Category Archives: electronics

Smartphone battery inspired by your guts?

The conversion of bacteria from an enemy to be vanquished at all costs to a ‘frenemy’, a friendly enemy supplying possible solutions for problems is fascinating. An Oct. 26, 2016 news item on Nanowerk falls into the ‘frenemy’ camp,

A new prototype of a lithium-sulphur battery – which could have five times the energy density of a typical lithium-ion battery – overcomes one of the key hurdles preventing their commercial development by mimicking the structure of the cells which allow us to absorb nutrients.

Researchers have developed a prototype of a next-generation lithium-sulphur battery which takes its inspiration in part from the cells lining the human intestine. The batteries, if commercially developed, would have five times the energy density of the lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones and other electronics.

An Oct. 26, 2016 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme and provides some good explanations of how lithium-ion batteries and lithium-sulphur batteries work (Note: A link has been removed),

The new design, by researchers from the University of Cambridge, overcomes one of the key technical problems hindering the commercial development of lithium-sulphur batteries, by preventing the degradation of the battery caused by the loss of material within it. The results are reported in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Working with collaborators at the Beijing Institute of Technology, the Cambridge researchers based in Dr Vasant Kumar’s team in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy developed and tested a lightweight nanostructured material which resembles villi, the finger-like protrusions which line the small intestine. In the human body, villi are used to absorb the products of digestion and increase the surface area over which this process can take place.

In the new lithium-sulphur battery, a layer of material with a villi-like structure, made from tiny zinc oxide wires, is placed on the surface of one of the battery’s electrodes. This can trap fragments of the active material when they break off, keeping them electrochemically accessible and allowing the material to be reused.

“It’s a tiny thing, this layer, but it’s important,” said study co-author Dr Paul Coxon from Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. “This gets us a long way through the bottleneck which is preventing the development of better batteries.”

A typical lithium-ion battery is made of three separate components: an anode (negative electrode), a cathode (positive electrode) and an electrolyte in the middle. The most common materials for the anode and cathode are graphite and lithium cobalt oxide respectively, which both have layered structures. Positively-charged lithium ions move back and forth from the cathode, through the electrolyte and into the anode.

The crystal structure of the electrode materials determines how much energy can be squeezed into the battery. For example, due to the atomic structure of carbon, each carbon atom can take on six lithium ions, limiting the maximum capacity of the battery.

Sulphur and lithium react differently, via a multi-electron transfer mechanism meaning that elemental sulphur can offer a much higher theoretical capacity, resulting in a lithium-sulphur battery with much higher energy density. However, when the battery discharges, the lithium and sulphur interact and the ring-like sulphur molecules transform into chain-like structures, known as a poly-sulphides. As the battery undergoes several charge-discharge cycles, bits of the poly-sulphide can go into the electrolyte, so that over time the battery gradually loses active material.

The Cambridge researchers have created a functional layer which lies on top of the cathode and fixes the active material to a conductive framework so the active material can be reused. The layer is made up of tiny, one-dimensional zinc oxide nanowires grown on a scaffold. The concept was trialled using commercially-available nickel foam for support. After successful results, the foam was replaced by a lightweight carbon fibre mat to reduce the battery’s overall weight.

“Changing from stiff nickel foam to flexible carbon fibre mat makes the layer mimic the way small intestine works even further,” said study co-author Dr Yingjun Liu.

This functional layer, like the intestinal villi it resembles, has a very high surface area. The material has a very strong chemical bond with the poly-sulphides, allowing the active material to be used for longer, greatly increasing the lifespan of the battery.

“This is the first time a chemically functional layer with a well-organised nano-architecture has been proposed to trap and reuse the dissolved active materials during battery charging and discharging,” said the study’s lead author Teng Zhao, a PhD student from the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy. “By taking our inspiration from the natural world, we were able to come up with a solution that we hope will accelerate the development of next-generation batteries.”

For the time being, the device is a proof of principle, so commercially-available lithium-sulphur batteries are still some years away. Additionally, while the number of times the battery can be charged and discharged has been improved, it is still not able to go through as many charge cycles as a lithium-ion battery. However, since a lithium-sulphur battery does not need to be charged as often as a lithium-ion battery, it may be the case that the increase in energy density cancels out the lower total number of charge-discharge cycles.

“This is a way of getting around one of those awkward little problems that affects all of us,” said Coxon. “We’re all tied in to our electronic devices – ultimately, we’re just trying to make those devices work better, hopefully making our lives a little bit nicer.”

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

Advanced Lithium–Sulfur Batteries Enabled by a Bio-Inspired Polysulfide Adsorptive Brush by Teng Zhao, Yusheng Ye, Xiaoyu Peng, Giorgio Divitini, Hyun-Kyung Kim, Cheng-Yen Lao, Paul R. Coxon, Kai Xi, Yingjun Liu, Caterina Ducati, Renjie Chen, R. Vasant Kumar. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201604069 First published: 26 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Caption: This is a computer visualization of villi-like battery material. Credit: Teng Zhao

Caption: This is a computer visualization of villi-like battery material. Credit: Teng Zhao

The volatile lithium-ion battery

On the heels of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 recall due to fires (see Alex Fitzpatrick’s Sept. 9, 2016 article for Time magazine for a good description of lithium-ion batteries and why they catch fire; see my May 29, 2013 posting on lithium-ion batteries, fires [including the airplane fires], and nanotechnology risk assessments), there’s new research on lithium-ion batteries and fires from China. From an Oct. 21, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Dozens of dangerous gases are produced by the batteries found in billions of consumer devices, like smartphones and tablets, according to a new study. The research, published in Nano Energy, identified more than 100 toxic gases released by lithium batteries, including carbon monoxide.

An Oct. 20, 2016 Elsevier Publishing press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The gases are potentially fatal, they can cause strong irritations to the skin, eyes and nasal passages, and harm the wider environment. The researchers behind the study, from the Institute of NBC Defence and Tsinghua University in China, say many people may be unaware of the dangers of overheating, damaging or using a disreputable charger for their rechargeable devices.

In the new study, the researchers investigated a type of rechargeable battery, known as a “lithium-ion” battery, which is placed in two billion consumer devices every year.

“Nowadays, lithium-ion batteries are being actively promoted by many governments all over the world as a viable energy solution to power everything from electric vehicles to mobile devices. The lithium-ion battery is used by millions of families, so it is imperative that the general public understand the risks behind this energy source,” explained Dr. Jie Sun, lead author and professor at the Institute of NBC Defence.

The dangers of exploding batteries have led manufacturers to recall millions of devices: Dell recalled four million laptops in 2006 and millions of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices were recalled this month after reports of battery fires. But the threats posed by toxic gas emissions and the source of these emissions are not well understood.

Dr. Sun and her colleagues identified several factors that can cause an increase in the concentration of the toxic gases emitted. A fully charged battery will release more toxic gases than a battery with 50 percent charge, for example. The chemicals contained in the batteries and their capacity to release charge also affected the concentrations and types of toxic gases released.

Identifying the gases produced and the reasons for their emission gives manufacturers a better understanding of how to reduce toxic emissions and protect the wider public, as lithium-ion batteries are used in a wide range of environments.

“Such dangerous substances, in particular carbon monoxide, have the potential to cause serious harm within a short period of time if they leak inside a small, sealed environment, such as the interior of a car or an airplane compartment,” Dr. Sun said.

Almost 20,000 lithium-ion batteries were heated to the point of combustion in the study, causing most devices to explode and all to emit a range of toxic gases. Batteries can be exposed to such temperature extremes in the real world, for example, if the battery overheats or is damaged in some way.

The researchers now plan to develop this detection technique to improve the safety of lithium-ion batteries so they can be used to power the electric vehicles of the future safely.

“We hope this research will allow the lithium-ion battery industry and electric vehicle sector to continue to expand and develop with a greater understanding of the potential hazards and ways to combat these issues,” Sun concluded.

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

Toxicity, a serious concern of thermal runaway from commercial Li-ion battery by Jie Sun, Jigang Li, Tian Zhou, Kai Yang, Shouping Wei, Na Tang, Nannan Dang, Hong Li, Xinping Qiu, Liquan Chend. Nano Energy Volume 27, September 2016, Pages 313–319  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nanoen.2016.06.031

This paper appears to be open access.

Self-healing lithium-ion batteries for textiles

It’s easy to forget how hard we are on our textiles. We rip them, step on them, agitate them in water, splatter them with mud, and more. So, what happens when we integrate batteries and electronics into them? An Oct. 20, 2016 news item on phys.org describes one of the latest ‘textile batter technologies’,

Electronics that can be embedded in clothing are a growing trend. However, power sources remain a problem. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, scientists have now introduced thin, flexible, lithium ion batteries with self-healing properties that can be safely worn on the body. Even after completely breaking apart, the battery can grow back together without significant impact on its electrochemical properties.

wiley_selfhealinglithiumionbattery

© Wiley-VCH

An Oct. 20, 2016 Wiley Angewandte Chemie International Edition press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes some of the problems associated with lithium-ion batteries and this new technology designed to address them,

Existing lithium ion batteries for wearable electronics can be bent and rolled up without any problems, but can break when they are twisted too far or accidentally stepped on—which can happen often when being worn. This damage not only causes the battery to fail, it can also cause a safety problem: Flammable, toxic, or corrosive gases or liquids may leak out.

A team led by Yonggang Wang and Huisheng Peng has now developed a new family of lithium ion batteries that can overcome such accidents thanks to their amazing self-healing powers. In order for a complicated object like a battery to be made self-healing, all of its individual components must also be self-healing. The scientists from Fudan University (Shanghai, China), the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (South Korea), and the Samsung R&D Institute China, have now been able to accomplish this.

The electrodes in these batteries consist of layers of parallel carbon nanotubes. Between the layers, the scientists embedded the necessary lithium compounds in nanoparticle form (LiMn2O4 for one electrode, LiTi2(PO4)3 for the other). In contrast to conventional lithium ion batteries, the lithium compounds cannot leak out of the electrodes, either while in use or after a break. The thin layer electrodes are each fixed on a substrate of self-healing polymer. Between the electrodes is a novel, solvent-free electrolyte made from a cellulose-based gel with an aqueous lithium sulfate solution embedded in it. This gel electrolyte also serves as a separation layer between the electrodes.

After a break, it is only necessary to press the broken ends together for a few seconds for them to grow back together. Both the self-healing polymer and the carbon nanotubes “stick” back together perfectly. The parallel arrangement of the nanotubes allows them to come together much better than layers of disordered carbon nanotubes. The electrolyte also poses no problems. Whereas conventional electrolytes decompose immediately upon exposure to air, the new gel is stable. Free of organic solvents, it is neither flammable nor toxic, making it safe for this application.

The capacity and charging/discharging properties of a battery “armband” placed around a doll’s elbow were maintained, even after repeated break/self-healing cycles.

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

A Self-Healing Aqueous Lithium-Ion Battery by Yang Zhao, Ye Zhang, Hao Sun, Xiaoli Dong, Jingyu Cao, Lie Wang, Yifan Xu, Jing Ren, Yunil Hwang, Dr. In Hyuk Son, Dr. Xianliang Huang, Prof. Yonggang Wang, and Prof. Huisheng Peng. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201607951 Version of Record online: 12 OCT 2016

© 2016 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Growing and sharpening gold

An Oct. 19, 2016 news item on phys.org compares nanogold to a snowflake,

Grown like a snowflake and sharpened with a sewing machine, a novel device by Kansas State University researchers may benefit biomedical professionals and the patients they serve during electrode and organ transplant procedures.

The device uses gold nanowires and was developed by Bret Flanders, associate professor of physics, and Govind Paneru, former graduate research assistant in physics, to manipulate and sense characteristics of individual cells in medical procedures. The gold nanowires are 1,000 times smaller than a human hair.

An Oct. 19, 2016 Kansas State University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Tiffany Roney, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Conventional surgical tools, including electrodes that are implanted in people’s tissue, are unfavorably large on the cellular level,” Flanders said. “Working at the individual cellular level is of increasing importance in areas such as neurosurgery. Potentially, this sleek device, made from gold nanowires, could get in close and do the job.”

Flanders said the size of the nanowires is what makes their device so unique.

Each wire is less than 100 nanometers in diameter. Cells in skin and hair are about 10-20 micrometers in diameter, while red blood cells measure about 7 micrometers. Because the wire is so small, it can pierce a biological cell to stimulate the cell membrane and investigate its interior.

The nanowires are electrochemically grown, meaning they do not grow by a lengthening or enlarging an existing wire, but rather by accumulating particles from solution into a new wire.

In heavily zoomed video footage the nanowire appears to grow out of the micrometer-thick electrode. Actually, the nanowire forms similarly to how a snowflake is assembled in the sky when water vapor molecules in the air condense onto the surface of pollen or dust and grow non-uniformly until they become a recognizable snowflake.

“We start with a sharp microelectrode on a microscope stage,” Flanders said. “Similar to snowflake formation, the gold atoms condense onto its sharp tip. Like the water condensing onto the snowflake seed, the golden solution condenses onto the gold ‘seed,’ or the microelectrode.”

The researchers developed sharp electrodes with an unconventional tool not found in many laboratories: a sewing machine.

“It’s like putting the wire in a pencil sharpener, where you turn the crank to sharpen it, except we don’t do it mechanically with a pencil sharpener — we do it with a common salt solution and a sewing machine,” Flanders said. “This turned out to be the approach that worked the best, and the sewing machine cost only $10 at the Salvation Army.”

The sewing machine oscillates the microelectrode up and down in a beaker of potassium chloride solution. Application of a voltage dissolves the tip of the microelectrode.

“The process sharpens the electrode because the tip is in the solution longer than any other point,” Flanders said. “If we did not oscillate the wire, the whole wire would dissolve. Instead, dipping the tip in and out causes the tip to dissolve the most, thereby sharpening it.”

The sharpened electrode allows the nanowire to grow. The researchers then dismount the nanowire from the electrode and ship it to collaborators across the country, including a nanofabrication company that may incorporate the invention into a pre-existing device to provide it with greater power.

There are two published pieces associated with the research but they are older. Here’s a link to and a citation for each,

Single-step growth and low resistance interconnecting of gold nanowires by Birol Ozturk, Bret N Flanders, Daniel R Grischkowsky, and Tetsuya D Mishima. Nanotechnology, Volume 18, Number 17 doi:10.1088/0957-4484/18/17/175707 Published 2 April 2007
Directed growth of single-crystal indium wires by Ishan Talukdar, Birol Ozturk, Bret N. Flanders, and Tetsuya D. Mishima. Appl. Phys. Lett. 88, 221907 (2006); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.2208431 Published online 31 May 2006

Both papers are behind paywalls.

Ocean-inspired coatings for organic electronics

An Oct. 19, 2016 news item on phys.org describes the advantages a new coating offers and the specific source of inspiration,

In a development beneficial for both industry and environment, UC Santa Barbara [University of California at Santa Barbara] researchers have created a high-quality coating for organic electronics that promises to decrease processing time as well as energy requirements.

“It’s faster, and it’s nontoxic,” said Kollbe Ahn, a research faculty member at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute and corresponding author of a paper published in Nano Letters.

In the manufacture of polymer (also known as “organic”) electronics—the technology behind flexible displays and solar cells—the material used to direct and move current is of supreme importance. Since defects reduce efficiency and functionality, special attention must be paid to quality, even down to the molecular level.

Often that can mean long processing times, or relatively inefficient processes. It can also mean the use of toxic substances. Alternatively, manufacturers can choose to speed up the process, which could cost energy or quality.

Fortunately, as it turns out, efficiency, performance and sustainability don’t always have to be traded against each other in the manufacture of these electronics. Looking no further than the campus beach, the UCSB researchers have found inspiration in the mollusks that live there. Mussels, which have perfected the art of clinging to virtually any surface in the intertidal zone, serve as the model for a molecularly smooth, self-assembled monolayer for high-mobility polymer field-effect transistors—in essence, a surface coating that can be used in the manufacture and processing of the conductive polymer that maintains its efficiency.

An Oct. 18, 2016 UCSB news release by Sonia Fernandez, which originated the news item, provides greater technical detail,

More specifically, according to Ahn, it was the mussel’s adhesion mechanism that stirred the researchers’ interest. “We’re inspired by the proteins at the interface between the plaque and substrate,” he said.

Before mussels attach themselves to the surfaces of rocks, pilings or other structures found in the inhospitable intertidal zone, they secrete proteins through the ventral grove of their feet, in an incremental fashion. In a step that enhances bonding performance, a thin priming layer of protein molecules is first generated as a bridge between the substrate and other adhesive proteins in the plaques that tip the byssus threads of their feet to overcome the barrier of water and other impurities.

That type of zwitterionic molecule — with both positive and negative charges — inspired by the mussel’s native proteins (polyampholytes), can self-assemble and form a sub-nano thin layer in water at ambient temperature in a few seconds. The defect-free monolayer provides a platform for conductive polymers in the appropriate direction on various dielectric surfaces.

Current methods to treat silicon surfaces (the most common dielectric surface), for the production of organic field-effect transistors, requires a batch processing method that is relatively impractical, said Ahn. Although heat can hasten this step, it involves the use of energy and increases the risk of defects.

With this bio-inspired coating mechanism, a continuous roll-to-roll dip coating method of producing organic electronic devices is possible, according to the researchers. It also avoids the use of toxic chemicals and their disposal, by replacing them with water.

“The environmental significance of this work is that these new bio-inspired primers allow for nanofabrication on silicone dioxide surfaces in the absence of organic solvents, high reaction temperatures and toxic reagents,” said co-author Roscoe Lindstadt, a graduate student researcher in UCSB chemistry professor Bruce Lipshutz’s lab. “In order for practitioners to switch to newer, more environmentally benign protocols, they need to be competitive with existing ones, and thankfully device performance is improved by using this ‘greener’ method.”

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

Molecularly Smooth Self-Assembled Monolayer for High-Mobility Organic Field-Effect Transistors by Saurabh Das, Byoung Hoon Lee, Roscoe T. H. Linstadt, Keila Cunha, Youli Li, Yair Kaufman, Zachary A. Levine, Bruce H. Lipshutz, Roberto D. Lins, Joan-Emma Shea, Alan J. Heeger, and B. Kollbe Ahn. Nano Lett., 2016, 16 (10), pp 6709–6715
DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03860 Publication Date (Web): September 27, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall but the scientists have made an illustration available,

An artist's concept of a zwitterionic molecule of the type secreted by mussels to prime surfaces for adhesion Photo Credit: Peter Allen

An artist’s concept of a zwitterionic molecule of the type secreted by mussels to prime surfaces for adhesion Photo Credit: Peter Allen

Colours in bendable electronic paper

Scientists at Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden) are able to produce a rainbow of colours in a new electronic paper according to an Oct. 14, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Less than a micrometre thin, bendable and giving all the colours that a regular LED display does, it still needs ten times less energy than a Kindle tablet. Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have developed the basis for a new electronic “paper.”

When Chalmers researcher Andreas Dahlin and his PhD student Kunli Xiong were working on placing conductive polymers on nanostructures, they discovered that the combination would be perfectly suited to creating electronic displays as thin as paper. A year later the results were ready for publication. A material that is less than a micrometre thin, flexible and giving all the colours that a standard LED display does.

An Oct. 14, 2016 Chalmers University of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert) by Mats Tiborn, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“The ’paper’ is similar to the Kindle tablet. It isn’t lit up like a standard display, but rather reflects the external light which illuminates it. Therefore it works very well where there is bright light, such as out in the sun, in contrast to standard LED displays that work best in darkness. At the same time it needs only a tenth of the energy that a Kindle tablet uses, which itself uses much less energy than a tablet LED display”, says Andreas Dahlin.

It all depends on the polymers’ ability to control how light is absorbed and reflected. The polymers that cover the whole surface lead the electric signals throughout the full display and create images in high resolution. The material is not yet ready for application, but the basis is there. The team has tested and built a few pixels. These use the same red, green and blue (RGB) colours that together can create all the colours in standard LED displays. The results so far have been positive, what remains now is to build pixels that cover an area as large as a display.

“We are working at a fundamental level but even so, the step to manufacturing a product out of it shouldn’t be too far away. What we need now are engineers”, says Andreas Dahlin.

One obstacle today is that there is gold and silver in the display.

“The gold surface is 20 nanometres thick so there is not that much gold in it. But at present there is a lot of gold wasted in manufacturing it. Either we reduce the waste or we find another way to reduce the production cost”, says Andreas Dahlin.

Caption: Chalmers' e-paper contains gold, silver and PET plastic. The layer that produces the colours is less than a micrometre thin. Credit: Mats Tiborn

Caption: Chalmers’ e-paper contains gold, silver and PET plastic. The layer that produces the colours is less than a micrometre thin. Credit: Mats Tiborn

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

Plasmonic Metasurfaces with Conjugated Polymers for Flexible Electronic Paper in Color by Kunli Xiong, Gustav Emilsson, Ali Maziz, Xinxin Yang, Lei Shao, Edwin W. H. Jager, and Andreas B. Dahlin. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201603358 Version of Record online: 27 SEP 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally, Dexter Johnson in an Oct. 18, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) offers some broader insight into this development (Note: Links have been removed),

Plasmonic nanostructures leverage the oscillations in the density of electrons that are generated when photons hit a metal surface. Researchers have used these structures for applications including increasing the light absorption of solar cells and creating colors without the need for dyes. As a demonstration of how effective these nanostructures are as a replacement for color dyes, a the technology has been used to produce a miniature copy of the Mona Lisa in a space smaller than the footprint taken up by a single pixel on an iPhone Retina display.

A guide to producing transparent electronics

A blue light shines through a clear, implantable medical sensor onto a brain model. See-through sensors, which have been developed by a team of UW–Madison engineers, should help neural researchers better view brain activity. Credit: Justin Williams research group

A blue light shines through a clear, implantable medical sensor onto a brain model. See-through sensors, which have been developed by a team of UW–Madison engineers, should help neural researchers better view brain activity. Credit: Justin Williams research group

Read this Oct. 13, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily if you want to find out how to make your own transparent electronics,

When University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers announced in the journal Nature Communications that they had developed transparent sensors for use in imaging the brain, researchers around the world took notice.

Then the requests came flooding in. “So many research groups started asking us for these devices that we couldn’t keep up,” says Zhenqiang (Jack) Ma, the Lynn H. Matthias Professor and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in electrical and computer engineering at UW-Madison.

As a result, in a paper published in the journal Nature Protocols, the researchers have described in great detail how to fabricate and use transparent graphene neural electrode arrays in applications in electrophysiology, fluorescent microscopy, optical coherence tomography, and optogenetics. “We described how to do these things so we can start working on the next generation,” says Ma.

Although he and collaborator Justin Williams, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in biomedical engineering and neurological surgery at UW-Madison, patented the technology through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, they saw its potential for advancements in research. “That little step has already resulted in an explosion of research in this field,” says Williams. “We didn’t want to keep this technology in our lab. We wanted to share it and expand the boundaries of its applications.”

An Oct. 13, 2016 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the paper and the researchers,

‘This paper is a gateway for other groups to explore the huge potential from here,’ says Ma. ‘Our technology demonstrates one of the key in vivo applications of graphene. We expect more revolutionary research will follow in this interdisciplinary field.’

Ma’s group is a world leader in developing revolutionary flexible electronic devices. The see-through, implantable micro-electrode arrays were light years beyond anything ever created.

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

Fabrication and utility of a transparent graphene neural electrode array for electrophysiology, in vivo imaging, and optogenetics by Dong-Wook Park, Sarah K Brodnick, Jared P Ness, Farid Atry, Lisa Krugner-Higby, Amelia Sandberg, Solomon Mikael, Thomas J Richner, Joseph Novello, Hyungsoo Kim, Dong-Hyun Baek, Jihye Bong, Seth T Frye, Sanitta Thongpang, Kyle I Swanson, Wendell Lake, Ramin Pashaie, Justin C Williams, & Zhenqiang Ma. Nature Protocols 11, 2201–2222 (2016) doi:10.1038/nprot.2016.127 Published online 13 October 2016

Of course this paper is open access. The team’s previous paper published in 2014 was featured here in an Oct. 23, 2014 posting.

2D-nanocellulose and electricity

The 2D trend seems to have swept into the world of nanocellulose materials. An Oct. 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes work in the field piezoelectronics as driven by 2D nanocellulose materials (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from ICN2 [Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology] Phononic and Photonic Nanostructures Group publish in Scientific Reports (“Orthotropic Piezoelectricity in 2D Nanocellulose”) findings providing the basis for new electromechanical designs using 2D-nanocellulose. In a longer-term perspective, the reinterpretation of electrical features for hydrogen bonds here introduced could pave the way in the understanding of life-essential molecules and events.

An Oct. 11, 2016 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item, provides more information about this area of research,

In the next coming years nanocellulose (NC) would attract lot of attention from industrial researchers (market value is estimated to be 530 M$ worldwide by 2020)(1). The process of development and functionalization of NC materials is being promising because of their well-known unique optomechanical features and green nature. However, there is still a niche for applications based on NC electric-response. In this scenario, the results published in Scientific Reports with the participation of ICN2 researchers, would set up foundations for new strategies intended to drive novel applications based on 2D-NC with a predicted piezoelectric-response ~ pm V-1. This result could rank NC at the level of currently used bulk piezoelectrics like α-quartz and most recent 2D materials like MoSe2 or doped graphene. The first author of the article is Dr Yamila García, and the last one ICREA Research prof. Dr Clivia M. Sotomayor-Torres, Group leader of the ICN2 Phononic and Photonic Nanostructures Group.

“We are too big” (2). It is one of the main limitations to do nanotechnology as Richard Feynman pointed out in 1959. As a contribution in paving the way to overcome this restriction, it is introduced a theoretical framework for the investigation of electric field profiles with interatomic resolution and thus to understand the fundamentals of the electromechanical coupling at the nanoscale. Remarkably, the mean-field descriptor obtained with the methodology described in the manuscript would also complete the latest definition of hydrogen bonds stated by IUPAC since it is the first effective approach in quantifying the electrical nature of such interactions.

An “atom by atom” (2) understanding of electrical forces managing directional bonds is needed if we plan to engineer materials by means of highly selected nanoscale oriented mechanisms. So then, deepening on the understanding of 2D-NC as a piezoelectric system managed by electroactive and well-distinguishable HB  could facilitate new openings for nanotechnologies  community intended to progress on NC applications, i.e. straightforwardly introducing electronic-base sensing and actuating applications. Looking to the future, areas like molecular biology or genetic engineering would be benefited by the new contributions on the understanding of electrical forces within life-essential hydrogen bonds.

(1) Nanocellulose (Nano-crystalline Cellulose, Nano-fibrillated Cellulose and Bacterial Nanocellulose) Market for Composites, Oil & Gas, Paper Processing, Paints & Coatings, and Other Applications: Global Industry Perspective, Comprehensive Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Segment, Trends and Forecast, 2015 – 2021.

(2) “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of manoeuvring things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.” Richard Feynman, 1959

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

Orthotropic Piezoelectricity in 2D Nanocellulose by Y. García, Yasser B. Ruiz-Blanco, Yovani Marrero-Ponce & C. M. Sotomayor-Torres. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 34616 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep34616 Published online: 06 October 2016

This paper is open access.

Switching of a single-atom channel

An Oct. 28, 2016 news item on phys.org announces a single-atom switch,

Robert Wolkow is no stranger to mastering the ultra-small and the ultra-fast. A pioneer in atomic-scale science with a Guinness World Record to boot (for a needle with a single atom at the point), Wolkow’s team, together with collaborators at the Max Plank Institute in Hamburg, have just released findings that detail how to create atomic switches for electricity, many times smaller than what is currently used.

What does it all mean? With applications for practical systems like silicon semi-conductor electronics, it means smaller, more efficient, more energy-conserving computers, as just one example of the technology revolution that is unfolding right before our very eyes (if you can squint that hard).

“This is the first time anyone’s seen a switching of a single-atom channel,” explains Wolkow, a physics professor at the University of Alberta and the Principal Research Officer at Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology. “You’ve heard of a transistor—a switch for electricity—well, our switches are almost a hundred times smaller than the smallest on the market today.”

An Oct. 28, 2016 University of Alberta news release by Jennifer Pascoe, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Today’s tiniest transistors operate at the 14 nanometer level, which still represents thousands of atoms. Wolkow’s and his team at the University of Alberta, NINT, and his spinoff QSi, have worked the technology down to just a few atoms. Since computers are simply a composition of many on/off switches, the findings point the way not only to ultra-efficient general purpose computing but also to a new path to quantum computing.

Green technology for the digital economy

“We’re using this technology to make ultra-green, energy-conserving general purpose computers but also to further the development of quantum computers. We are building the most energy conserving electronics ever, consuming about a thousand times less power than today’s electronics.”

While the new tech is small, the potential societal, economic, and environmental impact of Wolkow’s discovery is very large. Today, our electronics consume several percent of the world’s electricity.  As the size of the energy footprint of the digital economy increases, material and energy conservation is becoming increasingly important.

Wolkow says there are surprising benefits to being smaller, both for normal computers, and, for quantum computers too. “Quantum systems are characterized by their delicate hold on information. They’re ever so easily perturbed. Interestingly though, the smaller the system gets, the fewer upsets.” Therefore, Wolkow explains, you can create a system that is simultaneously amazingly small, using less material and churning through less energy, while holding onto information just right.

Smaller systems equal smaller environmental footprint

When the new technology is fully developed, it will lead to not only a smaller energy footprint but also more affordable systems for consumers. “It’s kind of amazing when everything comes together,” says Wolkow.

Wolkow is one of the few people in the world talking about atom-scale manufacturing and believes we are witnessing the beginning of the revolution to come. He and his team have been working with large-scale industry leader Lockheed Martin as the entry point to the market.

“It’s something you don’t even hear about yet, but atom-scale manufacturing is going to be world-changing. People think it’s not quite doable but, but we’re already making things out of atoms routinely. We aren’t doing it just because. We are doing it because the things we can make have ever more desirable properties. They’re not just smaller. They’re different and better. This is just the beginning of what will be at least a century of developments in atom-scale manufacturing, and it will be transformational.”

Bill Mah in a Nov. 1, 2016 article for the Edmonton Journal delves a little further into issues around making transistors smaller and the implications of a single-atom switch,

Current computers use transistors, which are essentially valves for flowing streams of electrons around a circuit. In recent years, engineers have found ways to make these devices smaller, but pushing electrons through narrow spaces raises the danger of the machines overheating and failing.

“The transistors get too hot so you have to run them slower and more gently, so we’re getting more power in modern computers because there are more transistors, but we can’t run them very quickly because they make a lot of heat and they actually just shut down and fail.”

The smallest transistors are currently about 14 nanometres. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre and contains groupings of 1,000 or more atoms. The switches detailed by Wolkow and his colleagues will shrink them down to just a few atoms.

Potential benefits from the advance could lead to much more energy-efficient and smaller computers, an increasingly important consideration as the power consumption of digital devices keeps growing.

“The world is using about three per cent of our energy today on digital communications and computers,” Wolkow said. “Various reports I’ve seen say that it could easily go up to 10 or 15 per cent in a couple of decades, so it’s crucial that we get that under control.”

Wolkow’s team has received funding from companies such as Lockheed Martin and local investors.

The advances could also open a path to quantum computing. “It turns out these same building blocks … enable a quantum computer, so we’re kind of feverishly working on that at the same time.”

There is an animation illustrating a single-atom switch,

This animation represents an electrical current being switched on and off. Remarkably, the current is confined to a channel that is just one atom wide. Also, the switch is made of just one atom. When the atom in the centre feels an electric field tugging at it, it loses its electron. Once that electron is lost, the many electrons in the body of the silicon (to the left) have a clear passage to flow through. When the electric field is removed, an electron gets trapped in the central atom, switching the current off.  Courtesy: University of Alberta

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

Time-resolved single dopant charge dynamics in silicon by Mohammad Rashidi, Jacob A. J. Burgess, Marco Taucer, Roshan Achal, Jason L. Pitters, Sebastian Loth, & Robert A. Wolkow. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 13258 (2016)  doi:10.1038/ncomms13258 Published online: 26 October 2016

This paper is open access.

The memristor as the ‘missing link’ in bioelectronic medicine?

The last time I featured memrisors and a neuronal network it was in an April 22, 2016 posting about Russian research in that field. This latest work comes from the UK’s University of Southampton. From a Sept. 27, 2016 news item on phys.org,

New research, led by the University of Southampton, has demonstrated that a nanoscale device, called a memristor, could be the ‘missing link’ in the development of implants that use electrical signals from the brain to help treat medical conditions.

Monitoring neuronal cell activity is fundamental to neuroscience and the development of neuroprosthetics – biomedically engineered devices that are driven by neural activity. However, a persistent problem is the device being able to process the neural data in real-time, which imposes restrictive requirements on bandwidth, energy and computation capacity.

In a new study, published in Nature Communications, the researchers showed that memristors could provide real-time processing of neuronal signals (spiking events) leading to efficient data compression and the potential to develop more precise and affordable neuroprosthetics and bioelectronic medicines.

A Sept. 27, 2016 University of Southampton press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Memristors are electrical components that limit or regulate the flow of electrical current in a circuit and can remember the amount of charge that was flowing through it and retain the data, even when the power is turned off.

Lead author Isha Gupta, Postgraduate Research Student at the University of Southampton, said: “Our work can significantly contribute towards further enhancing the understanding of neuroscience, developing neuroprosthetics and bio-electronic medicines by building tools essential for interpreting the big data in a more effective way.”

The research team developed a nanoscale Memristive Integrating Sensor (MIS) into which they fed a series of voltage-time samples, which replicated neuronal electrical activity.

Acting like synapses in the brain, the metal-oxide MIS was able to encode and compress (up to 200 times) neuronal spiking activity recorded by multi-electrode arrays. Besides addressing the bandwidth constraints, this approach was also very power efficient – the power needed per recording channel was up to 100 times less when compared to current best practice.

Co-author Dr Themis Prodromakis, Reader in Nanoelectronics and EPSRC Fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton said: “We are thrilled that we succeeded in demonstrating that these emerging nanoscale devices, despite being rather simple in architecture, possess ultra-rich dynamics that can be harnessed beyond the obvious memory applications to address the fundamental constraints in bandwidth and power that currently prohibit scaling neural interfaces beyond 1,000 recording channels.”

The Prodromakis Group at the University of Southampton is acknowledged as world-leading in this field, collaborating among others with Leon Chua (a Diamond Jubilee Visiting Academic at the University of Southampton), who theoretically predicted the existence of memristors in 1971.

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

Real-time encoding and compression of neuronal spikes by metal-oxide memristors by Isha Gupta, Alexantrou Serb, Ali Khiat, Ralf Zeitler, Stefano Vassanelli, & Themistoklis Prodromakis. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12805 doi:10.1038/ncomms12805 Published  26 September 2016

This is an open access paper.

For anyone who’s interested in better understanding memristors, there’s an interview with Forrest H Bennett III in my April 7, 2010 posting and you can always check Wikipedia.