.3 %, exceeding that of all previous coaxial fiber solar cells made with either dyes or polymers.

Here’s an image used in the press release illustrating the new fiber,

[downloaded from http://www.wiley-vch.de/vch/journals/2002/press/201429press.pdf]

[downloaded from http://www.wiley-vch.de/vch/journals/2002/press/201429press.pdf]

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Integrating Perovskite Solar Cells into a Flexible Fiber by Longbin Qiu, Jue Deng, Xin Lu, Zhibin Yang, and Prof. Huisheng Peng. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201404973 Article first published online: 22 JUL 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

I found a second item about perovskite and solar cells in a May 16, 2014 article by Vicki Marshall for Chemistry World which discussed some research in the UK (Note: Links have been removed),

A lead-free and non-toxic alternative to current perovskite solar-cell technology has been reported by researchers in the UK: tin halide perovskite solar cells. They are also cheaper to manufacture than the silicon solar cells currently dominating the market.

Nakita Noel, part of Henry Snaith’s research team at the University of Oxford, describes how perovskite materials have caused a bit of a whirlwind since they came out in 2009: ‘Everybody that’s working in the solar community is looking to beat silicon.’ Despite the high efficiency of conventional crystalline silicon solar cells (around 20%), high production and installation costs decrease their economic feasibility and widespread use.

The challenge to find a cheaper alternative led to the development of perovskite-based solar cells, as organic–inorganic metal trihalide perovskites have both abundant and cheap starting materials. However, the presence of lead in some semiconductors could create toxicology issues in the future. As Noel puts it ‘every conference you present at somebody is bound to put up their hand and ask “What about the lead – isn’t this toxic?”’

Brian Hardin, co-founder of PLANT PV, US, and an expert in new materials for photovoltaic cells, says the study ‘should be considered a seminal work on alternative perovskites and is extremely valuable to the field as they look to better understand how changes in chemistry affect solar cell performance and stability.’

Here’s a link to and a citation for the UK researchers’ paper,

Lead-free organic–inorganic tin halide perovskites for photovoltaic applications by Nakita K. Noel, Samuel D. Stranks, Antonio Abate, Christian Wehrenfennig, Simone Guarnera, Amir-Abbas Haghighirad, Aditya Sadhana, Giles E. Eperon, Sandeep K. Pathak, Michael B. Johnston, Annamaria Petrozza, Laura M. Herza, and Henry J. Snaith. Energy Environ. Sci., 2014, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C4EE01076K First published online 01 May 2014

This article was open access until June 27, 2014 but now it is behind a paywall.

I notice there’s no mention of lead in the materials describing the research paper from the Chinese scientists. Perhaps they were working with lead-free materials.

Don’t throw that cigarette butt away—use it to store energy!

I’ve read the news release and briefly skimmed the research paper and cannot find any discussion of how these scientists got the idea to ‘recycle’ used cigarette butts for energy storage (supercapacitors) although the inspiration seems to have its roots in a desire to create better supercapacitors from recycled materials. From an Aug. 5, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

A group of scientists from South Korea have converted used-cigarette butts into a high-performing material that could be integrated into computers, handheld devices, electrical vehicles and wind turbines to store energy.

Presenting their findings today, 5 August 2014, in IOP Publishing’s journal Nanotechnology, the researchers have demonstrated the material’s superior performance compared to commercially available carbon, graphene and carbon nanotubes.

It is hoped the material can be used to coat the electrodes of supercapacitors — electrochemical components that can store extremely large amounts of electrical energy — whilst also offering a solution to the growing environmental problem caused by used-cigarette filters.

An Aug. 5, 2014 Institute of Physics (IOP) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, further describes the situation regarding used cigarette butts and the characteristics that could render them into supercapacitors

It is estimated that as many as 5.6 trillion cigarette butts (equivalent to 766 571 metric tons), are deposited into the environment worldwide every year.

Co-author of the study Professor Jongheop Yi, from Seoul National University, said: “Our study has shown that used cigarette filters can be transformed into a high-performing carbon-based material using a simple one-step process, which simultaneously offers a green solution to meeting the energy demands of society.

“Numerous countries are developing strict regulations to avoid the trillions of toxic and non-biodegradable used cigarette filters that are disposed of into the environment each year; our method is just one way of achieving this.”

Carbon is the most popular material that supercapacitors are composed of, due to its low cost, high surface area, high electrical conductivity and long-term stability.

Scientists around the world are currently working towards improving the characteristics of supercapacitors – such as energy density, power density and cycle stability – while also trying to reduce production costs.

In their study, the researchers demonstrated that the cellulose acetate fibres that cigarette filters are mostly composed of could be transformed into a carbon-based material using a simple, one-step burning technique called pyrolysis.

As a result of this burning process, the resulting carbon-based material contained a number of tiny pores, increasing its performance as a supercapacitive material.

“A high-performing supercapacitor material should have a large surface area, which can be achieved by incorporating a large number of small pores into the material,” continued Professor Yi.

“A combination of different pore sizes ensures that the material has high power densities, which is an essential property in a supercapacitor for the fast charging and discharging.”

Once fabricated, the carbon-based material was attached to an electrode and tested in a three-electrode system to see how well the material could adsorb electrolyte ions (charge) and then release them (discharge).

The material stored a higher amount of electrical energy than commercially available carbon and also had a higher amount of storage compared to graphene and carbon nanotubes, as reported in previous studies.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Preparation of energy storage material derived from a used cigarette filter for a supercapacitor electrode by Minzae Lee, Gil-Pyo Kim, Hyeon Don Song, Soomin Park, and Jongheop Yi. Nanotechnology 25 (34) 5601 doi:10.1088/0957-4484/25/34/345601

This is an open access paper.

Germany’s nano-supercapacitors for electric cars

Kudos to the writer for giving a dull topic, supercapacitors and electric cars, a jolt of life. From a July 24, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Innovative nano-material based supercapacitors are set to bring mass market appeal a good step closer to the lukewarm public interest in Germany. [emphasis mine] This movement is currently being motivated by the advancements in the state-of-the-art of this device.

A July 1, 2014 Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item and, sadly, did not reveal the writer’s name, goes on in this refreshing fashion,

Electric cars are very much welcomed in Norway and they are a common sight on the roads of the Scandinavian country – so much so that electric cars topped the list of new vehicle registrations for the second time. This poses a stark contrast to the situation in Germany, where electric vehicles claim only a small portion of the market. Of the 43 million cars on the roads in Germany, only a mere 8000 are electric powered. The main factors discouraging motorists in Germany from switching to electric vehicles are the high investments cost, their short driving ranges and the lack of charging stations. Another major obstacle en route to the mass acceptance of electric cars is the charging time involved. The minutes involved in refueling conventional cars are so many folds shorter that it makes the situation almost incomparable. However, the charging durations could be dramatically shortened with the inclusion of supercapacitors. These alternative energy storage devices are fast charging and can therefore better support the use of economical energy in electric cars. Taking traditional gasoline-powered vehicles for instance, the action of braking converts the kinetic energy into heat which is dissipated and unused. Per contra, generators on electric vehicles are able to tap into the kinetic energy by converting it into electricity for further usage. This electricity often comes in jolts and requires storage devices that can withstand high amount of energy input within a short period of time. In this example, supercapacitors with their capability in capturing and storing this converted energy in an instant fits in the picture wholly. Unlike batteries that offer limited charging/discharging rates, supercapacitors require only seconds to charge and can feed the electric power back into the air-conditioning systems, defogger, radio, etc. as required.

So, the Norwegians have embraced electric cars while the Germans have remained reluctant. The writer offers a clear explanation of supercapacitors and mentions a solution for improving the electric vehicle acceptance rate in Germany (from the press release)

Rapid energy storage devices are distinguished by their energy and power density characteristics – in other words, the amount of electrical energy the device can deliver with respect to its mass and within a given period of time. Supercapacitors are known to possess high power density, whereby large amounts of electrical energy can be provided or captured within short durations, albeit at a short-coming of low energy density. The amount of energy in which supercapacitors are able to store is generally about 10% that of electrochemical batteries (when the two devices of same weight are being compared). This is precisely where the challenge lies and what the “ElectroGraph” project is attempting to address.

ElectroGraph is a project supported by the EU and its consortium consists of ten partners from both research institutes and industries. One of the main tasks of this project is to develop new types of supercapacitors with significantly improved energy storage capacities. As the project is approaches its closing phase in June, the project coordinator at Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart, Carsten Glanz explained the concept and approach taken en route to its successful conclusion: “during the storage process, the electrical energy is stored as charged particles attached on the electrode material.” “So to store more energy efficiently, we designed light weight electrodes with larger, usable surfaces.”

Next, the ‘nano’ aspect (graphene) of this particular project is explained,

In numerous tests, the researcher and his team investigated the nano-material graphene, whose extremely high specific surface area of up to 2,600 m2/g and high electrical conductivity practically cries out for use as an electrode material. It consists of an ultrathin monolayer lattice made of carbon atoms. When used as an electrode material, it greatly increases the surface area with the same amount of material. From this aspect, graphene is showing its potential in replacing activated carbon – the material that has been used in commercial supercapacitors to date – which has a specific surface area between 1000 and 1800 m2/g.

“The space between the electrodes is filled with a liquid electrolyte,” revealed Glanz. “We use ionic liquids for this purpose. Graphene-based electrodes together with ionic liquid electrolytes present an ideal material combination where we can operate at higher voltages.” “By arranging the graphene layers in a manner that there is a gap between the individual layers, the researchers were able to establish a manufacturing method that efficiently uses the intrinsic surface area available of this nano-material. This prevents the individual graphene layers from restacking into graphite, which would reduce the storage surface and consequently the amount of energy storage capacity. “Our electrodes have already surpassed commercially available one by 75 percent in terms of storage capacity,” emphasizes the engineer. “I imagine that the cars of the future will have a battery connected to many capacitors spread throughout the vehicle, which will take over energy supply during high-power demand phases during acceleration for example and ramming up of the air-conditioning system. These capacitors will ease the burden on the battery and cover voltage peaks when starting the car. As a result, the size of massive batteries can be reduced.”

Whether this effort has already been or, at some time in the future, will be demonstrated is not entirely clear to me,

In order to present the new technology, the ElectroGraph consortium developed a demonstrator consisting of supercapacitors installed in an automobile side-view mirror and charged by a solar cell in an energetically self-sufficient system. The demonstrator will be unveiled at the end of May [2015?] during the dissemination workshop at Fraunhofer IPA.

I imagine improved supercapacitors will be prove to be an enticement for more than one reluctant electric car purchaser no matter where they reside.

Steampower via nanotechnology

It seems that researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) have been inspired by steam punk, of a sort. From a July 21, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

A new material structure developed at MIT generates steam by soaking up the sun.

The structure — a layer of graphite flakes and an underlying carbon foam — is a porous, insulating material structure that floats on water. When sunlight hits the structure’s surface, it creates a hotspot in the graphite, drawing water up through the material’s pores, where it evaporates as steam. The brighter the light, the more steam is generated.

The new material is able to convert 85 percent of incoming solar energy into steam — a significant improvement over recent approaches to solar-powered steam generation. What’s more, the setup loses very little heat in the process, and can produce steam at relatively low solar intensity. This would mean that, if scaled up, the setup would likely not require complex, costly systems to highly concentrate sunlight.

A July 21, 2014 MIT news release, which originated the news item, details the research,

Hadi Ghasemi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the spongelike structure can be made from relatively inexpensive materials — a particular advantage for a variety of compact, steam-powered applications.

“Steam is important for desalination, hygiene systems, and sterilization,” says Ghasemi, who led the development of the structure. “Especially in remote areas where the sun is the only source of energy, if you can generate steam with solar energy, it would be very useful.”

Today, solar-powered steam generation involves vast fields of mirrors or lenses that concentrate incoming sunlight, heating large volumes of liquid to high enough temperatures to produce steam. However, these complex systems can experience significant heat loss, leading to inefficient steam generation.

Recently, scientists have explored ways to improve the efficiency of solar-thermal harvesting by developing new solar receivers and by working with nanofluids. The latter approach involves mixing water with nanoparticles that heat up quickly when exposed to sunlight, vaporizing the surrounding water molecules as steam. But initiating this reaction requires very intense solar energy — about 1,000 times that of an average sunny day.

By contrast, the MIT approach generates steam at a solar intensity about 10 times that of a sunny day — the lowest optical concentration reported thus far. The implication, the researchers say, is that steam-generating applications can function with lower sunlight concentration and less-expensive tracking systems.

“This is a huge advantage in cost-reduction,” Ghasemi says. “That’s exciting for us because we’ve come up with a new approach to solar steam generation.”

The approach itself is relatively simple: Since steam is generated at the surface of a liquid, Ghasemi looked for a material that could both efficiently absorb sunlight and generate steam at a liquid’s surface.

After trials with multiple materials, he settled on a thin, double-layered, disc-shaped structure. Its top layer is made from graphite that the researchers exfoliated by placing the material in a microwave. The effect, Chen says, is “just like popcorn”: The graphite bubbles up, forming a nest of flakes. The result is a highly porous material that can better absorb and retain solar energy.

The structure’s bottom layer is a carbon foam that contains pockets of air to keep the foam afloat and act as an insulator, preventing heat from escaping to the underlying liquid. The foam also contains very small pores that allow water to creep up through the structure via capillary action.

As sunlight hits the structure, it creates a hotspot in the graphite layer, generating a pressure gradient that draws water up through the carbon foam. As water seeps into the graphite layer, the heat concentrated in the graphite turns the water into steam. The structure works much like a sponge that, when placed in water on a hot, sunny day, can continuously absorb and evaporate liquid.

The researchers tested the structure by placing it in a chamber of water and exposing it to a solar simulator — a light source that simulates various intensities of solar radiation. They found they were able to convert 85 percent of solar energy into steam at a solar intensity 10 times that of a typical sunny day.

Ghasemi says the structure may be designed to be even more efficient, depending on the type of materials used.

“There can be different combinations of materials that can be used in these two layers that can lead to higher efficiencies at lower concentrations,” Ghasemi says. “There is still a lot of research that can be done on implementing this in larger systems.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Solar steam generation by heat localization by Hadi Ghasemi, George Ni, Amy Marie Marconnet, James Loomis, Selcuk Yerci, Nenad Miljkovic, & Gang Chen. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4449 doi:10.1038/ncomms5449 Published 21 July 2014

This paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available via ReadCube Access.

Mining uranium from the ocean

We are running short of uranium as terrestrial mining of this element has become more hazardous environmentally. A July 18, 2014 news item on Azonano highlights an ‘ocean mining’ uranium project at the University of Alabama (US),

The U.S. Department of Energy [DOE] selected a University of Alabama [UA] start-up company for an approximate $1.5 million award to refine an alternative material to potentially extract uranium from the ocean.

Uranium, which naturally occurs in seawater and in the Earth’s crust, is the fuel for nuclear power. For decades, scientists have sought a more economical and efficient way to remove it from the ocean, as the terrestrial supply is dwindling and environmentally unfriendly to mine.

A July 17, 2014 University of Alabama news release, which originated the news item, describe the University of Alabama’s unique approach to the problem of extracting uranium from the ocean (Note: A link has been removed),

“Every scientist in the world, except us, who is trying to do this is working with plastics,” said Dr. Gabriela Gurau, a chemist and CEO of the UA-based company, 525 Solutions.

Instead, the UA company is developing an adsorbent, biodegradable material made from the compound chitin, which is found in shrimp shells and in other crustaceans and insects. The researchers have developed transparent sheets, or mats, comprised of tiny chitin fibers, modified for the task. When suspended beneath the ocean’s surface, the mats are designed to withdraw uranium.

“Once you put it in the ocean, it will attract uranium like a magnet, and uranium will stick to it,” said Gurau, a University of Alabama alumna.

If one day implemented, the mats, with uranium attached, would be taken to an industrial plant where the nuclear fuel source would be removed.

Earlier work led by Dr. Robin Rogers, Robert Ramsay Chair of Chemistry at UA and director of UA’s Center for Green Manufacturing, initially proved the concept for extracting uranium using chitin. Rogers is an owner/founder of 525 Solutions and serves as a scientific adviser to the company’s representatives.

“The oceans are estimated to contain more than a thousand times the amount of uranium found in total in any known land deposit,” Rogers said. “Fortunately, the concentration of uranium in the ocean is very, very low, but the volume of the oceans is, of course, very, very high. Assuming we could recover only half of this resource, this much uranium could support 6,500 years of nuclear capacity.”

Removing chitin, in a pure form, from shells had previously proven difficult, but Rogers and his UA colleagues discovered a way to use a relatively new class of solvents, called ionic liquids, for removal. Ionic liquids are liquid salts which have other unique and desirable properties that traditional solvents do not. Rogers is recognized as a world-leader in the field of  ionic liquids.

UA researchers use a time-honored laboratory technique called electrospinning to produce the mats. In this process, the scientists use a specially-prepared, chitin-based, ionic liquid solution, which is loaded in the electrospinning apparatus. Some 30,000 volts of electricity are applied, spinning the fibers into a water bath. After several hours, nanofiber mats, consisting of fibers much thinner than a strand of a spider’s web, form, weaved together into a solid sheet.

The increased surface area the nanomats provide is central to the project, said Dr. Julia Shamshina, the company’s chief technology officer and also a UA alumna.

“The larger the surface area, the larger modifications we can make and the more uranium it will uptake,” Shamshina said. “If you have one very thick fiber and 10 which, when combined, equal the size of the thick fiber, the ten smaller ones will take up hundreds, or even thousands, of times more uranium.”

Rogers extolled the potential environmental benefits of  the company’s approach and addressed cost factors.

“Mining uranium from land is a very dirty, energy intensive process, with a lot of hazardous waste produced,” Rogers said. “If we eliminate land mining by mining from the ocean, we not only clean up the ocean, we eliminate all of the environmental problems with terrestrial mining.

“Research studies have shown that uranium can be extracted from the ocean, but the process remains prohibitively costly,” said Rogers, a  two-time UA graduate. “The search for more effective adsorbents — which is what we’re doing  – is under way and expected to solve this issue.”

Gurau said the two-year grant, from the DOE’s Office of Science through its Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, will enable the researchers to refine their processes, measure costs and conduct an environmental analysis.

“We need to know if it’s viable from an economic standpoint,” Gurau said. “I think this is a critical step in getting this to the pilot-plant stage.”

Sand and nanotechnology

There’s some good news coming out of the University of California, Riverside regarding sand and lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, which I will temper with some additional information later in this posting.

First, the good news is that researchers have a new non-toxic, low cost way to produce a component in lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries according to a July 8, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering have created a lithium ion battery that outperforms the current industry standard by three times. The key material: sand. Yes, sand.

“This is the holy grail — a low cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly way to produce high performance lithium ion battery anodes,” said Zachary Favors, a graduate student working with Cengiz and Mihri Ozkan, both engineering professors at UC Riverside.

The idea came to Favors six months ago. He was relaxing on the beach after surfing in San Clemente, Calif. when he picked up some sand, took a close look at it and saw it was made up primarily of quartz, or silicon dioxide.

His research is centered on building better lithium ion batteries, primarily for personal electronics and electric vehicles. He is focused on the anode, or negative side of the battery. Graphite is the current standard material for the anode, but as electronics have become more powerful graphite’s ability to be improved has been virtually tapped out.

A July 8, 2014 University of California at Riverside news release by Sean Nealon, which originated the news item, describes some of the problems with silicon as a replacement for graphite and how the researchers approached those problems,

Researchers are now focused on using silicon at the nanoscale, or billionths of a meter, level as a replacement for graphite. The problem with nanoscale silicon is that it degrades quickly and is hard to produce in large quantities.

Favors set out to solve both these problems. He researched sand to find a spot in the United States where it is found with a high percentage of quartz. That took him to the Cedar Creek Reservoir, east of Dallas, where he grew up.

Sand in hand, he came back to the lab at UC Riverside and milled it down to the nanometer scale, followed by a series of purification steps changing its color from brown to bright white, similar in color and texture to powdered sugar.

After that, he ground salt and magnesium, both very common elements found dissolved in sea water into the purified quartz. The resulting powder was then heated. With the salt acting as a heat absorber, the magnesium worked to remove the oxygen from the quartz, resulting in pure silicon.

The Ozkan team was pleased with how the process went. And they also encountered an added positive surprise. The pure nano-silicon formed in a very porous 3-D silicon sponge like consistency. That porosity has proved to be the key to improving the performance of the batteries built with the nano-silicon.

Now, the Ozkan team is trying to produce larger quantities of the nano-silicon beach sand and is planning to move from coin-size batteries to pouch-size batteries that are used in cell phones.

The research is supported by Temiz Energy Technologies. The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization has filed patents for inventions reported in the research paper.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Scalable Synthesis of Nano-Silicon from Beach Sand for Long Cycle Life Li-ion Batteries by Zachary Favors, Wei Wang, Hamed Hosseini Bay, Zafer Mutlu, Kazi Ahmed, Chueh Liu, Mihrimah Ozkan, & Cengiz S. Ozkan. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 5623 doi:10.1038/srep05623 Published 08 July 2014

While this is good news, it does pose a conundrum of sorts. It seems that supplies of sand are currently under siege. A documentary, Sand Wars (2013) lays out the issues (from the Sand Wars website’s Synopsis page),

Most of us think of it as a complimentary ingredient of any beach vacation. Yet those seemingly insignificant grains of silica surround our daily lives. Every house, skyscraper and glass building, every bridge, airport and sidewalk in our modern society depends on sand. We use it to manufacture optical fiber, cell phone components and computer chips. We find it in our toothpaste, powdered foods and even in our glass of wine (both the glass and the wine, as a fining agent)!

Is sand an infinite resource? Can the existing supply satisfy a gigantic demand fueled by construction booms?  What are the consequences of intensive beach sand mining for the environment and the neighboring populations?

Based on encounters with sand smugglers, barefoot millionaires, corrupt politicians, unscrupulous real estate developers and environmentalists, this investigation takes us around the globe to unveil a new gold rush and a disturbing fact: the “SAND WARS” have begun.

Dr. Muditha D Senarath Yapa of John Keells Research at John Keells Holdings comments on the situation in Sri Lanka in his June 22, 2014 article (Nanotechnology – Depleting the most precious minerals for a few dollars) for The Nation,

Many have written for many years about the mineral sands of Pulmoddai. It is a national tragedy that for more than 50 years, we have been depleting the most precious minerals of our land for a few dollars. There are articles that appeared in various newspapers on how the mineral sands industry has boomed over the years. I hope the readers understand that it only means that we are depleting our resources faster than ever. According to the Lanka Mineral Sands Limited website, 90,000 tonnes of ilmenite, 9,000 tonnes of rutile, 5,500 tonnes of zircon, 100 tonnes of monazite and 4,000 tonnes of high titanium ilmenite are produced annually and shipped away to other countries.

… It is time for Sri Lanka to look at our own resources with this new light and capture the future nano materials market to create value added materials.

It’s interesting that he starts with the depletion of the sands as a national tragedy and ends with a plea to shift from a resource-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy. (This plea resonates strongly here in Canada where we too are a resource-based economy.)

Sidebar: John Keells Holdings is a most unusual company, from the About Us page,

In terms of market capitalisation, John Keells Holdings PLC is one of the largest listed conglomerate on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Other measures tell a similar tale; our group companies manage the largest number of hotel rooms in Sri Lanka, own the country’s largest privately-owned transportation business and hold leading positions in Sri Lanka’s key industries: tea, food and beverage manufacture and distribution, logistics, real estate, banking and information technology. Our investment in Sri Lanka is so deep and widely diversified that our stock price is sometimes used by international financial analysts as a benchmark of the country’s economy.

Yapa heads the companies research effort, which recently celebrated a synthetic biology agreement (from a May 2014 John Keells news release by Nuwan),

John Keells Research Signs an Historic Agreement with the Human Genetics Unit, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo to establish Sri Lanka’s first Synthetic Biology Research Programme.

Getting back to sand, these three pieces, ‘sand is good for li-ion batteries’, ‘sand is a diminishing resource’, and ‘let’s stop being a source of sand for other countries’ lay bare some difficult questions about our collective future on this planet.

Let’s make our turbine blades really big (greater than 75 metres) with new nanocomposite

The is a story about balsa wood, wind farms, turbine blades, and nanocomposites according to a June 25, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

In wind farms across North America and Europe, sleek turbines equipped with state-of-the-art technology convert wind energy into electric power. But tucked inside the blades of these feats of modern engineering is a decidedly low-tech core material: balsa wood.

Like other manufactured products that use sandwich panel construction to achieve a combination of light weight and strength, turbine blades contain carefully arrayed strips of balsa wood from Ecuador, which provides 95 percent of the world’s supply.

For centuries, the fast-growing balsa tree has been prized for its light weight and stiffness relative to density. But balsa wood is expensive and natural variations in the grain can be an impediment to achieving the increasingly precise performance requirements of turbine blades and other sophisticated applications.

As turbine makers produce ever-larger blades — the longest now measure 75 meters, almost matching the wingspan of an Airbus A380 jetliner — they must be engineered to operate virtually maintenance-free for decades. In order to meet more demanding specifications for precision, weight, and quality consistency, manufacturers are searching for new sandwich construction material options.

Now, using a cocktail of fiber-reinforced epoxy-based thermosetting resins and 3D extrusion printing techniques, materials scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed cellular composite materials of unprecedented light weight and stiffness.

A June 25, 2014 Harvard University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, goes on to describe the new technology in more detail while throwing 3D printing into the mix,

Until now, 3D printing has been developed for thermo plastics and UV-curable resins—materials that are not typically considered as engineering solutions for structural applications. “By moving into new classes of materials like epoxies, we open up new avenues for using 3D printing to construct lightweight architectures,” says principal investigator Jennifer A. Lewis, the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard SEAS. “Essentially, we are broadening the materials palate for 3D printing.”

“Balsa wood has a cellular architecture that minimizes its weight since most of the space is empty and only the cell walls carry the load. It therefore has a high specific stiffness and strength,” explains Lewis, who in addition to her role at Harvard SEAS is also a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute. “We’ve borrowed this design concept and mimicked it in an engineered composite.”

Lewis and Brett G. Compton, a former postdoctoral fellow in her group, developed inks of epoxy resins, spiked with viscosity-enhancing nanoclay platelets and a compound called dimethyl methylphosphonate, and then added two types of fillers: tiny silicon carbide “whiskers” and discrete carbon fibers. Key to the versatility of the resulting fiber-filled inks is the ability to control the orientation of the fillers.

The direction that the fillers are deposited controls the strength of the materials (think of the ease of splitting a piece of firewood lengthwise versus the relative difficulty of chopping on the perpendicular against the grain).

Lewis and Compton have shown that their technique yields cellular composites that are as stiff as wood, 10 to 20 times stiffer than commercial 3D-printed polymers, and twice as strong as the best printed polymer composites. The ability to control the alignment of the fillers means that fabricators can digitally integrate the composition, stiffness, and toughness of an object with its design.

“This paper demonstrates, for the first time, 3D printing of honeycombs with fiber-reinforced cell walls,” said Lorna Gibson, a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of world’s leading experts in cellular composites, who was not involved in this research. “Of particular significance is the way that the fibers can be aligned, through control of the fiber aspect ratio—the length relative to the diameter—and the nozzle diameter. This marks an important step forward in designing engineering materials that mimic wood, long known for its remarkable mechanical properties for its weight.”

“As we gain additional levels of control in filler alignment and learn how to better integrate that orientation into component design, we can further optimize component design and improve materials efficiency,” adds Compton, who is now a staff scientist in additive manufacturing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Eventually, we will be able to use 3D printing technology to change the degree of fiber filler alignment and local composition on the fly.”

The work could have applications in many fields, including the automotive industry where lighter materials hold the key to achieving aggressive government-mandated fuel economy standards. According to one estimate, shedding 110 pounds from each of the 1 billion cars on the road worldwide could produce $40 billion in annual fuel savings.

3D printing has the potential to radically change manufacturing in other ways too. Lewis says the next step will be to test the use of thermosetting resins to create different kinds of architectures, especially by exploiting the technique of blending fillers and precisely aligning them. This could lead to advances not only in structural materials, but also in conductive composites.

Previously, Lewis has conducted groundbreaking research in the 3D printing of tissue constructs with vasculature and lithium-ion microbatteries.

Here’s a link to and citation for the paper,

3D-Printing of Lightweight Cellular Composites by Brett G. Compton and Jennifer A. Lewis. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201401804 Article first published online: 18 JUN 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

The relationship between Valyrian steel (from Game of Thrones), Damascus steel, and nuclear nanotechnology

There’s a very interesting June 20, 2014 posting by Charles Day on his Dayside blog (located on the Physics Today website). Day manages to relate the Game of Thrones tv series to nuclear power and nanotechnology,

The military technology of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, is medieval with an admixture of the supernatural. Dragons aside, among the most prized weapons are swords made from Valyrian steel, which are lighter, stronger, and sharper than ordinary steel swords.

Like many of the features in the rich world of the novels and their TV adaptation, Game of Thrones, Valyrian steel has a historical inspiration. Sometime before 300 BC, metalworkers in Southern India discovered a way to make small cakes of high-carbon steel known as wootz. Thanks to black wavy bands of Fe3C particles that pervade the metal, wootz steel was already strong. …

Perhaps because the properties of wootz and Damascus steels depended, in part, on a particular kind of iron ore, the ability of metallurgists to make the alloys was lost sometime in the 18th century. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the plot plays out during an era in which making Valyrian steel is a long-lost art.

Martin’s knowledge of metallurgy is perhaps shaky. …

Interestingly, the comments on the blog posting largely concern themselves with whether George RR Martin knows anything about metallurgy. The consensus being that he does and that the problems in the Game of Thrones version of metallurgy lie with the series writers.

I first came across the Damascus steel, wootz, and carbon nanotube story in 2008 and provided a concise description on my Nanotech Mysteries wiki Middle Ages page,

Damascus steel blades were first made in the 8th century CE when they acquired a legendary status as unlike other blades they were able to cut through bone and stone while remaining sharp enough to cut a piece of silk. They were also flexible which meant they didn’t break off easily in a sword fight. The secret for making the blades died (history does not record how) about 1700 CE and there hasn’t been a new blade since.

 The blades were generally made from metal ingots prepared in India using special recipes which probably put just the right amount of carbon and other impurities into the iron. By following these recipes and following specific forging techniques craftsmen ended up making nanotubes … When these blades were nearly finished, blacksmiths would etch them with acid. This brought out the wavy light and dark lines that make Damascus swords easy to recognize.3

 It turns out part of the secret to the blade is nanotechnology. Scientists discovered this by looking at a Damascus steel blade from 1700 under an electron microscope. It seems those unknown smiths were somehow encasing cementite nanowires in carbon nanotubes then forging them into the steel blades giving them their legendary strength and flexibility.

The reference information I used then seems to be no longer available online but there is this more than acceptable alternative, a Sept. 27, 2008 postiing by Ed Yong from his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog (on ScienceBlogs.com; Note: A link has been removed),

In medieval times, crusading Christian knights cut a swathe through the Middle East in an attempt to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Muslims in turn cut through the invaders using a very special type of sword, which quickly gained a mythical reputation among the Europeans. These ‘Damascus blades‘ were extraordinarily strong, but still flexible enough to bend from hilt to tip. And they were reputedly so sharp that they could cleave a silk scarf floating to the ground, just as readily as a knight’s body.

They were superlative weapons that gave the Muslims a great advantage, and their blacksmiths carefully guarded the secret to their manufacture. The secret eventually died out in the eighteenth century and no European smith was able to fully reproduce their method.

Two years ago, Marianne Reibold and colleagues from the University of Dresden uncovered the extraordinary secret of Damascus steel – carbon nanotubes. The smiths of old were inadvertently using nanotechnology.

Getting back to Day, he goes on to explain the Damascus/Valyrian steel connection to nuclear power (Note: Links have been removed),

Valyrian and Damascus steels were on my mind earlier this week when I attended a session at TechConnect World on the use of nanotechnology in the nuclear power industry.

Scott Anderson of Lockheed Martin gave the introductory talk. Before the Fukushima disaster, Anderson pointed out, the principal materials science challenge in the nuclear industry lay in extending the lifetime of fuel rods. Now the focus has shifted to accident-tolerant fuels and safer, more durable equipment.

Among the other speakers was MIT’s Ju Li, who described his group’s experiments with incorporating carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in aluminum to boost the metal’s resistance to radiation damage. In a reactor core, neutrons and other ionizing particles penetrate vessels, walls, and other structures, where they knock atoms off lattice sites. The cumulative effect of those displacements is to create voids and other defects that weaken the structures.

Li isn’t sure yet how the CNTs resist irradiation and toughen the aluminum, but at the end of his talk he recalled their appearance in another metal, steel.

In 2006 Peter Paufler of Dresden University of Technology and his collaborators used high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to examine the physical and chemical microstructure of a sample of Damascus steel from the 17th century.

The saber from which the sample was taken was forged in Isfahan, Persia, by the famed blacksmith Assad Ullah. As part of their experiment, Paufler and his colleagues washed the sample in hydrochloric acid to remove Fe3C particles. A second look with TEM revealed the presence of CNTs.

There’s still active interest in researching Damascus steel blades as not all the secrets behind the blade’s extraordinary qualities have been revealed yet. There is a March 13, 2014 posting here which describes a research project where Chinese researchers are attempting (using computational software) to uncover the reason for the blade’s unique patterns,

It seems that while researchers were able to answer some questions about the blade’s qualities, researchers in China believe they may have answered the question about the blade’s unique patterns, from a March 12, 2014 news release on EurekAlert,

Blacksmiths and metallurgists in the West have been puzzled for centuries as to how the unique patterns on the famous Damascus steel blades were formed. Different mechanisms for the formation of the patterns and many methods for making the swords have been suggested and attempted, but none has produced blades with patterns matching those of the Damascus swords in the museums. The debate over the mechanism of formation of the Damascus patterns is still ongoing today. Using modern metallurgical computational software (Thermo-Calc, Stockholm, Sweden), Professor Haiwen Luo of the Central Iron and Steel Research Institute in Beijing, together with his collaborator, have analyzed the relevant published data relevant to the Damascus blades, and present a new explanation that is different from other proposed mechanisms.

At the time the researchers were hoping to have someone donate a piece of genuine Damascus steel blade. From my March 13, 2014 posting,

Note from the authors: It would be much appreciated if anyone would like to donate a piece of genuine Damascus blade for our research.

Corresponding Author:

LUO Haiwen
Email: [email protected]

Perhaps researchers will manage to solve the puzzle of how medieval craftsman were once able to create extraordinary steel blades.