Category Archives: electronics

Nano-chimneys to cut down heat

Heat is always a problem with electronics—even nanoelectronics. Scientists at Rice University (US) believe they may have a solution for nanoelectronics heat problems, according to a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A few nanoscale adjustments may be all that is required to make graphene-nanotube junctions excel at transferring heat, according to Rice University scientists.

The Rice lab of theoretical physicist Boris Yakobson found that putting a cone-like “chimney” between the graphene and [carbon] nanotube all but eliminates a barrier that blocks heat from escaping.

Caption: Simulations by Rice University scientists show that placing cones between graphene and carbon nanotubes could enhance heat dissipation from nano-electronics. The nano-chimneys become better at conducting heat-carrying phonons by spreading out the number of heptagons required by the graphene-to-nanotube transition. Credit: Alex Kutana/Rice University

A Jan. 4, 2016 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Heat is transferred through phonons, quasiparticle waves that also transmit sound. The Rice theory offers a strategy to channel damaging heat away from next-generation nano-electronics.

Both graphene and carbon nanotubes consist of six-atom rings, which create a chicken-wire appearance, and both excel at the rapid transfer of electricity and phonons.

But when a nanotube grows from graphene, atoms facilitate the turn by forming heptagonal (seven-member) rings instead. Scientists have determined that forests of nanotubes grown from graphene are excellent for storing hydrogen for energy applications, but in electronics, the heptagons scatter phonons and hinder the escape of heat through the pillars.

The Rice researchers discovered through computer simulations that removing atoms here and there from the two-dimensional graphene base would force a cone to form between the graphene and the nanotube. The geometric properties (aka topology) of the graphene-to-cone and cone-to-nanotube transitions require the same total number of heptagons, but they are more sparsely spaced and leave a clear path of hexagons available for heat to race up the chimney.

“Our interest in advancing new applications for low-dimensional carbon — fullerenes, nanotubes and graphene — is broad,” Yakobson said. “One way is to use them as building blocks to fill three-dimensional spaces with different designs, creating anisotropic, nonuniform scaffolds with properties that none of the current bulk materials have. In this case, we studied a combination of nanotubes and graphene, connected by cones, motivated by seeing such shapes obtained in our colleagues’ experimental labs.”

The researchers tested phonon conduction through simulations of free-standing nanotubes, pillared graphene and nano-chimneys with a cone radius of either 20 or 40 angstroms. The pillared graphene was 20 percent less conductive than plain nanotubes. The 20-angstrom nano-chimneys were just as conductive as plain nanotubes, while 40-angstrom cones were 20 percent better than the nanotubes.

“The tunability of such structures is virtually limitless, stemming from the vast combinatorial possibilities of arranging the elementary modules,” said Alex Kutana, a Rice research scientist and co-author of the study. “The actual challenge is to find the most useful structures given a vast number of possibilities and then make them in the lab reliably.

“In the present case, the fine-tuning parameters could be cone shapes and radii, nanotube spacing, lengths and diameters. Interestingly, the nano-chimneys also act like thermal diodes, with heat flowing faster in one direction than the other,” he said.

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

Nanochimneys: Topology and Thermal Conductance of 3D Nanotube–Graphene Cone Junctions by Ziang Zhang, Alex Kutana, Ajit Roy, and Boris I. Yakobson. J. Phys. Chem. C, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcc.6b11350 Publication Date (Web): December 21, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

‘Brewing up’ conductive inks for printable electronics

Scientists from Duke University aren’t exactly ‘brewing’ or ‘cooking up’ the inks but they do come close according to a Jan. 3, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

By suspending tiny metal nanoparticles in liquids, Duke University scientists are brewing up conductive ink-jet printer “inks” to print inexpensive, customizable circuit patterns on just about any surface.

A Jan. 3, 2017 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why this technique could lead to more accessible printed electronics,

Printed electronics, which are already being used on a wide scale in devices such as the anti-theft radio frequency identification (RFID) tags you might find on the back of new DVDs, currently have one major drawback: for the circuits to work, they first have to be heated to melt all the nanoparticles together into a single conductive wire, making it impossible to print circuits on inexpensive plastics or paper.

A new study by Duke researchers shows that tweaking the shape of the nanoparticles in the ink might just eliminate the need for heat.

By comparing the conductivity of films made from different shapes of silver nanostructures, the researchers found that electrons zip through films made of silver nanowires much easier than films made from other shapes, like nanospheres or microflakes. In fact, electrons flowed so easily through the nanowire films that they could function in printed circuits without the need to melt them all together.

“The nanowires had a 4,000 times higher conductivity than the more commonly used silver nanoparticles that you would find in printed antennas for RFID tags,” said Benjamin Wiley, assistant professor of chemistry at Duke. “So if you use nanowires, then you don’t have to heat the printed circuits up to such high temperature and you can use cheaper plastics or paper.”

“There is really nothing else I can think of besides these silver nanowires that you can just print and it’s simply conductive, without any post-processing,” Wiley added.

These types of printed electronics could have applications far beyond smart packaging; researchers envision using the technology to make solar cells, printed displays, LEDS, touchscreens, amplifiers, batteries and even some implantable bio-electronic devices. The results appeared online Dec. 16 [2016] in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Silver has become a go-to material for making printed electronics, Wiley said, and a number of studies have recently appeared measuring the conductivity of films with different shapes of silver nanostructures. However, experimental variations make direct comparisons between the shapes difficult, and few reports have linked the conductivity of the films to the total mass of silver used, an important factor when working with a costly material.

“We wanted to eliminate any extra materials from the inks and simply hone in on the amount of silver in the films and the contacts between the nanostructures as the only source of variability,” said Ian Stewart, a recent graduate student in Wiley’s lab and first author on the ACS paper.

Stewart used known recipes to cook up silver nanostructures with different shapes, including nanoparticles, microflakes, and short and long nanowires, and mixed these nanostructures with distilled water to make simple “inks.” He then invented a quick and easy way to make thin films using equipment available in just about any lab — glass slides and double-sided tape.

“We used a hole punch to cut out wells from double-sided tape and stuck these to glass slides,” Stewart said. By adding a precise volume of ink into each tape “well” and then heating the wells — either to relatively low temperature to simply evaporate the water or to higher temperatures to begin melting the structures together — he created a variety of films to test.

The team say they weren’t surprised that the long nanowire films had the highest conductivity. Electrons usually flow easily through individual nanostructures but get stuck when they have to jump from one structure to the next, Wiley explained, and long nanowires greatly reduce the number of times the electrons have to make this “jump”.

But they were surprised at just how drastic the change was. “The resistivity of the long silver nanowire films is several orders of magnitude lower than silver nanoparticles and only 10 times greater than pure silver,” Stewart said.

The team is now experimenting with using aerosol jets to print silver nanowire inks in usable circuits. Wiley says they also want to explore whether silver-coated copper nanowires, which are significantly cheaper to produce than pure silver nanowires, will give the same effect.

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

Effect of Morphology on the Electrical Resistivity of Silver Nanostructure Films by Ian E. Stewart, Myung Jun Kim, and Benjamin J. Wiley. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b12289 Publication Date (Web): December 16, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an image of the silver nanowires, which is not exactly compensation but is interesting,

Caption: Duke University chemists have found that silver nanowire films like these conduct electricity well enough to form functioning circuits without applying high temperatures, enabling printable electronics on heat-sensitive materials like paper or plastic.
Credit: Ian Stewart and Benjamin Wiley

Spintronics-based artificial intelligence

Courtesy: Tohoku University

Japanese researchers have managed to mimic a synapse (artificial neural network) with a spintronics-based device according to a Dec. 19, 2016 Tohoku University press release (also on EurekAlert but dated Dec. 20, 2016),

Researchers at Tohoku University have, for the first time, successfully demonstrated the basic operation of spintronics-based artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence, which emulates the information processing function of the brain that can quickly execute complex and complicated tasks such as image recognition and weather prediction, has attracted growing attention and has already been partly put to practical use.

The currently-used artificial intelligence works on the conventional framework of semiconductor-based integrated circuit technology. However, this lacks the compactness and low-power feature of the human brain. To overcome this challenge, the implementation of a single solid-state device that plays the role of a synapse is highly promising.

The Tohoku University research group of Professor Hideo Ohno, Professor Shigeo Sato, Professor Yoshihiko Horio, Associate Professor Shunsuke Fukami and Assistant Professor Hisanao Akima developed an artificial neural network in which their recently-developed spintronic devices, comprising micro-scale magnetic material, are employed (Fig. 1). The used spintronic device is capable of memorizing arbitral values between 0 and 1 in an analogue manner unlike the conventional magnetic devices, and thus perform the learning function, which is served by synapses in the brain.

Using the developed network (Fig. 2), the researchers examined an associative memory operation, which is not readily executed by conventional computers. Through the multiple trials, they confirmed that the spintronic devices have a learning ability with which the developed artificial neural network can successfully associate memorized patterns (Fig. 3) from their input noisy versions just like the human brain can.

The proof-of-concept demonstration in this research is expected to open new horizons in artificial intelligence technology – one which is of a compact size, and which simultaneously achieves fast-processing capabilities and ultralow-power consumption. These features should enable the artificial intelligence to be used in a broad range of societal applications such as image/voice recognition, wearable terminals, sensor networks and nursing-care robots.

Here are Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, as mentioned in the press release,

Fig. 1. (a) Optical photograph of a fabricated spintronic device that serves as artificial synapse in the present demonstration. Measurement circuit for the resistance switching is also shown. (b) Measured relation between the resistance of the device and applied current, showing analogue-like resistance variation. (c) Photograph of spintronic device array mounted on a ceramic package, which is used for the developed artificial neural network. Courtesy: Tohoku University

Fig. 2. Block diagram of developed artificial neural network, consisting of PC, FPGA, and array of spintronics (spin-orbit torque; SOT) devices. Courtesy: Tohoku University

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

Analogue spin–orbit torque device for artificial-neural-network-based associative memory operation by William A. Borders, Hisanao Akima1, Shunsuke Fukami, Satoshi Moriya, Shouta Kurihara, Yoshihiko Horio, Shigeo Sato, and Hideo Ohno. Applied Physics Express, Volume 10, Number 1 Published 20 December 2016

© 2017 The Japan Society of Applied Physics

This is an open access paper.

For anyone interested in my other posts on memristors, artificial brains, and artificial intelligence, you can search this blog for those terms  and/or Neuromorphic Engineering in the Categories section.

Phagocytosis for a bioelectronic future

The process by which a cell engulfs matter is known as phagocytosis. One of the best known examples of failed phagocytosis is that of asbestos fibres in the lungs where lung cells have attempted to engulf a fibre that’s just too big and ends up piercing the cell. When enough of the cells are pierced, the person is diagnosed with mesothelioma.

This particular example of phagocytosis is a happier one according to a Dec. 16, 2016 article by Meghan Rosen for ScienceNews,

Human cells can snack on silicon.

Cells grown in the lab devour nano-sized wires of silicon through an engulfing process known as phagocytosis, scientists report December 16 in Science Advances.

Silicon-infused cells could merge electronics with biology, says John Zimmerman, a biophysicist now at Harvard University. “It’s still very early days,” he adds, but “the idea is to get traditional electronic devices working inside of cells.” Such hybrid devices could one day help control cellular behavior, or even replace electronics used for deep brain stimulation, he says.

Scientists have been trying to load electronic parts inside cells for years. One way is to zap holes in cells with electricity, which lets big stuff, like silicon nanowires linked to bulky materials, slip in. Zimmerman, then at the University of Chicago, and colleagues were looking for a simpler technique, something that would let tiny nanowires in easily and could potentially allow them to travel through a person’s bloodstream — like a drug.

A Dec. 22, 2016 University of Chicago news release by Matt Wood provides more detail,

“You can treat it as a non-genetic, synthetic biology platform,” said Bozhi Tian, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry and senior author of the new study. “Traditionally in biology we use genetic engineering and modify genetic parts. Now we can use silicon parts, and silicon can be internalized. You can target those silicon parts to specific parts of the cell and modulate that behavior with light.”

In the new study, Tian and his team show how cells consume or internalize the nanowires through phagocytosis, the same process they use to engulf and ingest nutrients and other particles in their environment. The nanowires are simply added to cell media, the liquid solution the cells live in, the same way you might administer a drug, and the cells take it from there. Eventually, the goal would be to inject them into the bloodstream or package them into a pill.

Once inside, the nanowires can interact directly with individual parts of the cell, organelles like the mitochondria, nucleus and cytoskeletal filaments. Researchers can then stimulate the nanowires with light to see how individual components of the cell respond, or even change the behavior of the cell. They can last up to two weeks inside the cell before biodegrading.

Seeing how individual parts of a cell respond to stimulation could give researchers insight into how medical treatments that use electrical stimulation work at a more detailed level. For instance, deep brain stimulation helps treat tremors from movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease by sending electrical signals to areas of the brain. Doctors know it works at the level of tissues and brain structures, but seeing how individual components of nerve cells react to these signals could help fine tune and improve the treatment.

The experiments in the study used umbilical vascular endothelial cells, which make up blood vessel linings in the umbilical cord. These cells readily took up the nanowires, but others, like cardiac muscle cells, did not. Knowing that some cells consume the wires and some don’t could also prove useful in experimental settings and give researchers more ways to target specific cell types.

Tian and his team manufactures the nanowires in their lab with a chemical vapor deposition system that grows the silicon structures to different specifications. They can adjust size, shape, and electrical properties as needed, or even add defects on purpose for testing. They can also make wires with porous surfaces that could deliver drugs or genetic material to the cells. The process gives them a variety of ways to manipulate the properties of the nanowires for research.

Seeing how individual parts of a cell respond to stimulation could give researchers insight into how medical treatments that use electrical stimulation work at a more detailed level. For instance, deep brain stimulation helps treat tremors from movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease by sending electrical signals to areas of the brain. Doctors know it works at the level of tissues and brain structures, but seeing how individual components of nerve cells react to these signals could help fine tune and improve the treatment.

The experiments in the study used umbilical vascular endothelial cells, which make up blood vessel linings in the umbilical cord. These cells readily took up the nanowires, but others, like cardiac muscle cells, did not. Knowing that some cells consume the wires and some don’t could also prove useful in experimental settings and give researchers more ways to target specific cell types.

Tian and his team manufactures the nanowires in their lab with a chemical vapor deposition system that grows the silicon structures to different specifications. They can adjust size, shape, and electrical properties as needed, or even add defects on purpose for testing. They can also make wires with porous surfaces that could deliver drugs or genetic material to the cells. The process gives them a variety of ways to manipulate the properties of the nanowires for research.

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

Cellular uptake and dynamics of unlabeled freestanding silicon nanowires by John F. Zimmerman, Ramya Parameswaran, Graeme Murray, Yucai Wang, Michael Burke, and Bozhi Tian. Science Advances  16 Dec 2016: Vol. 2, no. 12, e1601039 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601039

This paper appears to be open access.

Environmentally sustainable electromobility

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology pose an interesting question in a Dec. 8, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Does it really help to drive an electric car if the electricity you use to charge the batteries come from a coal mine in Germany, or if the batteries were manufactured in China using coal?

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology Programme have looked at all of the environmental costs of electric vehicles to determine the cradle-to-grave environmental footprint of building and operating these vehicles.

Increasingly, researchers are examining not just immediate environmental impacts but the impact a product has throughout its life cycle as this Dec. 8, 2016 Norwegian University of Science and Technology press release on EurekAlert notes,

In the 6 December [2016] issue of Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers report on a model that can help guide developers as they consider new nanomaterials for batteries or fuel cells. The goal is to create the most environmentally sustainable vehicle fleet possible, which is no small challenge given that there are already an estimated 1 billion cars and light trucks on the world’s roads, a number that is expected to double by 2035.

With this in mind, the researchers created an environmental life-cycle screening framework that looked at the environmental and other impacts of extraction, refining, synthesis, performance, durability and recyclablility of materials.

This allowed the researchers to evaluate the most promising nanomaterials for lithium-ion batteries (LIB) and proton exchange membrane hydrogen fuel cells (PEMFC) as power sources for electric vehicles. “Our analysis of the current situation clearly outlines the challenge,” the researchers wrote. “The materials with the best potential environmental profiles during the material extraction and production phase…. often present environmental disadvantages during their use phase… and vice versa.”

The hope is that by identifying all the environmental costs of different materials used to build electric cars, designers and engineers can “make the right design trade-offs that optimize LIB and PEMFC nanomaterials for EV usage towards mitigating climate change,” the authors wrote.

They encouraged material scientists and those who conduct life-cycle assessments to work together so that electric cars can be a key contributor to mitigating the effects of transportation on climate change.

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

Nanotechnology for environmentally sustainable electromobility by Linda Ager-Wick Ellingsen, Christine Roxanne Hung, Guillaume Majeau-Bettez, Bhawna Singh, Zhongwei Chen, M. Stanley Whittingham, & Anders Hammer Strømman. Nature Nanotechnology 11, 1039–1051 (2016)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.237 Published online 06 December 2016 Corrected online 14 December 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Graphene and silly putty combined to create ultra sensitive sensors

One of my favourite kinds of science story is the one where scientists turn to a children’s toy for their research. In this case, it’s silly putty. Before launching into the science part of this story, here’s more about silly putty from its Wikipedia entry (Note: A ll links have been removed),

During World War II, Japan invaded rubber-producing countries as they expanded their sphere of influence in the Pacific Rim. Rubber was vital for the production of rafts, tires, vehicle and aircraft parts, gas masks, and boots. In the U.S., all rubber products were rationed; citizens were encouraged to make their rubber products last until the end of the war and to donate spare tires, boots, and coats. Meanwhile, the government funded research into synthetic rubber compounds to attempt to solve this shortage.[10]

Credit for the invention of Silly Putty is disputed[11] and has been attributed variously to Earl Warrick,[12] of the then newly formed Dow Corning; Harvey Chin; and James Wright, a Scottish-born inventor working for General Electric in New Haven, Connecticut.[13] Throughout his life, Warrick insisted that he and his colleague, Rob Roy McGregor, received the patent for Silly Putty before Wright did; but Crayola’s history of Silly Putty states that Wright first invented it in 1943.[10][14][15] Both researchers independently discovered that reacting boric acid with silicone oil would produce a gooey, bouncy material with several unique properties. The non-toxic putty would bounce when dropped, could stretch farther than regular rubber, would not go moldy, and had a very high melting temperature. However, the substance did not have all the properties needed to replace rubber.[1]

In 1949 toy store owner Ruth Fallgatter came across the putty. She contacted marketing consultant Peter C.L. Hodgson (1912-1976).[16] The two decided to market the bouncing putty by selling it in a clear case. Although it sold well, Fallgatter did not pursue it further. However, Hodgson saw its potential.[1][3]

Already US$12,000 in debt, Hodgson borrowed US$147 to buy a batch of the putty to pack 1 oz (28 g) portions into plastic eggs for US$1, calling it Silly Putty. Initially, sales were poor, but after a New Yorker article mentioned it, Hodgson sold over 250,000 eggs of silly putty in three days.[3] However, Hodgson was almost put out of business in 1951 by the Korean War. Silicone, the main ingredient in silly putty, was put on ration, harming his business. A year later the restriction on silicone was lifted and the production of Silly Putty resumed.[17][9] Initially, it was primarily targeted towards adults. However, by 1955 the majority of its customers were aged 6 to 12. In 1957, Hodgson produced the first televised commercial for Silly Putty, which aired during the Howdy Doody Show.[18]

In 1961 Silly Putty went worldwide, becoming a hit in the Soviet Union and Europe. In 1968 it was taken into lunar orbit by the Apollo 8 astronauts.[17]

Peter Hodgson died in 1976. A year later, Binney & Smith, the makers of Crayola products, acquired the rights to Silly Putty. As of 2005, annual Silly Putty sales exceeded six million eggs.[19]

Silly Putty was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame on May 28, 2001. [20]

I had no idea silly putty had its origins in World War II era research. At any rate, it’s made its way back to the research lab to be united with graphene according to a Dec. 8, 2016 news item  on Nanowerk,

Researchers in AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science research centre, hosted in Trinity College Dublin, have used graphene to make the novelty children’s material silly putty® (polysilicone) conduct electricity, creating extremely sensitive sensors. This world first research, led by Professor Jonathan Coleman from TCD and in collaboration with Prof Robert Young of the University of Manchester, potentially offers exciting possibilities for applications in new, inexpensive devices and diagnostics in medicine and other sectors.

A Dec. 9, 2016 Trinity College Dublin press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes their ‘G-putty’ in more detail,

Prof Coleman, Investigator in AMBER and Trinity’s School of Physics along with postdoctoral researcher Conor Boland, discovered that the electrical resistance of putty infused with graphene (“G-putty”) was extremely sensitive to the slightest deformation or impact. They mounted the G-putty onto the chest and neck of human subjects and used it to measure breathing, pulse and even blood pressure. It showed unprecedented sensitivity as a sensor for strain and pressure, hundreds of times more sensitive than normal sensors. The G-putty also works as a very sensitive impact sensor, able to detect the footsteps of small spiders. It is believed that this material will find applications in a range of medical devices.

Prof Coleman said, “What we are excited about is the unexpected behaviour we found when we added graphene to the polymer, a cross-linked polysilicone. This material as well known as the children’s toy silly putty. It is different from familiar materials in that it flows like a viscous liquid when deformed slowly but bounces like an elastic solid when thrown against a surface. When we added the graphene to the silly putty, it caused it to conduct electricity, but in a very unusual way. The electrical resistance of the G-putty was very sensitive to deformation with the resistance increasing sharply on even the slightest strain or impact. Unusually, the resistance slowly returned close to its original value as the putty self-healed over time.”

He continued, “While a common application has been to add graphene to plastics in order to improve the electrical, mechanical, thermal or barrier properties, the resultant composites have generally performed as expected without any great surprises. The behaviour we found with G-putty has not been found in any other composite material. This unique discovery will open up major possibilities in sensor manufacturing worldwide.”

Dexter Johnson in a Dec. 14, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) puts this research into context,

For all the talk and research that has gone into exploiting graphene’s pliant properties for use in wearable and flexible electronics, most of the polymer composites it has been mixed with to date have been on the hard and inflexible side.

It took a team of researchers in Ireland to combine graphene with the children’s toy Silly Putty to set the nanomaterial community ablaze with excitement. The combination makes a new composite that promises to make a super-sensitive strain sensor with potential medical diagnostic applications.

“Ablaze with excitement,” eh? As Dexter rarely slips into hyperbole, this must be a big deal.

The researchers have made this video available,

For the very interested, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Sensitive electromechanical sensors using viscoelastic graphene-polymer nanocomposites by Conor S. Boland, Umar Khan, Gavin Ryan, Sebastian Barwich, Romina Charifou, Andrew Harvey, Claudia Backes, Zheling Li, Mauro S. Ferreira, Matthias E. Möbius, Robert J. Young, Jonathan N. Coleman. Science  09 Dec 2016: Vol. 354, Issue 6317, pp. 1257-1260 DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2879

This paper is behind a paywall.

Seawater batteries to replace lithium-ion batteries?

Replacing lithium-ion batteries with seawater batteries is a little more complicated than going out to scoop a little seawater and returning home to cook up a battery according to a Dec. 7, 2016 American Chemical Society news release (also on EurkeAlert),

With the ubiquity of lithium-ion batteries in smartphones and other rechargeable devices, it’s hard to imagine replacing them. But the rising price of lithium has spurred a search for alternatives. One up-and-coming battery technology uses abundant, readily available seawater. Now, making this option viable is one step closer with a new report on a sodium-air, seawater battery. The study appears in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Sodium-air — or sodium-oxygen — batteries are considered one of the most promising, and cost-effective alternatives to today’s lithium-ion standby. But some challenges remain before they can become a commercial reality. Soo Min Hwang, Youngsik Kim and colleagues have been tackling these challenges, using seawater as the catholyte — an electrolyte and cathode combined. In batteries, the electrolyte is the component that allows an electrical charge to flow between the cathode and anode. A constant flow of seawater into and out of the battery provides the sodium ions and water responsible for producing a charge. The reactions have been sluggish, however, so the researchers wanted to find a way to speed them up.

For their new battery, the team prepared a catalyst using porous cobalt manganese oxide nanoparticles. The pores create a large surface area for encouraging the electrochemical reactions needed to produce a charge. A hard carbon electrode served as the anode. The resulting battery performed efficiently over 100 cycles with an average discharge voltage of about 2.7 volts. This doesn’t yet measure up to a lithium-ion cell, which can reach 3.6 to 4.0 volts, but the advance is getting close to bridging the gap, the researchers say.

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

A Metal–Organic Framework Derived Porous Cobalt Manganese Oxide Bifunctional Electrocatalyst for Hybrid Na–Air/Seawater Batteries by Mari Abirami, Soo Min Hwang, Juchan Yang, Sirugaloor Thangavel Senthilkumar, Junsoo Kim, Woo-Seok Go, Baskar Senthilkumar, Hyun-Kon Song, and Youngsik Kim. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (48), pp 32778–32787
DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b10082 Publication Date (Web): November 14, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Changing synaptic connectivity with a memristor

The French have announced some research into memristive devices that mimic both short-term and long-term neural plasticity according to a Dec. 6, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Leti researchers have demonstrated that memristive devices are excellent candidates to emulate synaptic plasticity, the capability of synapses to enhance or diminish their connectivity between neurons, which is widely believed to be the cellular basis for learning and memory.

The breakthrough was presented today [Dec. 6, 2016] at IEDM [International Electron Devices Meeting] 2016 in San Francisco in the paper, “Experimental Demonstration of Short and Long Term Synaptic Plasticity Using OxRAM Multi k-bit Arrays for Reliable Detection in Highly Noisy Input Data”.

Neural systems such as the human brain exhibit various types and time periods of plasticity, e.g. synaptic modifications can last anywhere from seconds to days or months. However, prior research in utilizing synaptic plasticity using memristive devices relied primarily on simplified rules for plasticity and learning.

The project team, which includes researchers from Leti’s sister institute at CEA Tech, List, along with INSERM and Clinatec, proposed an architecture that implements both short- and long-term plasticity (STP and LTP) using RRAM devices.

A Dec. 6, 2016 Laboratoire d’électronique des technologies de l’information (LETI) press release, which originated the news item, elaborates,

“While implementing a learning rule for permanent modifications – LTP, based on spike-timing-dependent plasticity – we also incorporated the possibility of short-term modifications with STP, based on the Tsodyks/Markram model,” said Elisa Vianello, Leti non-volatile memories and cognitive computing specialist/research engineer. “We showed the benefits of utilizing both kinds of plasticity with visual pattern extraction and decoding of neural signals. LTP allows our artificial neural networks to learn patterns, and STP makes the learning process very robust against environmental noise.”

Resistive random-access memory (RRAM) devices coupled with a spike-coding scheme are key to implementing unsupervised learning with minimal hardware footprint and low power consumption. Embedding neuromorphic learning into low-power devices could enable design of autonomous systems, such as a brain-machine interface that makes decisions based on real-time, on-line processing of in-vivo recorded biological signals. Biological data are intrinsically highly noisy and the proposed combined LTP and STP learning rule is a powerful technique to improve the detection/recognition rate. This approach may enable the design of autonomous implantable devices for rehabilitation purposes

Leti, which has worked on RRAM to develop hardware neuromorphic architectures since 2010, is the coordinator of the H2020 [Horizon 2020] European project NeuRAM3. That project is working on fabricating a chip with architecture that supports state-of-the-art machine-learning algorithms and spike-based learning mechanisms.

That’s it folks.

Soft contact lenses key to supercapacitor breaththrough

It seems like pretty exciting news for anyone following the supercapacitor story but they are being awfully cagey about it all in a Dec. 6, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Ground-breaking research from the University of Surrey and Augmented Optics Ltd., in collaboration with the University of Bristol, has developed potentially transformational technology which could revolutionise the capabilities of appliances that have previously relied on battery power to work.

This development by Augmented Optics Ltd., could translate into very high energy density super-capacitors making it possible to recharge your mobile phone, laptop or other mobile devices in just a few seconds.

The technology could have a seismic impact across a number of industries, including transport, aerospace, energy generation, and household applications such as mobile phones, flat screen electronic devices, and biosensors. It could also revolutionise electric cars, allowing the possibility for them to recharge as quickly as it takes for a regular non-electric car to refuel with petrol – a process that currently takes approximately 6-8 hours to recharge. Imagine, instead of an electric car being limited to a drive from London to Brighton, the new technology could allow the electric car to travel from London to Edinburgh without the need to recharge, but when it did recharge for this operation to take just a few minutes to perform.

I imagine the reason for the caginess has to do with the efforts to commercialize the technology. In any event, here’s a little more from a Dec. 5, 2016 University of Surrey press release by Ashley Lovell,

Supercapacitor buses are already being used in China, but they have a very limited range whereas this technology could allow them to travel a lot further between recharges. Instead of recharging every 2-3 stops this technology could mean they only need to recharge every 20-30 stops and that will only take a few seconds.

Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX, has previously stated his belief that supercapacitors are likely to be the technology for future electric air transportation. We believe that the present scientific advance could make that vision a reality.

The technology was adapted from the principles used to make soft contact lenses, which Dr Donald Highgate (of Augmented Optics, and an alumnus of the University of Surrey) developed following his postgraduate studies at Surrey 40 years ago. Supercapacitors, an alternative power source to batteries, store energy using electrodes and electrolytes and both charge and deliver energy quickly, unlike conventional batteries which do so in a much slower, more sustained way. Supercapacitors have the ability to charge and discharge rapidly over very large numbers of cycles. However, because of their poor energy density per kilogramme (approximately just one twentieth of existing battery technology), they have, until now, been unable to compete with conventional battery energy storage in many applications.

Dr Brendan Howlin of the University of Surrey, explained: “There is a global search for new energy storage technology and this new ultra capacity supercapacitor has the potential to open the door to unimaginably exciting developments.”

The ground-breaking research programme was conducted by researchers at the University of Surrey’s Department of Chemistry where the project was initiated by Dr Donald Highgate of Augmented Optics Ltd. The research team was co-led by the Principal Investigators Dr Ian Hamerton and Dr Brendan Howlin. Dr Hamerton continues to collaborate on the project in his new post at the University of Bristol, where the electrochemical testing to trial the research findings was carried out by fellow University of Bristol academic – David Fermin, Professor of Electrochemistry in the School of Chemistry.

Dr Ian Hamerton, Reader in Polymers and Composite Materials from the Department of Aerospace Engineering, University of Bristol said: “While this research has potentially opened the route to very high density supercapacitors, these *polymers have many other possible uses in which tough, flexible conducting materials are desirable, including bioelectronics, sensors, wearable electronics, and advanced optics. We believe that this is an extremely exciting and potentially game changing development.”

*the materials are based on large organic molecules composed of many repeated sub-units and bonded together to form a 3-dimensional network.

Jim Heathcote, Chief Executive of both Augmented Optics Ltd and Supercapacitor Materials Ltd, said: “It is a privilege to work with the teams from the University of Surrey and the University of Bristol. The test results from the new polymers suggest that extremely high energy density supercapacitors could be constructed in the very new future. We are now actively seeking commercial partners [emphasis mine] in order to supply our polymers and offer assistance to build these ultra high energy density storage devices.”

I was not able to find a website for Augmented Optics but there is one for SuperCapacitor Materials here.

Functional hybrid system that can connect human tissue with electronic devices

I’ve tagged this particular field of interest ‘machine/flesh’ because I find it more descriptive than ‘bio-hybrid system’ which was the term used in a Nov. 15, 2016 news item on,

One of the biggest challenges in cognitive or rehabilitation neurosciences is the ability to design a functional hybrid system that can connect and exchange information between biological systems, like neurons in the brain, and human-made electronic devices. A large multidisciplinary effort of researchers in Italy brought together physicists, chemists, biochemists, engineers, molecular biologists and physiologists to analyze the biocompatibility of the substrate used to connect these biological and human-made components, and investigate the functionality of the adhering cells, creating a living biohybrid system.

A Nov.15, 2016 American Institute of Physics news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, details the investigation,

In an article appearing this week in AIP Advances, from AIP Publishing, the research team used the interaction between light and matter to investigate the material properties at the molecular level using Raman spectroscopy, a technique that, until now, has been principally applied to material science. Thanks to the coupling of the Raman spectrometer with a microscope, spectroscopy becomes a useful tool for investigating micro-objects such as cells and tissues. Raman spectroscopy presents clear advantages for this type of investigation: The molecular composition and the modi?cation of subcellular compartments can be obtained in label-free conditions with non-invasive methods and under physiological conditions, allowing the investigation of a large variety of biological processes both in vitro and in vivo.

Once the biocompatibility of the substrate was analyzed and the functionality of the adhering cells investigated, the next part of this puzzle is connecting with the electronic component. In this case a memristor was used.

“Its name reveals its peculiarity (MEMory ResISTOR), it has a sort of “memory”: depending on the amount of voltage that has been applied to it in the past, it is able to vary its resistance, because of a change of its microscopic physical properties,” said Silvia Caponi, a physicist at the Italian National Research Council in Rome. By combining memristors, it is possible to create pathways within the electrical circuits that work similar to the natural synapses, which develop variable weight in their connections to reproduce the adaptive/learning mechanism. Layers of organic polymers, like polyaniline (PANI) a semiconductor polymer, also have memristive properties, allowing them to work directly with biological materials into a hybrid bio-electronic system.

“We applied the analysis on a hybrid bio-inspired device but in a prospective view, this work provides the proof of concept of an integrated study able to analyse the status of living cells in a large variety of applications that merges nanosciences, neurosciences and bioelectronics,” said Caponi. A natural long-term objective of this work would be interfacing machines and nervous systems as seamlessly as possible.

The multidisciplinary team is ready to build on this proof of principle to realize the potential of memristor networks.

“Once assured the biocompatibility of the materials on which neurons grow,” said Caponi, “we want to define the materials and their functionalization procedures to find the best configuration for the neuron-memristor interface to deliver a full working hybrid bio-memristive system.”

Caption: These are immunofluorescence analysis of SH-SY5Y cells treated for 5 days with 10uM Retinoic Acid and 50ng/ml BDNF for the next 3 days. The DAPI fluorescence stain is blue and Beta-tubulin is green. Credit: Caponi, et al.

Caption: These are immunofluorescence analysis of SH-SY5Y cells treated for 5 days with 10uM Retinoic Acid and 50ng/ml BDNF for the next 3 days. The DAPI fluorescence stain is blue and Beta-tubulin is green. Credit: Caponi, et al.

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

A multidisciplinary approach to study the functional properties of neuron-like cell models constituting a living bio-hybrid system: SH-SY5Y cells adhering to PANI substrate by S. Caponi, S. Mattana, M. Ricci, K. Sagini, L. J. Juarez-Hernandez, A. M. Jimenez-Garduño, N. Cornella, L. Pasquardini, L. Urbanelli, P. Sassi, A. Morresi, C. Emiliani, D. Fioretto, M. Dalla Serra, C. Pederzolli, S. Iannotta, P. Macchi, and C. Musio. AIP Advances 6, 111303 (2016);

This paper appears to be open access.