Category Archives: electronics

Wood chip/computer chip, a cellulose nanofibril development

I imagine researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the US Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) are hoping they have managed to create a wood-based computer chip that can be commercialized in the near future. From a May 26, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Portable electronics — typically made of non-renewable, non-biodegradable and potentially toxic materials — are discarded at an alarming rate in consumers’ pursuit of the next best electronic gadget.

In an effort to alleviate the environmental burden of electronic devices, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers has collaborated with researchers in the Madison-based U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) to develop a surprising solution: a semiconductor chip made almost entirely of wood.

The research team, led by UW-Madison electrical and computer engineering professor Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma, described the new device in a paper published today (May 26, 2015) by the journal Nature Communications. The paper demonstrates the feasibility of replacing the substrate, or support layer, of a computer chip, with cellulose nanofibril (CNF), a flexible, biodegradable material made from wood.

Here’s what the wood computer chip looks like,

A cellulose nanofibril (CNF) computer chip rests on a leaf. Photo: Yei Hwan Jung, Wisconsin Nano Engineering Device Laboratory

A cellulose nanofibril (CNF) computer chip rests on a leaf. Photo: Yei Hwan Jung, Wisconsin Nano Engineering Device Laboratory Courtesy University of Wisconsin-Madison

A May 25, 2015 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release by John Steeno, which originated the news item, provides more details,

“The majority of material in a chip is support. We only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else,” Ma says. “Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer.”

Zhiyong Cai, project leader for an engineering composite science research group at FPL, has been developing sustainable nanomaterials since 2009.

“If you take a big tree and cut it down to the individual fiber, the most common product is paper. The dimension of the fiber is in the micron stage,” Cai says. “But what if we could break it down further to the nano scale? At that scale you can make this material, very strong and transparent CNF paper.”

Working with Shaoqin “Sarah” Gong, a UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering, Cai’s group addressed two key barriers to using wood-derived materials in an electronics setting: surface smoothness and thermal expansion.

“You don’t want it to expand or shrink too much. Wood is a natural hydroscopic material and could attract moisture from the air and expand,” Cai says. “With an epoxy coating on the surface of the CNF, we solved both the surface smoothness and the moisture barrier.”

Gong and her students also have been studying bio-based polymers for more than a decade. CNF offers many benefits over current chip substrates, she says.

“The advantage of CNF over other polymers is that it’s a bio-based material and most other polymers are petroleum-based polymers. Bio-based materials are sustainable, bio-compatible and biodegradable,” Gong says. “And, compared to other polymers, CNF actually has a relatively low thermal expansion coefficient.”

The group’s work also demonstrates a more environmentally friendly process that showed performance similar to existing chips. The majority of today’s wireless devices use gallium arsenide-based microwave chips due to their superior high-frequency operation and power handling capabilities. However, gallium arsenide can be environmentally toxic, particularly in the massive quantities of discarded wireless electronics.

Yei Hwan Jung, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering and a co-author of the paper, says the new process greatly reduces the use of such expensive and potentially toxic material.

“I’ve made 1,500 gallium arsenide transistors in a 5-by-6 millimeter chip. Typically for a microwave chip that size, there are only eight to 40 transistors. The rest of the area is just wasted,” he says. “We take our design and put it on CNF using deterministic assembly technique, then we can put it wherever we want and make a completely functional circuit with performance comparable to existing chips.”

While the biodegradability of these materials will have a positive impact on the environment, Ma says the flexibility of the technology can lead to widespread adoption of these electronic chips.

“Mass-producing current semiconductor chips is so cheap, and it may take time for the industry to adapt to our design,” he says. “But flexible electronics are the future, and we think we’re going to be well ahead of the curve.”

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

High-performance green flexible electronics based on biodegradable cellulose nanofibril paper by Yei Hwan Jung, Tzu-Hsuan Chang, Huilong Zhang, Chunhua Yao, Qifeng Zheng, Vina W. Yang, Hongyi Mi, Munho Kim,    Sang June Cho, Dong-Wook Park, Hao Jiang, Juhwan Lee,    Yijie Qiu, Weidong Zhou, Zhiyong Cai, Shaoqin Gong, & Zhenqiang Ma. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7170 doi:10.1038/ncomms8170 Published 26 May 2015

This paper is open access.

Good enough for the real world? A new device consisting of a singular molecule

While molecular diodes (a diode consisting of a single molecule) have been developed before, Columbia University’s Latha Venkataraman and her team have developed a new technique which may take these devices from the lab to real life. From a May 25, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Under the direction of Latha Venkataraman, associate professor of applied physics at Columbia Engineering, researchers have designed a new technique to create a single-molecule diode, and, in doing so, they have developed molecular diodes that perform 50 times better than all prior designs. Venkataraman’s group is the first to develop a single-molecule diode that may have real-world technological applications for nanoscale devices.

A May 25, 2015 Columbia University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the new technique in greater detail,

“Our new approach created a single-molecule diode that has a high (>250) rectification and a high “on” current (~ 0.1 micro Amps),” says Venkataraman. “Constructing a device where the active elements are only a single molecule has long been a tantalizing dream in nanoscience. This goal, which has been the ‘holy grail’ of molecular electronics ever since its inception with Aviram and Ratner’s 1974 seminal paper, represents the ultimate in functional miniaturization that can be achieved for an electronic device.”

With electronic devices becoming smaller every day, the field of molecular electronics has become ever more critical in solving the problem of further miniaturization, and single molecules represent the limit of miniaturization. The idea of creating a single-molecule diode was suggested by Arieh Aviram and Mark Ratner who theorized in 1974 that a molecule could act as a rectifier, a one-way conductor of electric current. Researchers have since been exploring the charge-transport properties of molecules. They have shown that single-molecules attached to metal electrodes (single-molecule junctions) can be made to act as a variety of circuit elements, including resistors, switches, transistors, and, indeed, diodes. They have learned that it is possible to see quantum mechanical effects, such as interference, manifest in the conductance properties of molecular junctions.

Since a diode acts as an electricity valve, its structure needs to be asymmetric so that electricity flowing in one direction experiences a different environment than electricity flowing in the other direction. In order to develop a single-molecule diode, researchers have simply designed molecules that have asymmetric structures.

“While such asymmetric molecules do indeed display some diode-like properties, they are not effective,” explains Brian Capozzi, a PhD student working with Venkataraman and lead author of the paper. “A well-designed diode should only allow current to flow in one direction–the ‘on’ direction–and it should allow a lot of current to flow in that direction. Asymmetric molecular designs have typically suffered from very low current flow in both ‘on’ and ‘off’ directions, and the ratio of current flow in the two has typically been low. Ideally, the ratio of ‘on’ current to ‘off’ current, the rectification ratio, should be very high.”

In order to overcome the issues associated with asymmetric molecular design, Venkataraman and her colleagues–Chemistry Assistant Professor Luis Campos’ group at Columbia and Jeffrey Neaton’s group at the Molecular Foundry at UC Berkeley–focused on developing an asymmetry in the environment around the molecular junction. They created an environmental asymmetry through a rather simple method–they surrounded the active molecule with an ionic solution and used gold metal electrodes of different sizes to contact the molecule.

Their results achieved rectification ratios as high as 250: 50 times higher than earlier designs. The “on” current flow in their devices can be more than 0.1 microamps, which, Venkataraman notes, is a lot of current to be passing through a single-molecule. And, because this new technique is so easily implemented, it can be applied to all nanoscale devices of all types, including those that are made with graphene electrodes.

“It’s amazing to be able to design a molecular circuit, using concepts from chemistry and physics, and have it do something functional,” Venkataraman says. “The length scale is so small that quantum mechanical effects are absolutely a crucial aspect of the device. So it is truly a triumph to be able to create something that you will never be able to physically see and that behaves as intended.”

She and her team are now working on understanding the fundamental physics behind their discovery, and trying to increase the rectification ratios they observed, using new molecular systems.

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

Single-molecule diodes with high rectification ratios through environmental control by Brian Capozzi, Jianlong Xia, Olgun Adak, Emma J. Dell, Zhen-Fei Liu, Jeffrey C. Taylor, Jeffrey B. Neaton, Luis M. Campos, & Latha Venkataraman. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.97 Published online 25 May 2015

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

An efficient method for signal transmission from nanocomponents

A May 23, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes research into perfecting the use of nanocomponents in electronic circuits,

Physicists have developed an innovative method that could enable the efficient use of nanocomponents in electronic circuits. To achieve this, they have developed a layout in which a nanocomponent is connected to two electrical conductors, which uncouple the electrical signal in a highly efficient manner. The scientists at the Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel have published their results in the scientific journal Nature Communications together with their colleagues from ETH Zurich.

A May 22, 2015 University of Basel press release (also on EurkeAlert) describes why there is interest in smaller components and some of the challenges once electrodes can be measured in atoms,

Electronic components are becoming smaller and smaller. Components measuring just a few nanometers – the size of around ten atoms – are already being produced in research laboratories. Thanks to miniaturization, numerous electronic components can be placed in restricted spaces, which will boost the performance of electronics even further in the future.

Teams of scientists around the world are investigating how to produce such nanocomponents with the aid of carbon nanotubes. These tubes have unique properties – they offer excellent heat conduction, can withstand strong currents, and are suitable for use as conductors or semiconductors. However, signal transmission between a carbon nanotube and a significantly larger electrical conductor remains problematic as large portions of the electrical signal are lost due to the reflection of part of the signal.

Antireflex increases efficiency

A similar problem occurs with light sources inside a glass object. A large amount of light is reflected by the walls, which means that only a small proportion reaches the outside. This can be countered by using an antireflex coating on the walls.

The press release goes on to describe new technique for addressing the issue,

Led by Professor Christian Schönenberger, scientists in Basel are now taking a similar approach to nanoelectronics. They have developed an antireflex device for electrical signals to reduce the reflection that occurs during transmission from nanocomponents to larger circuits. To do so, they created a special formation of electrical conductors of a certain length, which are coupled with a carbon nanotube. The researchers were therefore able to efficiently uncouple a high-frequency signal from the nanocomponent.

Differences in impedance cause the problem

Coupling nanostructures with significantly larger conductors proved difficult because they have very different impedances. The greater the difference in impedance between two conducting structures, the greater the loss during transmission. The difference between nanocomponents and macroscopic conductors is so great that no signal will be transmitted unless countermeasures are taken. The antireflex device minimizes this effect and adjusts the impedances, leading to efficient coupling. This brings the scientists significantly closer to their goal of using nanocomponents to transmit signals in electronic parts.

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

Clean carbon nanotubes coupled to superconducting impedance-matching circuits by V. Ranjan, G. Puebla-Hellmann, M. Jung, T. Hasler, A. Nunnenkamp, M. Muoth, C. Hierold, A. Wallraff, & C. Schönenberger. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7165 doi:10.1038/ncomms8165 Published 15 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

‘Green’, flexible electronics with nanocellulose materials

Bendable or flexible electronics based on nanocellulose paper present a ‘green’ alternative to other solutions according to a May 20, 2015 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Technology experts have long predicted the coming age of flexible electronics, and researchers have been working on multiple fronts to reach that goal. But many of the advances rely on petroleum-based plastics and toxic materials. Yu-Zhong Wang, Fei Song and colleagues wanted to seek a “greener” way forward.

The researchers developed a thin, clear nanocellulose paper made out of wood flour and infused it with biocompatible quantum dots — tiny, semiconducting crystals — made out of zinc and selenium. The paper glowed at room temperature and could be rolled and unrolled without cracking.

(h’t Nanotechnology Now, May 20, 2015)

There’s no mention in the news release or abstract as to what material (wood, carrot, banana, etc.) was used to derive the nanocellulose. Regardless, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Let It Shine: A Transparent and Photoluminescent Foldable Nanocellulose/Quantum Dot Paper by Juan Xue, Fei Song, Xue-wu Yin, Xiu-li Wang, and Yu-zhong Wang. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2015, 7 (19), pp 10076–10079 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b02011 Publication Date (Web): May 4, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Memristor, memristor, you are popular

Regular readers know I have a long-standing interest in memristor and artificial brains. I have three memristor-related pieces of research,  published in the last month or so, for this post.

First, there’s some research into nano memory at RMIT University, Australia, and the University of California at Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara). From a May 12, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

RMIT University researchers have mimicked the way the human brain processes information with the development of an electronic long-term memory cell.

Researchers at the MicroNano Research Facility (MNRF) have built the one of the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cell which mirrors the brain’s ability to simultaneously process and store multiple strands of information.

The development brings them closer to imitating key electronic aspects of the human brain — a vital step towards creating a bionic brain — which could help unlock successful treatments for common neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

A May 11, 2015 RMIT University news release, which originated the news item, reveals more about the researchers’ excitement and about the research,

“This is the closest we have come to creating a brain-like system with memory that learns and stores analog information and is quick at retrieving this stored information,” Dr Sharath said.

“The human brain is an extremely complex analog computer… its evolution is based on its previous experiences, and up until now this functionality has not been able to be adequately reproduced with digital technology.”

The ability to create highly dense and ultra-fast analog memory cells paves the way for imitating highly sophisticated biological neural networks, he said.

The research builds on RMIT’s previous discovery where ultra-fast nano-scale memories were developed using a functional oxide material in the form of an ultra-thin film – 10,000 times thinner than a human hair.

Dr Hussein Nili, lead author of the study, said: “This new discovery is significant as it allows the multi-state cell to store and process information in the very same way that the brain does.

“Think of an old camera which could only take pictures in black and white. The same analogy applies here, rather than just black and white memories we now have memories in full color with shade, light and texture, it is a major step.”

While these new devices are able to store much more information than conventional digital memories (which store just 0s and 1s), it is their brain-like ability to remember and retain previous information that is exciting.

“We have now introduced controlled faults or defects in the oxide material along with the addition of metallic atoms, which unleashes the full potential of the ‘memristive’ effect – where the memory element’s behaviour is dependent on its past experiences,” Dr Nili said.

Nano-scale memories are precursors to the storage components of the complex artificial intelligence network needed to develop a bionic brain.

Dr Nili said the research had myriad practical applications including the potential for scientists to replicate the human brain outside of the body.

“If you could replicate a brain outside the body, it would minimise ethical issues involved in treating and experimenting on the brain which can lead to better understanding of neurological conditions,” Dr Nili said.

The research, supported by the Australian Research Council, was conducted in collaboration with the University of California Santa Barbara.

Here’s a link to and a citation for this memristive nano device,

Donor-Induced Performance Tuning of Amorphous SrTiO3 Memristive Nanodevices: Multistate Resistive Switching and Mechanical Tunability by  Hussein Nili, Sumeet Walia, Ahmad Esmaielzadeh Kandjani, Rajesh Ramanathan, Philipp Gutruf, Taimur Ahmed, Sivacarendran Balendhran, Vipul Bansal, Dmitri B. Strukov, Omid Kavehei, Madhu Bhaskaran, and Sharath Sriram. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201501019 Article first published online: 14 APR 2015

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

The second published piece of memristor-related research comes from a UC Santa Barbara and  Stony Brook University (New York state) team but is being publicized by UC Santa Barbara. From a May 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

In what marks a significant step forward for artificial intelligence, researchers at UC Santa Barbara have demonstrated the functionality of a simple artificial neural circuit (Nature, “Training and operation of an integrated neuromorphic network based on metal-oxide memristors”). For the first time, a circuit of about 100 artificial synapses was proved to perform a simple version of a typical human task: image classification.

A May 11, 2015 UC Santa Barbara news release (also on EurekAlert)by Sonia Fernandez, which originated the news item, situates this development within the ‘artificial brain’ effort while describing it in more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

“It’s a small, but important step,” said Dmitri Strukov, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. With time and further progress, the circuitry may eventually be expanded and scaled to approach something like the human brain’s, which has 1015 (one quadrillion) synaptic connections.

For all its errors and potential for faultiness, the human brain remains a model of computational power and efficiency for engineers like Strukov and his colleagues, Mirko Prezioso, Farnood Merrikh-Bayat, Brian Hoskins and Gina Adam. That’s because the brain can accomplish certain functions in a fraction of a second what computers would require far more time and energy to perform.

… As you read this, your brain is making countless split-second decisions about the letters and symbols you see, classifying their shapes and relative positions to each other and deriving different levels of meaning through many channels of context, in as little time as it takes you to scan over this print. Change the font, or even the orientation of the letters, and it’s likely you would still be able to read this and derive the same meaning.

In the researchers’ demonstration, the circuit implementing the rudimentary artificial neural network was able to successfully classify three letters (“z”, “v” and “n”) by their images, each letter stylized in different ways or saturated with “noise”. In a process similar to how we humans pick our friends out from a crowd, or find the right key from a ring of similar keys, the simple neural circuitry was able to correctly classify the simple images.

“While the circuit was very small compared to practical networks, it is big enough to prove the concept of practicality,” said Merrikh-Bayat. According to Gina Adam, as interest grows in the technology, so will research momentum.

“And, as more solutions to the technological challenges are proposed the technology will be able to make it to the market sooner,” she said.

Key to this technology is the memristor (a combination of “memory” and “resistor”), an electronic component whose resistance changes depending on the direction of the flow of the electrical charge. Unlike conventional transistors, which rely on the drift and diffusion of electrons and their holes through semiconducting material, memristor operation is based on ionic movement, similar to the way human neural cells generate neural electrical signals.

“The memory state is stored as a specific concentration profile of defects that can be moved back and forth within the memristor,” said Strukov. The ionic memory mechanism brings several advantages over purely electron-based memories, which makes it very attractive for artificial neural network implementation, he added.

“For example, many different configurations of ionic profiles result in a continuum of memory states and hence analog memory functionality,” he said. “Ions are also much heavier than electrons and do not tunnel easily, which permits aggressive scaling of memristors without sacrificing analog properties.”

This is where analog memory trumps digital memory: In order to create the same human brain-type functionality with conventional technology, the resulting device would have to be enormous — loaded with multitudes of transistors that would require far more energy.

“Classical computers will always find an ineluctable limit to efficient brain-like computation in their very architecture,” said lead researcher Prezioso. “This memristor-based technology relies on a completely different way inspired by biological brain to carry on computation.”

To be able to approach functionality of the human brain, however, many more memristors would be required to build more complex neural networks to do the same kinds of things we can do with barely any effort and energy, such as identify different versions of the same thing or infer the presence or identity of an object not based on the object itself but on other things in a scene.

Potential applications already exist for this emerging technology, such as medical imaging, the improvement of navigation systems or even for searches based on images rather than on text. The energy-efficient compact circuitry the researchers are striving to create would also go a long way toward creating the kind of high-performance computers and memory storage devices users will continue to seek long after the proliferation of digital transistors predicted by Moore’s Law becomes too unwieldy for conventional electronics.

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

Training and operation of an integrated neuromorphic network based on metal-oxide memristors by M. Prezioso, F. Merrikh-Bayat, B. D. Hoskins, G. C. Adam, K. K. Likharev,    & D. B. Strukov. Nature 521, 61–64 (07 May 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14441

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

The third and last piece of research, which is from Rice University, hasn’t received any publicity yet, unusual given Rice’s very active communications/media department. Here’s a link to and a citation for their memristor paper,

2D materials: Memristor goes two-dimensional by Jiangtan Yuan & Jun Lou. Nature Nanotechnology 10, 389–390 (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.94 Published online 07 May 2015

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

Dexter Johnson has written up the RMIT research (his May 14, 2015 post on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website). He linked it to research from Mark Hersam’s team at Northwestern University (my April 10, 2015 posting) on creating a three-terminal memristor enabling its use in complex electronics systems. Dexter strongly hints in his headline that these developments could lead to bionic brains.

For those who’d like more memristor information, this June 26, 2014 posting which brings together some developments at the University of Michigan and information about developments in the industrial sector is my suggestion for a starting point. Also, you may want to check out my material on HP Labs, especially prominent in the story due to the company’s 2008 ‘discovery’ of the memristor, described on a page in my Nanotech Mysteries wiki, and the controversy triggered by the company’s terminology (there’s more about the controversy in my April 7, 2010 interview with Forrest H Bennett III).

Microbattery from the University of Illinois

Caption: This is an image of the holographically patterned microbattery. Credit: University of Illinois

Caption: This is an image of the holographically patterned microbattery.
Credit: University of Illinois

Hard to believe that’s a battery but the researchers at the University of Illinois  assure us this is so according to a May 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

By combining 3D holographic lithography and 2D photolithography, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have demonstrated a high-performance 3D microbattery suitable for large-scale on-chip integration with microelectronic devices.

“This 3D microbattery has exceptional performance and scalability, and we think it will be of importance for many applications,” explained Paul Braun, a professor of materials science and engineering at Illinois. “Micro-scale devices typically utilize power supplied off-chip because of difficulties in miniaturizing energy storage technologies. A miniaturized high-energy and high-power on-chip battery would be highly desirable for applications including autonomous microscale actuators, distributed wireless sensors and transmitters, monitors, and portable and implantable medical devices.”

A May 11, 2015 University of Illinois news release on EurkeAlert, which originated the news item, provides some insight into and detail about the research,

“Due to the complexity of 3D electrodes, it is generally difficult to realize such batteries, let alone the possibility of on-chip integration and scaling. In this project, we developed an effective method to make high-performance 3D lithium-ion microbatteries using processes that are highly compatible with the fabrication of microelectronics,” stated Hailong Ning, a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and first author of the article, “Holographic Patterning of High Performance on-chip 3D Lithium-ion Microbatteries,” appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We utilized 3D holographic lithography to define the interior structure of electrodes and 2D photolithography to create the desired electrode shape.” Ning added. “This work merges important concepts in fabrication, characterization, and modeling, showing that the energy and power of the microbattery are strongly related to the structural parameters of the electrodes such as size, shape, surface area, porosity, and tortuosity. A significant strength of this new method is that these parameters can be easily controlled during lithography steps, which offers unique flexibility for designing next-generation on-chip energy storage devices.”

Enabled by a 3D holographic patterning technique–where multiple optical beams interfere inside the photoresist creating a desirable 3D structure–the battery possesses well-defined, periodically structured porous electrodes, that facilitates the fast transports of electrons and ions inside the battery, offering supercapacitor-like power.

“Although accurate control on the interfering optical beams is required to construct 3D holographic lithography, recent advances have significantly simplified the required optics, enabling creation of structures via a single incident beam and standard photoresist processing. This makes it highly scalable and compatible with microfabrication,” stated John Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering, who has worked with Braun and his team to develop the technology.

“Micro-engineered battery architectures, combined with high energy material such as tin, offer exciting new battery features including high energy capacity and good cycle lives, which provide the ability to power practical devices,” stated William King, a professor of mechanical science and engineering, who is a co-author of this work.

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

Holographic patterning of high-performance on-chip 3D lithium-ion microbatteries by Hailong Ning, James H. Pikul, Runyu Zhang, Xuejiao Li, Sheng Xu, Junjie Wang, John A. Rogers, William P. King, and Paul V. Braun. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1423889112

This paper is behind a paywall.

Fully textile-embedded transparent and flexible technology?

There are a lot of research teams jockeying for position in the transparent, flexible electrodes stakes (for anyone unfamiliar with the slang, I’m comparing the competition between various research teams to a horse race). A May 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes work from an international collaboration at the University of Exeter (UK), Note: A link has been removed,

An international team of scientists, including Professor Monica Craciun from the University of Exeter, have pioneered a new technique to embed transparent, flexible graphene electrodes into fibres commonly associated with the textile industry.

The discovery could revolutionise the creation of wearable electronic devices, such as clothing containing computers, phones and MP3 players, which are lightweight, durable and easily transportable.

The international collaborative research, which includes experts from the Centre for Graphene Science at the University of Exeter, the Institute for Systems Engineering and Computers, Microsystems and Nanotechnology (INESC-MN) in Lisbon, the Universities of Lisbon and Aveiro in Portugal and the Belgian Textile Research Centre (CenTexBel), is published in the leading scientific journal Scientific Reports (“Transparent conductive graphene textile fibers”).

A May 11, 2015 University of Exeter press release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item,  describes the current situation regarding transparent and flexible electrodes in textiles and how the research at Exeter improves the situation,

Professor Craciun, co-author of the research said: “This is a pivotal point in the future of wearable electronic devices. The potential has been there for a number of years, and transparent and flexible electrodes are already widely used in plastics and glass, for example. But this is the first example of a textile electrode being truly embedded in a yarn. The possibilities for its use are endless, including textile GPS systems, to biomedical monitoring, personal security or even communication tools for those who are sensory impaired.  The only limits are really within our own imagination.”

At just one atom thick, graphene is the thinnest substance capable of conducting electricity. It is very flexible and is one of the strongest known materials. The race has been on for scientists and engineers to adapt graphene for the use in wearable electronic devices in recent years.

This new research has identified that ‘monolayer graphene’, which has exceptional electrical, mechanical and optical properties, make it a highly attractive proposition as a transparent electrode for applications in wearable electronics. In this work graphene was created by a growth method called chemical vapour deposition (CVD) onto copper foil, using a state-of-the-art nanoCVD system recently developed by Moorfield.

The collaborative team established a technique to transfer graphene from the copper foils to a polypropylene fibre already commonly used in the textile industry.

Dr Helena Alves who led the research team from INESC-MN and the University of Aveiro said: “The concept of wearable technology is emerging, but so far having fully textile-embedded transparent and flexible technology is currently non-existing. Therefore, the development of processes and engineering for the integration of graphene in textiles would give rise to a new universe of commercial applications. “

Dr Ana Neves, Associate Research Fellow in Prof Craciun’s team from Exeter’s Engineering Department and former postdoctoral researcher at INESC added: “We are surrounded by fabrics, the carpet floors in our homes or offices, the seats in our cars, and obviously all our garments and clothing accessories. The incorporation of electronic devices on fabrics would certainly be a game-changer in modern technology.

“All electronic devices need wiring, so the first issue to be address in this strategy is the development of conducting textile fibres while keeping the same aspect, comfort and lightness. The methodology that we have developed to prepare transparent and conductive textile fibres by coating them with graphene will now open way to the integration of electronic devices on these textile fibres.”

Dr Isabel De Schrijver,an expert of smart textiles from CenTexBel said: “Successful manufacturing of wearable electronics has the potential for a disruptive technology with a wide array of potential new applications. We are very excited about the potential of this breakthrough and look forward to seeing where it can take the electronics industry in the future.”

Professor Saverio Russo, co-author and also from the University of Exeter, added: “This breakthrough will also nurture the birth of novel and transformative research directions benefitting a wide range of sectors ranging from defence to health care. “

In 2012 Professor Craciun and Professor Russo, from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Graphene Science, discovered GraphExeter – sandwiched molecules of ferric chloride between two graphene layers which makes a whole new system that is the best known transparent material able to conduct electricity.  The same team recently discovered that GraphExeter is also more stable than many transparent conductors commonly used by, for example, the display industry.

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

Electron transport of WS2 transistors in a hexagonal boron nitride dielectric environment by Freddie Withers, Thomas Hardisty Bointon, David Christopher Hudson, Monica Felicia Craciun, & Saverio Russo. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 4967 doi:10.1038/srep04967 Published 15 May 2014

Did they wait a year to announce the research or is this a second-go-round? In any event, it is an open access paper.

* Added EurekAlert link 1120 hours PDT on May 12, 2015.

Just how bendy are the new organic semiconductors?

In all the excitement about flexible electronics, an interesting question about performance, which seems to have been overlooked until now (how bendy are they?), is being answered by scientists, according to a May 5, 2015 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert),

A revolution is coming in flexible electronic technologies as cheaper, more flexible, organic transistors come on the scene to replace expensive, rigid, silicone-based semiconductors, but not enough is known about how bending in these new thin-film electronic devices will affect their performance, say materials scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

They are the first to apply inhomogeneous deformations, that is strain, to the conducting channel of an organic transistor and to understand the observed effects, says Reyes-Martinez [Marcos Reyes-Martinez], who conducted the series of experiments as part of his doctoral work.

As he explains, “This is relevant to today’s tech industry because transistors drive the logic of all the consumer electronics we use. In the screen on your smart phone, for example, every little pixel that makes up the image is turned on and off by hundreds of thousands or even millions of miniaturized transistors.”

“Traditionally, the transistors are rigid, made of an inorganic material such as silicon,” he adds. “We’re working with a crystalline semiconductorcalled rubrene, which is an organic, carbon-based material that has performance factors, such as charge-carrier mobility, surpassing those measured in amorphous silicon. Organic semiconductors are an interesting alternative to silicon because their properties can be tuned to make them easily processed, allowing them to coat a variety of surfaces, including soft substrates at relatively low temperatures. As a result, devices based on organic semiconductors are projected to be cheaper since they do not require high temperatures, clean rooms and expensive processing steps like silicon does.”

Until now, Reyes-Martinez notes, most researchers have focused on controlling the detrimental effects of mechanical deformation to atransistor’s electrical properties. But in their series of systematic experiments, the UMass Amherst team discovered that mechanical deformations only decrease performance under certain conditions, and actually can enhance or have no effect in other instances.

“Our goal was not only to show these effects, but to explain and understand them. What we’ve done istake advantage of the ordered structure of ultra-thin organic single crystals of rubrene to fabricate high-perfomance, thin-film transistors,” he says. “This is the first time that anyone has carried out detailed fundamental work at these length scales with a single crystal.”

Though single crystals were once thought to be too fragile for flexible applications, the UMass Amherst team found that crystals ranging in thickness from about 150 nanometers to 1 micrometer were thin enough to be wrinkled and applied to any elastomer substrate. Reyes-Martinez also notes, “Our experiments are especially important because they help scientists working on flexible electronic devices to determine performance limitations of new materials under extreme mechanical deformations, such as when electronic devices conform to skin.”

They developed an analytical model based on plate bending theoryto quantifythe different local strains imposed on the transistor structure by the wrinkle deformations. Using their model they are able to predict how different deformations modulate charge mobility, which no one had quantified before, Reyes-Martinez notes.

These contributions “represent a significant step forward in structure-function relationships in organic semiconductors, critical for the development of the next generation of flexible electronic devices,” the authors point out.

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

Rubrene crystal field-effect mobility modulation via conducting channel wrinkling by Marcos A. Reyes-Martinez, Alfred J. Crosby,  & Alejandro L. Briseno. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6948 doi:10.1038/ncomms7948 Published 05 May 2015

This is an open access paper.

Are you sure my artificial muscles don’t smell like onions?

A May 5, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily highlights some research on artificial muscles from the National Taiwan University,

Just one well-placed slice into a particularly pungent onion can send even the most seasoned chef running for a box of tissues. Now, this humble root vegetable is proving its strength outside the culinary world as well — in an artificial muscle created from onion cells. Unlike previous artificial muscles, this one, created by a group of researchers from National Taiwan University, can either expand or contract to bend in different directions depending on the driving voltage applied.

A May 5, 2015 American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release by Laurel Hamers,  which originated the news item, describes the research goals,

“The initial goal was to develop an engineered microstructure in artificial muscles for increasing the actuation deformation [the amount the muscle can bend or stretch when triggered],” said lead researcher Wen-Pin Shih. “One day, we found that the onion’s cell structure and its dimensions were similar to what we had been making.” Shih lead the study along with graduate student Chien-Chun Chen and their colleagues.

The onion epidermis — the fragile skin found just beneath the onion’s surface — is a thin, translucent layer of blocky cells arranged in a tightly-packed lattice. Shih and his colleagues thought that onion epidermal cells might be a viable candidate for the tricky task of creating a more versatile muscle that could expand or contract while bending. To date, Shih said, artificial muscles can either bend or contract, but not at the same time.

The researchers treated the cells with acid to remove the hemicellulose, a protein that makes the cell walls rigid. Then, they coated both sides of the onion layer with gold. When current flowed through the gold electrodes, the onion cells bent and stretched much like a muscle.

“We intentionally made the top and bottom electrodes a different thickness so that the cell stiffness becomes asymmetric from top to bottom,” said Shih. The asymmetry gave the researchers control over the muscle’s response: a low voltage made them expand and flex downwards, towards the thicker bottom layer. A high voltage, on the other hand, caused the cells to contract and flex upwards, towards the thinner top layer.

“We found that the single-layer lattice structure can generate unique actuation modes that engineered artificial muscle has never achieved before,” said Shih.

To demonstrate their device’s utility, the researchers combined two onion muscles into a pair of tweezers, which they used to pick up a cotton ball. In the future, they hope to increase the lifting power of their artificial muscles. “Our next step is to reduce the driving voltage and the actuating force,” said Shih.

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

Onion artificial muscles by Chien-Chun Chen, Wen-Pin Shih, Pei-Zen Chang, Hsi-Mei Lai, Shing-Yun Chang, Pin-Chun Huang and Huai-An Jeng. Appl. Phys. Lett. 106, 183702 (2015); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4917498

This appears to be open access.

Customizing DNA nanotubes quickly and cheaply

Building on some work published earlier this year, scientists from McGill University (Montréal, Québec) created a new technique for building DNA nanotubes block by block (my March 2, 2015 posting) and, now, the newest research from the McGill team features a way of making long DNA strands with that technique, as mentioned in a May 7, 2015 news item on Azonano,

Imagine taking strands of DNA – the material in our cells that determines how we look and function – and using it to build tiny structures that can deliver drugs to targets within the body or take electronic miniaturization to a whole new level.

While it may still sound like science fiction to most of us, researchers have been piecing together and experimenting with DNA structures for decades. And, in recent years, work by scientists such as McGill University chemistry professor Hanadi Sleiman has moved the use of man-made DNA structures closer to a variety of real-world applications.

But as these applications continue to develop, they require increasingly large and complex strands of DNA. That has posed a problem, because the automated systems used for making synthetic DNA can’t produce strands containing more than about 100 bases (the chemicals that link up to form the strands). It can take hundreds of these short strands to assemble nanotubes for applications such as smart drug-delivery systems.

Here’s a video featuring one of the researchers taking about this latest work from McGill University,

A May 6, 2015 McGill University news release, which originated the news item, describes the long DNA nanotubes in more detail,

In new research published May 5 in Nature Communications, however, Sleiman’’s team at McGill reports that it has devised a technique to create much longer strands of DNA, including custom-designed sequence patterns. What’s more, this approach also produces large amounts of these longer strands in just a few hours, making the process potentially more economical and commercially viable than existing techniques.

The new method involves piecing together small strands one after the other, so that they attach into a longer DNA strand with the help of an enzyme known as ligase.  A second enzyme, polymerase, is then used to generate many copies of the long DNA strand, yielding larger volumes of the material. The polymerase process has the added advantage of correcting any errors that may have been introduced into the sequence, amplifying only the correctly sequenced, full-length product.

Designer DNA materials

The team used these strands as a scaffold to make DNA nanotubes, demonstrating that the technique allows the length and functions of the tubes to be precisely programmed. “In the end, what we get is a long, synthetic DNA strand with exactly the sequence of bases that we want, and with exactly as many repeat units as we want,” explains Sleiman, who co-authored the study with Graham Hamblin, who recently completed his doctorate, and PhD student Janane Rahbani.

“This work opens the door toward a new design strategy in DNA nanotechnology,” Sleiman says. “This could provide access to designer DNA materials that are economical and can compete with cheaper, but less versatile technologies. In the future, uses could range from customized gene and protein synthesis, to applications in nanoelectronics, nano-optics, and medicine, including diagnosis and therapy.”

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

Sequential growth of long DNA strands with user-defined patterns for nanostructures and scaffolds by Graham D. Hamblin, Janane F. Rahbani, & Hanadi F. Sleiman. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7065 doi:10.1038/ncomms8065 Published 05 May 2015

This article is behind a paywall.