Category Archives: energy

Vampire nanogenerators: 2017

Researchers have been working on ways to harvest energy from bloodstreams. I last wrote about this type of research in an April 3, 2009 posting about ‘vampire batteries ‘(for use in pacemakers). The latest work according to a Sept. 8, 2017 news item on Nanowerk comes from China,

Men build dams and huge turbines to turn the energy of waterfalls and tides into electricity. To produce hydropower on a much smaller scale, Chinese scientists have now developed a lightweight power generator based on carbon nanotube fibers suitable to convert even the energy of flowing blood in blood vessels into electricity. They describe their innovation in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“A One-Dimensional Fluidic Nanogenerator with a High Power Conversion Efficiency”)

A Sept. 8, 2017 Wiley Publishing news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

For thousands of years, people have used the energy of flowing or falling water for their purposes, first to power mechanical engines such as watermills, then to generate electricity by exploiting height differences in the landscape or sea tides. Using naturally flowing water as a sustainable power source has the advantage that there are (almost) no dependencies on weather or daylight. Even flexible, minute power generators that make use of the flow of biological fluids are conceivable. How such a system could work is explained by a research team from Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Huisheng Peng and his co-workers have developed a fiber with a thickness of less than a millimeter that generates electrical power when surrounded by flowing saline solution—in a thin tube or even in a blood vessel.

The construction principle of the fiber is quite simple. An ordered array of carbon nanotubes was continuously wrapped around a polymeric core. Carbon nanotubes are well known to be electroactive and mechanically stable; they can be spun and aligned in sheets. In the as-prepared electroactive threads, the carbon nanotube sheets coated the fiber core with a thickness of less than half a micron. For power generation, the thread or “fiber-shaped fluidic nanogenerator” (FFNG), as the authors call it, was connected to electrodes and immersed into flowing water or simply repeatedly dipped into a saline solution. “The electricity was derived from the relative movement between the FFNG and the solution,” the scientists explained. According to the theory, an electrical double layer is created around the fiber, and then the flowing solution distorts the symmetrical charge distribution, generating an electricity gradient along the long axis.

The power output efficiency of this system was high. Compared with other types of miniature energy-harvesting devices, the FFNG was reported to show a superior power conversion efficiency of more than 20%. Other advantages are elasticity, tunability, lightweight, and one-dimensionality, thus offering prospects of exciting technological applications. The FFNG can be made stretchable just by spinning the sheets around an elastic fiber substrate. If woven into fabrics, wearable electronics become thus a very interesting option for FFNG application. Another exciting application is the harvesting of electrical energy from the bloodstream for medical applications. First tests with frog nerves proved to be successful.

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

A One-Dimensional Fluidic Nanogenerator with a High Power Conversion Efficiency by Yifan Xu, Dr. Peining Chen, Jing Zhang, Songlin Xie, Dr. Fang Wan, Jue Deng, Dr. Xunliang Cheng, Yajie Hu, Meng Liao, Dr. Bingjie Wang, Dr. Xuemei Sun, and Prof. Dr. Huisheng Peng. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201706620 Version of Record online: 7 SEP 2017

© 2017 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Beautiful solar cells based on insect eyes

What a gorgeous image!

The compound eye of a fly inspired Stanford researchers to create a compound solar cell consisting of perovskite microcells encapsulated in a hexagon-shaped scaffold. (Image credit: Thomas Shahan/Creative Commons)

An August 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes research into solar cells being performed at Stanford University (Note: A link has been removed),

Packing tiny solar cells together, like micro-lenses in the compound eye of an insect, could pave the way to a new generation of advanced photovoltaics, say Stanford University scientists.

In a new study, the Stanford team used the insect-inspired design to protect a fragile photovoltaic material called perovskite from deteriorating when exposed to heat, moisture or mechanical stress. The results are published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science (“Scaffold-reinforced perovskite compound solar cells”).

An August 31, 2017 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Mark Schwartz, which originated the news item,

“Perovskites are promising, low-cost materials that convert sunlight to electricity as efficiently as conventional solar cells made of silicon,” said Reinhold Dauskardt, a professor of materials science and engineering and senior author of the study. “The problem is that perovskites are extremely unstable and mechanically fragile. They would barely survive the manufacturing process, let alone be durable long term in the environment.”

Most solar devices, like rooftop panels, use a flat, or planar, design. But that approach doesn’t work well with perovskite solar cells.

“Perovskites are the most fragile materials ever tested in the history of our lab,” said graduate student Nicholas Rolston, a co-lead author of the E&ES study. “This fragility is related to the brittle, salt-like crystal structure of perovskite, which has mechanical properties similar to table salt.”

Eye of the fly

To address the durability challenge, the Stanford team turned to nature.

“We were inspired by the compound eye of the fly, which consists of hundreds of tiny segmented eyes,” Dauskardt explained. “It has a beautiful honeycomb shape with built-in redundancy: If you lose one segment, hundreds of others will operate. Each segment is very fragile, but it’s shielded by a scaffold wall around it.”

Scaffolds in a compound solar cell filled with perovskite after fracture testing.

Scaffolds in a compound solar cell filled with perovskite after fracture testing. (Image credit: Dauskardt Lab/Stanford University)

Using the compound eye as a model, the researchers created a compound solar cell consisting of a vast honeycomb of perovskite microcells, each encapsulated in a hexagon-shaped scaffold just 0.02 inches (500 microns) wide.

“The scaffold is made of an inexpensive epoxy resin widely used in the microelectronics industry,” Rolston said. “It’s resilient to mechanical stresses and thus far more resistant to fracture.”

Tests conducted during the study revealed that the scaffolding had little effect on how efficiently perovskite converted light into electricity.

“We got nearly the same power-conversion efficiencies out of each little perovskite cell that we would get from a planar solar cell,” Dauskardt said. “So we achieved a huge increase in fracture resistance with no penalty for efficiency.”

Durability

But could the new device withstand the kind of heat and humidity that conventional rooftop solar panels endure?

To find out, the researchers exposed encapsulated perovskite cells to temperatures of 185 F (85 C) and 85 percent relative humidity for six weeks. Despite these extreme conditions, the cells continued to generate electricity at relatively high rates of efficiency.

Dauskardt and his colleagues have filed a provisional patent for the new technology. To improve efficiency, they are studying new ways to scatter light from the scaffold into the perovskite core of each cell.

“We are very excited about these results,” he said. “It’s a new way of thinking about designing solar cells. These scaffold cells also look really cool, so there are some interesting aesthetic possibilities for real-world applications.”

Researchers have also made this image available,

Caption: A compound solar cell illuminated from a light source below. Hexagonal scaffolds are visible in the regions coated by a silver electrode. The new solar cell design could help scientists overcome a major roadblock to the development of perovskite photovoltaics. Credit: Dauskardt Lab/Stanford University

Not quite as weirdly beautiful as the insect eyes.

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

Scaffold-reinforced perovskite compound solar cells by Brian L. Watson, Nicholas Rolston, Adam D. Printz, and Reinhold H. Dauskardt. Energy & Environmental Science 2017 DOI: 10.1039/C7EE02185B first published on 23 Aug 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cyborg bacteria to reduce carbon dioxide

This video is a bit technical but then it is about work being presented to chemists at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition Aug. 20 -24, 2017,

For a more plain language explanation, there’s an August 22, 2017 ACS news release (also on EurekAlert),

Photosynthesis provides energy for the vast majority of life on Earth. But chlorophyll, the green pigment that plants use to harvest sunlight, is relatively inefficient. To enable humans to capture more of the sun’s energy than natural photosynthesis can, scientists have taught bacteria to cover themselves in tiny, highly efficient solar panels to produce useful compounds.

“Rather than rely on inefficient chlorophyll to harvest sunlight, I’ve taught bacteria how to grow and cover their bodies with tiny semiconductor nanocrystals,” says Kelsey K. Sakimoto, Ph.D., who carried out the research in the lab of Peidong Yang, Ph.D. “These nanocrystals are much more efficient than chlorophyll and can be grown at a fraction of the cost of manufactured solar panels.”

Humans increasingly are looking to find alternatives to fossil fuels as sources of energy and feedstocks for chemical production. Many scientists have worked to create artificial photosynthetic systems to generate renewable energy and simple organic chemicals using sunlight. Progress has been made, but the systems are not efficient enough for commercial production of fuels and feedstocks.

Research in Yang’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, where Sakimoto earned his Ph.D., focuses on harnessing inorganic semiconductors that can capture sunlight to organisms such as bacteria that can then use the energy to produce useful chemicals from carbon dioxide and water. “The thrust of research in my lab is to essentially ‘supercharge’ nonphotosynthetic bacteria by providing them energy in the form of electrons from inorganic semiconductors, like cadmium sulfide, that are efficient light absorbers,” Yang says. “We are now looking for more benign light absorbers than cadmium sulfide to provide bacteria with energy from light.”

Sakimoto worked with a naturally occurring, nonphotosynthetic bacterium, Moorella thermoacetica, which, as part of its normal respiration, produces acetic acid from carbon dioxide (CO2). Acetic acid is a versatile chemical that can be readily upgraded to a number of fuels, polymers, pharmaceuticals and commodity chemicals through complementary, genetically engineered bacteria.

When Sakimoto fed cadmium and the amino acid cysteine, which contains a sulfur atom, to the bacteria, they synthesized cadmium sulfide (CdS) nanoparticles, which function as solar panels on their surfaces. The hybrid organism, M. thermoacetica-CdS, produces acetic acid from CO2, water and light. “Once covered with these tiny solar panels, the bacteria can synthesize food, fuels and plastics, all using solar energy,” Sakimoto says. “These bacteria outperform natural photosynthesis.”

The bacteria operate at an efficiency of more than 80 percent, and the process is self-replicating and self-regenerating, making this a zero-waste technology. “Synthetic biology and the ability to expand the product scope of CO2 reduction will be crucial to poising this technology as a replacement, or one of many replacements, for the petrochemical industry,” Sakimoto says.

So, do the inorganic-biological hybrids have commercial potential? “I sure hope so!” he says. “Many current systems in artificial photosynthesis require solid electrodes, which is a huge cost. Our algal biofuels are much more attractive, as the whole CO2-to-chemical apparatus is self-contained and only requires a big vat out in the sun.” But he points out that the system still requires some tweaking to tune both the semiconductor and the bacteria. He also suggests that it is possible that the hybrid bacteria he created may have some naturally occurring analog. “A future direction, if this phenomenon exists in nature, would be to bioprospect for these organisms and put them to use,” he says.

For more insight into the work, check out Dexter Johnson’s Aug. 22, 2017 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

“It’s actually a natural, overlooked feature of their biology,” explains Sakimoto in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum. “This bacterium has a detoxification pathway, meaning if it encounters a toxic metal, like cadmium, it will try to precipitate it out, thereby detoxifying it. So when we introduce cadmium ions into the growth medium in which M. thermoacetica is hanging out, it will convert the amino acid cysteine into sulfide, which precipitates out cadmium as cadmium sulfide. The crystals then assemble and stick onto the bacterium through normal electrostatic interactions.”

I’ve just excerpted one bit, there’s more in Dexter’s posting.

Burning coal produces harmful titanium dioxide nanoparticles

It turns out that Canada has the fifth largest reserve of coal in the world, according to the Coal in Canada Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Coal reserves in Canada rank fifth largest in the world (following the former Soviet Union, the United States, the People’s Republic of China and Australia) at approximately 10 billion tons, 10% of the world total.[1] This represents more energy than all of the oil and gas in the country combined. The coal industry generates CDN$5 billion annually.[2] Most of Canada’s coal mining occurs in the West of the country.[3] British Columbia operates 10 coal mines, Alberta 9, Saskatchewan 3 and New Brunswick one. Nova Scotia operates several small-scale mines, Westray having closed following the 1992 disaster there.[4]

So, this news from Virginia holds more than the usual interest for me (I’m in British Columbia). From an Aug. 8, 2017 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert),

Environmental scientists led by the Virginia Tech College of Science have discovered that the burning of coal produces incredibly small particles of a highly unusual form of titanium oxide.

When inhaled, these nanoparticles can enter the lungs and potentially the bloodstream.

The particulates — known as titanium suboxide nanoparticles — are unintentionally produced as coal is burned, creating these tiniest of particles, as small as 100 millionths of a meter [emphasis mine], said the Virginia Tech-led team. When the particles are introduced into the air — unless captured by high-tech particle traps — they can float away from power plant stacks and travel on air currents locally, regionally, and even globally.

As an example of this, these nanoparticles were found on city streets, sidewalks, and in standing water in Shanghai, China.

The findings are published in the latest issue of Nature Communications under team leader Michael F. Hochella Jr., University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences with the College of Science, and Yi Yang, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Other study participants include Duke University, the University of Kentucky, and Laurentian University in Canada.

“The problem with these nanoparticles is that there is no easy or practical way to prevent their formation during coal burning,” Hochella said, adding that in nations with strong environmental regulations, such as the United States, most of the nanoparticles would be caught by particle traps. Not so in Africa [a continent not a nation], China, or India, where regulations are lax or nonexistent, with coal ash and smoke entering the open air.

“Due to advanced technology used at U.S.-based coal burning power plants, mandated by the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, most of these nanoparticles and other tiny particles are removed before the final emission of the plant’s exhaust gases,” Hochella said. “But in countries where the particles from the coal burning are not nearly so efficiently removed, or removed at all, these titanium suboxide nanoparticles and many other particle types are emitted into the atmosphere, in part resulting in hazy skies that plague many countries, especially in China and India.”

Hochella and his team found these previously unknown nanoparticles not only in coal ash from around the world and in the gaseous waste emissions of coal plants, but on city streets, in soils and storm water ponds, and at wastewater treatment plants.

“I could not believe what I have found at the beginning, because they had been reported so extremely rarely in the natural environment,” said Yang, who once worked as a visiting professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Geosciences with Hochella. “It took me several months to confirm their occurrence in coal ash samples.”

The newly found titanium suboxide — called Magnéli phases — was once thought rare, found only sparingly on Earth in some meteorites, from a small area of rock formations in western Greenland, and occasionally in moon rocks. The findings by Hochella and his team indicate that these nanoparticles are in fact widespread globally. They are only now being studied for the first time in natural environments using powerful electron microscopes.

Why did the discovery occur now? According to the report, nearly all coal contains traces of the minerals rutile and/or anatase, both “normal,” naturally occurring, and relatively inert titanium oxides, especially in the absence of light. When those minerals are burned in the presence of coal, research found they easily and quickly converted to these unusual titanium suboxide nanoparticles. The nanoparticles then become entrained in the gases that leave the power plant.

When inhaled, the nanoparticles enter deep into the lungs, potentially all the way into the air sacs that move oxygen into our bloodstream during the normal breathing process. While human lung toxicity of these particles is not yet known, a preliminary biotoxicity test by Hochella and Richard Di Giulio, professor of environmental toxicology, and Jessica Brandt, a doctoral candidate, both at Duke University, indicates that the particles do indeed have toxicity potential.

According to the team, further study is clearly needed, especially biotoxicity testing directly relevant to the human lung. Partnering with coal-power plants either in the United States or China would be ideal, said Yang.

More troubling, the study shows that titanium suboxide nanoparticles are biologically active in the dark, making the particles highly suspect. Exact human health effects are yet unknown.

“Future studies will need to very carefully investigate and access the toxicity of titanium suboxide nanoparticles in the human lung, and this could take years, a sobering thought considering its potential danger,” Hochella said.

As the titanium suboxide nanoparticle itself is produced incidentally, Hochella and his team came across the nanoparticle by accident while studying a 2014 coal ash spill in the Dan River, North Carolina. During the study of the downstream movement of toxic metals in the ash in the Dan River, the team discovered and recognized the presence of small amounts of the highly unusual titanium suboxide.

The group later produced the titanium suboxide nanoparticles when burning coal in a lab simulation.

This new potential air pollution health hazard builds on already established findings from the World Health Organization. It estimates that 3.3 million premature deaths occur worldwide per year due to polluted air, Hochella said. In China, 1.6 million premature deaths are estimated annually due to cardiovascular and respiratory injury from air pollution. Most Chinese megacities top 100 severely hazy days each year with particle concentrations two to four times higher than WHO guidelines, Yang said.

Direct health effects on humans is only one factor. Findings of thousands of scientists have determined that the biggest driver of warming of the planet and the resulting climate change is industrial-scale coal burning. The impact of titanium suboxide nanoparticles found in the atmosphere, in addition to greenhouse gases, on animals, water, and plants is not yet known.

They’ve used an unusual unit of measurement, “100 millionths of a meter,” nanoparticles are usually described in nanometers.

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

Discovery and ramifications of incidental Magnéli phase generation and release from industrial coal-burning by Yi Yang, Bo Chen, James Hower, Michael Schindler, Christopher Winkler, Jessica Brandt, Richard Di Giulio, Jianping Ge, Min Liu, Yuhao Fu, Lijun Zhang, Yuru Chen, Shashank Priya, & Michael F. Hochella Jr. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 194 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-00276-2 Published online: 08 August 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

This put me in mind of the famous London smog, which one doesn’t hear about much anymore. For anyone not familiar with that phenomenon, here’s more from the Great Smog of London Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The Great Smog of London, or Great Smog of 1952 sometimes called the Big Smoke,[1] was a severe air-pollution event [emphasis mine] that affected the British capital of London in December 1952. A period of cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants – mostly arising from the use of coal [emphasis mine]– to form a thick layer of smog over the city. It lasted from Friday, 5 December to Tuesday, 9 December 1952 and then dispersed quickly when the weather changed.

It caused major disruption by reducing visibility and even penetrating indoor areas, far more severe than previous smog events experienced in the past, called “pea-soupers”. Government medical reports in the following weeks, however, estimated that up until 8 December, 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog and 100,000 more were made ill by the smog’s effects on the human respiratory tract. More recent research suggests that the total number of fatalities was considerably greater, about 12,000.[2]

London had suffered since the 1200s from poor air quality,[3] which worsened in the 1600s,[4][5] but the Great Smog is known to be the worst air-pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom,[6] and the most significant in terms of its effect on environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health.[2][4] It led to several changes in practices and regulations, including the Clean Air Act 1956. …

A candy cane supercapacitor?

Courtesy: Queen Mary University of London

It takes a lot more imagination than I have to describe the object on the right as resembling the  candy cane on the left, assuming that’s what was intended when it was used to illustrate the university’s press release. I like being pushed to see resemblances to things that are not immediately apparent to me. This may never look like a candy cane to me but I appreciate that someone finds it to be so. An August 16, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announces the ‘candy cane’ supercapacitor,

Supercapacitors promise recharging of phones and other devices in seconds and minutes as opposed to hours for batteries. But current technologies are not usually flexible, have insufficient capacities, and for many their performance quickly degrades with charging cycles.

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and the University of Cambridge have found a way to improve all three problems in one stroke.

Their prototyped polymer electrode, which resembles a candy cane usually hung on a Christmas tree, achieves energy storage close to the theoretical limit, but also demonstrates flexibility and resilience to charge/discharge cycling.

The technique could be applied to many types of materials for supercapacitors and enable fast charging of mobile phones, smart clothes and implantable devices.

The Aug. 16, 2017 Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the technology,

Pseudocapacitance is a property of polymer and composite supercapacitors that allows ions to enter inside the material and thus pack much more charge than carbon ones that mostly store the charge as concentrated ions (in the so-called double layer) near the surface.

The problem with polymer supercapacitors, however, is that the ions necessary for these chemical reactions can only access the top few nanometers below the material surface, leaving the rest of the electrode as dead weight. Growing polymers as nano-structures is one way to increase the amount of accessible material near the surface, but this can be expensive, hard to scale up, and often results in poor mechanical stability.

The researchers, however, have developed a way to interweave nanostructures within a bulk material, thereby achieving the benefits of conventional nanostructuring without using complex synthesis methods or sacrificing material toughness.

Project leader, Stoyan Smoukov, explained: “Our supercapacitors can store a lot of charge very quickly, because the thin active material (the conductive polymer) is always in contact with a second polymer which contains ions, just like the red thin regions of a candy cane are always in close proximity to the white parts. But this is on a much smaller scale.

“This interpenetrating structure enables the material to bend more easily, as well as swell and shrink without cracking, leading to greater longevity. This one method is like killing not just two, but three birds with one stone.”

The outcomes

The Smoukov group had previously pioneered a combinatorial route to multifunctionality using interpenetrating polymer networks (IPN) in which each component would have its own function, rather than using trial-and-error chemistry to fit all functions in one molecule.

This time they applied the method to energy storage, specifically supercapacitors, because of the known problem of poor material utilization deep beneath the electrode surface.

This interpenetration technique drastically increases the material’s surface area, or more accurately the interfacial area between the different polymer components.

Interpenetration also happens to solve two other major problems in supercapacitors. It brings flexibility and toughness because the interfaces stop growth of any cracks that may form in the material. It also allows the thin regions to swell and shrink repeatedly without developing large stresses, so they are electrochemically resistant and maintain their performance over many charging cycles.

The researchers are currently rationally designing and evaluating a range of materials that can be adapted into the interpenetrating polymer system for even better supercapacitors.

In an upcoming review, accepted for publication in the journal Sustainable Energy and Fuels, they overview the different techniques people have used to improve the multiple parameters required for novel supercapacitors.

Such devices could be made in soft and flexible freestanding films, which could power electronics embedded in smart clothing, wearable and implantable devices, and soft robotics. The developers hope to make their contribution to provide ubiquitous power for the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which is still a significant challenge ahead.

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

Semi-Interpenetrating Polymer Networks for Enhanced Supercapacitor Electrodes by Kara D. Fong, Tiesheng Wang, Hyun-Kyung Kim, R. Vasant Kumar, and Stoyan K. Smoukov. ACS Energy Lett., 2017, 2, pp 2014–2020 DOI: 10.1021/acsenergylett.7b00466 Publication Date (Web): August 14, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

A different type of ‘smart’ window with a new solar cell technology

I always like a ‘smart’ window story. Given my issues with summer (I don’t like the heat), anything which promises to help reduce the heat in my home at that time of year, has my vote. Unfortunately, solutions don’t seem to have made a serious impact on the marketplace. Nonetheless, there’s always hope and perhaps this development at Princeton University will be the one to break through the impasse. From a June 30, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Smart windows equipped with controllable glazing can augment lighting, cooling and heating systems by varying their tint, saving up to 40 percent in an average building’s energy costs.

These smart windows require power for operation, so they are relatively complicated to install in existing buildings. But by applying a new solar cell technology, researchers at Princeton University have developed a different type of smart window: a self-powered version that promises to be inexpensive and easy to apply to existing windows. This system features solar cells that selectively absorb near-ultraviolet (near-UV) light, so the new windows are completely self-powered.

A June 30, 2017 Princeton University news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Sunlight is a mixture of electromagnetic radiation made up of near-UV rays, visible light, and infrared energy, or heat,” said Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo, director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and the Theodora D. ’78 and William H. Walton III ’74 Professor in Engineering. “We wanted the smart window to dynamically control the amount of natural light and heat that can come inside, saving on energy cost and making the space more comfortable.”

The smart window controls the transmission of visible light and infrared heat into the building, while the new type of solar cell uses near-UV light to power the system.

“This new technology is actually smart management of the entire spectrum of sunlight,” said Loo, who is a professor of chemical and biological engineering. Loo is one of the authors of a paper, published June 30, that describes this technology, which was developed in her lab.

Because near-UV light is invisible to the human eye, the researchers set out to harness it for the electrical energy needed to activate the tinting technology.

“Using near-UV light to power these windows means that the solar cells can be transparent and occupy the same footprint of the window without competing for the same spectral range or imposing aesthetic and design constraints,” Loo added. “Typical solar cells made of silicon are black because they absorb all visible light and some infrared heat – so those would be unsuitable for this application.”

In the paper published in Nature Energy, the researchers described how they used organic semiconductors – contorted hexabenzocoronene (cHBC) derivatives – for constructing the solar cells. The researchers chose the material because its chemical structure could be modified to absorb a narrow range of wavelengths – in this case, near-UV light. To construct the solar cell, the semiconductor molecules are deposited as thin films on glass with the same production methods used by organic light-emitting diode manufacturers. When the solar cell is operational, sunlight excites the cHBC semiconductors to produce electricity.

At the same time, the researchers constructed a smart window consisting of electrochromic polymers, which control the tint, and can be operated solely using power produced by the solar cell. When near-UV light from the sun generates an electrical charge in the solar cell, the charge triggers a reaction in the electrochromic window, causing it to change from clear to dark blue. When darkened, the window can block more than 80 percent of light.

Nicholas Davy, a doctoral student in the chemical and biological engineering department and the paper’s lead author, said other researchers have already developed transparent solar cells, but those target infrared energy. However, infrared energy carries heat, so using it to generate electricity can conflict with a smart window’s function of controlling the flow of heat in or out of a building. Transparent near-UV solar cells, on the other hand, don’t generate as much power as the infrared version, but don’t impede the transmission of infrared radiation, so they complement the smart window’s task.

Davy said that the Princeton team’s aim is to create a flexible version of the solar-powered smart window system that can be applied to existing windows via lamination.

“Someone in their house or apartment could take these wireless smart window laminates – which could have a sticky backing that is peeled off – and install them on the interior of their windows,” said Davy. “Then you could control the sunlight passing into your home using an app on your phone, thereby instantly improving energy efficiency, comfort, and privacy.”

Joseph Berry, senior research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who studies solar cells but was not involved in the research, said the research project is interesting because the device scales well and targets a specific part of the solar spectrum.

“Integrating the solar cells into the smart windows makes them more attractive for retrofits and you don’t have to deal with wiring power,” said Berry. “And the voltage performance is quite good. The voltage they have been able to produce can drive electronic devices directly, which is technologically quite interesting.”

Davy and Loo have started a new company, called Andluca Technologies, based on the technology described in the paper, and are already exploring other applications for the transparent solar cells. They explained that the near-UV solar cell technology can also power internet-of-things sensors and other low-power consumer products.

“It does not generate enough power for a car, but it can provide auxiliary power for smaller devices, for example, a fan to cool the car while it’s parked in the hot sun,” Loo said.

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

Pairing of near-ultraviolet solar cells with electrochromic windows for smart management of the solar spectrum by Nicholas C. Davy, Melda Sezen-Edmonds, Jia Gao, Xin Lin, Amy Liu, Nan Yao, Antoine Kahn, & Yueh-Lin Loo. Nature Energy 2, Article number: 17104 (2017 doi:10.1038/nenergy.2017.104 Published online: 30 June 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here’s what a sample of the special glass looks like,

Graduate student Nicholas Davy holds a sample of the special window glass. (Photos by David Kelly Crow)

Using only sunlight to desalinate water

The researchers seem to believe that this new desalination technique could be a game changer. From a June 20, 2017 news item on Azonano,

An off-grid technology using only the energy from sunlight to transform salt water into fresh drinking water has been developed as an outcome of the effort from a federally funded research.

The desalination system uses a combination of light-harvesting nanophotonics and membrane distillation technology and is considered to be the first major innovation from the Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), which is a multi-institutional engineering research center located at Rice University.

NEWT’s “nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation” technology (NESMD) integrates tried-and-true water treatment methods with cutting-edge nanotechnology capable of transforming sunlight to heat. …

A June 19, 2017 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

More than 18,000 desalination plants operate in 150 countries, but NEWT’s desalination technology is unlike any other used today.

“Direct solar desalination could be a game changer for some of the estimated 1 billion people who lack access to clean drinking water,” said Rice scientist and water treatment expert Qilin Li, a corresponding author on the study. “This off-grid technology is capable of providing sufficient clean water for family use in a compact footprint, and it can be scaled up to provide water for larger communities.”

The oldest method for making freshwater from salt water is distillation. Salt water is boiled, and the steam is captured and run through a condensing coil. Distillation has been used for centuries, but it requires complex infrastructure and is energy inefficient due to the amount of heat required to boil water and produce steam. More than half the cost of operating a water distillation plant is for energy.

An emerging technology for desalination is membrane distillation, where hot salt water is flowed across one side of a porous membrane and cold freshwater is flowed across the other. Water vapor is naturally drawn through the membrane from the hot to the cold side, and because the seawater need not be boiled, the energy requirements are less than they would be for traditional distillation. However, the energy costs are still significant because heat is continuously lost from the hot side of the membrane to the cold.

“Unlike traditional membrane distillation, NESMD benefits from increasing efficiency with scale,” said Rice’s Naomi Halas, a corresponding author on the paper and the leader of NEWT’s nanophotonics research efforts. “It requires minimal pumping energy for optimal distillate conversion, and there are a number of ways we can further optimize the technology to make it more productive and efficient.”

NEWT’s new technology builds upon research in Halas’ lab to create engineered nanoparticles that harvest as much as 80 percent of sunlight to generate steam. By adding low-cost, commercially available nanoparticles to a porous membrane, NEWT has essentially turned the membrane itself into a one-sided heating element that alone heats the water to drive membrane distillation.

“The integration of photothermal heating capabilities within a water purification membrane for direct, solar-driven desalination opens new opportunities in water purification,” said Yale University ‘s Menachem “Meny” Elimelech, a co-author of the new study and NEWT’s lead researcher for membrane processes.

In the PNAS study, researchers offered proof-of-concept results based on tests with an NESMD chamber about the size of three postage stamps and just a few millimeters thick. The distillation membrane in the chamber contained a specially designed top layer of carbon black nanoparticles infused into a porous polymer. The light-capturing nanoparticles heated the entire surface of the membrane when exposed to sunlight. A thin half-millimeter-thick layer of salt water flowed atop the carbon-black layer, and a cool freshwater stream flowed below.

Li, the leader of NEWT’s advanced treatment test beds at Rice, said the water production rate increased greatly by concentrating the sunlight. “The intensity got up 17.5 kilowatts per meter squared when a lens was used to concentrate sunlight by 25 times, and the water production increased to about 6 liters per meter squared per hour.”

Li said NEWT’s research team has already made a much larger system that contains a panel that is about 70 centimeters by 25 centimeters. Ultimately, she said, NEWT hopes to produce a modular system where users could order as many panels as they needed based on their daily water demands.

“You could assemble these together, just as you would the panels in a solar farm,” she said. “Depending on the water production rate you need, you could calculate how much membrane area you would need. For example, if you need 20 liters per hour, and the panels produce 6 liters per hour per square meter, you would order a little over 3 square meters of panels.”

Established by the National Science Foundation in 2015, NEWT aims to develop compact, mobile, off-grid water-treatment systems that can provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost-effective. NEWT, which is expected to leverage more than $40 million in federal and industrial support over the next decade, is the first NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) in Houston and only the third in Texas since NSF began the ERC program in 1985. NEWT focuses on applications for humanitarian emergency response, rural water systems and wastewater treatment and reuse at remote sites, including both onshore and offshore drilling platforms for oil and gas exploration.

There is a video but it is focused on the NEWT center rather than any specific water technologies,

For anyone interested in the technology, here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ paper,

Nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation for off-grid water purification by Pratiksha D. Dongare, Alessandro Alabastri, Seth Pedersen, Katherine R. Zodrow, Nathaniel J. Hogan, Oara Neumann, Jinjian Wu, Tianxiao Wang, Akshay Deshmukh,f, Menachem Elimelech, Qilin Li, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas. PNAS {Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] doi: 10.1073/pnas.1701835114 June 19, 2017

This paper appears to be open access.

Stellar’s jay gives structural colo(u)r a new look

The structural colo(u)r stories I’ve posted previously identify nanostructures as the reason for why certain animals and plants display a particular set of optical properties, colours that can’t be obtained by pigment or dye. However, the Stellar’s jay structural colour story is a little different.

Caption: Bio-inspired bright structurally colored colloidal amorphous array enhanced by controlling thickness and black background. ©Yukikazu Takeoka

From a May 8, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A Nagoya University-led [Japan] research team mimics the rich color of bird plumage and demonstrates new ways to control how light interacts with materials.

Bright colors in the natural world often result from tiny structures in feathers or wings that change the way light behaves when it’s reflected. So-called “structural color” is responsible for the vivid hues of birds and butterflies. Artificially harnessing this effect could allow us to engineer new materials for applications such as solar cells and chameleon-like adaptive camouflage.

Inspired by the deep blue coloration of a native North American bird, Stellar’s jay, a team at Nagoya University reproduced the color in their lab, giving rise to a new type of artificial pigment. This development was reported in Advanced Materials.

“The Stellar’s jay’s feathers provide an excellent example of angle-independent structural color,” says last author Yukikazu Takeoka, “This color is enhanced by dark materials, which in this case can be attributed to black melanin particles in the feathers.

A May 8, 2017 Nagoya University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of what makes the structural colour of a Stellar’s jay feather different,

In most cases, structural colors appear to change when viewed from different perspectives. For example, imagine the way that the colors on the underside of a CD appear to shift when the disc is viewed from a different angle. The difference in Stellar’s jay’s blue is that the structures, which interfere with light, sit on top of black particles that can absorb a part of this light. This means that at all angles, however you look at it, the color of the Stellar’s Jay does not change.

The team used a “layer-by-layer” approach to build up films of fine particles that recreated the microscopic sponge-like texture and black backing particles of the bird’s feathers.

To mimic the feathers, the researchers covered microscopic black core particles with layers of even smaller transparent particles, to make raspberry-like particles. The size of the core and the thickness of the layers controlled the color and saturation of the resulting pigments. Importantly, the color of these particles did not change with viewing angle.

“Our work represents a much more efficient way to design artificially produced angle-independent structural colors,” Takeoka adds. “We still have much to learn from biological systems, but if we can understand and successfully apply these phenomena, a whole range of new metamaterials will be accessible for all kinds of advanced applications where interactions with light are important.”

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

Bio-Inspired Bright Structurally Colored Colloidal Amorphous Array Enhanced by Controlling Thickness and Black Background by Masanori Iwata, Midori Teshima, Takahiro Seki, Shinya Yoshioka, and Yukikazu Takeoka. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201605050 Version of Record online: 26 APR 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Ordinarily, I’d expect to see the term ‘nano’ somewhere in the press release or in the abstract but that’s not the case here. The best I could find was a reference to ‘submicrometer-sized .. particles” in the abstract. I suppose that could refer to the nanoscale but given that a Japanese researcher (Norio Taniguchi in 1974) coined the phrase ‘nanotechnology’ to describe research at that scale it seems unlikely that Japanese researchers some forty years later wouldn’t use that term when appropriate.

Generating power from polluted air

I have no idea how viable this concept might be but it is certainly appealing, From a May 8, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from the University of Antwerp and KU Leuven (University of Leuven), Belgium, have succeeded in developing a process that purifies air and, at the same time, generates power. The device must only be exposed to light in order to function (ChemSusChem, “Harvesting Hydrogen Gas from Air Pollutants with an Unbiased Gas Phase Photoelectrochemical Cell”).

Caption: The new device must only be exposed to light in order to purify air and generate power. Credit: UAntwerpen and KU Leuven

A May 8, 2017 University of Leuven press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes this nifty research in slightly more detail,

“We use a small device with two rooms separated by a membrane,” explains Professor Sammy Verbruggen (UAntwerp/KU Leuven). “Air is purified on one side, while on the other side hydrogen gas is produced from a part of the degradation products. This hydrogen gas can be stored and used later as fuel, as is already being done in some hydrogen buses, for example.”

In this way, the researchers respond to two major social needs: clean air and alternative energy production. The heart of the solution lies at the membrane level, where the researchers use specific nanomaterials. “These catalysts are capable of producing hydrogen gas and breaking down air pollution,” explains Professor Verbruggen. “In the past, these cells were mostly used to extract hydrogen from water. We have now discovered that this is also possible, and even more efficient, with polluted air.”

It seems to be a complex process, but it is not: the device must only be exposed to light. The researchers’ goal is to be able to use sunlight, as the processes underlying the technology are similar to those found in solar panels. The difference here is that electricity is not generated directly, but rather that air is purified while the generated power is stored as hydrogen gas.

“We are currently working on a scale of only a few square centimetres. At a later stage, we would like to scale up our technology to make the process industrially applicable. We are also working on improving our materials so we can use sunlight more efficiently to trigger the reactions. “

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

Harvesting Hydrogen Gas from Air Pollutants with an Unbiased Gas Phase Photoelectrochemical Cell. by  Prof. Dr. Sammy W. Verbruggen, Myrthe Van Hal1, Tom Bosserez, Dr. Jan Rongé, Dr. Birger Hauchecorne, Prof. Dr. Johan A. Martens, and Prof. Dr. Silvia Lenaerts. ChemSusChem Volume 10, Issue 7, pages 1413–1418, April 10, 2017 DOI: 10.1002/cssc.201601806 Version of Record online: 6 MAR 2017

© 2017 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Skyrmions and ultra-thin multilayer film

The National University of Singapore (NUS) and skyrmions are featured in an April 10, 2017 news item on phys.org,

A team of scientists led by Associate Professor Yang Hyunsoo from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Engineering has invented a novel ultra-thin multilayer film which could harness the properties of tiny magnetic whirls, known as skyrmions, as information carriers for storing and processing data on magnetic media.

The nano-sized thin film, which was developed in collaboration with researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, and Louisiana State University, is a critical step towards the design of data storage devices that use less power and work faster than existing memory technologies. The invention was reported in prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications on 10 March 2017.

An April 10, 2017 NUS press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Tiny magnetic whirls with huge potential as information carriers

The digital transformation has resulted in ever-increasing demands for better processing and storing of large amounts of data, as well as improvements in hard drive technology. Since their discovery in magnetic materials in 2009, skyrmions, which are tiny swirling magnetic textures only a few nanometres in size, have been extensively studied as possible information carriers in next-generation data storage and logic devices.

Skyrmions have been shown to exist in layered systems, with a heavy metal placed beneath a ferromagnetic material. Due to the interaction between the different materials, an interfacial symmetry breaking interaction, known as the Dzyaloshinskii-Moriya interaction (DMI), is formed, and this helps to stabilise a skyrmion. However, without an out-of-plane magnetic field present, the stability of the skyrmion is compromised. In addition, due to its tiny size, it is difficult to image the nano-sized materials.

To address these limitations, the researchers worked towards creating stable magnetic skyrmions at room temperature without the need for a biasing magnetic field.

Unique material for data storage

The NUS team, which also comprises Dr Shawn Pollard and Ms Yu Jiawei from the NUS Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, found that a large DMI could be maintained in multilayer films composed of cobalt and palladium, and this is large enough to stabilise skyrmion spin textures.

In order to image the magnetic structure of these films, the NUS researchers, in collaboration with Brookhaven National Laboratory in the United States, employed Lorentz transmission electron microscopy (L-TEM). L-TEM has the ability to image magnetic structures below 10 nanometres, but it has not been used to observe skyrmions in multilayer geometries previously as it was predicted to exhibit zero signal. However, when conducting the experiments, the researchers found that by tilting the films with respect to the electron beam, they found that they could obtain clear contrast consistent with that expected for skyrmions, with sizes below 100 nanometres.

Dr Pollard explained, “It has long been assumed that there is no DMI in a symmetric structure like the one present in our work, hence, there will be no skyrmion. It is really unexpected for us to find both large DMI and skyrmions in the multilayer film we engineered. What’s more, these nanoscale skyrmions persisted even after the removal of an external biasing magnetic field, which are the first of their kind.”

Assoc Prof Yang added, “This experiment not only demonstrates the usefulness of L-TEM in studying these systems, but also opens up a completely new material in which skyrmions can be created. Without the need for a biasing field, the design and implementation of skyrmion based devices are significantly simplified. The small size of the skyrmions, combined with the incredible stability generated here, could be potentially useful for the design of next-generation spintronic devices that are energy efficient and can outperform current memory technologies.”

Next step

Assoc Prof Yang and his team are currently looking at how nanoscale skyrmions interact with each other and with electrical currents, to further the development of skyrmion based electronics.

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

Observation of stable Néel skyrmions in cobalt/palladium multilayers with Lorentz transmission electron microscopy by Shawn D. Pollard, Joseph A. Garlow, Jiawei Yu, Zhen Wang, Yimei Zhu & Hyunsoo Yang. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14761 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14761 Published online: 10 March 2017

This is an open access paper.