Category Archives: energy

Hydro-Québec, lithium-ion batteries, and silicate-based nanoboxes

Hydro-Québec (Canada) is making a bit of a splash these days (this is the third mention within less than a week) on my blog, if nowhere else. The latest development was announced in a Feb. 24, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) of A*STAR and Quebec’s IREQ (Hydro-Québec’s research institute) have synthesized silicate-based nanoboxes that could more than double the energy capacity of lithium-ion batteries as compared to conventional phosphate-based cathodes (“Synthesis of Phase-Pure Li2MnSiO4@C Porous Nanoboxes for High-Capacity Li-Ion Battery Cathodes”). This breakthrough could hold the key to longer-lasting rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles and mobile devices.

A Feb. 24, 2015 Hydro-Québec press release (also on Canadian News Wire), which originated the news item, describe the research and the relationship between the two institutions,

“IBN researchers have successfully achieved simultaneous control of the phase purity and nanostructure of Li2MnSiO4 for the first time,” said Professor Jackie Y. Ying, IBN Executive Director. “This novel synthetic approach would allow us to move closer to attaining the ultrahigh theoretical capacity of silicate-based cathodes for battery applications.”

“We are delighted to collaborate with IBN on this project. IBN’s expertise in synthetic chemistry and nanotechnology allows us to explore new synthetic approaches and nanostructure design to achieve complex materials that pave the way for breakthroughs in battery technology, especially regarding transportation electrification,” said Dr. Karim Zaghib, Director – Energy Storage and Conservation at Hydro-Québec.

Lithium-ion batteries are widely used to power many electronic devices, including smart phones, medical devices and electric vehicles. Their high energy density, excellent durability and lightness make them a popular choice for energy storage. Due to a growing demand for long-lasting, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for various applications, significant efforts have been devoted to improving the capacity of these batteries. In particular, there is great interest in developing new compounds that may increase energy storage capacity, stability and lifespan compared to conventional lithium phosphate batteries.

The five-year research collaboration between IBN and Hydro-Québec was established in 2011. The researchers plan to further enhance their new cathode materials to create high-capacity lithium-ion batteries for commercialization.

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

Synthesis of phase-pure Li2MnSiO4@C porous nanoboxes for high-capacity Li-ion battery cathodes by Xian-Feng Yang, Jin-Hua Yang, Karim Zaghib, Michel L. Trudeau, and Jackie Y. Ying. Nano Energy Volume 12, March 2015, Pages 305–313 doi:10.1016/j.nanoen.2014.12.021

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here are my two most recent mentions of Hydro-Québec and lithium-ion batteries (both Grafoid and NanoXplore have deals with Hydro-Québec),

Investment in graphene (Grafoid), the Canadian government, and a 2015 federal election (Feb. 23, 2015)

NanoXplore: graphene and graphite in Québec (Canada) (Feb. 20, 2015)

NanoXplore: graphene and graphite in Québec (Canada)

For the second time this week I’m going to be mentioning the province of Québec (Canada) in relation to its ‘nanotechnology’ businesses (see: Cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), also known as nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), and toxicity; some Celluforce news; anti-petroleum extremists posted on Feb. 19, 2015). A Feb. 20, 2015 news item on Azonano announces a graphene production facility in the Montréal area,

Group NanoXplore Inc., a Montreal-based company specialising in the production and application of graphene and its derivative materials, announced today that its graphene production facility is in full operation with a capacity of 3 metric tonnes per year. This is the largest graphene production capacity in Canada and, outside of China, one of the 5 largest in the world.

A Feb. 19, 2015 NanoXplore news release on MarketWire, which originated the news item, provides a bit more detail in amidst the promotional hype,

NanoXplore’s production process is unique and the core of the company’s competitive advantage. The proprietary process gently and efficiently creates pristine graphene from natural flake graphite without creating the crystalline defects that can limit performance. The process also functionalises the graphene material during production making subsequent mixing with a broad range of industrial materials simple and efficient. NanoXplore’s facility is routinely producing several standard grades of graphene as well as derivative products such as a unique graphite-graphene composite suitable for anodes in Li-ion batteries. [emphasis mine]

Another graphite connection in Québec

Interestingly, back in 2012 Hydro-Québec signed a deal with another Québec-based company, Focus Graphite (which owns a graphite deposit in the northeastern part of the province) to explore ways to produce more efficient lithium-ion batteries (my Nov 27, 2012 posting).

Getting back to the news release, it also provides a summary description of NanoXplore,

NanoXplore is a privately held advanced materials company focused on the large-scale production of high quality graphene and the integration of graphene into real world industrial products. NanoXplore achieves significant improvements in performance for its customers with very low levels of graphene because its material is of high quality (few defects, highly dispersible), because the production process can easily tune the dimensions of the graphene platelets, and because NanoXplore has specific expertise in dispersing graphene in a broad range of industrial materials. NanoXplore partners with its customers to integrate graphene into their products and processes, providing them with innovative products and a strong competitive advantage.

Graphite mines

NanoXplore, too, has some sort of relationship with a graphite mine or, in this case mining company, Mason Graphite (from the NanoXplore website’s Investors’ page),

FROM MINE TO PRODUCT

Partnered with Canadian mining company Mason Graphite, NanoXplore has access to lower quartile graphite/graphene production costs as well as a stable, long term, large flake source of raw material. Local government bodies have embraced the graphite-graphene cluster. With production and R&D centrally located in Montreal, NanoXplore offers world class innovation and true intellectual property safety for its formulation partners.

By the way, Benoit Gascon, NanoXplore’s board chair (scroll down to the bottom  of the team list) is also Mason Graphite’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). The company has recently announced a detailed study on large-scale production of value-added graphite products (from a Feb. 11, 2015 Mason Graphite news release),

Mason Graphite Inc. (“Mason Graphite” or the “Company”) (TSX VENTURE:LLG)(OTCQX:MGPHF) announces that it has initiated a detailed study for large scale processing of value-added graphite products.

Value-added processing includes micronization, additional purification, spheronization and coating, resulting in graphite products that are suitable for a wide range of electrochemical applications (including alkaline batteries, lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells), technical applications (including carbon brushes, brake linings, plastics and lubricants), and other specialized uses.

The development and validation of the fabrication processes for these graphite products will be carried out by the National Research Council of Canada (“NRC”) along with Hatch, and is expected to conclude by the end of 2015. Following initial scoping work, equipment trials and product testing, the Company intends to provide preliminary results and an updated work program by mid-2015.

The NRC is the Government of Canada’s premier research and technology organization. Hatch is an engineering firm located in Montreal which is already working closely with Mason Graphite on the development of the Lac Gueret Graphite Project.

Other parts of Canada and the graphite/graphene enterprise

NanoXplore and Focus Graphite are not the only companies with connections to a graphite mine in Québec. There’s also Vancouver (Canada)-based Lomiko Metals (mentioned here in an April 17, 2013 posting [for the first time]. A. Paul Gill, Lomiko’s CEO, seems to be pursuing a similar business strategy in that Lomiko, too, has a number of business alliances, e.g., the mine, a research and development laboratory, etc. Moving out of Québec, there is also a graphite mine in Ontario owned by Northern Graphite (my Feb. 6, 2012 posting). It seems Canadians in eastern Canada have a valuable resource in graphite flakes.

Cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), also known as nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), and toxicity; some Celluforce news; anti-petroleum extremists

The February 2015 issue of Industrial Biotechnology is hosting a special in depth research section on the topic of cellulose nanotechnology. A Feb. 19, 2015 news item on Phys.org features a specific article in the special section (Note: A link has been removed),

Novel nanomaterials derived from cellulose have many promising industrial applications, are biobased and biodegradable, and can be produced at relatively low cost. Their potential toxicity—whether ingested, inhaled, on contact with the skin, or on exposure to cells within the body—is a topic of intense discussion, and the latest evidence and insights on cellulose nanocrystal toxicity are presented in a Review article in Industrial Biotechnology.

Maren Roman, PhD, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, describes the preparation of cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) and highlights the key factors that are an essential part of studies to assess the potential adverse health effects of CNCs by various types of exposure. In the article “Toxicity of Cellulose Nanocrystals: A Review” , Dr. Roman discusses the current literature on the pulmonary, oral, dermal, and cytotoxicity of CNCs, provides an in-depth view on their effects on human health, and suggests areas for future research.

There has been much Canadian investment both federal and provincial in cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). There’s also been a fair degree of confusion regarding the name. In Canada, which was a research leader initially, it was called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) but over time a new term was coined cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). The new name was more in keeping with the naming conventions for other nanoscale cellulose materials such as  cellulose nanofibrils, etc. Hopefully, this confusion will resolve itself now that Celluforce, a Canadian company, has trademarked NCC. (More about Celluforce later in this post.)

Getting back to toxicity and CNC, here’s a link to and a citation for Maron’s research paper,

Toxicity of Cellulose Nanocrystals: A Review by Roman Maren. Industrial Biotechnology. February 2015, 11(1): 25-33. doi:10.1089/ind.2014.0024.

The article is open access at this time. For anyone who doesn’t have the time to read it, here’s the conclusion,

Current studies of the oral and dermal toxicity of CNCs have shown a lack of adverse health effects. The available studies, however, are still very limited in number (two oral toxicity studies and three dermal toxicity studies) and in the variety of tested CNC materials (CelluForce’s NCC). Additional oral and dermal toxicity studies are needed to support the general conclusion that CNCs are nontoxic upon ingestion or contact with the skin. Studies of pulmonary and cytotoxicity, on the other hand, have yielded discordant results. The questions of whether CNCs have adverse health effects on inhalation and whether they elicit inflammatory or oxidative stress responses at the cellular level therefore warrant further investigation. The toxicity of CNCs will depend strongly on their physicochemical properties—in particular, surface chemistry, including particle charge, and degree of aggregation, which determines particle shape and dimensions. Therefore, these properties—which in turn depend strongly on the cellulose source, CNC preparation procedure, and post-processing or sample preparation methods, such as lyophilization, aerosolization, sonication, or sterilization—need to be carefully measured in the final samples.

Another factor that might affect the outcomes of toxicity studies are sample contaminants, such as endotoxins or toxic chemical impurities. Samples for exposure tests should therefore be carefully analyzed for such contaminants prior to testing. Ideally, because detection of toxic chemical contaminants may be difficult, control experiments should be carried out with suitable blanks from which the CNCs have been removed, for example by membrane filtration. Moreover, especially in cytotoxicity assessments, the effect of CNCs on pH and their aggregation in the cell culture medium need to be monitored. Only by careful particle characterization and exclusion of interfering factors will we be able to develop a detailed understanding of the potential adverse health effects of CNCs.

If I understand this rightly, CNC seems safe (more or less) when ingested orally (food/drink) or applied to the skin (dermal application) but inhalation seems problematic and there are indications that this could lead to inflammation of lung cells. Other conclusions suggest both the source for the cellulose and CNC preparation may affect its toxicity. I encourage you to read the whole research paper as this author provides good explanations of the terms and summaries of previous research, as well as, some very well considered research.

Here’s more about Industrial Biotechnology’s special research section in the February 2015 issue, from a Feb. 19, 2015 Mary Ann Liebert publishers press release (also on EurekAlert*),

The article is part of an IB IN DEPTH special research section entitled “Cellulose Nanotechnology: Fundamentals and Applications,” led by Guest Editors Jose Moran-Mirabal, PhD and Emily Cranston, PhD, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. In addition to the Review article by Dr. Roman, the issue includes Reviews by M. Rose, M. Babi, and J. Moran-Mirabal (“The Study of Cellulose Structure and Depolymerization Through Single-Molecule Methods”) and by X.F. Zhao and W.T. Winter (“Cellulose/cellulose-based nanospheres: Perspectives and prospective”); Original Research articles by A. Rivkin, T. Abitbol, Y. Nevo, et al. (“Bionanocomposite films from resilin-CBD bound to cellulose nanocrystals), and P. Criado, C. Fraschini, S. Salmieri, et al. (“Evaluation of antioxidant cellulose nanocrystals and applications in gellan gum films”); and the Overview article “Cellulose Nanotechnology on the Rise,” by Drs. Moran-Mirabal and Cranston.

Meanwhile Celluforce announces a $4M ‘contribution’ from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), from a Feb. 16, 2015 Celluforce news release,

CelluForce welcomes the announcement by Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) of a contribution of $4.0 million to optimize the extraction process of Nanocrystaline Cellulose (NCC) from dry wood pulp and develop applications for its use in the oil and gas sector. The announcement was made in Quebec City today [Feb. 16, 2015] by the Honourable Greg Rickford, Minister of Natural Resources and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario.

NCC is a fundamental building block of trees that can be extracted from the forest biomass and has unique properties that offer a wide range of potential applications. Measured in units as small as nanometres, these tiny structures have strength properties comparable to steel and will have uses in a variety of industrial sectors. In particular, NCC is touted as having the potential to significantly advance the oil and gas industry.

Our Government is positioning Canada as a global leader in the clean technology sector by supporting innovative projects aimed at growing our economy while contributing to a cleaner environment,” said the Honourable Greg Rickford, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources. [emphasis mine] “By developing our resources responsibly, exploring next-generation transportation and advancing clean energy technology, the projects announced today will create jobs and improve innovation opportunities in Quebec and across Canada.”

“World-class research led to the development of this ground breaking extraction process and placed Canada at the leading edge of NCC research”, stated René Goguen, Acting President of CelluForce Inc. “This announcement by SDTC sets the stage for the pre-commercial development of applications that will not only support Canada’s forest sector but also the oil and gas sector, both of which are important drivers of the Canadian economy.”

This project will further improve and optimize the process developed by CelluForce to extract nanocrystalline cellulose (CelluForce NCC™) from dry wood pulp. In addition to improving the extraction process, this project will investigate additional applications for the oil-and-gas industry such as cementing using this renewable forestry resource.

There’s very little information in this news release other than the fact that CelluForce’s $4M doesn’t need to be repaid seeing it’s described as a ‘contribution’ rather than an investment. The difference between a contribution and a grant, which is what these funds used to be called, somewhat mystifies me unless this is a translation issue.

As for the news release content, it is remarkably scant. This $4M will be spent on improving the extraction process and on applications for the oil and gas industry. Neither the improvements nor the possible applications are described. Hopefully, the government has some means of establishing whether or not those funds (sorry, the contribution) were used for the purposes described.

I am glad to see this in this news release, “Our Government is positioning Canada as a global leader in the clean technology sector …” although I’m not sure how it fits with recent attempts to brand environmentalists as part of an ‘anti-petroleum’ movement as described in a Feb. 19, 2015 post by Glyn Moody for Techdirt (Note: A link has been removed),

As Techdirt has been warning for some time, one of the dangers with the flood of “anti-terrorist” laws and powers is that they are easily redirected against other groups for very different purposes. A story in the Globe and Mail provides another chilling reminder of how that works:

The RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] has labelled the “anti-petroleum” movement as a growing and violent threat to Canada’s security, raising fears among environmentalists that they face increased surveillance, and possibly worse, under the Harper government’s new terrorism legislation.

As the Globe and Mail article makes clear, environmentalists are now being considered as part of an “anti-petroleum” movement. That’s not just some irrelevant rebranding: it means that new legislation supposedly targeting “terrorism” can be applied.

It seems logically incoherent to me that the government wants clean tech while condemning environmentalists. Whether or not you buy climate change science (for the record, I do), you have to admit that we are running out of petroleum. At heart, both the government and the environmentalists have to agree that we need new sources for fuel. It doesn’t make any sense to spend valuable money, time, and resources on pursuing environmentalists.

This business about the ‘anti-petroleum’ movement reminds me of a copyright kerfuffle including James Moore, currently the Minister of Industry, and writer Cory Doctorow. Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage at the time, at some sort of public event, labeled Doctorow as a ‘radical extremist’ regarding his (Doctorow’s) views on copyright. The comments achieved notoriety when it appeared that Moore and the organizers denied the comments ever took place. The organizers seemed to have edited the offending video and Moore made public denials. You can read more about the incident in my June 25, 2010 post. Here’s an excerpt from the post which may explain why I feel there is a similarity,

… By simultaneously linking individuals who use violence to achieve their ends (the usual application for the term ‘radical extremists’) to individuals who are debating, discussing, and writing commentaries critical of your political aims you render the term into a joke and you minimize the violence associated with it.

Although with ‘anti-petroleum’, it seems they could decide any dissension is a form of violence. It should be noted that in Canada the Ministry of Industry, is tightly coupled with the Ministry of Natural Resources since the Canadian economy has been and continues to be largely resource-based.

For anyone interested in CelluForce and NCC/CNC, here’s a sampling of my previous posts on the topic,

CelluForce (nanocrystalline cellulose) plant opens (Dec. 15, 2011)

Double honours for NCC (ArboraNano and CelluForce recognized) (May 25, 2012)

You say nanocrystalline cellulose, I say cellulose nanocrystals; CelluForce at Japan conference and at UK conference (Oct. 15, 2012)

Designing nanocellulose (?) products in Finland; update on Canada’s CelluForce (Oct. 3, 2013) Note: CelluForce stopped producing NCC due to a growing stockpile.

There’s a lot more about CNC on this blog* should you care to search. One final note, I gather there’s a new interim boss at CelluForce, René Goguen replacing Jean Moreau.

* EurekAlert link added Feb. 20, 2015.

* ‘on the CNC blog’ changed to ‘about CNC on this blog’ on March 4, 2015.

Kevlar-wrapped batteries on an airplane

Researchers at the University of Michigan are not trying to bulletproof lithium-ion batteries with kevlar. Rather, they’re trying prevent fires. From a Jan. 27, 2015 University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert),

New battery technology from the University of Michigan should be able to prevent the kind of fires that grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliners in 2013.

The innovation is an advanced barrier between the electrodes in a lithium-ion battery.

Made with nanofibers extracted from Kevlar, the tough material in bulletproof vests, the barrier stifles the growth of metal tendrils that can become unwanted pathways for electrical current.

A U-M team of researchers also founded Ann Arbor-based Elegus Technologies to bring this research from the lab to market. Mass production is expected to begin in the fourth quarter 2016.

“Unlike other ultra strong materials such as carbon nanotubes, Kevlar is an insulator,” said Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering. “This property is perfect for separators that need to prevent shorting between two electrodes.”

Lithium-ion batteries work by shuttling lithium ions from one electrode to the other. This creates a charge imbalance, and since electrons can’t go through the membrane between the electrodes, they go through a circuit instead and do something useful on the way.

But if the holes in the membrane are too big, the lithium atoms can build themselves into fern-like structures, called dendrites, which eventually poke through the membrane. If they reach the other electrode, the electrons have a path within the battery, shorting out the circuit. This is how the battery fires on the Boeing 787 are thought to have started.

“The fern shape is particularly difficult to stop because of its nanoscale tip,” said Siu On Tung, a graduate student in Kotov’s lab, as well as chief technology officer at Elegus. “It was very important that the fibers formed smaller pores than the tip size.”

While the widths of pores in other membranes are a few hundred nanometers, or a few hundred-thousandths of a centimeter, the pores in the membrane developed at U-M are 15-to-20 nanometers across. They are large enough to let individual lithium ions pass, but small enough to block the 20-to-50-nanometer tips of the fern-structures.

The researchers made the membrane by layering the fibers on top of each other in thin sheets. This method keeps the chain-like molecules in the plastic stretched out, which is important for good lithium-ion conductivity between the electrodes, Tung said.

“The special feature of this material is we can make it very thin, so we can get more energy into the same battery cell size, or we can shrink the cell size,” said Dan VanderLey, an engineer who helped found Elegus through U-M’s Master of Entrepreneurship program. “We’ve seen a lot of interest from people looking to make thinner products.”

Thirty companies have requested samples of the material.

Kevlar’s heat resistance could also lead to safer batteries as the membrane stands a better chance of surviving a fire than most membranes currently in use.

While the team is satisfied with the membrane’s ability to block the lithium dendrites, they are currently looking for ways to improve the flow of loose lithium ions so that batteries can charge and release their energy more quickly.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner fires, caused by lithium-ion batteries, these Boeing fires and others are mentioned in my May 29, 2013 post (Life-cycle assessment for electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries and nanotechnology is a risk analysis) scroll down about 50% of the way.

As for the research paper, here’s a link and a citation,

A dendrite-suppressing composite ion conductor from aramid nanofibres by Siu-On Tung, Szushen Ho, Ming Yang, Ruilin Zhang, & Nicholas A. Kotov. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6152 doi:10.1038/ncomms7152 Published 27 January 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

You can find out more about Elegus Technologies here.

A use for fullerenes—inside insulation plastic for high-voltage cables

A Jan. 27, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, describes research which suggests that there may a new use for buckminsterfullerenes (or what they’re calling ‘carbon nanoballs’),

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology [Sweden] have discovered that the insulation plastic used in high-voltage cables can withstand a 26 per cent higher voltage if nanometer-sized carbon balls are added. This could result in enormous efficiency gains in the power grids of the future, which are needed to achieve a sustainable energy system.

The renewable energy sources of tomorrow will often be found far away from the end user. Wind turbines, for example, are most effective when placed out at sea. Solar energy will have the greatest impact on the European energy system if focus is on transport of solar power from North Africa and Southern Europe to Northern Europe.

“Reducing energy losses during electric power transmission is one of the most important factors for the energy systems of the future,” says Chalmers researcher Christian Müller. “The other two are development of renewable energy sources and technologies for energy storage.”

The Jan. 27, 2015 Chalmers University of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert) by Johanna Wilde, which originated the news item, provides more information about the research,

Together with colleagues from Chalmers and the company Borealis in Stenungsund, he [Müller] has found a powerful method for reducing energy losses in alternating current cables.  The results were recently published in Advanced Materials, a highly ranked scientific journal.

The researchers have shown that different variants of the C60 carbon ball, a nanomaterial in the fullerene molecular group, provide strong protection against breakdown of the insulation plastic used in high-voltage cables. Today the voltage in the cables has to be limited to prevent the insulation layer from getting damaged. The higher the voltage the more electrons can leak out into the insulation material, a process which leads to breakdown.

It is sufficient to add very small amounts of fullerene to the insulation plastic for it to withstand a voltage that is 26 per cent higher, without the material breaking down, than the voltage that plastic without the additive can withstand.

“Being able to increase the voltage to this extent would result in enormous efficiency gains in power transmission all over the world,” says Christian Müller. “A major issue in the industry is how transmission efficiency can be improved without making the power cables thicker, since they are already very heavy and difficult to handle.”

Using additives to protect the insulation plastic has been a known concept since the 1970s, but until now it has been unknown exactly what and how much to add. Consequently, additives are currently not used at all for the purpose, and the insulation material is manufactured with the highest possible degree of chemical purity.

In recent years, other researchers have experimented with fullerenes in the electrically conductive parts of high-voltage cables. Until now, though, it has been unknown that the substance can be beneficial for the insulation material.

The Chalmers researchers have now demonstrated that fullerenes are the best voltage stabilizers identified for insulation plastic thus far. This means they have a hitherto unsurpassed ability to capture electrons and thus protect other molecules from being destroyed by the electrons.

To arrive at these findings, the researchers tested a number of molecules that are also used within organic solar cell research at Chalmers. The molecules were tested using several different methods, and were added to pieces of insulation plastic used for high-voltage cables. The pieces of plastic were then subjected to an increasing electric field until they crackled. Fullerenes turned out to be the type of additive that most effectively protects the insulation plastic.

The press release includes some facts about buckyballs or buckminsterfullerenes or fullerenes or C60 or carbon nanoballs, depending on what you want to call them,

 Facts: Carbon ball C60

  • The C60 carbon ball is also called buckminsterfullerene. It consists of 60 carbon atoms that are placed so that the molecule resembles a nanometer-sized football. C60 is included in the fullerene molecular class.
  • Fullerenes were discovered in 1985, which resulted in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. They have unique electronic qualities and have been regarded as very promising material for several applications. Thus far, however, there have been few industrial usage areas.
  • Fullerenes are one of the five forms of pure carbon that exist. The other four are graphite, graphene/carbon nanotubes, diamond and amorphous carbon, for example soot.

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

A New Application Area for Fullerenes: Voltage Stabilizers for Power Cable Insulation by Markus Jarvid, Anette Johansson, Renee Kroon, Jonas M. Bjuggren, Harald Wutzel, Villgot Englund, Stanislaw Gubanski, Mats R. Andersson, and Christian Müller. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201404306 Article first published online: 12 DEC 2014

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here’s an image of wind turbines, an example of equipment which could benefit greatly from better insulation.,

Images: Lina Bertling, Jan-Olof Yxell, Carolina Eek Jaworski, Anette Johansson, Markus Jarvid, Christian Müller

Images: Lina Bertling, Jan-Olof Yxell, Carolina Eek Jaworski, Anette Johansson, Markus Jarvid, Christian Müller

You can find this image and others by clicking on the Chalmers University press release link (assuming the page hasn’t been moved). You can find more information about Borealis (the company Müller is working with) here.

The perfect keyboard: it self-cleans and self-powers and it can identify its owner(s)

There’s a pretty nifty piece of technology being described in a Jan. 21, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, which focuses on the security aspects first (Note: A link has been removed),

In a novel twist in cybersecurity, scientists have developed a self-cleaning, self-powered smart keyboard that can identify computer users by the way they type. The device, reported in the journal ACS Nano (“Personalized Keystroke Dynamics for Self-Powered Human–Machine Interfacing”), could help prevent unauthorized users from gaining direct access to computers.

A Jan. 21, 2015 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, continues with the keyboard’s security features before briefly mentioning the keyboard’s self-powering and self-cleaning capabilities,

Zhong Lin Wang and colleagues note that password protection is one of the most common ways we control who can log onto our computers — and see the private information we entrust to them. But as many recent high-profile stories about hacking and fraud have demonstrated, passwords are themselves vulnerable to theft. So Wang’s team set out to find a more secure but still cost-effective and user-friendly approach to safeguarding what’s on our computers.

The researchers developed a smart keyboard that can sense typing patterns — including the pressure applied to keys and speed — that can accurately distinguish one individual user from another. So even if someone knows your password, he or she cannot access your computer because that person types in a different way than you would. It also can harness the energy generated from typing to either power itself or another small device. And the special surface coating repels dirt and grime. The scientists conclude that the keyboard could provide an additional layer of protection to boost the security of our computer systems.

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

Personalized Keystroke Dynamics for Self-Powered Human–Machine Interfacing by Jun Chen, Guang Zhu, Jin Yang, Qingshen Jing, Peng Bai, Weiqing Yang, Xuewei Qi, Yuanjie Su, and Zhong Lin Wang. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn506832w Publication Date (Web): December 30, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall. I did manage a peek at the paper and found that the keyboard is able to somehow harvest the mechanical energy of typing and turn it into electricity so it can self-power. Self-cleaning is made possible by a nanostructure surface modification. An idle thought and a final comment. First, I wonder what happens if you want to or have to share your keyboard? Second, a Jan. 21, 2015 article about the intelligent keyboard by Luke Dormehl for Fast Company notes that the researchers are from the US and China and names two of the institutions involved in this collaboration, Georgia Institute of Technology and the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems,.

ETA Jan. 23, 2015: There’s a Georgia Institute of Technology Jan. 21, 2015 news release on EurekAlert about the intelligent keyboard which offers more technical details such as these,

Conventional keyboards record when a keystroke makes a mechanical contact, indicating the press of a specific key. The intelligent keyboard records each letter touched, but also captures information about the amount of force applied to the key and the length of time between one keystroke and the next. Such typing style is unique to individuals, and so could provide a new biometric for securing computers from unauthorized use.

In addition to providing a small electrical current for registering the key presses, the new keyboard could also generate enough electricity to charge a small portable electronic device or power a transmitter to make the keyboard wireless.

An effect known as contact electrification generates current when the user’s fingertips touch a plastic material on which a layer of electrode material has been coated. Voltage is generated through the triboelectric and electrostatic induction effects. Using the triboelectric effect, a small charge can be produced whenever materials are brought into contact and then moved apart.

“Our skin is dielectric and we have electrostatic charges in our fingers,” Wang noted. “Anything we touch can become charged.”

Instead of individual mechanical keys as in traditional keyboards, Wang’s intelligent keyboard is made up of vertically-stacked transparent film materials. Researchers begin with a layer of polyethylene terephthalate between two layers of indium tin oxide (ITO) that form top and bottom electrodes.

Next, a layer of fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP) is applied onto the ITO surface to serve as an electrification layer that generates triboelectric charges when touched by fingertips. FEP nanowire arrays are formed on the exposed FEP surface through reactive ion etching.

The keyboard’s operation is based on coupling between contact electrification and electrostatic induction, rather than the traditional mechanical switching. When a finger contacts the FEP, charge is transferred at the contact interface, injecting electrons from the skin into the material and creating a positive charge.

When the finger moves away, the negative charges on the FEP side induces positive charges on the top electrode, and equal amounts of negative charges on the bottom electrode. Consecutive keystrokes produce a periodic electrical field that drives reciprocating flows of electrons between the electrodes. Though eventually dissipating, the charges remain on the FEP surface for an extended period of time.

Wang believes the new smart keyboard will be competitive with existing keyboards, in both cost and durability. The new device is based on inexpensive materials that are widely used in the electronics industry.

PlasCarb: producing graphene and renewable hydrogen from food waster

I have two tidbits about PlasCarb the first being an announcement of its existence and the second an announcement of its recently published research. A Jan. 13, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes the PlasCarb project (Note: A link has been removed),

The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is leading a European collaborative project that aims to transform food waste into a sustainable source of significant economic added value, namely graphene and renewable hydrogen.

The project titled PlasCarb will transform biogas generated by the anaerobic digestion of food waste using an innovative low energy microwave plasma process to split biogas (methane and carbon dioxide) into high value graphitic carbon and renewable hydrogen.

A Jan. 13, 2015 CPI press release, which originated the news item, describes the project and its organization in greater detail,

CPI  as the coordinator of the project is responsible for the technical aspects in the separation of biogas into methane and carbon dioxide, and separating of the graphitic carbon produced from the renewable hydrogen. The infrastructure at CPI allows for the microwave plasma process to be trialled and optimised at pilot production scale, with a future technology roadmap devised for commercial scale manufacturing.

Graphene is one of the most interesting inventions of modern times. Stronger than steel, yet light, the material conducts electricity and heat. It has been used for a wide variety of applications, from strengthening tennis rackets, spray on radiators, to building semiconductors, electric circuits and solar cells.

The sustainable creation of graphene and renewable hydrogen from food waste in provides a sustainable method towards dealing with food waste problem that the European Union faces. It is estimated that 90 million tonnes of food is wasted each year, a figure which could rise to approximately 126 million tonnes by 2020. In the UK alone, food waste equates to a financial loss to business of at least £5 billion per year.

Dr Keith Robson, Director of Formulation and Flexible Manufacturing at CPI said, “PlasCarb will provide an innovative solution to the problems associated with food waste, which is one of the biggest challenges that the European Union faces in the strive towards a low carbon economy.  The project will not only seek to reduce food waste but also use new technological methods to turn it into renewable energy resources which themselves are of economic value, and all within a sustainable manner.”

PlasCarb will utilise quality research and specialist industrial process engineering to optimise the quality and economic value of the Graphene and hydrogen, further enhancing the sustainability of the process life cycle.

Graphitic carbon has been identified as one of Europe’s economically critical raw materials and of strategic performance in the development of future emerging technologies. The global market for graphite, either mined or synthetic is worth over €10 billion per annum. Hydrogen is already used in significant quantities by industry and recognised with great potential as a future transport fuel for a low carbon economy. The ability to produce renewable hydrogen also has added benefits as currently 95% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. Moreover, it is currently projected that increasing demand of raw materials from fossil sources will lead to price volatility, accelerated environmental degradation and rising political tensions over resource access.

Therefore, the latter stages of the project will be dedicated to the market uptake of the PlasCarb process and the output products, through the development of an economically sustainable business strategy, a financial risk assessment of the project results and a flexible financial model that is able to act as a primary screen of economic viability. Based on this, an economic analysis of the process will be determined. Through the development of a decentralised business model for widespread trans-European implementation, the valorisation of food waste will have the potential to be undertaken for the benefit of local economies and employment. More specifically, three interrelated post project exploitation markets have been defined: food waste management, high value graphite and RH2 sales.

PlasCarb is a 3-year collaborative project, co-funded under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and will further reinforce Europe’s leading position in environmental technologies and innovation in high value Carbon. The consortium is composed of eight partners led by CPI from five European countries, whose complimentary research and industrial expertise will enable the required results to be successfully delivered. The project partners are; The Centre for Process Innovation (UK), GasPlas AS (NO), CNRS (FR), Fraunhofer IBP (DE), Uvasol Ltd (UK), GAP Waste Management (UK), Geonardo Ltd. (HU), Abalonyx AS (NO).

You can find PlasCarb here.

The second announcement can be found in a PlasCarb Jan. 14, 2015 press release announcing the publication of research on heterostructures of graphene ribbons,

Few materials have received as much attention from the scientific world or have raised so many hopes with a view to their potential deployment in new applications as graphene has. This is largely due to its superlative properties: it is the thinnest material in existence, almost transparent, the strongest, the stiffest and at the same time the most strechable, the best thermal conductor, the one with the highest intrinsic charge carrier mobility, plus many more fascinating features. Specifically, its electronic properties can vary enormously through its confinement inside nanostructured systems, for example. That is why ribbons or rows of graphene with nanometric widths are emerging as tremendously interesting electronic components. On the other hand, due to the great variability of electronic properties upon minimal changes in the structure of these nanoribbons, exact control on an atomic level is an indispensable requirement to make the most of all their potential.

The lithographic techniques used in conventional nanotechnology do not yet have such resolution and precision. In the year 2010, however, a way was found to synthesise nanoribbons with atomic precision by means of the so-called molecular self-assembly. Molecules designed for this purpose are deposited onto a surface in such a way that they react with each other and give rise to perfectly specified graphene nanoribbons by means of a highly reproducible process and without any other external mediation than heating to the required temperature. In 2013 a team of scientists from the University of Berkeley and the Centre for Materials Physics (CFM), a mixed CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) and UPV/EHU (University of the Basque Country) centre, extended this very concept to new molecules that were forming wider graphene nanoribbons and therefore with new electronic properties. This same group has now managed to go a step further by creating, through this self-assembly, heterostructures that blend segments of graphene nanoribbons of two different widths.

The forming of heterostructures with different materials has been a concept widely used in electronic engineering and has enabled huge advances to be made in conventional electronics. “We have now managed for the first time to form heterostructures of graphene nanoribbons modulating their width on a molecular level with atomic precision. What is more, their subsequent characterisation by means of scanning tunnelling microscopy and spectroscopy, complemented with first principles theoretical calculations, has shown that it gives rise to a system with very interesting electronic properties which include, for example, the creation of what are known as quantum wells,” pointed out the scientist Dimas de Oteyza, who has participated in this project. This work, the results of which are being published this very week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, therefore constitutes a significant success towards the desired deployment of graphene in commercial electronic applications.

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

Molecular bandgap engineering of bottom-up synthesized graphene nanoribbon heterojunctions by Yen-Chia Chen, Ting Cao, Chen Chen, Zahra Pedramrazi, Danny Haberer, Dimas G. de Oteyza, Felix R. Fischer, Steven G. Louie, & Michael F. Crommie. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.307 Published online 12 January 2015

This article is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available via ReadCube access.

A new approach to heating: warm the clothing not the room

A Jan. 7, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes a new type of textile which could change the way we use heat (energy),

To stay warm when temperatures drop outside, we heat our indoor spaces — even when no one is in them. But scientists have now developed a novel nanowire coating for clothes that can both generate heat and trap the heat from our bodies better than regular clothes. They report on their technology, which could help us reduce our reliance on conventional energy sources, in the ACS journal Nano Letters.

A Jan. 7, 2015 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about energy consumption and the researchers’ proposed solution,

Yi Cui [Stanford University] and colleagues note that nearly half of global energy consumption goes toward heating buildings and homes. But this comfort comes with a considerable environmental cost – it’s responsible for up to a third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists and policymakers have tried to reduce the impact of indoor heating by improving insulation and construction materials to keep fuel-generated warmth inside. Cui’s team wanted to take a different approach and focus on people rather than spaces.

The researchers developed lightweight, breathable mesh materials that are flexible enough to coat normal clothes. When compared to regular clothing material, the special nanowire cloth trapped body heat far more effectively. Because the coatings are made out of conductive materials, they can also be actively warmed with an electricity source to further crank up the heat. The researchers calculated that their thermal textiles could save about 1,000 kilowatt hours per person every year — that’s about how much electricity an average U.S. home consumes in one month.

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

Personal Thermal Management by Metallic Nanowire-Coated Textile by Po-Chun Hsu, Xiaoge Liu, Chong Liu, Xing Xie, Hye Ryoung Lee, Alex J. Welch, Tom Zhao, and Yi Cui. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nl5036572 Publication Date (Web): November 30, 2014
Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gold nanorod instabilities

A Dec. 8, 2014 news item on Nanowerk focuses on research from Australia,

Researchers at Swinburne University of Technology [Melbourne, Australia]  have discovered an instability in gold nanoparticles that is critical for their application in future technology.

Gold nanorods are important building blocks for future applications in solar cells, cancer therapy and optical circuitry.

However their stability is under question due to their peculiar reshaping behaviour below melting points.

A Dec. 8, 2014 Swinburne University of Technology press release, which originated the news item, discusses melting points and shape instabilities in the context of this research,

A solid normally does not change its shape unless it reaches its melting point, or surface melting points. It is also known that the melting point for nanoparticles is suppressed due to their size.

PhD student Adam Taylor (now a postdoctoral researcher at Swinburne) said it came as a surprise that reshaping is observed well below these melting points. Until now, no one could explain this peculiar behaviour.

“In our work, we have discovered both theoretically and experimentally that the reshaping mechanism for nanoparticles below melting point is surface atom diffusion, rather than melting,” Mr Taylor said.

Surface atom diffusion is a process involving the motion of molecules at solid material surfaces that can generally be thought of in terms of particles jumping between adjacent adsorption sites on a surface.

“Surface atom diffusion always existed in bulk solids, but this is the first evidence that its effect is enhanced at the nano-size, dominating over the traditional theory of melting,” Associate Professor James Chon, who is supervising Mr Taylor’s research, said.

Mr Taylor said the more finely nanoparticles are shaped, the less stable they become.

“This is important, for example, for solar panel manufacturers as the more needle-like these nanoparticles are shaped the less stable they become. If you put these particles into a solar panel to concentrate light they may not last long in the sun before they degrade,” Mr Taylor said.

“This discovery will be crucial for future applications of gold nanorods, as people will need to reconsider their stability when applying them to solar cells, cancer therapeutic agents and optical circuitry.”

The researchers have provided an illustration of their work,

Courtesy Swinburne University of Technology

Courtesy Swinburne University of Technology

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

Below Melting Point Photothermal Reshaping of Single Gold Nanorods Driven by Surface Diffusion by Adam B. Taylor, Arif M. Siddiquee, and James W. M. Chon. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn5055283 Publication Date (Web): November 18, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall but should you be in Australia and eligible to attend, there’s another opportunity to learn more; Taylor will be presenting his work at the Australian Institute of Physics conference on December 10, 2014 in Canberra.

Spray-on solar cells from the University of Toronto (Canada)

It’s been a while since there’s been a solar cell story from the University of Toronto (U of T) and I was starting to wonder if Ted (Edward) Sargent had moved to another educational institution. The drought has ended with the announcement of three research papers being published by researchers from Sargent’s U of T laboratory. From a Dec. 5, 2014 ScienceDaily news item,

Pretty soon, powering your tablet could be as simple as wrapping it in cling wrap.

That’s Illan Kramer’s … hope. Kramer and colleagues have just invented a new way to spray solar cells onto flexible surfaces using miniscule light-sensitive materials known as colloidal quantum dots (CQDs) — a major step toward making spray-on solar cells easy and cheap to manufacture.

A Dec. 4, 2014 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert) by Marit Mitchell, which originated the news item, gives a bit more detail about the technology (Note: Links have been removed),

 Solar-sensitive CQDs printed onto a flexible film could be used to coat all kinds of weirdly-shaped surfaces, from patio furniture to an airplane’s wing. A surface the size of a car roof wrapped with CQD-coated film would produce enough energy to power three 100-watt light bulbs – or 24 compact fluorescents.

He calls his system sprayLD, a play on the manufacturing process called ALD, short for atomic layer deposition, in which materials are laid down on a surface one atom-thickness at a time.

Until now, it was only possible to incorporate light-sensitive CQDs onto surfaces through batch processing – an inefficient, slow and expensive assembly-line approach to chemical coating. SprayLD blasts a liquid containing CQDs directly onto flexible surfaces, such as film or plastic, like printing a newspaper by applying ink onto a roll of paper. This roll-to-roll coating method makes incorporating solar cells into existing manufacturing processes much simpler. In two recent papers in the journals Advanced Materials and Applied Physics Letters, Kramer showed that the sprayLD method can be used on flexible materials without any major loss in solar-cell efficiency.

Kramer built his sprayLD device using parts that are readily available and rather affordable – he sourced a spray nozzle used in steel mills to cool steel with a fine mist of water, and a few regular air brushes from an art store.

“This is something you can build in a Junkyard Wars fashion, which is basically how we did it,” says Kramer. “We think of this as a no-compromise solution for shifting from batch processing to roll-to-roll.”

“As quantum dot solar technology advances rapidly in performance, it’s important to determine how to scale them and make this new class of solar technologies manufacturable,” said Professor Ted Sargent, vice-dean, research in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at University of Toronto and Kramer’s supervisor. “We were thrilled when this attractively-manufacturable spray-coating process also led to superior performance devices showing improved control and purity.”

In a third paper in the journal ACS Nano, Kramer and his colleagues used IBM’s BlueGeneQ supercomputer to model how and why the sprayed CQDs perform just as well as – and in some cases better than – their batch-processed counterparts. This work was supported by the IBM Canada Research and Development Centre, and by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

For those who would like to see the sprayLD device,

Here are links and citation for all three papers,

Efficient Spray-Coated Colloidal Quantum Dot Solar Cells by Illan J. Kramer, James C. Minor, Gabriel Moreno-Bautista, Lisa Rollny, Pongsakorn Kanjanaboos, Damir Kopilovic, Susanna M. Thon, Graham H. Carey, Kang Wei Chou, David Zhitomirsky, Aram Amassian, and Edward H. Sargent. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201403281 Article first published online: 10 NOV 2014

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

Colloidal quantum dot solar cells on curved and flexible substrates by Illan J. Kramer, Gabriel Moreno-Bautista, James C. Minor, Damir Kopilovic, and Edward H. Sargent. Appl. Phys. Lett. 105, 163902 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4898635 Published online 21 October 2014

© 2014 AIP Publishing LLC

Electronically Active Impurities in Colloidal Quantum Dot Solids by Graham H. Carey, Illan J. Kramer, Pongsakorn Kanjanaboos, Gabriel Moreno-Bautista, Oleksandr Voznyy, Lisa Rollny, Joel A. Tang, Sjoerd Hoogland, and Edward H. Sargent. ACS Nano, 2014, 8 (11), pp 11763–11769 DOI: 10.1021/nn505343e Publication Date (Web): November 6, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

All three papers are behind paywalls.

Given the publication dates for the papers, this looks like an attempt to get some previously announced research noticed by sending out a summary news release using a new ‘hook’ to get attention. I hope it works for them as it must be disheartening to have your research sink into obscurity because the announcements were issued during one or more busy news cycles.

One final note, if I understand the news release correctly, this work is still largely theoretical as there don’t seem to have been any field tests.