Category Archives: energy

The Swiss come to a better understanding of nanomaterials

Just to keep things interesting, after the report suggesting most of the information that the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has on nanomaterials is of little value for determining risk (see my April 5, 2017 posting for more) the Swiss government has released a report where they claim an improved understanding of nanomaterials than they previously had due to further research into the matter. From an April 6, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

In the past six years, the [Swiss] National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64) intensively studied the development, use, behaviour and degradation of engineered nanomaterials, including their impact on humans and on the environment.

Twenty-three research projects on biomedicine, the environment, energy, construction materials and food demonstrated the enormous potential of engineered nanoparticles for numerous applications in industry and medicine. Thanks to these projects we now know a great deal more about the risks associated with nanomaterials and are therefore able to more accurately determine where and how they can be safely used.

An April 6, 2017 Swiss National Science Foundation press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“One of the specified criteria in the programme was that every project had to examine both the opportunities and the risks, and in some cases this was a major challenge for the researchers,” explains Peter Gehr, President of the NRP 64 Steering Committee.

One development that is nearing industrial application concerns a building material strengthened with nanocellulose that can be used to produce a strong but lightweight insulation material. Successful research was also carried out in the area of energy, where the aim was to find a way to make lithium-ion batteries safer and more efficient.

Promising outlook for nanomedicine

A great deal of potential is predicted for the field of nanomedicine. Nine of the 23 projects in NRP 64 focused on biomedical applications of nanoparticles. These include their use for drug delivery, for example in the fight against viruses, or as immune modulators in a vaccine against asthma. Another promising application concerns the use of nanomagnets for filtering out harmful metallic substances from the blood. One of the projects demonstrated that certain nanoparticles can penetrate the placenta barrier, which points to potential new therapy options. The potential of cartilage and bone substitute materials based on nanocellulose or nanofibres was also studied.

The examination of potential health risks was the focus of NRP 64. A number of projects examined what happens when nanoparticles are inhaled, while two focused on ingestion. One of these investigated whether the human gut is able to absorb iron more efficiently if it is administered in the form of iron nanoparticles in a food additive, while the other studied silicon nanoparticles as they occur in powdered condiments. It was ascertained that further studies will be required in order to determine the doses that can be used without risking an inflammatory reaction in the gut.

What happens to engineered nanomaterials in the environment?

The aim of the seven projects focusing on environmental impact was to gain a better understanding of the toxicity of nanomaterials and their degradability, stability and accumulation in the environment and in biological systems. Here, the research teams monitored how engineered nanoparticles disseminate along their lifecycle, and where they end up or how they can be discarded.

One of the projects established that 95 per cent of silver nanoparticles that are washed out of textiles are collected in sewage treatment plants, while the remaining particles end up in sewage sludge, which in Switzerland is incinerated. In another project a measurement device was developed to determine how aquatic microorganisms react when they come into contact with nanoparticles.

Applying results and making them available to industry

“The findings of the NRP 64 projects form the basis for a safe application of nanomaterials,” says Christoph Studer from the Federal Office of Public Health. “It has become apparent that regulatory instruments such as testing guidelines will have to be adapted at both national and international level.” Studer has been closely monitoring the research programme in his capacity as the Swiss government’s representative in NRP 64. In this context, the precautionary matrix developed by the government is an important instrument by means of which companies can systematically assess the risks associated with the use of nanomaterials in their production processes.

The importance of standardised characterisation and evaluation of engineered nanomaterials was highlighted by the close cooperation among researchers in the programme. “The research network that was built up in the framework of NRP 64 is functioning smoothly and needs to be further nurtured,” says Professor Bernd Nowack from Empa, who headed one of the 23 projects.

The results of NRP 64 show that new key technologies such as the use of nanomaterials need to be closely monitored through basic research due to the lack of data on its long-term effects. As Peter Gehr points out, “We now know a lot more about the risks of nanomaterials and how to keep them under control. However, we need to conduct additional research to learn what happens when humans and the environment are exposed to engineered nanoparticles over longer periods, or what happens a long time after a one-off exposure.”

You can find out more about the Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials; National Research Programme (NRP 64) here.

Making wearable technology more comfortable—with green tea for squishy supercapacitor

Researchers in India have designed a new type of wearable technology based on green team. From a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on,

Wearable electronics are here—the most prominent versions are sold in the form of watches or sports bands. But soon, more comfortable products could become available in softer materials made in part with an unexpected ingredient: green tea. Researchers report in ACS’ The Journal of Physical Chemistry C a new flexible and compact rechargeable energy storage device for wearable electronics that is infused with green tea polyphenols.

A Feb. 15, 2017 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release, (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides a little more information about the squishy supercapacitors (Note: Links have been removed),

Powering soft wearable electronics with a long-lasting source of energy remains a big challenge. Supercapacitors could potentially fill this role — they meet the power requirements, and can rapidly charge and discharge many times. But most supercapacitors are rigid, and the compressible supercapacitors developed so far have run into roadblocks. They have been made with carbon-coated polymer sponges, but the coating material tends to bunch up and compromise performance. Guruswamy Kumaraswamy, Kothandam Krishnamoorthy and colleagues wanted to take a different approach.

The researchers prepared polymer gels in green tea extract, which infuses the gel with polyphenols. The polyphenols converted a silver nitrate solution into a uniform coating of silver nanoparticles. Thin layers of conducting gold and poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) were then applied. And the resulting supercapacitor demonstrated power and energy densities of 2,715 watts per kilogram and 22 watt-hours per kilogram — enough to operate a heart rate monitor, LEDs or a Bluetooth module. The researchers tested the device’s durability and found that it performed well even after being compressed more than 100 times.

The authors acknowledge funding from the University Grants Commission of India, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (India) and the Board of Research in Nuclear Sciences (India).

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

Elastic Compressible Energy Storage Devices from Ice Templated Polymer Gels treated with Polyphenols by Chayanika Das, Soumyajyoti Chatterjee, Guruswamy Kumaraswamy, and Kothandam Krishnamoorthy. J. Phys. Chem. C, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcc.6b12822 Publication Date (Web): January 26, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Metamaterial could supply air conditioning with zero energy consumption

This is exciting provided they can scale up the metamaterial for industrial use. A Feb. 9, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new metamaterial that could change air conditioning  from the University of Colorado at Boulder (Note: A link has been removed),

A team of University of Colorado Boulder engineers has developed a scalable manufactured metamaterial — an engineered material with extraordinary properties not found in nature — to act as a kind of air conditioning system for structures. It has the ability to cool objects even under direct sunlight with zero energy and water consumption.

When applied to a surface, the metamaterial film cools the object underneath by efficiently reflecting incoming solar energy back into space while simultaneously allowing the surface to shed its own heat in the form of infrared thermal radiation.

The new material, which is described today in the journal Science (“Scalable-manufactured randomized glass-polymer hybrid metamaterial for daytime radiative cooling”), could provide an eco-friendly means of supplementary cooling for thermoelectric power plants, which currently require large amounts of water and electricity to maintain the operating temperatures of their machinery.

A Feb. 9, 2017 University of Colorado at Boulder news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

The researchers’ glass-polymer hybrid material measures just 50 micrometers thick — slightly thicker than the aluminum foil found in a kitchen — and can be manufactured economically on rolls, making it a potentially viable large-scale technology for both residential and commercial applications.

“We feel that this low-cost manufacturing process will be transformative for real-world applications of this radiative cooling technology,” said Xiaobo Yin, co-director of the research and an assistant professor who holds dual appointments in CU Boulder’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Materials Science and Engineering Program. Yin received DARPA’s [US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Young Faculty Award in 2015.

The material takes advantage of passive radiative cooling, the process by which objects naturally shed heat in the form of infrared radiation, without consuming energy. Thermal radiation provides some natural nighttime cooling and is used for residential cooling in some areas, but daytime cooling has historically been more of a challenge. For a structure exposed to sunlight, even a small amount of directly-absorbed solar energy is enough to negate passive radiation.

The challenge for the CU Boulder researchers, then, was to create a material that could provide a one-two punch: reflect any incoming solar rays back into the atmosphere while still providing a means of escape for infrared radiation. To solve this, the researchers embedded visibly-scattering but infrared-radiant glass microspheres into a polymer film. They then added a thin silver coating underneath in order to achieve maximum spectral reflectance.

“Both the glass-polymer metamaterial formation and the silver coating are manufactured at scale on roll-to-roll processes,” added Ronggui Yang, also a professor of mechanical engineering and a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

“Just 10 to 20 square meters of this material on the rooftop could nicely cool down a single-family house in summer,” said Gang Tan, an associate professor in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and a co-author of the paper.

In addition to being useful for cooling of buildings and power plants, the material could also help improve the efficiency and lifetime of solar panels. In direct sunlight, panels can overheat to temperatures that hamper their ability to convert solar rays into electricity.

“Just by applying this material to the surface of a solar panel, we can cool the panel and recover an additional one to two percent of solar efficiency,” said Yin. “That makes a big difference at scale.”

The engineers have applied for a patent for the technology and are working with CU Boulder’s Technology Transfer Office to explore potential commercial applications. They plan to create a 200-square-meter “cooling farm” prototype in Boulder in 2017.

The invention is the result of a $3 million grant awarded in 2015 to Yang, Yin and Tang by the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

“The key advantage of this technology is that it works 24/7 with no electricity or water usage,” said Yang “We’re excited about the opportunity to explore potential uses in the power industry, aerospace, agriculture and more.”

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

Scalable-manufactured randomized glass-polymer hybrid metamaterial for daytime radiative cooling by Yao Zhai, Yaoguang Ma, Sabrina N. David, Dongliang Zhao, Runnan Lou, Gang Tan, Ronggui Yang, Xiaobo Yin. Science  09 Feb 2017: DOI: 10.1126/science.aai7899

This paper is behind a paywall.

Members of the research team show off the metamaterial (?) Courtesy: University of Colorado at Boulder

I added the caption to this image, which was on the University of Colorado at Boulder’s home page where it accompanied the news release headline on the rotating banner.

Fireworks for fuel?

Scientists are attempting to harness the power in fireworks for use as fuel according to a Jan. 18, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

The world relies heavily on gasoline and other hydrocarbons to power its cars and trucks. In search of an alternative fuel type, some researchers are turning to the stuff of fireworks and explosives: metal powders. And now one team is reporting a method to produce a metal nanopowder fuel with high energy content that is stable in air and doesn’t go boom until ignited.

A Jan. 18, 2017 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Hydrocarbon fuels are liquid at room temperature, are simple to store, and their energy can be used easily in cars and trucks. Metal powders, which can contain large amounts of energy, have long been used as a fuel in explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics. It might seem counterintuitive to develop them as a fuel for vehicles, but some researchers have proposed to do just that. A major challenge is that high-energy metal nanopowder fuels tend to be unstable and ignite on contact with air. Albert Epshteyn and colleagues wanted to find a way to harness and control them, producing a fuel with both high energy content and good air stability.

The researchers developed a method using an ultrasound-mediated chemical process to combine the metals titanium, aluminum and boron with a sprinkle of hydrogen in a mixed-metal nanopowder fuel. The resulting material was both more stable and had a higher energy content than the standard nano-aluminum fuels. With an energy density of at least 89 kilojoules/milliliter, which is significantly superior to hydrocarbons’ 33 kilojoules/milliliter, this new titanium-aluminum-boron nanopowder packs a big punch in a small package.

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

Optimization of a High Energy Ti-Al-B Nanopowder Fuel by Albert Epshteyn, Michael Raymond Weismiller, Zachary John Huba, Emily L. Maling, and Adam S. Chaimowitz. Energy Fuels, DOI: 10.1021/acs.energyfuels.6b02321 Publication Date (Web): December 30, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Going underground to observe atoms in a bid for better batteries

A Jan. 16, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes what lengths researchers at Stanford University (US) will go to in pursuit of their goals,

In a lab 18 feet below the Engineering Quad of Stanford University, researchers in the Dionne lab camped out with one of the most advanced microscopes in the world to capture an unimaginably small reaction.

The lab members conducted arduous experiments — sometimes requiring a continuous 30 hours of work — to capture real-time, dynamic visualizations of atoms that could someday help our phone batteries last longer and our electric vehicles go farther on a single charge.

Toiling underground in the tunneled labs, they recorded atoms moving in and out of nanoparticles less than 100 nanometers in size, with a resolution approaching 1 nanometer.

A Jan. 16, 2017 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Taylor Kubota, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“The ability to directly visualize reactions in real time with such high resolution will allow us to explore many unanswered questions in the chemical and physical sciences,” said Jen Dionne, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and senior author of the paper detailing this work, published Jan. 16 [2017] in Nature Communications. “While the experiments are not easy, they would not be possible without the remarkable advances in electron microscopy from the past decade.”

Their experiments focused on hydrogen moving into palladium, a class of reactions known as an intercalation-driven phase transition. This reaction is physically analogous to how ions flow through a battery or fuel cell during charging and discharging. Observing this process in real time provides insight into why nanoparticles make better electrodes than bulk materials and fits into Dionne’s larger interest in energy storage devices that can charge faster, hold more energy and stave off permanent failure.

Technical complexity and ghosts

For these experiments, the Dionne lab created palladium nanocubes, a form of nanoparticle, that ranged in size from about 15 to 80 nanometers, and then placed them in a hydrogen gas environment within an electron microscope. The researchers knew that hydrogen would change both the dimensions of the lattice and the electronic properties of the nanoparticle. They thought that, with the appropriate microscope lens and aperture configuration, techniques called scanning transmission electron microscopy and electron energy loss spectroscopy might show hydrogen uptake in real time.

After months of trial and error, the results were extremely detailed, real-time videos of the changes in the particle as hydrogen was introduced. The entire process was so complicated and novel that the first time it worked, the lab didn’t even have the video software running, leading them to capture their first movie success on a smartphone.

Following these videos, they examined the nanocubes during intermediate stages of hydrogenation using a second technique in the microscope, called dark-field imaging, which relies on scattered electrons. In order to pause the hydrogenation process, the researchers plunged the nanocubes into an ice bath of liquid nitrogen mid-reaction, dropping their temperature to 100 degrees Kelvin (-280 F). These dark-field images served as a way to check that the application of the electron beam hadn’t influenced the previous observations and allowed the researchers to see detailed structural changes during the reaction.

“With the average experiment spanning about 24 hours at this low temperature, we faced many instrument problems and called Ai Leen Koh [co-author and research scientist at Stanford’s Nano Shared Facilities] at the weirdest hours of the night,” recalled Fariah Hayee, co-lead author of the study and graduate student in the Dionne lab. “We even encountered a ‘ghost-of-the-joystick problem,’ where the joystick seemed to move the sample uncontrollably for some time.”

While most electron microscopes operate with the specimen held in a vacuum, the microscope used for this research has the advanced ability to allow the researchers to introduce liquids or gases to their specimen.

“We benefit tremendously from having access to one of the best microscope facilities in the world,” said Tarun Narayan, co-lead author of this study and recent doctoral graduate from the Dionne lab. “Without these specific tools, we wouldn’t be able to introduce hydrogen gas or cool down our samples enough to see these processes take place.”

Pushing out imperfections

Aside from being a widely applicable proof of concept for this suite of visualization techniques, watching the atoms move provides greater validation for the high hopes many scientists have for nanoparticle energy storage technologies.

The researchers saw the atoms move in through the corners of the nanocube and observed the formation of various imperfections within the particle as hydrogen moved within it. This sounds like an argument against the promise of nanoparticles but that’s because it’s not the whole story.

“The nanoparticle has the ability to self-heal,” said Dionne. “When you first introduce hydrogen, the particle deforms and loses its perfect crystallinity. But once the particle has absorbed as much hydrogen as it can, it transforms itself back to a perfect crystal again.”

The researchers describe this as imperfections being “pushed out” of the nanoparticle. This ability of the nanocube to self-heal makes it more durable, a key property needed for energy storage materials that can sustain many charge and discharge cycles.

Looking toward the future

As the efficiency of renewable energy generation increases, the need for higher quality energy storage is more pressing than ever. It’s likely that the future of storage will rely on new chemistries and the findings of this research, including the microscopy techniques the researchers refined along the way, will apply to nearly any solution in those categories.

For its part, the Dionne lab has many directions it can go from here. The team could look at a variety of material compositions, or compare how the sizes and shapes of nanoparticles affect the way they work, and, soon, take advantage of new upgrades to their microscope to study light-driven reactions. At present, Hayee has moved on to experimenting with nanorods, which have more surface area for the ions to move through, promising potentially even faster kinetics.

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

Direct visualization of hydrogen absorption dynamics in individual palladium nanoparticles by Tarun C. Narayan, Fariah Hayee, Andrea Baldi, Ai Leen Koh, Robert Sinclair, & Jennifer A. Dionne. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14020 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14020 Published online: 16 January 2017

This paper is open access.

‘Brewing up’ conductive inks for printable electronics

Scientists from Duke University aren’t exactly ‘brewing’ or ‘cooking up’ the inks but they do come close according to a Jan. 3, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

By suspending tiny metal nanoparticles in liquids, Duke University scientists are brewing up conductive ink-jet printer “inks” to print inexpensive, customizable circuit patterns on just about any surface.

A Jan. 3, 2017 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why this technique could lead to more accessible printed electronics,

Printed electronics, which are already being used on a wide scale in devices such as the anti-theft radio frequency identification (RFID) tags you might find on the back of new DVDs, currently have one major drawback: for the circuits to work, they first have to be heated to melt all the nanoparticles together into a single conductive wire, making it impossible to print circuits on inexpensive plastics or paper.

A new study by Duke researchers shows that tweaking the shape of the nanoparticles in the ink might just eliminate the need for heat.

By comparing the conductivity of films made from different shapes of silver nanostructures, the researchers found that electrons zip through films made of silver nanowires much easier than films made from other shapes, like nanospheres or microflakes. In fact, electrons flowed so easily through the nanowire films that they could function in printed circuits without the need to melt them all together.

“The nanowires had a 4,000 times higher conductivity than the more commonly used silver nanoparticles that you would find in printed antennas for RFID tags,” said Benjamin Wiley, assistant professor of chemistry at Duke. “So if you use nanowires, then you don’t have to heat the printed circuits up to such high temperature and you can use cheaper plastics or paper.”

“There is really nothing else I can think of besides these silver nanowires that you can just print and it’s simply conductive, without any post-processing,” Wiley added.

These types of printed electronics could have applications far beyond smart packaging; researchers envision using the technology to make solar cells, printed displays, LEDS, touchscreens, amplifiers, batteries and even some implantable bio-electronic devices. The results appeared online Dec. 16 [2016] in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Silver has become a go-to material for making printed electronics, Wiley said, and a number of studies have recently appeared measuring the conductivity of films with different shapes of silver nanostructures. However, experimental variations make direct comparisons between the shapes difficult, and few reports have linked the conductivity of the films to the total mass of silver used, an important factor when working with a costly material.

“We wanted to eliminate any extra materials from the inks and simply hone in on the amount of silver in the films and the contacts between the nanostructures as the only source of variability,” said Ian Stewart, a recent graduate student in Wiley’s lab and first author on the ACS paper.

Stewart used known recipes to cook up silver nanostructures with different shapes, including nanoparticles, microflakes, and short and long nanowires, and mixed these nanostructures with distilled water to make simple “inks.” He then invented a quick and easy way to make thin films using equipment available in just about any lab — glass slides and double-sided tape.

“We used a hole punch to cut out wells from double-sided tape and stuck these to glass slides,” Stewart said. By adding a precise volume of ink into each tape “well” and then heating the wells — either to relatively low temperature to simply evaporate the water or to higher temperatures to begin melting the structures together — he created a variety of films to test.

The team say they weren’t surprised that the long nanowire films had the highest conductivity. Electrons usually flow easily through individual nanostructures but get stuck when they have to jump from one structure to the next, Wiley explained, and long nanowires greatly reduce the number of times the electrons have to make this “jump”.

But they were surprised at just how drastic the change was. “The resistivity of the long silver nanowire films is several orders of magnitude lower than silver nanoparticles and only 10 times greater than pure silver,” Stewart said.

The team is now experimenting with using aerosol jets to print silver nanowire inks in usable circuits. Wiley says they also want to explore whether silver-coated copper nanowires, which are significantly cheaper to produce than pure silver nanowires, will give the same effect.

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

Effect of Morphology on the Electrical Resistivity of Silver Nanostructure Films by Ian E. Stewart, Myung Jun Kim, and Benjamin J. Wiley. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b12289 Publication Date (Web): December 16, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an image of the silver nanowires, which is not exactly compensation but is interesting,

Caption: Duke University chemists have found that silver nanowire films like these conduct electricity well enough to form functioning circuits without applying high temperatures, enabling printable electronics on heat-sensitive materials like paper or plastic.
Credit: Ian Stewart and Benjamin Wiley

Drip dry housing

This piece on new construction materials does have a nanotechnology aspect although it’s not made clear exactly how nanotechnology plays a role.

From a Dec. 28, 2016 news item on (Note: A link has been removed),

The construction industry is preparing to use textiles from the clothing and footwear industries. Gore-Tex-like membranes, which are usually found in weather-proof jackets and trekking shoes, are now being studied to build breathable, water-resistant walls. Tyvek is one such synthetic textile being used as a “raincoat” for homes.

You can find out more about Tyvek here.on the Dupont website.

A Dec. 21, 2016 press release by Chiara Cecchi for Youris ((European Research Media Center), which originated the news item, proceeds with more about textile-type construction materials,

Camping tents, which have been used for ages to protect against wind, ultra-violet rays and rain, have also inspired the modern construction industry, or “buildtech sector”. This new field of research focuses on the different fibres (animal-based such as wool or silk, plant-based such as linen and cotton and synthetic such as polyester and rayon) in order to develop technical or high-performance materials, thus improving the quality of construction, especially for buildings, dams, bridges, tunnels and roads. This is due to the fibres’ mechanical properties, such as lightness, strength, and also resistance to many factors like creep, deterioration by chemicals and pollutants in the air or rain.

“Textiles play an important role in the modernisation of infrastructure and in sustainable buildings”, explains Andrea Bassi, professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (DICA), Politecnico of Milan, “Nylon and fiberglass are mixed with traditional fibres to control thermal and acoustic insulation in walls, façades and roofs. Technological innovation in materials, which includes nanotechnologies [emphasis mine] combined with traditional textiles used in clothes, enables buildings and other constructions to be designed using textiles containing steel polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). This gives the materials new antibacterial, antifungal and antimycotic properties in addition to being antistatic, sound-absorbing and water-resistant”.

Rooflys is another example. In this case, coated black woven textiles are placed under the roof to protect roof insulation from mould. These building textiles have also been tested for fire resistance, nail sealability, water and vapour impermeability, wind and UV resistance.

Photo: Production line at the co-operative enterprise CAVAC Biomatériaux, France. Natural fibres processed into a continuous mat (biofib) – Martin Ansell, BRE CICM, University of Bath, UK

In Spain three researchers from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM) have developed a new panel made with textile waste. They claim that it can significantly enhance both the thermal and acoustic conditions of buildings, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the energy impact associated with the development of construction materials.

Besides textiles, innovative natural fibre composite materials are a parallel field of the research on insulators that can preserve indoor air quality. These bio-based materials, such as straw and hemp, can reduce the incidence of mould growth because they breathe. The breathability of materials refers to their ability to absorb and desorb moisture naturally”, says expert Finlay White from Modcell, who contributed to the construction of what they claim are the world’s first commercially available straw houses, “For example, highly insulated buildings with poor ventilation can build-up high levels of moisture in the air. If the moisture meets a cool surface it will condensate and producing mould, unless it is managed. Bio-based materials have the means to absorb moisture so that the risk of condensation is reduced, preventing the potential for mould growth”.

The Bristol-based green technology firm [Modcell] is collaborating with the European Isobio project, which is testing bio-based insulators which perform 20% better than conventional materials. “This would lead to a 5% total energy reduction over the lifecycle of a building”, explains Martin Ansell, from BRE Centre for Innovative Construction Materials (BRE CICM), University of Bath, UK, another partner of the project.

“Costs would also be reduced. We are evaluating the thermal and hygroscopic properties of a range of plant-derived by-products including hemp, jute, rape and straw fibres plus corn cob residues. Advanced sol-gel coatings are being deposited on these fibres to optimise these properties in order to produce highly insulating and breathable construction materials”, Ansell concludes.

You can find Modcell here.

Here’s another image, which I believe is a closeup of the processed fibre shown in the above,

Production line at the co-operative enterprise CAVAC Biomatériaux, France. Natural fibres processed into a continuous mat (biofib) – Martin Ansell, BRE CICM, University of Bath, UK [Note: This caption appears to be a copy of the caption for the previous image]

Environmentally sustainable electromobility

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology pose an interesting question in a Dec. 8, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Does it really help to drive an electric car if the electricity you use to charge the batteries come from a coal mine in Germany, or if the batteries were manufactured in China using coal?

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology Programme have looked at all of the environmental costs of electric vehicles to determine the cradle-to-grave environmental footprint of building and operating these vehicles.

Increasingly, researchers are examining not just immediate environmental impacts but the impact a product has throughout its life cycle as this Dec. 8, 2016 Norwegian University of Science and Technology press release on EurekAlert notes,

In the 6 December [2016] issue of Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers report on a model that can help guide developers as they consider new nanomaterials for batteries or fuel cells. The goal is to create the most environmentally sustainable vehicle fleet possible, which is no small challenge given that there are already an estimated 1 billion cars and light trucks on the world’s roads, a number that is expected to double by 2035.

With this in mind, the researchers created an environmental life-cycle screening framework that looked at the environmental and other impacts of extraction, refining, synthesis, performance, durability and recyclablility of materials.

This allowed the researchers to evaluate the most promising nanomaterials for lithium-ion batteries (LIB) and proton exchange membrane hydrogen fuel cells (PEMFC) as power sources for electric vehicles. “Our analysis of the current situation clearly outlines the challenge,” the researchers wrote. “The materials with the best potential environmental profiles during the material extraction and production phase…. often present environmental disadvantages during their use phase… and vice versa.”

The hope is that by identifying all the environmental costs of different materials used to build electric cars, designers and engineers can “make the right design trade-offs that optimize LIB and PEMFC nanomaterials for EV usage towards mitigating climate change,” the authors wrote.

They encouraged material scientists and those who conduct life-cycle assessments to work together so that electric cars can be a key contributor to mitigating the effects of transportation on climate change.

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

Nanotechnology for environmentally sustainable electromobility by Linda Ager-Wick Ellingsen, Christine Roxanne Hung, Guillaume Majeau-Bettez, Bhawna Singh, Zhongwei Chen, M. Stanley Whittingham, & Anders Hammer Strømman. Nature Nanotechnology 11, 1039–1051 (2016)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.237 Published online 06 December 2016 Corrected online 14 December 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Seawater batteries to replace lithium-ion batteries?

Replacing lithium-ion batteries with seawater batteries is a little more complicated than going out to scoop a little seawater and returning home to cook up a battery according to a Dec. 7, 2016 American Chemical Society news release (also on EurkeAlert),

With the ubiquity of lithium-ion batteries in smartphones and other rechargeable devices, it’s hard to imagine replacing them. But the rising price of lithium has spurred a search for alternatives. One up-and-coming battery technology uses abundant, readily available seawater. Now, making this option viable is one step closer with a new report on a sodium-air, seawater battery. The study appears in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Sodium-air — or sodium-oxygen — batteries are considered one of the most promising, and cost-effective alternatives to today’s lithium-ion standby. But some challenges remain before they can become a commercial reality. Soo Min Hwang, Youngsik Kim and colleagues have been tackling these challenges, using seawater as the catholyte — an electrolyte and cathode combined. In batteries, the electrolyte is the component that allows an electrical charge to flow between the cathode and anode. A constant flow of seawater into and out of the battery provides the sodium ions and water responsible for producing a charge. The reactions have been sluggish, however, so the researchers wanted to find a way to speed them up.

For their new battery, the team prepared a catalyst using porous cobalt manganese oxide nanoparticles. The pores create a large surface area for encouraging the electrochemical reactions needed to produce a charge. A hard carbon electrode served as the anode. The resulting battery performed efficiently over 100 cycles with an average discharge voltage of about 2.7 volts. This doesn’t yet measure up to a lithium-ion cell, which can reach 3.6 to 4.0 volts, but the advance is getting close to bridging the gap, the researchers say.

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

A Metal–Organic Framework Derived Porous Cobalt Manganese Oxide Bifunctional Electrocatalyst for Hybrid Na–Air/Seawater Batteries by Mari Abirami, Soo Min Hwang, Juchan Yang, Sirugaloor Thangavel Senthilkumar, Junsoo Kim, Woo-Seok Go, Baskar Senthilkumar, Hyun-Kon Song, and Youngsik Kim. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (48), pp 32778–32787
DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b10082 Publication Date (Web): November 14, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.