Category Archives: energy

US White House’s grand computing challenge could mean a boost for research into artificial intelligence and brains

An Oct. 20, 2015 posting by Lynn Bergeson on Nanotechnology Now announces a US White House challenge incorporating nanotechnology, computing, and brain research (Note: A link has been removed),

On October 20, 2015, the White House announced a grand challenge to develop transformational computing capabilities by combining innovations in multiple scientific disciplines. See The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) states that, after considering over 100 responses to its June 17, 2015, request for information, it “is excited to announce the following grand challenge that addresses three Administration priorities — the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), and the BRAIN initiative.” The grand challenge is to “[c]reate a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.”

Here’s where the Oct. 20, 2015 posting, which originated the news item, by Lloyd Whitman, Randy Bryant, and Tom Kalil for the US White House blog gets interesting,

 While it continues to be a national priority to advance conventional digital computing—which has been the engine of the information technology revolution—current technology falls far short of the human brain in terms of both the brain’s sensing and problem-solving abilities and its low power consumption. Many experts predict that fundamental physical limitations will prevent transistor technology from ever matching these twin characteristics. We are therefore challenging the nanotechnology and computer science communities to look beyond the decades-old approach to computing based on the Von Neumann architecture as implemented with transistor-based processors, and chart a new path that will continue the rapid pace of innovation beyond the next decade.

There are growing problems facing the Nation that the new computing capabilities envisioned in this challenge might address, from delivering individualized treatments for disease, to allowing advanced robots to work safely alongside people, to proactively identifying and blocking cyber intrusions. To meet this challenge, major breakthroughs are needed not only in the basic devices that store and process information and the amount of energy they require, but in the way a computer analyzes images, sounds, and patterns; interprets and learns from data; and identifies and solves problems. [emphases mine]

Many of these breakthroughs will require new kinds of nanoscale devices and materials integrated into three-dimensional systems and may take a decade or more to achieve. These nanotechnology innovations will have to be developed in close coordination with new computer architectures, and will likely be informed by our growing understanding of the brain—a remarkable, fault-tolerant system that consumes less power than an incandescent light bulb.

Recent progress in developing novel, low-power methods of sensing and computation—including neuromorphic, magneto-electronic, and analog systems—combined with dramatic advances in neuroscience and cognitive sciences, lead us to believe that this ambitious challenge is now within our reach. …

This is the first time I’ve come across anything that publicly links the BRAIN initiative to computing, artificial intelligence, and artificial brains. (For my own sake, I make an arbitrary distinction between algorithms [artificial intelligence] and devices that simulate neural plasticity [artificial brains].)The emphasis in the past has always been on new strategies for dealing with Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases and conditions.

A trio of nano news items from Japan (Irago Conference 2015, novel tuneable metallofullerenes, and nanoislands and skeletal skin for fuel cells)

Getting onto a list for news releases from Japan has been a boon. I don’t know how it happened but now I can better keep up with the nanotechnology effort in the country where the term was first coined (Norio Taniguchi) and which is a research leader in this field.

Irago Conference

This is a very intriguing conference, from a joint Oct. 18, 2015 Toyohashi University of Technology and University of Electro-Communications press release,

Organized by the Toyohashi University of Technology and University of Electro-Communications, Tokyo, the Irago Conference aims to enhance mutual understanding between scientists, engineers, policy makers, and experts from a wide spectrum of pure and applied sciences in order to resolve major global issues.

The Irago Conference 2015 is a unique conference combining thought provoking insights into global issues including disaster mitigation, neuroscience, public health monitoring, and nanotechnology [emphasis mine] by internationally renowned invited speakers with selected talks, posters, and demonstrations from academics, industrialists, and think tanks. The conference is truly a ‘360 degree outlook on critical scientific and technological challenges’ facing mankind.

Recent changes in global economics and industrial priorities, environmental and energy policies, food production and population movements have produced formidable challenges that must be addressed for sustaining life on earth.

The Irago Conference will highlight the major issues by bringing together experts from across the world who will give their views on key areas such as energy and natural resources, medicine and public health, disaster prevention and management, as well as other advances in science, technology and life sciences.

Observation, measurement, and monitoring are the keywords of the core topics covered at Irago 2015 with invited speakers Professor Masashi Hayakawa (University of Electro-Communications, Japan) presenting his pioneering research on “Earthquake prediction with electromagnetic phenomena, and Nobuhiko Okabe  (Kawasaki City Institute for Public Health, Japan) discussing “The role and contribution of Kawasaki City Institute for Public Health (Local Public Health Laboratory), locally and globally” with first hand examples of monitoring food safety and the spread of possible diseases carried by insects.

The Irago Conference will be streamed live. Visit the conference website for the links to the streaming site.

When: Thursday, 22 October 2015 to Friday 23  October 2015.

Where: Irago Sea-Park & Spa Hotel, Tahara, Aichi, Japan

They don’t appear to have set up the streaming link yet.

Tuneable metallofullerenes

Originally issued as a Sept. 21, 2015 press release, the University of Electro-Communications has issued an Oct. 19, 2015 version,

Tiny nanoscale molecules in the form of spherical carbon cages, or ‘fullerenes’, have received considerable attention in recent years. Individual or small groups of atoms can be trapped inside fullerenes, creating stable molecules with unique electronic structures and unusual properties that can be exploited in the field of nanomaterials and biomedical science.

Endohedral metallofullerenes (EMFs) are one such class of molecules, in which one or more metal atoms are encapsulated inside many kinds of carbon cages. Crucially, the metal atom(s) are not chemically bonded with the carbon surrounds, but they do donate electrons to the carbon cage. Scientists have recently begun to understand how to control the movement, behavior and positioning of the enclosed atoms by adding other atoms, such as silicon or germanium (in their silyl or germyl groups), to the fullerene surface. This allows for the manipulation and fine-tuning of the EMF’s properties.

Now, Masahiro Kako and co-workers at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, together with scientists across Japan and the USA, have created and analyzed the effects of silylation and germylation on an EMF called Lu3N@Ih-C80 (three lutetium atoms bonded to a nitrogen atom encased inside a carbon 80 cage).

Using X-ray crystallography, electrochemical analyses and theoretical calculations, the team discovered that adding silyl groups or germyl groups to the fullerene structure was a versatile way of controlling the EMF’s electronic properties. The exact positioning of the silyl or germyl groups in bonding to the carbon structure determined the energy gaps present in the EMF, and determined the orientation of the bonded metal atoms inside the cage.

The germyl groups donated more electrons and the process worked slightly more efficiently than the silyl groups, but Kako and his team believe that both provide an effective way of fine-tuning EMF electronic characteristics.


A brief history of fullerenes

Fullerenes are carbon molecules that take the shape of spheres. The most famous and abundant fullerene is the buckminsterfullerene, or ‘buckyball’, C60, which resembles a soccer ball in shape with a bonded carbon atom at each point of every polygon.

Endohedral metallofullerenes, or EMFs, are created by trapping a metal atom or atoms inside a fullerene cage, rather like a hamster in a ball. The trapped atom(s) are not chemically-bonded to the carbon, but they do interact with it by donating electrons, thus creating unique and very useful molecules for nanomaterial science and biomedicine.

Silylation and germylation

The addition of other atoms to fullerene surfaces can affect EMF properties, by regulating the behavior of the metal atoms inside the fullerene cage. In one EMF, the movement of lanthanum atoms is restricted to two dimensions by the addition of silyl groups to the carbon cage. This alters the electrostatic potentials inside the cage and restricts the lanthanum atoms’ mobility, and thus changes the overall properties of the whole molecule.

This study by Masahiro Kako and co-workers further enhances understanding of the effects of silylation and germalytion (the addition of silicon-based and germanium-based groups) on lutetium-based EMFs. The team have shown that the exact positioning of the additional atoms in the carbon structure can influence the energy gaps across the molecule, thereby allowing them to tune the electronic properties of the EMF. This ability to ‘fine-tune’ EMFs could have some applications for functional materials in molecular electronics, such as acceptors in organic photovoltaic devices.

Further work

Kako and his team hope to carry out further investigations into the addition of alternative groups of atoms to fullerenes, to add to the tuning properties of silicon- and germanium-based groups. This could expand on the versatility of EMFs and their potential applications in future.

Fullerenes don’t get that much attention these days when compared to graphene and carbon nanotubes although there seems to be increasing interest in their potential as cages.

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

Preparation, Structural Determination, and Characterization of Electronic Properties of Bis-Silylated and Bis-Germylated Lu3N@Ih-C80 by Prof. Dr. Masahiro Kako, Kyosuke Miyabe, Dr. Kumiko Sato, Dr. Mitsuaki Suzuki, Dr. Naomi Mizorogi, Dr. Wei-Wei Wang, Prof. Dr. Michio Yamada, Prof. Dr. Yutaka Maeda, Prof. Dr. Marilyn M. Olmstead, Prof. Dr. Alan L. Balch, Prof. Dr. Shigeru Nagase, and Prof. Dr. Takeshi Akasaka. Chemistry – A European Journal DOI: 10.1002/chem.201503579 Article first published online: 21 SEP 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

Nanoislands and skeletal skin for fuel cells

This final item concerns a platinum ‘skin’. From an Oct. 21, 2015 University of Electro-Communications press release,

Polymer electrolyte fuel cells (PEFC) could provide an alternative to traditional fossil fuel power, but higher performance and durability under harsh conditions are needed before PEFC vehicles can be considered commercially viable. Now researchers at the University of Electro-Communications, the University of Tokushima and Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute in Japan have synthesised catalysts from platinum cobalt (PtCo3) nanoparticles on carbon (C) with tin oxide (SnO2) nanoislands and shown that they perform better than any previously reported.

Fuel cell research has focused on platinum alloys and transition metal oxides to improve on the durability and catalytic performance of platinum on carbon. Previous work with SnO2 islands grown on platinum tin alloy with carbon had already shown some improvement in the oxygen reduction reactions that occur in fuel cells. However growing islands of only SnO2 on other alloys posed a challenge.

Now Yasuhiro Iwasawa at the University of Electro-Communications and his colleagues have grown SnO2 islands on Pt3Co nanoparticles on carbon (Pt3Co/C) by selective electrochemical deposition of tin metal, which is then oxidized. The addition of the SnO2 nanoislands doubled the catalytic performance of the Pt3Co/C catalysts. In addition they were undamaged after undergoing 5000 cycles of voltage changes to test their durability.

The structure the Pt3Co nanoparticles form has a Pt3Co core surrounded by a platinum skin that has a rough – “skeleton” – morphology. The researchers attribute the high catalytic performance in part to efficient electronic modification specifically at the platinum skin surface, and in particular to the unique property of the SnO2 nanoislands at the compressive platinum skeleton-skin surface.

“In general, adhesion of transition metal oxides on carbon induces depression of the electrical conductivity of the carbon,” explain the researchers in their report. “Hence, the selective nano-SnO2 decoration on the Pt-enriched-surface nanoparticles provides a significant advantage as a cathode catalyst.”


Polymer electrolyte fuel cells

Polymer electrolyte fuel cells consist of two porous polymer membranes. On one side hydrogen gas molecules give up electrons and on the other oxygen gas molecules accept electrons completing a current circuit.  The ions can then penetrate the membrane and combine to form water.

Polymer electrolyte fuel cells have several advantages over conventional fuel as they do not deplete the limited supplies of fossil fuels, and the waste products are water and heat, and therefore relatively non-polluting. The efficiency of fuel cells has already highlighted their potential for powering small vehicles.


The formation of hydrogen and oxygen ions from the gas molecules are referred to as redox reactions from the term ‘reduction’ and ‘oxidation’. In fuel cells neutral oxygen molecules are reduced to negatively charge oxygen ions with a charge of -2. The oxidation number is thus ‘reduced’ from 0 to -2. In contrast, ionisation of hydrogen molecules to positively charge hydrogen ions (that is single protons) increases the oxygen number by one – ‘oxidation’.

Catalysts are used to increase the efficiency of the redox reactions in fuel cells to improve the power and current density. The efficiency of the catalysts is measured in terms of the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) activity.

Improving ORR

The researchers measured the potential difference required for other reactions in the presence of their catalyst to determine how the additional SnO2 islands improved the ORR. Their observations suggest that strain at the nanoislands on the Pt3Co nanoparticles modifies the electronic structure so that the centre of the electron d band is decreased. This decreases oxygen adsorption and improves the performance of the catalyst. In addition there is an increase in the proton affinity of the platinum near the nanoislands, which significantly enhances the ORR further still.

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

Surface-Regulated Nano-SnO2/Pt3Co/C Cathode Catalysts for Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cells Fabricated by a Selective Electrochemical Sn Deposition Method by Kensaku Nagasawa, Shinobu Takao, Shin-ichi Nagamatsu, Gabor Samjeské, Oki Sekizawa, Takuma Kaneko, Kotaro Higashi, Takashi Yamamoto, Tomoya Uruga†, and Yasuhiro Iwasawa. J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2015, 137 (40), pp 12856–12864 DOI: 10.1021/jacs.5b04256 Publication Date (Web): September 27, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Water evaporation at the nanoscale

An Oct. 16, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily highlights an algorithm designed to simulate water evaporation at the nanoscale,

We are all familiar with boiling a pot of water–flame from a stove heats the base of a metal pot, the metal transfers the heat to the water, and the temperature goes up and up until the water boils. Professor Shalabh Maroo and graduate student Sumith YD are looking closer — much closer. They are looking at heat transfer in water at the nanoscale, where the heat from the pot’s atoms transfers to the atoms that make up water.

An Oct. 16, 2015 Syracuse University news release on EurkeAlert, which originated the news item, provides more insight into what occurs at the nanoscale,

The evaporation of water that occurs when it meets a hot surface is understood in continuum theory and in experimentation. Before now, researchers were unable to study it at nanoscales in molecular simulation. YD and Maroo’s algorithm has made that possible, and their paper, “Surface-Heating Algorithm for Water at Nanoscale,” has garnished notable attention in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.

Within their paper, the pair details their development of a new algorithm that simulates the evaporation of water at the molecular scale that matches theoretical, numerical, and real-world observations. In doing so, the team has provided a molecular dynamics tool that allows for the study of various heat transfer problems at the nanoscale, including understanding and utilizing passive liquid flows.

“By capturing realistic differential thermal gradients in water heated at the surface, our algorithm can be an incredibly valuable tool for studying a range of heating and cooling problems. It’s also simple enough to be easily integrated into various molecular simulation software and user codes,” describes Maroo.

This research is part of Maroo’s CAREER award research, in which he is investigating the fundamental physics associated with nanoscale meniscus evaporation and passive liquid flow to remove large amounts of heat from small surfaces in very short amounts of time. This work aims to provide rapid and efficient cooling of next-generation computer chips and energy conversion devices.

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

Surface-Heating Algorithm for Water at Nanoscale by Sumith YD and Shalabh C. Maroo. J. Phys. Chem. Lett., 2015, 6 (18), pp 3765–3769 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.5b01627
Publication Date (Web): September 3, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Light emitting diodes (LEDs) from food and beverage waste

It’s exciting to think that with emerging technologies we’ll be able to make use of waste products rather than sending them off to fill up garbage dumps. An Oct. 13, 2015 news item on Nanowerk highlights some research where food and beverage waste products could be used to produce light emitting diodes (LEDs),

Most Christmas lights, DVD players, televisions and flashlights have one thing in common: they’re made with light emitting diodes (LEDs). LEDs are widely used for a variety of applications and have been a popular, more efficient alternative to fluorescent and incandescent bulbs for the past few decades. Two University of Utah researchers have now found a way to create LEDs from food and beverage waste. In addition to utilizing food and beverage waste that would otherwise decompose and be of no use, this development can also reduce potentially harmful waste from LEDs generally made from toxic elements.

An Oct. 13, 2015 University of Utah news release, which originated the news item, describes some of the issues with our current LEDs and how the researchers went about synthesizing the waste for reuse,

LEDs can be produced by using quantum dots, or tiny crystals that have luminescent properties, to produce light. Quantum dots (QDs) can be made with numerous materials, some of which are rare and expensive to synthesize, and even potentially harmful to dispose of. Some research over the past 10 years has focused on using carbon dots (CDs), or simply QDs made of carbon, to create LEDs instead.

Compared to other types of quantum dots, CDs have lower toxicity and better biocompatibility, meaning they can be used in a broader variety of applications.

U Metallurgical Engineering Research Assistant Professor Prashant Sarswat and Professor Michael Free, over the past year and a half, have successfully turned food waste such as discarded pieces of tortilla into CDs, and subsequently, LEDs.

From bread to bulb

To synthesize waste into CDs, Sarswat and Free employed a solvothermal synthesis, or one in which the waste was placed into a solvent under pressure and high temperature until CDs were formed. In this experiment, the researchers used soft drinks and pieces of bread and tortilla.

The food and beverage waste were each placed in a solvent and heated both directly and indirectly for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes.

After successfully finding traces of CDs from the synthesis, Sarswat and Free proceeded to illuminate the CDs to monitor their formation and color.

The pair also employed four other tests, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, Raman and AFM [atomic force microscopy] imaging to determine the CDs’ various optical and material properties.

“Synthesizing and characterizing CDs derived from waste is a very challenging task. We essentially have to determine the size of dots which are only 20 nanometers or smaller in diameter, so we have to run multiple tests to be sure CDs are present and to determine what optical properties they possess,” said Sarswat.

For comparison, a human hair is around 75,000 nanometers in diameter.

The various tests Sarswat and Free ran first measured the size of the CDs, which correlates with the intensity of the dots’ color and brightness. The tests then determined which carbon source produced the best CDs. For example, sucrose and D-fructose dissolved in soft drinks were found to be the most effective sources for production of CDs.

An environmentally sustainable alternative

Currently, one of the most common sources of QDs is cadmium selenide, a compound comprised of a two toxic elements. The ability to create QDs in the form of CDs from food and beverage waste would eliminate the need for concern over toxic waste, as the food and beverages themselves are not toxic.

“QDs derived from food and beverage waste are not based on common toxic elements such as cadmium and selenium, which makes their processing and disposal more environmentally friendly than it is for most other QDs.  In addition, the use of food and beverage waste as the starting material for QDs allows for reduced waste and cost to produce a useful material,” said Free.

In addition to being toxic when broken down, cadmium selenide is also expensive—one website listed a price of $529 for 25 ml of the compound.

“With food and beverage waste that are already there, our starting material is much less expensive. In fact, it’s essentially free,” said Sarswat.

According to a report from the US Department of Agriculture, roughly 31% of food produced in 2014 was not available for human consumption. To be able to use this waste for creating LEDs which are widely used in a number of technologies would be an environmentally sustainable approach.

Looking forward, Sarswat and Free hope to continue studying the LEDs produced from food and beverage waste for stability and long term performance.

“The ultimate goal is to do this on a mass scale and to use these LEDs in everyday devices. To successfully make use of waste that already exists, that’s the end goal,” said Sarswat.

Finally, the CDs were suspended in epoxy resins, heated and hardened to solidify the CDs for practical use in LEDs.

The researchers have made an image of the luminescent carbon dots available,

PHOTO CREDIT: Prashant Sarswat The luminescence of carbon dots can be seen when irradiated with UV light.

PHOTO CREDIT: Prashant Sarswat The luminescence of carbon dots can be seen when irradiated with UV light.

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

Light emitting diodes based on carbon dots derived from food, beverage, and combustion wastes by Prashant K. Sarswat and Michael L. Free. Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2015,17, 27642-27652 DOI: 10.1039/C5CP04782J First published online 01 Oct 2015

This paper appears to be behind a paywall. One final note, despite the paper’s title there doesn’t seem to be any mention of combustion waste in the news release which is a bit puzzling.

Smart windows need anti-aging treatments

I’ve long been interested in electrochromic windows and this is the first I’ve heard of a problem with limited lifespans. Here’s more from an Oct. 1, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Electrochromic windows, so-called ‘smart windows’, share a well-known problem with rechargeable batteries – their limited lifespan. Researchers at Uppsala University [Sweden] have now worked out an entirely new way to rejuvenate smart windows which have started to show signs of age. The study, published in Nature Materials (“Eliminating degradation and uncovering ion-trapping dynamics in electrochromic WO3 thin films”), may open the way to other areas of application.

An Oct. 1, 2015 Uppsala University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the new item, describes previous work on electrochromic windows to provide context for the current research,

The electrochromic smart windows are controlled electrically. This kind of window is the result of research carried out at Uppsala University. Commercial production has recently been started by the company ChromoGenics AB.

The electrochromic smart window is made up of a series of thin layers on top of each other. The most important of these are two layers of tungsten oxide and nickel oxide, both about a third of a micrometer thick. They are separated by an electrolyte layer. The window’s opacity to visible light and solar energy varies when an electrical current flows between the oxide layers.

“The principle is the same as for an electric battery. Here the tungsten-oxide is the cathode and the nickel-oxide the anode. Opacity depends on how much the ‘battery’ is charged,” says Rui-Tao Wen, a doctoral student who carried out the study as part of his thesis.

The lifespan of both electric batteries and electrochromic smart windows is a well-known problem. They need to work after being charged and discharged many times if they are to be really profitable.

In the study, the researchers show that an electrochromic tungsten oxide layer which has been charged and discharged many times and has started to lose its capacity can be restored to its former high capacity. This is achieved by running a weak electric current through it while it is in light mode. This takes about an hour. In this way, the electric charge which has ‘fastened’ in the material is removed and the tungsten oxide layer is like new again.

“This is a new way to rejuvenate smart windows so that they last much longer. And the same principle might perhaps be used for electric batteries,” says Claes-Göran Granqvist, senior professor at the Ångström Laboratory, Uppsala University and one of the authors of the study.

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

Eliminating degradation and uncovering ion-trapping dynamics in electrochromic WO3 thin films by Rui-Tao Wen, Claes G. Granqvist, & Gunnar A. Niklasson. Nature Materials 14, 996–1001 (2015) doi:10.1038/nmat4368 Published online 10 August 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cellulose nanocrystals and supercapacitors at McMaster University (Canada)

Photos: Xuan Yang and Kevin Yager.

Photos: Xuan Yang and Kevin Yager. Courtesy McMaster University

I love that featherlike structure holding up a tiny block of something while balanced on what appears to be a series of medallions. What it has to do with supercapacitors (energy storage) and cellulose nanocrystals is a mystery but that’s one of the images you’ll find illustrating an Oct. 7, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now featuring research at McMaster University,

McMaster Engineering researchers Emily Cranston and Igor Zhitomirsky are turning trees into energy storage devices capable of powering everything from a smart watch to a hybrid car.

The scientists are using cellulose, an organic compound found in plants, bacteria, algae and trees, to build more efficient and longer-lasting energy storage devices or supercapacitors. This development paves the way toward the production of lightweight, flexible, and high-power electronics, such as wearable devices, portable power supplies and hybrid and electric vehicles.

A Sept. 10, 2015 McMaster University news release, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Cellulose offers the advantages of high strength and flexibility for many advanced applications; of particular interest are nanocellulose-based materials. The work by Cranston, an assistant chemical engineering professor, and Zhitomirsky, a materials science and engineering professor, demonstrates an improved three-dimensional energy storage device constructed by trapping functional nanoparticles within the walls of a nanocellulose foam.

The foam is made in a simplified and fast one-step process. The type of nanocellulose used is called cellulose nanocrystals and looks like uncooked long-grain rice but with nanometer-dimensions. In these new devices, the ‘rice grains’ have been glued together at random points forming a mesh-like structure with lots of open space, hence the extremely lightweight nature of the material. This can be used to produce more sustainable capacitor devices with higher power density and faster charging abilities compared to rechargeable batteries.

Lightweight and high-power density capacitors are of particular interest for the development of hybrid and electric vehicles. The fast-charging devices allow for significant energy saving, because they can accumulate energy during braking and release it during acceleration.

For anyone interested in a more detailed description of supercapacitors, there’s my favourite one which involves Captain America’s shield along with some serious science in my April 28, 2014 posting.

Getting back to the research at McMaster, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Cellulose Nanocrystal Aerogels as Universal 3D Lightweight Substrates for Supercapacitor Materials by Xuan Yang, Kaiyuan Shi, Igor Zhitomirsky, and Emily D. Cranston. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201502284View/save citation First published online 2 September 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final bit, cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) are sometimes referred to as nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC).

Commercializing nanotechnology: Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs and Argonne National Laboratories

Breakout Labs

I last wrote about entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs project in an Oct. 26, 2011 posting announcing its inception. An Oct. 6, 2015 Breakout Labs news release (received in my email) highlights a funding announcement for four startups of which at least three are nanotechnology-enabled,

Breakout Labs, a program of Peter Thiel’s philanthropic organization, the Thiel Foundation, announced today that four new companies advancing scientific discoveries in biomedical, chemical engineering, and nanotechnology have been selected for funding.

“We’re always hearing about bold new scientific research that promises to transform the world, but far too often the latest discoveries are left withering in a lab,” said Lindy Fishburne, Executive Director of Breakout Labs. “Our mission is to help a new type of scientist-entrepreneur navigate the startup ecosystem and build lasting companies that can make audacious scientific discoveries meaningful to everyday life. The four new companies joining the Breakout Labs portfolio – nanoGriptech, Maxterial, C2Sense, and CyteGen – embody that spirit and we’re excited to be working with them to help make their vision a reality.”

The future of adhesives: inspired by geckos

Inspired by the gecko’s ability to scuttle up walls and across ceilings due to their millions of micro/nano foot-hairs,nanoGriptech (, based in Pittsburgh, Pa., is developing a new kind of microfiber adhesive material that is strong, lightweight, and reusable without requiring glues or producing harmful residues. Currently being tested by the U.S. military, NASA, and top global brands, nanoGriptech’s flagship product Setex™ is the first adhesive product of its kind that is not only strong and durable, but can also be manufactured at low cost, and at scale.

“We envision a future filled with no-leak biohazard enclosures, ergonomic and inexpensive car seats, extremely durable aerospace adhesives, comfortable prosthetic liners, high performance athletic wear, and widely available nanotechnology-enabled products manufactured less expensively — all thanks to the grippy little gecko,” said Roi Ben-Itzhak, CFO and VP of Business Development for nanoGriptech.

A sense of smell for the digital world

Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent goals to drastically reduce food waste, most consumers don’t realize the global problem created by 1.3 billion metric tons of food wasted each year — clogging landfills and releasing unsustainable levels of methane gas into the atmosphere. Using technology developed at MIT’s Swager lab, Cambridge, Ma.-based C2Sense( is developing inexpensive, lightweight hand-held sensors based on carbon nanotubes which can detect fruit ripeness and meat, fish and poultry freshness. Smaller than a half of a business card, these sensors can be developed at very low cost, require very little power to operate, and can be easily integrated into most agricultural supply chains, including food storage packaging, to ensure that food is picked, stored, shipped, and sold at optimal freshness.

“Our mission is to bring a sense of smell to the digital world. With our technology, that package of steaks in your refrigerator will tell you when it’s about to go bad, recommend some recipe options and help build out your shopping list,” said Jan Schnorr, Chief Technology Officer of C2Sense.

Amazing metals that completely repel water

MaxterialTM, Inc. develops amazing materials that resist a variety of detrimental environmental effects through technology that emulates similar strategies found in nature, such as the self-cleaning lotus leaf and antifouling properties of crabs. By modifying the surface shape or texture of a metal, through a method that is very affordable and easy to introduce into the existing manufacturing process, Maxterial introduces a microlayer of air pockets that reduce contact surface area. The underlying material can be chemically the same as ever, retaining inherent properties like thermal and electrical conductivity. But through Maxterial’s technology, the metallic surface also becomes inherently water repellant. This property introduces the superhydrophobic maxterial as a potential solution to a myriad of problems, such as corrosion, biofouling, and ice formation. Maxterial is currently focused on developing durable hygienic and eco-friendly anti-corrosion coatings for metallic surfaces.

“Our process has the potential to create metallic objects that retain their amazing properties for the lifetime of the object – this isn’t an aftermarket coating that can wear or chip off,” said Mehdi Kargar, Co-founder and CEO of Maxterial, Inc. “We are working towards a day when shipping equipment can withstand harsh arctic environments, offshore structures can resist corrosion, and electronics can be fully submersible and continue working as good as new.”

New approaches to combat aging

CyteGen ( wants to dramatically increase the human healthspan, tackle neurodegenerative diseases, and reverse age-related decline. What makes this possible now is new discovery tools backed by the dream team of interdisciplinary experts the company has assembled. CyteGen’s approach is unusually collaborative, tapping into the resources and expertise of world-renowned researchers across eight major universities to focus different strengths and perspectives to achieve the company’s goals. By approaching aging from a holistic, systematic point of view, rather than focusing solely on discrete definitions of disease, they have developed a new way to think about aging, and to develop treatments that can help people live longer, healthier lives.

“There is an assumption that aging necessarily brings the kind of physical and mental decline that results in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases. Evidence indicates otherwise, which is what spurred us to launch CyteGen,” said George Ugras, Co-Founder and President of CyteGen.

To date, Breakout Labs has invested in more than two dozen companies at the forefront of science, helping radical technologies get beyond common hurdles faced by early stage companies, and advance research and development to market much more quickly. Portfolio companies have raised more than six times the amount of capital invested in the program by the Thiel Foundation, and represent six Series A valuations ranging from $10 million to $60 million as well as one acquisition.

You can see the original Oct. 6, 2015 Breakout Labs news release here or in this Oct. 7, 2015 news item on Azonano.

Argonne National Labs and Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS)

The US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory’s Oct. 6, 2015 press release by Greg Cunningham announced two initiatives meant to speed commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled products for the energy storage and other sectors,

Few technologies hold more potential to positively transform our society than energy storage and nanotechnology. Advances in energy storage research will revolutionize the way the world generates and stores energy, democratizing the delivery of electricity. Grid-level storage can help reduce carbon emissions through the increased adoption of renewable energy and use of electric vehicles while helping bring electricity to developing parts of the world. Nanotechnology has already transformed the electronics industry and is bringing a new set of powerful tools and materials to developers who are changing everything from the way energy is generated, stored and transported to how medicines are delivered and the way chemicals are produced through novel catalytic nanomaterials.

Recognizing the power of these technologies and seeking to accelerate their impact, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has created two new collaborative centers that provide an innovative pathway for business and industry to access Argonne’s unparalleled scientific resources to address the nation’s energy and national security needs. These centers will help speed discoveries to market to ensure U.S. industry maintains a lead in this global technology race.

“This is an exciting time for us, because we believe this new approach to interacting with business can be a real game changer in two areas of research that are of great importance to Argonne and the world,” said Argonne Director Peter B. Littlewood. “We recognize that delivering to market our breakthrough science in energy storage and nanotechnology can help ensure our work brings the maximum benefit to society.”

Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS) will provide central points of contact for companies — ranging from large industrial entities to smaller businesses and startups, as well as government agencies — to benefit from Argonne’s world-class expertise, scientific tools and facilities.

NDW and ACCESS represent a new way to collaborate at Argonne, providing a single point of contact for businesses to assemble tailored interdisciplinary teams to address their most challenging R&D questions. The centers will also provide a pathway to Argonne’s fundamental research that is poised for development into practical products. The chance to build on existing scientific discovery is a unique opportunity for businesses in the nano and energy storage fields.

The center directors, Andreas Roelofs of NDW and Jeff Chamberlain of ACCESS, have both created startups in their careers and understand the value that collaboration with a national laboratory can bring to a company trying to innovate in technologically challenging fields of science. While the new centers will work with all sizes of companies, a strong emphasis will be placed on helping small businesses and startups, which are drivers of job creation and receive a large portion of the risk capital in this country.

“For a startup like mine to have the ability to tap the resources of a place like Argonne would have been immensely helpful,” said Roelofs. “We”ve seen the power of that sort of access, and we want to make it available to the companies that need it to drive truly transformative technologies to market.”

Chamberlain said his experience as an energy storage researcher and entrepreneur led him to look for innovative approaches to leveraging the best aspects of private industry and public science. The national laboratory system has a long history of breakthrough science that has worked its way to market, but shortening that journey from basic research to product has become a growing point of emphasis for the national laboratories over the past couple of decades. The idea behind ACCESS and NDW is to make that collaboration even easier and more powerful.

“Where ACCESS and NDW will differ from the conventional approach is through creating an efficient way for a business to build a customized, multi-disciplinary team that can address anything from small technical questions to broad challenges that require massive resources,” Chamberlain said. “That might mean assembling a team with chemists, physicists, computer scientists, materials engineers, imaging experts, or mechanical and electrical engineers; the list goes on and on. It’s that ability to tap the full spectrum of cross-cutting expertise at Argonne that will really make the difference.”

Chamberlain is deeply familiar with the potential of energy storage as a transformational technology, having led the formation of Argonne’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). The center’s years-long quest to discover technologies beyond lithium-ion batteries has solidified the laboratory’s reputation as one of the key global players in battery research. ACCESS will tap Argonne’s full battery expertise, which extends well beyond JCESR and is dedicated to fulfilling the promise of energy storage.

Energy storage research has profound implications for energy security and national security. Chamberlain points out that approximately 1.3 billion people across the globe do not have access to electricity, with another billion having only sporadic access. Energy storage, coupled with renewable generation like solar, could solve that problem and eliminate the need to build out massive power grids. Batteries also have the potential to create a more secure, stable grid for countries with existing power systems and help fight global climate disruption through adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Argonne researchers are pursuing hundreds of projects in nanoscience, but some of the more notable include research into targeted drugs that affect only cancerous cells; magnetic nanofibers that can be used to create more powerful and efficient electric motors and generators; and highly efficient water filtration systems that can dramatically reduce the energy requirements for desalination or cleanup of oil spills. Other researchers are working with nanoparticles that create a super-lubricated state and other very-low friction coatings.

“When you think that 30 percent of a car engine’s power is sacrificed to frictional loss, you start to get an idea of the potential of these technologies,” Roelofs said. “But it’s not just about the ideas already at Argonne that can be brought to market, it’s also about the challenges for businesses that need Argonne-level resources. I”m convinced there are many startups out there working on transformational ideas that can greatly benefit from the help of a place Argonne to bring those ideas to fruition. That is what has me excited about ACCESS and NDW.”

For more information on ACCESS, see:

For more information on NDW, see:

You can read more about the announcement in an Oct. 6, 2015 article by Greg Watry for R&D magazine featuring an interview with Andreas Roelofs.

Anyone have a spare portabella (also known as, portobello) mushroom? I need for my phone

Scientists as the University of California at Riverside (UCR) have developed a type of lithium-ion battery with portabella mushrooms, from a Sept. 29, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Can portabella mushrooms stop cell phone batteries from degrading over time?

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside Bourns College of Engineering think so.

They have created a new type of lithium-ion battery anode using portabella mushrooms, which are inexpensive, environmentally friendly and easy to produce. The current industry standard for rechargeable lithium-ion battery anodes is synthetic graphite, which comes with a high cost of manufacturing because it requires tedious purification and preparation processes that are also harmful to the environment.

A Sept. 29, 2015 UCR news release (also on EurekAlert) by Sean Nealon, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

With the anticipated increase in batteries needed for electric vehicles and electronics, a cheaper and sustainable source to replace graphite is needed. Using biomass, a biological material from living or recently living organisms, as a replacement for graphite, has drawn recent attention because of its high carbon content, low cost and environmental friendliness.

UC Riverside engineers were drawn to using mushrooms as a form of biomass because past research has established they are highly porous, meaning they have a lot of small spaces for liquid or air to pass through. That porosity is important for batteries because it creates more space for the storage and transfer of energy, a critical component to improving battery performance.

In addition, the high potassium salt concentration in mushrooms allows for increased electrolyte-active material over time by activating more pores, gradually increasing its capacity.

A conventional anode allows lithium to fully access most of the material during the first few cycles and capacity fades from electrode damage occurs from that point on. The mushroom carbon anode technology could, with optimization, replace graphite anodes. It also provides a binderless and current-collector free approach to anode fabrication.

“With battery materials like this, future cell phones may see an increase in run time after many uses, rather than a decrease, due to apparent activation of blind pores within the carbon architectures as the cell charges and discharges over time,” said Brennan Campbell, a graduate student in the Materials Science and Engineering program at UC Riverside.

Nanocarbon architectures derived from biological materials such as mushrooms can be considered a green and sustainable alternative to graphite-based anodes, said Cengiz Ozkan, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering.

The nano-ribbon-like architectures transform upon heat treatment into an interconnected porous network architecture which is important for battery electrodes because such architectures possess a very large surface area for the storage of energy, a critical component to improving battery performance.

One of the problems with conventional carbons, such as graphite, is that they are typically prepared with chemicals such as acids and activated by bases that are not environmentally friendly, said Mihri Ozkan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Therefore, the UC Riverside team is focused on naturally-derived carbons, such as the skin of the caps of portabella mushrooms, for making batteries.

It is expected that nearly 900,000 tons of natural raw graphite would be needed for anode fabrication for nearly six million electric vehicle forecast to be built by 2020. This requires that the graphite be treated with harsh chemicals, including hydrofluoric and sulfuric acids, a process that creates large quantities of hazardous waste. The European Union projects this process will be unsustainable in the future.

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

Hierarchically Porous Carbon Anodes for Li-ion Batteries by Brennan Campbell, Robert Ionescu, Zachary Favors, Cengiz S. Ozkan, & Mihrimah Ozkan. [Nature] Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 14575 (2015)  doi:10.1038/srep14575 Published online: 29 September 2015

This is an open access paper

Enzymatic fuel cells with ultrasmall gold nanocluster

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a DNA-templated gold nanocluster (AuNC) for more efficient biofuel cell design (Note: A link has been removed). From a Sept. 24, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

With fossil-fuel sources dwindling, better biofuel cell design is a strong candidate in the energy field. In research published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (“A Hybrid DNA-Templated Gold Nanocluster For Enhanced Enzymatic Reduction of Oxygen”), Los Alamos researchers and external collaborators synthesized and characterized a new DNA-templated gold nanocluster (AuNC) that could resolve a critical methodological barrier for efficient biofuel cell design.

Here’s an image illustrating the DNA-templated gold nanoclusters,

Caption: Gold nanoclusters (~1 nm) are efficient mediators of electron transfer between co-self-assembled enzymes and carbon nanotubes in an enzyme fuel cell. The efficient electron transfer from this quantized nano material minimizes the energy waste and improves the kinetics of the oxygen reduction reaction, toward a more efficient fuel cell cycle. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Caption: Gold nanoclusters (~1 nm) are efficient mediators of electron transfer between co-self-assembled enzymes and carbon nanotubes in an enzyme fuel cell. The efficient electron transfer from this quantized nano material minimizes the energy waste and improves the kinetics of the oxygen reduction reaction, toward a more efficient fuel cell cycle.
Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

A Sept. 24, 2015 Los Alamos National Laboratory news release, which originated the news item, provides more details,

“Enzymatic fuel cells and nanomaterials show great promise and as they can operate under environmentally benign neutral pH conditions, they are a greener alternative to existing alkaline or acidic fuel cells, making them the subject of worldwide research endeavors,” said Saumen Chakraborty, a scientist on the project. “Our work seeks to boost electron transfer efficiency, creating a potential candidate for the development of cathodes in enzymatic fuel cells.”

Ligands, molecules that bind to a central metal atom, are necessary to form stable nanoclusters. For this study, the researchers chose single-stranded DNA as the ligand, as DNA is a natural nanoscale material having high affinity for metal cations and can be used to assembly the cluster to other nanoscale material such as carbon nanotubes.

In enzymatic fuel cells, fuel is oxidized on the anode, while oxygen reduction reactions take place on the cathode, often using multi copper oxidases. Enzymatic fuel cell performance depends critically on how effectively the enzyme active sites can accept and donate electrons from the electrode by direct electron transfer (ET). However, the lack of effective ET between the enzyme active sites, which are usually buried ~10Å from their surface, and the electrode is a major barrier to their development. Therefore, effective mediators of this electron transfer are needed.

The team developed a new DNA-templated gold nanocluster (AuNC) that enhanced electron transfer. This novel role of the AuNC as enhancer of electron transfer at the enzyme-electrode interface could be effective for cathodes in enzymatic fuel cells, thus removing a critical methodological barrier for efficient biofuel cell design.

Possessing many unique properties due to their discrete electron state distributions, metal nanoclusters (<1.5 nm diameter; ~2-144 atoms of gold, silver, platinum, or copper) show application in many fields.

Hypothesizing that due to the ultra-small size (the clusters are ~7 atoms, ~0.9 nm in diameter), and unique electrochemical properties, the AuNC can facilitate electron transfer to an oxygen-reduction reaction enzyme-active site and therefore, lower the overpotential of the oxygen reaction. Overpotential is the extra amount of energy required to drive an electrochemical reaction.

Ideally, it is desirable that all electrochemical reactions have minimal to no overpotential, but in reality they all have some. Therefore, to design an efficient electrocatalyst (for reduction or oxidation) we want to design it so that the reaction can proceed with a minimal amount of extra, applied energy.

When self assembled with bilirubin oxidase and carbon nanotubes, the AuNC acts to enhance the electron transfer, and it lowers the overpotential of oxygen reduction by a significant ~15 mV (as opposed to ~1-2 mV observed using other types of mediators) compared to the enzyme alone. The AuNC also causes significant enhancement of electrocatalytic current densities. Proteins are electronically insulating (they are complex, greasy and large), so the use of carbon nanotubes helps the enzyme stick to the electrode as well as to facilitate electron transfer.

Although gold nanoclusters have been used in chemical catalysis, this is the first time that we demonstrate they can also act as electron relaying agents to enzymatic oxygen reduction reaction monitored by electrochemistry.

Finally, the presence of AuNC does not perturb the mechanism of enzymatic O2 reduction. Such unique application of AuNC as facilitator of ET by improving thermodynamics and kinetics of O2 reduction is unprecedented.

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

A Hybrid DNA-Templated Gold Nanocluster For Enhanced Enzymatic Reduction of Oxygen by Saumen Chakraborty, Sofia Babanova, Reginaldo C. Rocha, Anil Desireddy, Kateryna Artyushkova, Amy E. Boncella, Plamen Atanassov, and Jennifer S. Martinez. J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2015, 137 (36), pp 11678–11687 DOI: 10.1021/jacs.5b05338 Publication Date (Web): August 19, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

A new ink for energy storage devices from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Energy storage is not the first thought that leaps to mind when ink is mentioned. Live and learn, eh? A Sept. 23, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes the connection (Note: A link has been removed),

 The Department of Applied Physics of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) has developed a simple approach to synthesize novel environmentally friendly manganese dioxide ink by using glucose (“Aqueous Manganese Dioxide Ink for Paper-Based Capacitive Energy Storage Devices”).

The MnO2 ink could be used for the production of light, thin, flexible and high performance energy storage devices via ordinary printing or even home-used printers. The capacity of the MnO2 ink supercapacitor is more than 30 times higher than that of a commercial capacitor of the same weight of active material (e.g. carbon powder), demonstrating the great potential of MnO2 ink in significantly enhancing the performances of energy storage devices, whereas its production cost amounts to less than HK$1.

A Sept. 23, 2015 PolyU media release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

MnO2 is a kind of environmentally-friendly material and it is degradable. Given the environmental compatibility and high potential capacity of MnO2, it has always been regarded as an ideal candidate for the electrode materials of energy storage devices. The conventional MnO2 electrode preparation methods suffer from high cost, complicated processes and could result in agglomeration of the MnO2 ink during the coating process, leading to the reduction of electrical conductivity. The PolyU research team has developed a simple approach to synthesize aqueous MnO2 ink. Firstly, highly crystalline carbon particles were prepared by microwave hydrothermal method, followed by a morphology transmission mechanism at room temperature. The MnO2 ink can be coated on various substrates, such as conductive paper, plastic and glass. Its thickness and weight can also be controlled for the production of light, thin, transparent and flexible energy storage devices. Substrates coated by MnO2 ink can easily be erased if required, facilitating the fabrication of electronic devices.

PolyU researchers coated the MnO2 ink on conductive A4 paper and fabricated a capacitive energy storage device with maximum energy density and power density amounting to 4 mWh•cm-3 and 13 W•cm-3 respectively. The capacity of the MnO2 ink capacitor is more than 30 times higher than that of a commercial capacitor of the same weight of active material (e.g. carbon powder), demonstrating the great potential of MnO2 ink in significantly enhancing the performances of energy storage devices. Given the small size, light, thin, flexible and high energy capacity properties of the MnO2 ink energy storage device, it shows a potential in wide applications. For instance, in wearable devices and radio-frequency identification systems, the MnO2 ink supercapacitor could be used as the power sources for the flexible and “bendable” display panels, smart textile, smart checkout tags, sensors, luggage tracking tags, etc., thereby contributing to the further development of these two areas.

The related paper has been recently published on Angewandte Chemie International Edition, a leading journal in Chemistry. The research team will work to further improve the performance of the MnO2 ink energy storage device in the coming two years, with special focus on increasing the voltage, optimizing the structure and synthesis process of the device. In addition, further tests will be conducted to integrate the MnO2 ink energy storage device with other energy collection systems.

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

Aqueous Manganese Dioxide Ink for Paper-Based Capacitive Energy Storage Devices by Jiasheng Qian, Huanyu Jin, Dr. Bolei Chen, Mei Lin, Dr. Wei Lu, Dr. Wing Man Tang, Dr. Wei Xiong, Prof. Lai Wa Helen Chan, Prof. Shu Ping Lau, and Dr. Jikang Yuan. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 54, Issue 23, pages 6800–6803, June 1, 2015 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201501261 Article first published online: 17 APR 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.