Category Archives: electronics

‘Neural dust’ could lead to introduction of electroceuticals

In case anyone is wondering, the woman who’s manipulating a prosthetic arm so she can eat or a drink of coffee probably has a bulky implant/docking station in her head. Right now that bulky implant is the latest and greatest innovation for tetraplegics (aka, quadriplegics) as it frees, to some extent, people who’ve had no independent movement of any kind. By virtue of the juxtaposition of the footage of the woman with the ‘neural dust’ footage, they seem to be suggesting that neural dust might some day accomplish the same type of connection. At this point, hopes for the ‘neural dust’ are more modest.

An Aug. 3, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the ‘neural dust’,

University of California, Berkeley engineers have built the first dust-sized, wireless sensors that can be implanted in the body, bringing closer the day when a Fitbit-like device could monitor internal nerves, muscles or organs in real time.

Because these batteryless sensors could also be used to stimulate nerves and muscles, the technology also opens the door to “electroceuticals” to treat disorders such as epilepsy or to stimulate the immune system or tamp down inflammation.

An Aug. 3, 2016 University of California at Berkeley news release (also on EurekAlert) by Robert Sanders, which originated the news item, explains further and describes the researchers’ hope that one day the neural dust could be used to control implants and prosthetics,

The so-called neural dust, which the team implanted in the muscles and peripheral nerves of rats, is unique in that ultrasound is used both to power and read out the measurements. Ultrasound technology is already well-developed for hospital use, and ultrasound vibrations can penetrate nearly anywhere in the body, unlike radio waves, the researchers say.

“I think the long-term prospects for neural dust are not only within nerves and the brain, but much broader,“ said Michel Maharbiz, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and one of the study’s two main authors. “Having access to in-body telemetry has never been possible because there has been no way to put something supertiny superdeep. But now I can take a speck of nothing and park it next to a nerve or organ, your GI tract or a muscle, and read out the data.“

Maharbiz, neuroscientist Jose Carmena, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and a member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, and their colleagues will report their findings in the August 3 [2016] issue of the journal Neuron.

The sensors, which the researchers have already shrunk to a 1 millimeter cube – about the size of a large grain of sand – contain a piezoelectric crystal that converts ultrasound vibrations from outside the body into electricity to power a tiny, on-board transistor that is in contact with a nerve or muscle fiber. A voltage spike in the fiber alters the circuit and the vibration of the crystal, which changes the echo detected by the ultrasound receiver, typically the same device that generates the vibrations. The slight change, called backscatter, allows them to determine the voltage.

Motes sprinkled thoughout the body

In their experiment, the UC Berkeley team powered up the passive sensors every 100 microseconds with six 540-nanosecond ultrasound pulses, which gave them a continual, real-time readout. They coated the first-generation motes – 3 millimeters long, 1 millimeter high and 4/5 millimeter thick – with surgical-grade epoxy, but they are currently building motes from biocompatible thin films which would potentially last in the body without degradation for a decade or more.

While the experiments so far have involved the peripheral nervous system and muscles, the neural dust motes could work equally well in the central nervous system and brain to control prosthetics, the researchers say. Today’s implantable electrodes degrade within 1 to 2 years, and all connect to wires that pass through holes in the skull. Wireless sensors – dozens to a hundred – could be sealed in, avoiding infection and unwanted movement of the electrodes.

“The original goal of the neural dust project was to imagine the next generation of brain-machine interfaces, and to make it a viable clinical technology,” said neuroscience graduate student Ryan Neely. “If a paraplegic wants to control a computer or a robotic arm, you would just implant this electrode in the brain and it would last essentially a lifetime.”

In a paper published online in 2013, the researchers estimated that they could shrink the sensors down to a cube 50 microns on a side – about 2 thousandths of an inch, or half the width of a human hair. At that size, the motes could nestle up to just a few nerve axons and continually record their electrical activity.

“The beauty is that now, the sensors are small enough to have a good application in the peripheral nervous system, for bladder control or appetite suppression, for example,“ Carmena said. “The technology is not really there yet to get to the 50-micron target size, which we would need for the brain and central nervous system. Once it’s clinically proven, however, neural dust will just replace wire electrodes. This time, once you close up the brain, you’re done.“

The team is working now to miniaturize the device further, find more biocompatible materials and improve the surface transceiver that sends and receives the ultrasounds, ideally using beam-steering technology to focus the sounds waves on individual motes. They are now building little backpacks for rats to hold the ultrasound transceiver that will record data from implanted motes.

They’re also working to expand the motes’ ability to detect non-electrical signals, such as oxygen or hormone levels.

“The vision is to implant these neural dust motes anywhere in the body, and have a patch over the implanted site send ultrasonic waves to wake up and receive necessary information from the motes for the desired therapy you want,” said Dongjin Seo, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer sciences. “Eventually you would use multiple implants and one patch that would ping each implant individually, or all simultaneously.”

Ultrasound vs radio

Maharbiz and Carmena conceived of the idea of neural dust about five years ago, but attempts to power an implantable device and read out the data using radio waves were disappointing. Radio attenuates very quickly with distance in tissue, so communicating with devices deep in the body would be difficult without using potentially damaging high-intensity radiation.

Marharbiz hit on the idea of ultrasound, and in 2013 published a paper with Carmena, Seo and their colleagues describing how such a system might work. “Our first study demonstrated that the fundamental physics of ultrasound allowed for very, very small implants that could record and communicate neural data,” said Maharbiz. He and his students have now created that system.

“Ultrasound is much more efficient when you are targeting devices that are on the millimeter scale or smaller and that are embedded deep in the body,” Seo said. “You can get a lot of power into it and a lot more efficient transfer of energy and communication when using ultrasound as opposed to electromagnetic waves, which has been the go-to method for wirelessly transmitting power to miniature implants”

“Now that you have a reliable, minimally invasive neural pickup in your body, the technology could become the driver for a whole gamut of applications, things that today don’t even exist,“ Carmena said.

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

Wireless Recording in the Peripheral Nervous System with Ultrasonic Neural Dust by Dongjin Seo, Ryan M. Neely, Konlin Shen, Utkarsh Singhal, Elad Alon, Jan M. Rabaey, Jose M. Carmena. and Michel M. Maharbiz. Neuron Volume 91, Issue 3, p529–539, 3 August 2016 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2016.06.034

This paper appears to be open access.

Vitamin-driven lithium-ion battery from the University of Toronto

It seems vitamins aren’t just good for health, they’re also good for batteries. My Aug. 2, 2016 post on vitamins and batteries focused on work from Harvard, this time the work is from the University of Toronto (Canada). From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A team of University of Toronto chemists has created a battery that stores energy in a biologically derived unit, paving the way for cheaper consumer electronics that are easier on the environment.

The battery is similar to many commercially-available high-energy lithium-ion batteries with one important difference. It uses flavin from vitamin B2 as the cathode: the part that stores the electricity that is released when connected to a device.

“We’ve been looking to nature for a while to find complex molecules for use in a number of consumer electronics applications,” says Dwight Seferos, an associate professor in U of T’s Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Polymer Nanotechnology.

“When you take something made by nature that is already complex, you end up spending less time making new material,” says Seferos.

An Aug. 2, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert) by Peter McMahon, which originated the news item, explains further,

To understand the discovery, it’s important to know that modern batteries contain three basic parts:

  • a positive terminal – the metal part that touches devices to power them – connected to a cathode inside the battery casing
  • a negative terminal connected to an anode inside the battery casing
  • an electrolyte solution, in which ions can travel between the cathode and anode electrodes

When a battery is connected to a phone, iPod, camera or other device that requires power, electrons flow from the anode – the negatively charged electrode of the device supplying current – out to the device, then into the cathode and ions migrate through the electrolyte solution to balance the charge. When connected to a charger, this process happens in reverse.

The reaction in the anode creates electrons and the reaction in the cathode absorbs them when discharging. The net product is electricity. The battery will continue to produce electricity until one or both of the electrodes run out of the substance necessary for the reactions to occur.

Organic chemistry is kind of like Lego

While bio-derived battery parts have been created previously, this is the first one that uses bio-derived polymers – long-chain molecules – for one of the electrodes, essentially allowing battery energy to be stored in a vitamin-created plastic, instead of costlier, harder to process, and more environmentally-harmful metals such as cobalt.

“Getting the right material evolved over time and definitely took some test reactions,” says paper co-author and doctoral student Tyler Schon. “In a lot of ways, it looked like this could have failed. It definitely took a lot of perseverance.”

Schon, Seferos and colleagues happened upon the material while testing a variety of long-chain polymers – specifically pendant group polymers: the molecules attached to a ‘backbone’ chain of a long molecule.

“Organic chemistry is kind of like Lego,” he says. “You put things together in a certain order, but some things that look like they’ll fit together on paper don’t in reality. We tried a few approaches and the fifth one worked,” says Seferos.

Building a better power pack

The team created the material from vitamin B2 that originates in genetically-modified fungi using a semi-synthetic process to prepare the polymer by linking two flavin units to a long-chain molecule backbone.

This allows for a green battery with high capacity and high voltage – something increasingly important as the ‘Internet of Things’ continues to link us together more and more through our battery-powered portable devices.

“It’s a pretty safe, natural compound,” Seferos adds. “If you wanted to, you could actually eat the source material it comes from.”

B2’s ability to be reduced and oxidized makes its well-suited for a lithium ion battery.

“B2 can accept up to two electrons at a time,” says Seferos. “This makes it easy to take multiple charges and have a high capacity compared to a lot of other available molecules.”

A step to greener electronics

“It’s been a lot of trial-and-error,” says Schon. “Now we’re looking to design new variants that can be recharged again and again.”

While the current prototype is on the scale of a hearing aid battery, the team hopes their breakthrough could lay the groundwork for powerful, thin, flexible, and even transparent metal-free batteries that could support the next wave of consumer electronics.

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

Bio-Derived Polymers for Sustainable Lithium-Ion Batteries by Tyler B. Schon, Andrew J. Tilley, Colin R. Bridges, Mark B. Miltenburg, and Dwight S. Seferos. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201602114 Version of Record online: 14 JUL 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

US white paper on neuromorphic computing (or the nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for future computing)

The US has embarked on a number of what is called “Grand Challenges.” I first came across the concept when reading about the Bill and Melinda Gates (of Microsoft fame) Foundation. I gather these challenges are intended to provide funding for research that advances bold visions.

There is the US National Strategic Computing Initiative established on July 29, 2015 and its first anniversary results were announced one year to the day later. Within that initiative a nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing was issued and, according to a July 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk, a white paper on the topic has been issued (Note: A link has been removed),

Today [July 29, 2016), Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) released a white paper (pdf) describing the collective Federal vision for the emerging and innovative solutions needed to realize the Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing.

The grand challenge, announced on October 20, 2015, is to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” The white paper describes the technical priorities shared by the agencies, highlights the challenges and opportunities associated with these priorities, and presents a guiding vision for the research and development (R&D) needed to achieve key technical goals. By coordinating and collaborating across multiple levels of government, industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations, the nanotechnology and computer science communities can look beyond the decades-old approach to computing based on the von Neumann architecture and chart a new path that will continue the rapid pace of innovation beyond the next decade.

A July 29, 2016 US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office news release, which originated the news item, further and succinctly describes the contents of the paper,

“Materials and devices for computing have been and will continue to be a key application domain in the field of nanotechnology. As evident by the R&D topics highlighted in the white paper, this challenge will require the convergence of nanotechnology, neuroscience, and computer science to create a whole new paradigm for low-power computing with revolutionary, brain-like capabilities,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. …

The white paper was produced as a collaboration by technical staff at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Intelligence Community. …

The white paper titled “A Federal Vision for Future Computing: A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge” is 15 pp. and it offers tidbits such as this (Note: Footnotes not included),

A new materials base may be needed for future electronic hardware. While most of today’s electronics use silicon, this approach is unsustainable if billions of disposable and short-lived sensor nodes are needed for the coming Internet-of-Things (IoT). To what extent can the materials base for the implementation of future information technology (IT) components and systems support sustainability through recycling and bio-degradability? More sustainable materials, such as compostable or biodegradable systems (polymers, paper, etc.) that can be recycled or reused,  may play an important role. The potential role for such alternative materials in the fabrication of integrated systems needs to be explored as well. [p. 5]

The basic architecture of computers today is essentially the same as those built in the 1940s—the von Neumann architecture—with separate compute, high-speed memory, and high-density storage components that are electronically interconnected. However, it is well known that continued performance increases using this architecture are not feasible in the long term, with power density constraints being one of the fundamental roadblocks.7 Further advances in the current approach using multiple cores, chip multiprocessors, and associated architectures are plagued by challenges in software and programming models. Thus,  research and development is required in radically new and different computing architectures involving processors, memory, input-output devices, and how they behave and are interconnected. [p. 7]

Neuroscience research suggests that the brain is a complex, high-performance computing system with low energy consumption and incredible parallelism. A highly plastic and flexible organ, the human brain is able to grow new neurons, synapses, and connections to cope with an ever-changing environment. Energy efficiency, growth, and flexibility occur at all scales, from molecular to cellular, and allow the brain, from early to late stage, to never stop learning and to act with proactive intelligence in both familiar and novel situations. Understanding how these mechanisms work and cooperate within and across scales has the potential to offer tremendous technical insights and novel engineering frameworks for materials, devices, and systems seeking to perform efficient and autonomous computing. This research focus area is the most synergistic with the national BRAIN Initiative. However, unlike the BRAIN Initiative, where the goal is to map the network connectivity of the brain, the objective here is to understand the nature, methods, and mechanisms for computation,  and how the brain performs some of its tasks. Even within this broad paradigm,  one can loosely distinguish between neuromorphic computing and artificial neural network (ANN) approaches. The goal of neuromorphic computing is oriented towards a hardware approach to reverse engineering the computational architecture of the brain. On the other hand, ANNs include algorithmic approaches arising from machinelearning,  which in turn could leverage advancements and understanding in neuroscience as well as novel cognitive, mathematical, and statistical techniques. Indeed, the ultimate intelligent systems may as well be the result of merging existing ANN (e.g., deep learning) and bio-inspired techniques. [p. 8]

As government documents go, this is quite readable.

For anyone interested in learning more about the future federal plans for computing in the US, there is a July 29, 2016 posting on the White House blog celebrating the first year of the US National Strategic Computing Initiative Strategic Plan (29 pp. PDF; awkward but that is the title).

Deriving graphene-like films from salt

This research comes from Russia (mostly). A July 29, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes a graphene-like structure derived from salt,

Researchers from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), the Technological Institute for Superhard and Novel Carbon Materials (TISNCM), the National University of Science and Technology MISiS (Russia), and Rice University (USA) used computer simulations to find how thin a slab of salt has to be in order for it to break up into graphene-like layers. Based on the computer simulation, they derived the equation for the number of layers in a crystal that will produce ultrathin films with applications in nanoelectronics. …

Caption: Transition from a cubic arrangement into several hexagonal layers. Credit: authors of the study

Caption: Transition from a cubic arrangement into several hexagonal layers. Credit: authors of the study

A July 29, 2016 Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item,  provides more technical detail,

From 3D to 2D

Unique monoatomic thickness of graphene makes it an attractive and useful material. Its crystal lattice resembles a honeycombs, as the bonds between the constituent atoms form regular hexagons. Graphene is a single layer of a three-dimensional graphite crystal and its properties (as well as properties of any 2D crystal) are radically different from its 3D counterpart. Since the discovery of graphene, a large amount of research has been directed at new two-dimensional materials with intriguing properties. Ultrathin films have unusual properties that might be useful for applications such as nano- and microelectronics.

Previous theoretical studies suggested that films with a cubic structure and ionic bonding could spontaneously convert to a layered hexagonal graphitic structure in what is known as graphitisation. For some substances, this conversion has been experimentally observed. It was predicted that rock salt NaCl can be one of the compounds with graphitisation tendencies. Graphitisation of cubic compounds could produce new and promising structures for applications in nanoelectronics. However, no theory has been developed that would account for this process in the case of an arbitrary cubic compound and make predictions about its conversion into graphene-like salt layers.

For graphitisation to occur, the crystal layers need to be reduced along the main diagonal of the cubic structure. This will result in one crystal surface being made of sodium ions Na? and the other of chloride ions Cl?. It is important to note that positive and negative ions (i.e. Na? and Cl?)–and not neutral atoms–occupy the lattice points of the structure. This generates charges of opposite signs on the two surfaces. As long as the surfaces are remote from each other, all charges cancel out, and the salt slab shows a preference for a cubic structure. However, if the film is made sufficiently thin, this gives rise to a large dipole moment due to the opposite charges of the two crystal surfaces. The structure seeks to get rid of the dipole moment, which increases the energy of the system. To make the surfaces charge-neutral, the crystal undergoes a rearrangement of atoms.

Experiment vs model

To study how graphitisation tendencies vary depending on the compound, the researchers examined 16 binary compounds with the general formula AB, where A stands for one of the four alkali metals lithium Li, sodium Na, potassium K, and rubidium Rb. These are highly reactive elements found in Group 1 of the periodic table. The B in the formula stands for any of the four halogens fluorine F, chlorine Cl, bromine Br, and iodine I. These elements are in Group 17 of the periodic table and readily react with alkali metals.

All compounds in this study come in a number of different structures, also known as crystal lattices or phases. If atmospheric pressure is increased to 300,000 times its normal value, an another phase (B2) of NaCl (represented by the yellow portion of the diagram) becomes more stable, effecting a change in the crystal lattice. To test their choice of methods and parameters, the researchers simulated two crystal lattices and calculated the pressure that corresponds to the phase transition between them. Their predictions agree with experimental data.

Just how thin should it be?

The compounds within the scope of this study can all have a hexagonal, “graphitic”, G phase (the red in the diagram) that is unstable in 3D bulk but becomes the most stable structure for ultrathin (2D or quasi-2D) films. The researchers identified the relationship between the surface energy of a film and the number of layers in it for both cubic and hexagonal structures. They graphed this relationship by plotting two lines with different slopes for each of the compounds studied. Each pair of lines associated with one compound has a common point that corresponds to the critical slab thickness that makes conversion from a cubic to a hexagonal structure energetically favourable. For example, the critical number of layers was found to be close to 11 for all sodium salts and between 19 and 27 for lithium salts.

Based on this data, the researchers established a relationship between the critical number of layers and two parameters that determine the strength of the ionic bonds in various compounds. The first parameter indicates the size of an ion of a given metal–its ionic radius. The second parameter is called electronegativity and is a measure of the ? atom’s ability to attract the electrons of element B. Higher electronegativity means more powerful attraction of electrons by the atom, a more pronounced ionic nature of the bond, a larger surface dipole, and a lower critical slab thickness.

And there’s more

Pavel Sorokin, Dr. habil., [sic] is head of the Laboratory of New Materials Simulation at TISNCM. He explains the importance of the study, ‘This work has already attracted our colleagues from Israel and Japan. If they confirm our findings experimentally, this phenomenon [of graphitisation] will provide a viable route to the synthesis of ultrathin films with potential applications in nanoelectronics.’

The scientists intend to broaden the scope of their studies by examining other compounds. They believe that ultrathin films of different composition might also undergo spontaneous graphitisation, yielding new layered structures with properties that are even more intriguing.

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

Ionic Graphitization of Ultrathin Films of Ionic Compounds by A. G. Kvashnin, E. Y. Pashkin, B. I. Yakobson, and P. B. Sorokin. J. Phys. Chem. Lett., 2016, 7 (14), pp 2659–2663 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.6b01214 Publication Date (Web): June 23, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Untangling carbon nanotubes at McMaster University (Canada)

Carbon nanotubes can be wiggly, entangled things (more about McMaster in a bit) as Dr. Andrew Maynard notes in this video (part of his Risk Bites video series) describing carbon nanotubes, their ‘infinite’ variety, and risks,

Researchers at Canada’s McMaster University have found a way to untangle carbon nanotubes according to an Aug. 16, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Imagine an electronic newspaper that you could roll up and spill your coffee on, even as it updated itself before your eyes.

It’s an example of the technological revolution that has been waiting to happen, except for one major problem that, until now, scientists have not been able to resolve.

Researchers at McMaster University have cleared that obstacle by developing a new way to purify carbon nanotubes – the smaller, nimbler semiconductors that are expected to replace silicon within computer chips and a wide array of electronics (Chemistry – A European Journal, “Influence of Polymer Electronics on Selective Dispersion of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes”).

“Once we have a reliable source of pure nanotubes that are not very expensive, a lot can happen very quickly,” says Alex Adronov, a professor of Chemistry at McMaster whose research team has developed a new and potentially cost-efficient way to purify carbon nanotubes.

The researchers have provided a gorgeous image,

Artistic rendition of a metallic carbon nanotube being pulled into solution, in analogy to the work described by the Adronov group. Image: Alex Adronov McMaster

Artistic rendition of a metallic carbon nanotube being pulled into solution, in analogy to the work described by the Adronov group. Image: Alex Adronov McMaster University

An Aug. 15, 2016 McMaster University news release, which originated the news item, provides a beginner’s introduction to carbon nanotubes and describes the purification process that will make production of carbon nanotubes easier,

Carbon nanotubes – hair-like structures that are one billionth of a metre in diameter but thousands of times longer ­– are tiny, flexible conductive nano-scale materials, expected to revolutionize computers and electronics by replacing much larger silicon-based chips.

A major problem standing in the way of the new technology, however, has been untangling metallic and semiconducting carbon nanotubes, since both are created simultaneously in the process of producing the microscopic structures, which typically involves heating carbon-based gases to a point where mixed clusters of nanotubes form spontaneously as black soot.

Only pure semiconducting or metallic carbon nanotubes are effective in device applications, but efficiently isolating them has proven to be a challenging problem to overcome. Even when the nanotube soot is ground down, semiconducting and metallic nanotubes are knotted together within each grain of powder. Both components are valuable, but only when separated.

Researchers around the world have spent years trying to find effective and efficient ways to isolate carbon nanotubes and unleash their value.

While previous researchers had created polymers that could allow semiconducting carbon nanotubes to be dissolved and washed away, leaving metallic nanotubes behind, there was no such process for doing the opposite: dispersing the metallic nanotubes and leaving behind the semiconducting structures.

Now, Adronov’s research group has managed to reverse the electronic characteristics of a polymer known to disperse semiconducting nanotubes – while leaving the rest of the polymer’s structure intact. By so doing, they have reversed the process, leaving the semiconducting nanotubes behind while making it possible to disperse the metallic nanotubes.

The researchers worked closely with experts and equipment from McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering and the Canada Centre for Electron Microscopy, located on the university’s campus.

“There aren’t many places in the world where you can do this type of interdisciplinary work,” Adronov says.

The next step, he explains, is for his team or other researchers to exploit the discovery by finding a way to develop even more efficient polymers and scale up the process for commercial production.

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

Influence of Polymer Electronics on Selective Dispersion of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes by Daryl Fon, William J. Bodnaryk, Dr. Nicole A. Rice, Sokunthearath Saem, Prof. Jose M. Moran-Mirabal, Prof. Alex Adronov. Chemistry A European Journal DOI: 10.1002/chem.201603553 First published: 16 August 2016

This paper appears to be open access.

Book announcement: Atomistic Simulation of Quantum Transport in Nanoelectronic Devices

For anyone who’s curious about where we go after creating chips at the 7nm size, this may be the book for you. Here’s more from a July 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

In the year 2015, Intel, Samsung and TSMC began to mass-market the 14nm technology called FinFETs. In the same year, IBM, working with Global Foundries, Samsung, SUNY, and various equipment suppliers, announced their success in fabricating 7nm devices. A 7nm silicon channel is about 50 atomic layers and these devices are truly atomic! It is clear that we have entered an era of atomic scale transistors. How do we model the carrier transport in such atomic scale devices?

One way is to improve existing device models by including more and more parameters. This is called the top-down approach. However, as device sizes shrink, the number of parameters grows rapidly, making the top-down approach more and more sophisticated and challenging. Most importantly, to continue Moore’s law, electronic engineers are exploring new electronic materials and new operating mechanisms. These efforts are beyond the scope of well-established device models — hence significant changes are necessary to the top-down approach.

An alternative way is called the bottom-up approach. The idea is to build up nanoelectronic devices atom by atom on a computer, and predict the transport behavior from first principles. By doing so, one is allowed to go inside atomic structures and see what happens from there. The elegance of the approach comes from its unification and generality. Everything comes out naturally from the very basic principles of quantum mechanics and nonequilibrium statistics. The bottom-up approach is complementary to the top-down approach, and is extremely useful for testing innovative ideas of future technologies.

A July 27, 2016 World Scientific news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, delves into the topics covered by the book,

In recent decades, several device simulation tools using the bottom-up approach have been developed in universities and software companies. Some examples are McDcal, Transiesta, Atomistic Tool Kit, Smeagol, NanoDcal, NanoDsim, OpenMX, GPAW and NEMO-5. These software tools are capable of predicting electric current flowing through a nanostructure. Essentially the input is the atomic coordinates and the output is the electric current. These software tools have been applied extensively to study emerging electronic materials and devices.

However, developing such a software tool is extremely difficult. It takes years-long experiences and requires knowledge of and techniques in condensed matter physics, computer science, electronic engineering, and applied mathematics. In a library, one can find books on density functional theory, books on quantum transport, books on computer programming, books on numerical algorithms, and books on device simulation. But one can hardly find a book integrating all these fields for the purpose of nanoelectronic device simulation.

“Atomistic Simulation of Quantum Transport in Nanoelectronic Devices” (With CD-ROM) fills the chasm. Authors Yu Zhu and Lei Liu have experience in both academic research and software development. Yu Zhu is the project manager of NanoDsim, and Lei Liu is the project manager of NanoDcal. The content of the book is based Zhu and Liu’s combined R&D experiences of more than forty years.

In this book, the authors conduct an experiment and adopt a “paradigm” approach. Instead of organizing materials by fields, they focus on the development of one particular software tool called NanoDsim, and provide relevant knowledge and techniques whenever needed. The black of box of NanoDsim is opened, and the complete procedure from theoretical derivation, to numerical implementation, all the way to device simulation is illustrated. The affilicated source code of NanoDsim also provides an open platform for new researchers.

I’m not recommending the book as I haven’t read it but it does seem intriguing. For anyone who wishes to purchase it, you can do that here.

I wrote about IBM and its 7nm chip in a July 15, 2015 post.

Self-assembiling gold nanowire inks for transparent electronics

A July 26, 2016 news item on phys.org describes the need for self-assembling, transparent inks,

Transparent electronics devices are present in today’s thin film displays, solar cells, and touchscreens. The future will bring flexible versions of such devices. Their production requires printable materials that are transparent and remain highly conductive even when deformed. Researchers at INM – Leibniz Institute for New Materials have combined a new self-assembling nano ink with an imprint process to create flexible conductive grids with a resolution below one micrometer.

A July 20, 2016 INM press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

To print the grids, an ink of gold nanowires is applied to a substrate. A structured stamp is pressed on the substrate and forces the ink into a pattern. “The nanowires are extremely thin and flexible; they adapt to any pattern of the stamp. During drying, the individual wires self-assemble and form larger, percolating bundles that form the grid,” explains Tobias Kraus from INM. The stamp is removed and the grid is treated in a plasma. “This compresses the bundles into conductive wires and results in a transparent, conductive grid. Depending on the geometry of the stamp, this simple method can shape any nano or microgrid,” says Kraus, head of the program division Structure Formation.

The thickness of the grid can be controlled via the gold concentration. “Only very small quantities of gold are needed to produce a conductive grid, far less than when using inks with spherical gold particles,” says Kraus. This makes the advantages of gold accessible for flexible electronics.

“Our results show self-assembly and imprint can be combined to efficiently produce transparent, conductive materials. We will transfer this insight to other metals in further studies,” says Kraus.

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

Templated Self-Assembly of Ultrathin Gold Nanowires by Nanoimprinting for Transparent Flexible Electronics by Johannes H. M. Maurer, Lola González-García, Beate Reiser, Ioannis Kanelidis, and Tobias Kraus. Nano Lett., 2016, 16 (5), pp 2921–2925
DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b04319 Publication Date (Web): March 17, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Synthetic biowire for nanoelectronics

Apparently this biowire derived by synthetic biology processes can make nanoelectronics a greener affair. From a July 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst report in the current issue of Small that they have genetically designed a new strain of bacteria that spins out extremely thin and highly conductive wires made up of solely of non-toxic, natural amino acids.

A July 14, 2016 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovley say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials.

Lovley says, “New sources of electronic materials are needed to meet the increasing demand for making smaller, more powerful electronic devices in a sustainable way.” The ability to mass-produce such thin conductive wires with this sustainable technology has many potential applications in electronic devices, functioning not only as wires, but also transistors and capacitors. Proposed applications include biocompatible sensors, computing devices, and as components of solar panels.

This advance began a decade ago, when Lovley and colleagues discovered that Geobacter, a common soil microorganism, could produce “microbial nanowires,” electrically conductive protein filaments that help the microbe grow on the iron minerals abundant in soil. These microbial nanowires were conductive enough to meet the bacterium’s needs, but their conductivity was well below the conductivities of organic wires that chemists could synthesize.

“As we learned more about how the microbial nanowires worked we realized that it might be possible to improve on Nature’s design,” says Lovley. “We knew that one class of amino acids was important for the conductivity, so we rearranged these amino acids to produce a synthetic nanowire that we thought might be more conductive.”

The trick they discovered to accomplish this was to introduce tryptophan, an amino acid not present in the natural nanowires. Tryptophan is a common aromatic amino acid notorious for causing drowsiness after eating Thanksgiving turkey. However, it is also highly effective at the nanoscale in transporting electrons.

“We designed a synthetic nanowire in which a tryptophan was inserted where nature had used a phenylalanine and put in another tryptophan for one of the tyrosines. We hoped to get lucky and that Geobacter might still form nanowires from this synthetic peptide and maybe double the nanowire conductivity,” says Lovley.

The results greatly exceeded the scientists’ expectations. They genetically engineered a strain of Geobacter and manufactured large quantities of the synthetic nanowires 2000 times more conductive than the natural biological product. An added bonus is that the synthetic nanowires, which Lovley refers to as “biowire,” had a diameter only half that of the natural product.

“We were blown away by this result,” says Lovley. The conductivity of biowire exceeds that of many types of chemically-produced organic nanowires with similar diameters. The extremely thin diameter of 1.5 nanometers (over 60,000 times thinner than a human hair) means that thousands of the wires can easily be packed into a very small space.

The added benefit is that making biowire does not require any of the dangerous chemicals that are needed for synthesis of other nanowires. Also, biowire contains no toxic components. “Geobacter can be grown on cheap renewable organic feedstocks so it is a very ‘green’ process,” he notes. And, although the biowire is made out of protein, it is extremely durable. In fact, Lovley’s lab had to work for months to establish a method to break it down.

“It’s quite an unusual protein,” Lovley says. “This may be just the beginning” he adds. Researchers in his lab recently produced more than 20 other Geobacter strains, each producing a distinct biowire variant with new amino acid combinations. He notes, “I am hoping that our initial success will attract more funding to accelerate the discovery process. We are hoping that we can modify biowire in other ways to expand its potential applications.”

As it often does, funding provides some notes of interest,

This research was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the UMass Amherst Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing.

Caption: Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. Credit: UMass Amherst

Caption: Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. Credit: UMass Amherst

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

Synthetic Biological Protein Nanowires with High Conductivity by Yang Tan, Ramesh Y. Adhikari, Nikhil S. Malvankar, Shuang Pi, Joy E. Ward, Trevor L. Woodard, Kelly P. Nevin, Qiangfei Xia, Mark T. Tuominen, and Derek R. Lovley. Small DOI: 10.1002/smll.201601112 Version of Record online: 13 JUL 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Osmotic power: electricity generated with water, salt and a 3-atoms-thick membrane


EPFL researchers have developed a system that generates electricity from osmosis with unparalleled efficiency. Their work, featured in “Nature”, uses seawater, fresh water, and a new type of membrane just three atoms thick.

A July 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk highlights  research on osmotic power at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL; Switzerland),

Proponents of clean energy will soon have a new source to add to their existing array of solar, wind, and hydropower: osmotic power. Or more specifically, energy generated by a natural phenomenon occurring when fresh water comes into contact with seawater through a membrane.

Researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology have developed an osmotic power generation system that delivers never-before-seen yields. Their innovation lies in a three atoms thick membrane used to separate the two fluids. …

A July 14, 2016 EPFL press release (also on EurekAlert but published July 13, 2016), which originated the news item, describes the research,

The concept is fairly simple. A semipermeable membrane separates two fluids with different salt concentrations. Salt ions travel through the membrane until the salt concentrations in the two fluids reach equilibrium. That phenomenon is precisely osmosis.

If the system is used with seawater and fresh water, salt ions in the seawater pass through the membrane into the fresh water until both fluids have the same salt concentration. And since an ion is simply an atom with an electrical charge, the movement of the salt ions can be harnessed to generate electricity.

A 3 atoms thick, selective membrane that does the job

EPFL’s system consists of two liquid-filled compartments separated by a thin membrane made of molybdenum disulfide. The membrane has a tiny hole, or nanopore, through which seawater ions pass into the fresh water until the two fluids’ salt concentrations are equal. As the ions pass through the nanopore, their electrons are transferred to an electrode – which is what is used to generate an electric current.

Thanks to its properties the membrane allows positively-charged ions to pass through, while pushing away most of the negatively-charged ones. That creates voltage between the two liquids as one builds up a positive charge and the other a negative charge. This voltage is what causes the current generated by the transfer of ions to flow.

“We had to first fabricate and then investigate the optimal size of the nanopore. If it’s too big, negative ions can pass through and the resulting voltage would be too low. If it’s too small, not enough ions can pass through and the current would be too weak,” said Jiandong Feng, lead author of the research.

What sets EPFL’s system apart is its membrane. In these types of systems, the current increases with a thinner membrane. And EPFL’s membrane is just a few atoms thick. The material it is made of – molybdenum disulfide – is ideal for generating an osmotic current. “This is the first time a two-dimensional material has been used for this type of application,” said Aleksandra Radenovic, head of the laboratory of Nanoscale Biology

Powering 50’000 energy-saving light bulbs with 1m2 membrane

The potential of the new system is huge. According to their calculations, a 1m2 membrane with 30% of its surface covered by nanopores should be able to produce 1MW of electricity – or enough to power 50,000 standard energy-saving light bulbs. And since molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) is easily found in nature or can be grown by chemical vapor deposition, the system could feasibly be ramped up for large-scale power generation. The major challenge in scaling-up this process is finding out how to make relatively uniform pores.

Until now, researchers have worked on a membrane with a single nanopore, in order to understand precisely what was going on. ” From an engineering perspective, single nanopore system is ideal to further our fundamental understanding of 8=-based processes and provide useful information for industry-level commercialization”, said Jiandong Feng.

The researchers were able to run a nanotransistor from the current generated by a single nanopore and thus demonstrated a self-powered nanosystem. Low-power single-layer MoS2 transistors were fabricated in collaboration with Andras Kis’ team at at EPFL, while molecular dynamics simulations were performed by collaborators at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

Harnessing the potential of estuaries

EPFL’s research is part of a growing trend. For the past several years, scientists around the world have been developing systems that leverage osmotic power to create electricity. Pilot projects have sprung up in places such as Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States to generate energy at estuaries, where rivers flow into the sea. For now, the membranes used in most systems are organic and fragile, and deliver low yields. Some systems use the movement of water, rather than ions, to power turbines that in turn produce electricity.

Once the systems become more robust, osmotic power could play a major role in the generation of renewable energy. While solar panels require adequate sunlight and wind turbines adequate wind, osmotic energy can be produced just about any time of day or night – provided there’s an estuary nearby.

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

Single-layer MoS2 nanopores as nanopower generators by Jiandong Feng, Michael Graf, Ke Liu, Dmitry Ovchinnikov, Dumitru Dumcenco, Mohammad Heiranian, Vishal Nandigana, Narayana R. Aluru, Andras Kis, & Aleksandra Radenovic. Nature (2016)  doi:10.1038/nature18593 Published online 13 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

NEC and its ‘carbon nanobrush’

Long associated with the discovery of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), NEC Corporation has announced another carbon material, carbon nanobrushes, in a July 7, 2016 news item on phys.org,

NEC Corporation today [June 30, 2016] announced the discovery of a new nano carbon material, the “carbon nanobrush,” a fibrous aggregate of single-walled carbon nanohorns. Moreover, NEC has become the first company in the world to manufacture the carbon nanobrush.

A June 30, 2016 NEC Corporation press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: This excerpt has been reformatted for clarity),

“The ‘carbon nanobrush’ is a new nano carbon material that, like existing carbon nanohorns, has high water and solvent dispersity, and high adsorptivity, including substance adsorption, but has more than 10 times the electrical conductivity than existing carbon nanohorns, an important characteristic for industrial applications,” said Dr. Sumio Iijima, Senior Research Fellow, NEC Corporation. “With these characteristics, it is anticipated that the carbon nanobrush will help to improve the basic functionality of a range of devices, including increasing the speed of sensor and actuator responses, improving the output properties of batteries and capacitors, while increasing the electrical conductivity of rubber and plastic composite materials, as well as having application in a wide range of industries.”

1. TEM images of the obtained samples

2. Tips of single-walled carbon nanohorn

3. Spherical-carbon nanohorn aggregates

Carbon nanohorns are horn-shaped (figure 2) nano carbon structures 2-5 nanometers (nm) in diameter and 40-50nm in length, which until now have been produced as radial spherical aggregates (figure 3). The newly discovered carbon nanobrush is a uniquely shaped material. It is fibrous aggregates composed of radially-assembled graphene-based single-walled nanotubules, named here as fibrous aggregates of single-walled carbon nanohorns, whose structure resembles that of a round brush (figure 1).

Features of the “carbon nanobrush” include the following:

    1. Structure
      (1)Single-walled carbon nanohorns of 2-5nm in diameter and 40-50nm in length radially gather and are connected fibrously in several micrometers.
      (2)The single-walled carbon nanohorn which is a horn-shaped nano carbon structure with a large surface area radially gather and are connected fibrously in several micrometers. So it has a large surface area per unit mass (up to 1700㎡/g).
    1. Characteristics
      (1)Dispersity
      Like carbon nanohorns, the carbon nanobrush has high dispersibility, dispersing in water and organic solvents, for example. This means that it can be easily mixed with a variety of materials, making it easy to improve its characteristics as a base material.(2)Adsorptivity
      Like spherical carbon nanohorns, the carbon nanobrush can contain various substances in the nano-sized spaces inside the tubular structure, so it can be utilized as a high-performance adsorbent. When holes are formed on the surface of the carbon nanohorns by oxidation treatments, the inner space can be used, expanding the surface area by a factor of approximately five and greatly increasing adsorptivity.

      (3)Electrical conductivity
      As carbon nanobrush is a fibrous aggregate of radially-assembled carbon nanohorns, it has more than 10 times the electrical conductivity compared with existing spherical carbon nanohorn aggregates. As a result, they are highly effective in increasing the speed of sensor and actuator responses, increasing output properties of batteries and capacitors, and increasing the electrical conductivity of rubber and plastic composite materials.

  1. Production process
    Carbon nanobrush can be produced at room temperature and under atmospheric pressure using the laser ablation method where an iron-containing carbon target (mass of carbon) is irradiated by a laser with high power density. The simple production process means that they can be produced efficiently and at a low cost when compared to the cost of other nano carbon materials.

This technology was developed in part through collaborative research with the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).

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

Preparation and Characterization of Newly Discovered Fibrous Aggregates of Single-Walled Carbon Nanohorns by Ryota Yuge, Fumiyuki Nihey, Kiyohiko Toyama, and Masako Yudasaka. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201602022 Version of Record online: 25 MAY 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone interested in a history of carbon nanotubes, there’s my June 10, 2016 posting: The birth of carbon nanotubes (CNTs): a history, which includes a mention of NEC and its position as the discoverer of carbon nanotubes.