Category Archives: electronics

Shades of the Nokia Morph: a smartphone than conforms to your wrist

A March 16, 2017 news item on Nanowerk brought back some memories for me,

Some day, your smartphone might completely conform to your wrist, and when it does, it might be covered in pure gold, thanks to researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Nokia, a Finnish telecommunications company, was promoting its idea for a smartphone ‘and more’ that could be worn around your wrist in a concept called the Morph. It was introduced in 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (see my March 20, 2010 posting for one of my last updates on this moribund project). Here’s Nokia’s Morph video (almost 6 mins.),

Getting back to the present day, here’s what the Missouri researchers are working on,

An example of a gold foil peeled from single crystal silicon. Reprinted with permission from Naveen Mahenderkar et al., Science [355]:[1203] (2017)

A March 16, 2017 Missouri University of Science and Technology news release, by Greg Katski, which originated the news item, provides more details about this Missouri version (Note: A link has been removed),

Writing in the March 17 [2017] issue of the journal Science, the S&T researchers say they have developed a way to “grow” thin layers of gold on single crystal wafers of silicon, remove the gold foils, and use them as substrates on which to grow other electronic materials. The research team’s discovery could revolutionize wearable or “flexible” technology research, greatly improving the versatility of such electronics in the future.

According to lead researcher Jay A. Switzer, the majority of research into wearable technology has been done using polymer substrates, or substrates made up of multiple crystals. “And then they put some typically organic semiconductor on there that ends up being flexible, but you lose the order that (silicon) has,” says Switzer, Donald L. Castleman/FCR Endowed Professor of Discovery in Chemistry at S&T.

Because the polymer substrates are made up of multiple crystals, they have what are called grain boundaries, says Switzer. These grain boundaries can greatly limit the performance of an electronic device.

“Say you’re making a solar cell or an LED,” he says. “In a semiconductor, you have electrons and you have holes, which are the opposite of electrons. They can combine at grain boundaries and give off heat. And then you end up losing the light that you get out of an LED, or the current or voltage that you might get out of a solar cell.”

Most electronics on the market are made of silicon because it’s “relatively cheap, but also highly ordered,” Switzer says.

“99.99 percent of electronics are made out of silicon, and there’s a reason – it works great,” he says. “It’s a single crystal, and the atoms are perfectly aligned. But, when you have a single crystal like that, typically, it’s not flexible.”

By starting with single crystal silicon and growing gold foils on it, Switzer is able to keep the high order of silicon on the foil. But because the foil is gold, it’s also highly durable and flexible.

“We bent it 4,000 times, and basically the resistance didn’t change,” he says.

The gold foils are also essentially transparent because they are so thin. According to Switzer, his team has peeled foils as thin as seven nanometers.

Switzer says the challenge his research team faced was not in growing gold on the single crystal silicon, but getting it to peel off as such a thin layer of foil. Gold typically bonds very well to silicon.

“So we came up with this trick where we could photo-electrochemically oxidize the silicon,” Switzer says. “And the gold just slides off.”

Photoelectrochemical oxidation is the process by which light enables a semiconductor material, in this case silicon, to promote a catalytic oxidation reaction.

Switzer says thousands of gold foils—or foils of any number of other metals—can be made from a single crystal wafer of silicon.

The research team’s discovery can be considered a “happy accident.” Switzer says they were looking for a cheap way to make single crystals when they discovered this process.

“This is something that I think a lot of people who are interested in working with highly ordered materials like single crystals would appreciate making really easily,” he says. “Besides making flexible devices, it’s just going to open up a field for anybody who wants to work with single crystals.”

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

Epitaxial lift-off of electrodeposited single-crystal gold foils for flexible electronics by Naveen K. Mahenderkar, Qingzhi Chen, Ying-Chau Liu, Alexander R. Duchild, Seth Hofheins, Eric Chason, Jay A. Switzer. Science  17 Mar 2017: Vol. 355, Issue 6330, pp. 1203-1206 DOI: 10.1126/science.aam5830

This paper is behind a paywall.

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) April 25, 2017 talk: No Small Feat: Seeing Atoms and Molecules

I thought I’d been knocked off the list but finally I have a notice for an upcoming Café Scientifique talk that arrived and before the event, at that.  From an April 12, 2017 notice (received via email),

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY APRIL 25TH, 7:30PM in the back
room at YAGGER’S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the
evening will be DR. SARAH BURKE, an Assistant Professor in the
Department of Physics and Astronomy/ Department of Chemistry at UBC [University of British Columbia]. The title of her talk is:


From solar cells to superconductivity, the properties of materials and
the devices we make from them arise from the atomic scale structure of
the atoms that make up the material, their electrons, and how they all
interact.  Seeing this takes a microscope, but not like the one you may
have had as a kid or used in a university lab, which are limited to
seeing objects on the scale of the wavelength of visible light: still
thousands of times bigger than the size of an atom.  Scanning probe
microscopes operate more like a nanoscale record player, scanning a very
sharp tip over a surface and measuring interactions between the tip and
surface to create atomically resolved images.  These techniques show us
where atoms and electrons live at surfaces, on nanostructures, and in
molecules.  I will describe how these techniques give us a powerful
glimpse into a tiny world.

I have a little more about Sarah Burke from her webpage in the UBC Physics and Astronomy webspace,

Building an understanding of important electronic and optoelectronic processes in nanoscale materials from the atomic scale up will pave the way for next generation materials and technologies.

My research interests broadly encompass the study of electronic processes where nanoscale structure influences or reveals the underlying physics. Using scanning probe microscopy (SPM) techniques, my group investigates materials for organic electronics and optoelectronics, graphene and other carbon-based nanomaterials, and other materials where a nanoscale view offers the potential for new understanding. We also work to expand the SPM toolbox; developing new methods in order to probe different aspects of materials, and working to understand leading edge techniques.

For the really curious, you can find more information about her research group, UBC Laboratory for Atomic Imaging Research (LAIR) here.

Graphene-based neural probes

I have two news bits (dated almost one month apart) about the use of graphene in neural probes, one from the European Union and the other from Korea.

European Union (EU)

This work is being announced by the European Commission’s (a subset of the EU) Graphene Flagship (one of two mega-funding projects announced in 2013; 1B Euros each over ten years for the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project).

According to a March 27, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, researchers have developed a graphene-based neural probe that has been tested on rats,

Measuring brain activity with precision is essential to developing further understanding of diseases such as epilepsy and disorders that affect brain function and motor control. Neural probes with high spatial resolution are needed for both recording and stimulating specific functional areas of the brain. Now, researchers from the Graphene Flagship have developed a new device for recording brain activity in high resolution while maintaining excellent signal to noise ratio (SNR). Based on graphene field-effect transistors, the flexible devices open up new possibilities for the development of functional implants and interfaces.

The research, published in 2D Materials, was a collaborative effort involving Flagship partners Technical University of Munich (TU Munich; Germany), Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS; Spain), Spanish National Research Council (CSIC; Spain), The Biomedical Research Networking Center in Bioengineering, Biomaterials and Nanomedicine (CIBER-BBN; Spain) and the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2; Spain).

Caption: Graphene transistors integrated in a flexible neural probe enables electrical signals from neurons to be measured with high accuracy and density. Inset: The tip of the probe contains 16 flexible graphene transistors. Credit: ICN2

A March 27, 2017 Graphene Flagship press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work,  in more detail,

The devices were used to record the large signals generated by pre-epileptic activity in rats, as well as the smaller levels of brain activity during sleep and in response to visual light stimulation. These types of activities lead to much smaller electrical signals, and are at the level of typical brain activity. Neural activity is detected through the highly localised electric fields generated when neurons fire, so densely packed, ultra-small measuring devices is important for accurate brain readings.

The neural probes are placed directly on the surface of the brain, so safety is of paramount importance for the development of graphene-based neural implant devices. Importantly, the researchers determined that the graphene-based probes are non-toxic, and did not induce any significant inflammation.

Devices implanted in the brain as neural prosthesis for therapeutic brain stimulation technologies and interfaces for sensory and motor devices, such as artificial limbs, are an important goal for improving quality of life for patients. This work represents a first step towards the use of graphene in research as well as clinical neural devices, showing that graphene-based technologies can deliver the high resolution and high SNR needed for these applications.

First author Benno Blaschke (TU Munich) said “Graphene is one of the few materials that allows recording in a transistor configuration and simultaneously complies with all other requirements for neural probes such as flexibility, biocompability and chemical stability. Although graphene is ideally suited for flexible electronics, it was a great challenge to transfer our fabrication process from rigid substrates to flexible ones. The next step is to optimize the wafer-scale fabrication process and improve device flexibility and stability.”

Jose Antonio Garrido (ICN2), led the research. He said “Mechanical compliance is an important requirement for safe neural probes and interfaces. Currently, the focus is on ultra-soft materials that can adapt conformally to the brain surface. Graphene neural interfaces have shown already great potential, but we have to improve on the yield and homogeneity of the device production in order to advance towards a real technology. Once we have demonstrated the proof of concept in animal studies, the next goal will be to work towards the first human clinical trial with graphene devices during intraoperative mapping of the brain. This means addressing all regulatory issues associated to medical devices such as safety, biocompatibility, etc.”

Caption: The graphene-based neural probes were used to detect rats’ responses to visual stimulation, as well as neural signals during sleep. Both types of signals are small, and typically difficult to measure. Credit: ICN2

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

Mapping brain activity with flexible graphene micro-transistors by Benno M Blaschke, Núria Tort-Colet, Anton Guimerà-Brunet, Julia Weinert, Lionel Rousseau, Axel Heimann, Simon Drieschner, Oliver Kempski, Rosa Villa, Maria V Sanchez-Vives. 2D Materials, Volume 4, Number 2 DOI Published 24 February 2017

© 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.


While this research from Korea was published more recently, the probe itself has not been subjected to in vivo (animal testing). From an April 19, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Electrodes placed in the brain record neural activity, and can help treat neural diseases like Parkinson’s and epilepsy. Interest is also growing in developing better brain-machine interfaces, in which electrodes can help control prosthetic limbs. Progress in these fields is hindered by limitations in electrodes, which are relatively stiff and can damage soft brain tissue.

Designing smaller, gentler electrodes that still pick up brain signals is a challenge because brain signals are so weak. Typically, the smaller the electrode, the harder it is to detect a signal. However, a team from the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science & Technology [DGIST} in Korea developed new probes that are small, flexible and read brain signals clearly.

This is a pretty interesting way to illustrate the research,

Caption: Graphene and gold make a better brain probe. Credit: DGIST

An April 19, 2017 DGIST press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

The probe consists of an electrode, which records the brain signal. The signal travels down an interconnection line to a connector, which transfers the signal to machines measuring and analysing the signals.

The electrode starts with a thin gold base. Attached to the base are tiny zinc oxide nanowires, which are coated in a thin layer of gold, and then a layer of conducting polymer called PEDOT. These combined materials increase the probe’s effective surface area, conducting properties, and strength of the electrode, while still maintaining flexibility and compatibility with soft tissue.

Packing several long, thin nanowires together onto one probe enables the scientists to make a smaller electrode that retains the same effective surface area of a larger, flat electrode. This means the electrode can shrink, but not reduce signal detection. The interconnection line is made of a mix of graphene and gold. Graphene is flexible and gold is an excellent conductor. The researchers tested the probe and found it read rat brain signals very clearly, much better than a standard flat, gold electrode.

“Our graphene and nanowires-based flexible electrode array can be useful for monitoring and recording the functions of the nervous system, or to deliver electrical signals to the brain,” the researchers conclude in their paper recently published in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

The probe requires further clinical tests before widespread commercialization. The researchers are also interested in developing a wireless version to make it more convenient for a variety of applications.

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

Enhancement of Interface Characteristics of Neural Probe Based on Graphene, ZnO Nanowires, and Conducting Polymer PEDOT by Mingyu Ryu, Jae Hoon Yang, Yumi Ahn, Minkyung Sim, Kyung Hwa Lee, Kyungsoo Kim, Taeju Lee, Seung-Jun Yoo, So Yeun Kim, Cheil Moon, Minkyu Je, Ji-Woong Choi, Youngu Lee, and Jae Eun Jang. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2017, 9 (12), pp 10577–10586 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.7b02975 Publication Date (Web): March 7, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Revolutionizing electronics with liquid metal technology?

I’m not sure I’d call it the next big advance in electronics, there are too many advances jockeying for that position but this work from Australia and the US is fascinating. From a Feb. 17, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new technique using liquid metals to create integrated circuits that are just atoms thick could lead to the next big advance for electronics.

The process opens the way for the production of large wafers around 1.5 nanometres in depth (a sheet of paper, by comparison, is 100,000nm thick).

Other techniques have proven unreliable in terms of quality, difficult to scale up and function only at very high temperatures — 550 degrees or more.

A Feb. 17, 2017 RMIT University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

Distinguished Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, from RMIT’s School of Engineering, led the project, which also included colleagues from RMIT and researchers from CSIRO, Monash University, North Carolina State University and the University of California.

He said the electronics industry had hit a barrier.

“The fundamental technology of car engines has not progressed since 1920 and now the same is happening to electronics. Mobile phones and computers are no more powerful than five years ago.

“That is why this new 2D printing technique is so important – creating many layers of incredibly thin electronic chips on the same surface dramatically increases processing power and reduces costs.

“It will allow for the next revolution in electronics.”

Benjamin Carey, a researcher with RMIT and the CSIRO, said creating electronic wafers just atoms thick could overcome the limitations of current chip production.

It could also produce materials that were extremely bendable, paving the way for flexible electronics.

“However, none of the current technologies are able to create homogenous surfaces of atomically thin semiconductors on large surface areas that are useful for the industrial scale fabrication of chips.

“Our solution is to use the metals gallium and indium, which have a low melting point.

“These metals produce an atomically thin layer of oxide on their surface that naturally protects them. It is this thin oxide which we use in our fabrication method.

“By rolling the liquid metal, the oxide layer can be transferred on to an electronic wafer, which is then sulphurised. The surface of the wafer can be pre-treated to form individual transistors.

“We have used this novel method to create transistors and photo-detectors of very high gain and very high fabrication reliability in large scale.”

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

Wafer-scale two-dimensional semiconductors from printed oxide skin of liquid metals by Benjamin J. Carey, Jian Zhen Ou, Rhiannon M. Clark, Kyle J. Berean, Ali Zavabeti, Anthony S. R. Chesman, Salvy P. Russo, Desmond W. M. Lau, Zai-Quan Xu, Qiaoliang Bao, Omid Kevehei, Brant C. Gibson, Michael D. Dickey, Richard B. Kaner, Torben Daeneke, & Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14482 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14482
Published online: 17 February 2017

This paper is open access.

Harvesting plants for electricity

A Feb. 27, 2017 article on Nanowerk describes research which could turn living plants into solar cells and panels (Note: Links have been removed),

Plants power life on Earth. They are the original food source supplying energy to almost all living organisms and the basis of the fossil fuels that feed the power demands of the modern world. But burning the remnants of long-dead forests is changing the world in dangerous ways. Can we better harness the power of living plants today?

One way might be to turn plants into natural solar power stations that could convert sunlight into energy far more efficiently. To do this, we’d need a way of getting the energy out in the form of electricity. One company has found a way to harvest electrons deposited by plants into the soil beneath them. But new research (PNAS, “In vivo polymerization and manufacturing of wires and supercapacitors in plants”) from Finland looks at tapping plants’ energy directly by turning their internal structures into electric circuits.

A Feb. 27, 2017 essay by Stuart Thompson for The Conversation (which originated the article) explains the principles underlying the research (Note: A link has been removed),

Plants contain water-filled tubes called “xylem elements” that carry water from their roots to their leaves. The water flow also carries and distributes dissolved nutrients and other things such as chemical signals. The Finnish researchers, whose work is published in PNAS, developed a chemical that was fed into a rose cutting to form a solid material that could carry and store electricity.

Previous experiments have used a chemical called PEDOT to form conducting wires in the xylem, but it didn’t penetrate further into the plant. For the new research, they designed a molecule called ETE-S that forms similar electrical conductors but can also be carried wherever the stream of water travelling though the xylem goes.

This flow is driven by the attraction between water molecules. When water in a leaf evaporates, it pulls on the chain of molecules left behind, dragging water up through the plant all the way from the roots. You can see this for yourself by placing a plant cutting in food colouring and watching the colour move up through the xylem. The researchers’ method was so similar to the food colouring experiment that they could see where in the plant their electrical conductor had travelled to from its colour.

The result was a complex electronic network permeating the leaves and petals, surrounding their cells and replicating their pattern. The wires that formed conducted electricity up to a hundred times better than those made from PEDOT and could also store electrical energy in the same way as an electronic component called a capacitor.

I recommend reading Thompson’s piece in its entirety.

A DNA switch for new electronic applications

I little dreamed when reading “The Double Helix : A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA” by James Watson that DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) would one day become just another material for scientists to manipulate. A Feb. 20, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the use of DNA as a material in electronics applications,

DNA, the stuff of life, may very well also pack quite the jolt for engineers trying to advance the development of tiny, low-cost electronic devices.

Much like flipping your light switch at home — only on a scale 1,000 times smaller than a human hair — an ASU [Arizona State University]-led team has now developed the first controllable DNA switch to regulate the flow of electricity within a single, atomic-sized molecule. The new study, led by ASU Biodesign Institute researcher Nongjian Tao, was published in the advanced online journal Nature Communications.

DNA, the stuff of life, may very well also pack quite the jolt for engineers trying to advance the development of tiny, low-cost electronic devices. Courtesy: ASU

A Feb. 20, 2017 ASU news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“It has been established that charge transport is possible in DNA, but for a useful device, one wants to be able to turn the charge transport on and off. We achieved this goal by chemically modifying DNA,” said Tao, who directs the Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors and is a professor in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Not only that, but we can also adapt the modified DNA as a probe to measure reactions at the single-molecule level. This provides a unique way for studying important reactions implicated in disease, or photosynthesis reactions for novel renewable energy applications.”

Engineers often think of electricity like water, and the research team’s new DNA switch acts to control the flow of electrons on and off, just like water coming out of a faucet.

Previously, Tao’s research group had made several discoveries to understand and manipulate DNA to more finely tune the flow of electricity through it. They found they could make DNA behave in different ways — and could cajole electrons to flow like waves according to quantum mechanics, or “hop” like rabbits in the way electricity in a copper wire works —creating an exciting new avenue for DNA-based, nano-electronic applications.

Tao assembled a multidisciplinary team for the project, including ASU postdoctoral student Limin Xiang and Li Yueqi performing bench experiments, Julio Palma working on the theoretical framework, with further help and oversight from collaborators Vladimiro Mujica (ASU) and Mark Ratner (Northwestern University).

To accomplish their engineering feat, Tao’s group, modified just one of DNA’s iconic double helix chemical letters, abbreviated as A, C, T or G, with another chemical group, called anthraquinone (Aq). Anthraquinone is a three-ringed carbon structure that can be inserted in between DNA base pairs but contains what chemists call a redox group (short for reduction, or gaining electrons or oxidation, losing electrons).

These chemical groups are also the foundation for how our bodies’ convert chemical energy through switches that send all of the electrical pulses in our brains, our hearts and communicate signals within every cell that may be implicated in the most prevalent diseases.

The modified Aq-DNA helix could now help it perform the switch, slipping comfortably in between the rungs that make up the ladder of the DNA helix, and bestowing it with a new found ability to reversibly gain or lose electrons.

Through their studies, when they sandwiched the DNA between a pair of electrodes, they careful [sic] controlled their electrical field and measured the ability of the modified DNA to conduct electricity. This was performed using a staple of nano-electronics, a scanning tunneling microscope, which acts like the tip of an electrode to complete a connection, being repeatedly pulled in and out of contact with the DNA molecules in the solution like a finger touching a water droplet.

“We found the electron transport mechanism in the present anthraquinone-DNA system favors electron “hopping” via anthraquinone and stacked DNA bases,” said Tao. In addition, they found they could reversibly control the conductance states to make the DNA switch on (high-conductance) or switch-off (low conductance). When anthraquinone has gained the most electrons (its most-reduced state), it is far more conductive, and the team finely mapped out a 3-D picture to account for how anthraquinone controlled the electrical state of the DNA.

For their next project, they hope to extend their studies to get one step closer toward making DNA nano-devices a reality.

“We are particularly excited that the engineered DNA provides a nice tool to examine redox reaction kinetics, and thermodynamics the single molecule level,” said Tao.

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

I last featured Tao’s work with DNA in an April 20, 2015 posting.

Gate-controlled conductance switching in DNA by Limin Xiang, Julio L. Palma, Yueqi Li, Vladimiro Mujica, Mark A. Ratner, & Nongjian Tao.  Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14471 (2017)  doi:10.1038/ncomms14471 Published online: 20 February 2017

This paper is open access.

High-performance, low-energy artificial synapse for neural network computing

This artificial synapse is apparently an improvement on the standard memristor-based artificial synapse but that doesn’t become clear until reading the abstract for the paper. First, there’s a Feb. 20, 2017 Stanford University news release by Taylor Kubota (dated Feb. 21, 2017 on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

For all the improvements in computer technology over the years, we still struggle to recreate the low-energy, elegant processing of the human brain. Now, researchers at Stanford University and Sandia National Laboratories have made an advance that could help computers mimic one piece of the brain’s efficient design – an artificial version of the space over which neurons communicate, called a synapse.

“It works like a real synapse but it’s an organic electronic device that can be engineered,” said Alberto Salleo, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and senior author of the paper. “It’s an entirely new family of devices because this type of architecture has not been shown before. For many key metrics, it also performs better than anything that’s been done before with inorganics.”

The new artificial synapse, reported in the Feb. 20 issue of Nature Materials, mimics the way synapses in the brain learn through the signals that cross them. This is a significant energy savings over traditional computing, which involves separately processing information and then storing it into memory. Here, the processing creates the memory.

This synapse may one day be part of a more brain-like computer, which could be especially beneficial for computing that works with visual and auditory signals. Examples of this are seen in voice-controlled interfaces and driverless cars. Past efforts in this field have produced high-performance neural networks supported by artificially intelligent algorithms but these are still distant imitators of the brain that depend on energy-consuming traditional computer hardware.

Building a brain

When we learn, electrical signals are sent between neurons in our brain. The most energy is needed the first time a synapse is traversed. Every time afterward, the connection requires less energy. This is how synapses efficiently facilitate both learning something new and remembering what we’ve learned. The artificial synapse, unlike most other versions of brain-like computing, also fulfills these two tasks simultaneously, and does so with substantial energy savings.

“Deep learning algorithms are very powerful but they rely on processors to calculate and simulate the electrical states and store them somewhere else, which is inefficient in terms of energy and time,” said Yoeri van de Burgt, former postdoctoral scholar in the Salleo lab and lead author of the paper. “Instead of simulating a neural network, our work is trying to make a neural network.”

The artificial synapse is based off a battery design. It consists of two thin, flexible films with three terminals, connected by an electrolyte of salty water. The device works as a transistor, with one of the terminals controlling the flow of electricity between the other two.

Like a neural path in a brain being reinforced through learning, the researchers program the artificial synapse by discharging and recharging it repeatedly. Through this training, they have been able to predict within 1 percent of uncertainly what voltage will be required to get the synapse to a specific electrical state and, once there, it remains at that state. In other words, unlike a common computer, where you save your work to the hard drive before you turn it off, the artificial synapse can recall its programming without any additional actions or parts.

Testing a network of artificial synapses

Only one artificial synapse has been produced but researchers at Sandia used 15,000 measurements from experiments on that synapse to simulate how an array of them would work in a neural network. They tested the simulated network’s ability to recognize handwriting of digits 0 through 9. Tested on three datasets, the simulated array was able to identify the handwritten digits with an accuracy between 93 to 97 percent.

Although this task would be relatively simple for a person, traditional computers have a difficult time interpreting visual and auditory signals.

“More and more, the kinds of tasks that we expect our computing devices to do require computing that mimics the brain because using traditional computing to perform these tasks is becoming really power hungry,” said A. Alec Talin, distinguished member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, and senior author of the paper. “We’ve demonstrated a device that’s ideal for running these type of algorithms and that consumes a lot less power.”

This device is extremely well suited for the kind of signal identification and classification that traditional computers struggle to perform. Whereas digital transistors can be in only two states, such as 0 and 1, the researchers successfully programmed 500 states in the artificial synapse, which is useful for neuron-type computation models. In switching from one state to another they used about one-tenth as much energy as a state-of-the-art computing system needs in order to move data from the processing unit to the memory.

This, however, means they are still using about 10,000 times as much energy as the minimum a biological synapse needs in order to fire. The researchers are hopeful that they can attain neuron-level energy efficiency once they test the artificial synapse in smaller devices.

Organic potential

Every part of the device is made of inexpensive organic materials. These aren’t found in nature but they are largely composed of hydrogen and carbon and are compatible with the brain’s chemistry. Cells have been grown on these materials and they have even been used to make artificial pumps for neural transmitters. The voltages applied to train the artificial synapse are also the same as those that move through human neurons.

All this means it’s possible that the artificial synapse could communicate with live neurons, leading to improved brain-machine interfaces. The softness and flexibility of the device also lends itself to being used in biological environments. Before any applications to biology, however, the team plans to build an actual array of artificial synapses for further research and testing.

Additional Stanford co-authors of this work include co-lead author Ewout Lubberman, also of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Scott T. Keene and Grégorio C. Faria, also of Universidade de São Paulo, in Brazil. Sandia National Laboratories co-authors include Elliot J. Fuller and Sapan Agarwal in Livermore and Matthew J. Marinella in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Salleo is an affiliate of the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. Van de Burgt is now an assistant professor in microsystems and an affiliate of the Institute for Complex Molecular Studies (ICMS) at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Keck Faculty Scholar Funds, the Neurofab at Stanford, the Stanford Graduate Fellowship, Sandia’s Laboratory-Directed Research and Development Program, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Holland Scholarship, the University of Groningen Scholarship for Excellent Students, the Hendrik Muller National Fund, the Schuurman Schimmel-van Outeren Foundation, the Foundation of Renswoude (The Hague and Delft), the Marco Polo Fund, the Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia/Instituto Nacional de Eletrônica Orgânica in Brazil, the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo and the Brazilian National Council.

Here’s an abstract for the researchers’ paper (link to paper provided after abstract) and it’s where you’ll find the memristor connection explained,

The brain is capable of massively parallel information processing while consuming only ~1–100fJ per synaptic event1, 2. Inspired by the efficiency of the brain, CMOS-based neural architectures3 and memristors4, 5 are being developed for pattern recognition and machine learning. However, the volatility, design complexity and high supply voltages for CMOS architectures, and the stochastic and energy-costly switching of memristors complicate the path to achieve the interconnectivity, information density, and energy efficiency of the brain using either approach. Here we describe an electrochemical neuromorphic organic device (ENODe) operating with a fundamentally different mechanism from existing memristors. ENODe switches at low voltage and energy (<10pJ for 103μm2 devices), displays >500 distinct, non-volatile conductance states within a ~1V range, and achieves high classification accuracy when implemented in neural network simulations. Plastic ENODes are also fabricated on flexible substrates enabling the integration of neuromorphic functionality in stretchable electronic systems6, 7. Mechanical flexibility makes ENODes compatible with three-dimensional architectures, opening a path towards extreme interconnectivity comparable to the human brain.

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

A non-volatile organic electrochemical device as a low-voltage artificial synapse for neuromorphic computing by Yoeri van de Burgt, Ewout Lubberman, Elliot J. Fuller, Scott T. Keene, Grégorio C. Faria, Sapan Agarwal, Matthew J. Marinella, A. Alec Talin, & Alberto Salleo. Nature Materials (2017) doi:10.1038/nmat4856 Published online 20 February 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

ETA March 8, 2017 10:28 PST: You may find this this piece on ferroelectricity and neuromorphic engineering of interest (March 7, 2017 posting titled: Ferroelectric roadmap to neuromorphic computing).

Ferroelectric roadmap to neuromorphic computing

Having written about memristors and neuromorphic engineering a number of times here, I’m  quite intrigued to see some research into another nanoscale device for mimicking the functions of a human brain.

The announcement about the latest research from the team at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory is in a Feb. 14, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Research published in Nature Scientific Reports (“Ferroelectric symmetry-protected multibit memory cell”) lays out a theoretical map to use ferroelectric material to process information using multivalued logic – a leap beyond the simple ones and zeroes that make up our current computing systems that could let us process information much more efficiently.

A Feb. 10, 2017 Argonne National Laboratory news release by Louise Lerner, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The language of computers is written in just two symbols – ones and zeroes, meaning yes or no. But a world of richer possibilities awaits us if we could expand to three or more values, so that the same physical switch could encode much more information.

“Most importantly, this novel logic unit will enable information processing using not only “yes” and “no”, but also “either yes or no” or “maybe” operations,” said Valerii Vinokur, a materials scientist and Distinguished Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the corresponding author on the paper, along with Laurent Baudry with the Lille University of Science and Technology and Igor Lukyanchuk with the University of Picardie Jules Verne.

This is the way our brains operate, and they’re something on the order of a million times more efficient than the best computers we’ve ever managed to build – while consuming orders of magnitude less energy.

“Our brains process so much more information, but if our synapses were built like our current computers are, the brain would not just boil but evaporate from the energy they use,” Vinokur said.

While the advantages of this type of computing, called multivalued logic, have long been known, the problem is that we haven’t discovered a material system that could implement it. Right now, transistors can only operate as “on” or “off,” so this new system would have to find a new way to consistently maintain more states – as well as be easy to read and write and, ideally, to work at room temperature.

Hence Vinokur and the team’s interest in ferroelectrics, a class of materials whose polarization can be controlled with electric fields. As ferroelectrics physically change shape when the polarization changes, they’re very useful in sensors and other devices, such as medical ultrasound machines. Scientists are very interested in tapping these properties for computer memory and other applications; but the theory behind their behavior is very much still emerging.

The new paper lays out a recipe by which we could tap the properties of very thin films of a particular class of ferroelectric material called perovskites.

According to the calculations, perovskite films could hold two, three, or even four polarization positions that are energetically stable – “so they could ‘click’ into place, and thus provide a stable platform for encoding information,” Vinokur said.

The team calculated these stable configurations and how to manipulate the polarization to move it between stable positions using electric fields, Vinokur said.

“When we realize this in a device, it will enormously increase the efficiency of memory units and processors,” Vinokur said. “This offers a significant step towards realization of so-called neuromorphic computing, which strives to model the human brain.”

Vinokur said the team is working with experimentalists to apply the principles to create a working system

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

Ferroelectric symmetry-protected multibit memory cell by Laurent Baudry, Igor Lukyanchuk, & Valerii M. Vinokur. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 42196 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep42196 Published online: 08 February 2017

This paper is open access.

Medieval chain mail inspires physicists

A Feb. 9, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes new research at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), which takes its inspiration from medieval chain mail,

The Middle Ages certainly were far from being science-friendly: Whoever looked for new findings off the beaten track faced the threat of being burned at the stake. Hence, the contribution of this era to technical progress is deemed to be rather small. Scientists of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), however, were inspired by medieval mail armor when producing a new metamaterial with novel properties. They succeeded in reversing the Hall coefficient of a material.

The Hall effect is the occurrence of a transverse electric voltage across an electric conductor passed by current flow, if this conductor is located in a magnetic field. This effect is a basic phenomenon of physics and allows to measure [sic] the strength of magnetic fields. It is the basis of magnetic speed sensors in cars or compasses in smartphones. Apart from measuring magnetic fields, the Hall effect can also be used to characterize metals and semiconductors and in particular to determine charge carrier density of the material. The sign of the measured Hall voltage allows conclusions to be drawn as to whether charge carriers in the semiconductor element carry positive or negative charge.

The ring structure of the metamaterial was inspired by mail armor of medieval knights. (Photo: KIT)

A Feb. ?, 2017 KIT press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Mathematicians already predicted theoretically that it is possible to reverse the Hall coefficient of a material (such as gold or silicon), i.e. to reverse its sign. This was expected to be achieved by a three-dimensional ring structure resembling medieval mail armor. How-ever, this was considered difficult, as the ring mesh of millionths of a meter in size would have to be composed of three different components.


Die Ringstruktur des Metamaterials wurde von Kettenhemden aus der Ritterzeit inspiriert. (Bild: KIT)
The ring mesh of millionths of a meter in size. (Photo: KIT)

Christian Kern, Muamer Kadic, and Martin Wegener of KIT’s Institute of Applied Physics now found that a single basic material is sufficient, provided that the ring structure chosen follows a certain geometric arrangement. First, they produced polymer scaffolds with a highest-resolution 3D printer. Then, they coated these scaffolds with semiconducting zinc oxide.

The result of the experiment: The scientists can produce meta-materials with a positive coefficient, even though their components have negative coefficients. This sounds a bit like the philosopher’s stone, the formula, by means of which medieval alchemists tried to convert one substance into another. But here, no conversion takes place. “The charge carriers in the metamaterial remain negatively charged electrons,” Christian Kern explains. “Hall measurements only make them appear positively charged, as the structure forces them to take detours.”

Kern admits that this discovery so far is of no practical use. There are sufficient solids with both negative and positive Hall coefficients. But Kern wants to continue research. The next step will be the production of anisotropic structures with a Hall voltage in the direction of the magnetic field. Normally, Hall voltage is directed vertically to current and magnetic fields. Such unconventional materials might be applied in novel sensors for the direct measurement of magnetic field eddies.

The researchers do not seem to have published a paper about this work.

A new type of diode from South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology

A Feb. 8, 2017 news item on features a ‘dream’ diode from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology,

A team of researchers, affiliated with UNIST [Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology] has created a new technique that greatly enhances the performance of Schottky Diodes (metal-semiconductor junction) used in electronic devices. Their research findings have attracted considerable attention within the scientific community by solving the contact resistance problem of metal-semiconductor, which had remained unsolved for almost 50 years.

As described in the January [2017] issue of Nano Letters, the researchers have created a new type of diode with a graphene insertion layer sandwiched between metal and semiconductor. This new technique blows all previous attemps out the water, as it is expected to significantly contribute to the semiconductor industry’s growth.

A Jan. 27, 2017 UNIST press release, (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in greater detail,

The Schottky diode is one of the oldest and most representative semiconductor devices, formed by the junction of a semiconductor with a metal.  However, due to the atomic intermixing along the interface between two materials, it has been impossible to produce an ideal diode. (An ideal diode acts like a perfect conductor when voltage is applied forward biased and like a perfect insulator when voltage is applied reverse biased.)

graphene interlayer 2

The schematic view of internal photoemission (IPE) measurements on metal/n-Si(001) junctions with Ni, Pt, and Ti electrodes for with and without a graphene insertion layer.

Professor Kibog Park of Natural Science solved this problem by inserting a graphene layer at the metal-semiconductor interface. In the study, the research team demonstrated that this graphene layer, consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms can not only suppress the material intermixing substantially, but also matches well with the theoretical prediction.

“The sheets of graphene in graphite have a space between each sheet that shows a high electron density of quantum mechanics in that no atoms can pass through,” says Professor Park. “Therefore, with this single-layer graphene sandwiched between metal and semiconductor, it is possible to overcome the inevitable atomic diffusion problem.”

The study also has the physiological meaning of confirming the theoretical prediction that “In the case of silicon semiconductors, the electrical properties of the junction surfaces hardly change regardless of the type of metal they use,” according to Hoon Hahn Yoon (Combined M.S./Ph.D. student of Natural Science), the first author of the study.

The internal photoemission method was used to measure the electronic energy barrier of the newly-fabricated metal/graphene/n-Si(001) junction diodes. The Internal Photoemission (IPE) Measurement System in the image shown above has contributed greatly to these experiments. This system has been developed by four UNIST graduate students (Hoon Han Yoon, Sungchul Jung, Gahyun Choi, and Junhyung Kim), which was carried out as part of an undergraduate research project in 2012 and was supported by the Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity (KOFAC).

This is the internal photoemission (IPE) measurement system, developed by Hoon Hahn Yoon of Physics at UNIST.

Shown above is the Internal Photoemission (IPE) Measurement System, developed by Hoon Hahn Yoon, combined M.S./Ph.D. student of Natural Science at UNIST.

“Students have teamed up and carried out all the necessary steps for the research since they were undergraduates,” Professor Park says. “Therefore, this research is a perfect example of time, persistence, and patience paying off.”

This study has been jointly conducted by Professor Hu Young Jeong of the UNIST Central Research Facilities (UCRF), Professor Kwanpyo Kim of Natural Science, Professor Soon-Yong Kwon of Materials Science and Engineering, and Professor Yong Soo Kim of Ulsan University. It has been also supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea, Nuclear Research Basis Expansion Project, as well as the Global Ph.D Fellowship (GPF).

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

Strong Fermi-Level Pinning at Metal/n-Si(001) Interface Ensured by Forming an Intact Schottky Contact with a Graphene Insertion Layer by Hoon Hahn Yoon, Sungchul Jung, Gahyun Choi, Junhyung Kim, Youngeun Jeon, Yong Soo Kim, Hu Young Jeong, Kwanpyo Kim, Soon-Yong Kwon, and Kibog Park. Nano Lett., 2017, 17 (1), pp 44–49 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03137 Publication Date (Web): December 14, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.