Category Archives: nanotechnology

First carbon nanotube mirrors for Cubesat telescope

A July 12, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a project that could lead to the first carbon nanotube mirrors to be used in a Cubesat telescope in space,

A lightweight telescope that a team of NASA scientists and engineers is developing specifically for CubeSat scientific investigations could become the first to carry a mirror made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin.

Led by Theodor Kostiuk, a scientist at NASA’s [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the technology-development effort is aimed at giving the scientific community a compact, reproducible, and relatively inexpensive telescope that would fit easily inside a CubeSat. Individual CubeSats measure four inches on a side.

John Kolasinski (left), Ted Kostiuk (center), and Tilak Hewagama (right) hold mirrors made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin. The mirror is being tested for potential use in a lightweight telescope specifically for CubeSat scientific investigations. Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk

John Kolasinski (left), Ted Kostiuk (center), and Tilak Hewagama (right) hold mirrors made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin. The mirror is being tested for potential use in a lightweight telescope specifically for CubeSat scientific investigations. Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk

A July 12, 2016 US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about Cubesats,

Small satellites, including CubeSats, are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations at NASA. These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for NASA missions, including planetary space exploration; Earth observations; fundamental Earth and space science; and developing precursor science instruments like cutting-edge laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement capabilities. They also allow an inexpensive means to engage students in all phases of satellite development, operation and exploitation through real-world, hands-on research and development experience on NASA-funded rideshare launch opportunities.

Under this particular R&D effort, Kostiuk’s team seeks to develop a CubeSat telescope that would be sensitive to the ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelength bands. It would be equipped with commercial-off-the-shelf spectrometers and imagers and would be ideal as an “exploratory tool for quick looks that could lead to larger missions,” Kostiuk explained. “We’re trying to exploit commercially available components.”

While the concept won’t get the same scientific return as say a flagship-style mission or a large, ground-based telescope, it could enable first order of scientific investigations or be flown as a constellation of similarly equipped CubeSats, added Kostiuk.

With funding from Goddard’s Internal Research and Development program, the team has created a laboratory optical bench made up of three commercially available, miniaturized spectrometers optimized for the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelength bands. The spectrometers are connected via fiber optic cables to the focused beam of a three-inch diameter carbon-nanotube mirror. The team is using the optical bench to test the telescope’s overall design.

The news release then describes the carbon nanotube mirrors,

By all accounts, the new-fangled mirror could prove central to creating a low-cost space telescope for a range of CubeSat scientific investigations.

Unlike most telescope mirrors made of glass or aluminum, this particular optic is made of carbon nanotubes embedded in an epoxy resin. Sub-micron-size, cylindrically shaped, carbon nanotubes exhibit extraordinary strength and unique electrical properties, and are efficient conductors of heat. Owing to these unusual properties, the material is valuable to nanotechnology, electronics, optics, and other fields of materials science, and, as a consequence, are being used as additives in various structural materials.

“No one has been able to make a mirror using a carbon-nanotube resin,” said Peter Chen, a Goddard contractor and president of Lightweight Telescopes, Inc., a Columbia, Maryland-based company working with the team to create the CubeSat-compatible telescope.

“This is a unique technology currently available only at Goddard,” he continued. “The technology is too new to fly in space, and first must go through the various levels of technological advancement. But this is what my Goddard colleagues (Kostiuk, Tilak Hewagama, and John Kolasinski) are trying to accomplish through the CubeSat program.”

The use of a carbon-nanotube optic in a CubeSat telescope offers a number of advantages, said Hewagama, who contacted Chen upon learning of a NASA Small Business Innovative Research program awarded to Chen’s company to further advance the mirror technology. In addition to being lightweight, highly stable, and easily reproducible, carbon-nanotube mirrors do not require polishing — a time-consuming and often times expensive process typically required to assure a smooth, perfectly shaped mirror, said Kolasinski, an engineer and science collaborator on the project.

To make a mirror, technicians simply pour the mixture of epoxy and carbon nanotubes into a mandrel or mold fashioned to meet a particular optical prescription. They then heat the mold to to cure and harden the epoxy. Once set, the mirror then is coated with a reflective material of aluminum and silicon dioxide.

“After making a specific mandrel or mold, many tens of identical low-mass, highly uniform replicas can be produced at low cost,” Chen said. “Complete telescope assemblies can be made this way, which is the team’s main interest. For the CubeSat program, this capability will enable many spacecraft to be equipped with identical optics and different detectors for a variety of experiments. They also can be flown in swarms and constellations.”

There could be other applications for these carbon nanotube mirrors according to the news release,

A CubeSat telescope is one possible application for the optics technology, Chen added.

He believes it also would work for larger telescopes, particularly those comprised of multiple mirror segments. Eighteen hexagonal-shape mirrors, for example, form the James Webb Space Telescope’s 21-foot primary mirror and each of the twin telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, contain 36 segments to form a 32-foot mirror.

Many of the mirror segments in these telescopes are identical and can therefore be produced using a single mandrel. This approach avoids the need to grind and polish many individual segments to the same shape and focal length, thus potentially leading to significant savings in schedule and cost.

Moreover, carbon-nanotube mirrors can be made into ‘smart optics’. To maintain a single perfect focus in the Keck telescopes, for example, each mirror segment has several externally mounted actuators that deform the mirrors into the specific shapes required at different telescope orientations.

In the case of carbon-nanotube mirrors, the actuators can be formed into the optics at the time of fabrication. This is accomplished by applying electric fields to the resin mixture before cure, which leads to the formation of carbon-nanotube chains and networks. After curing, technicians then apply power to the mirror, thereby changing the shape of the optical surface. This concept has already been proven in the laboratory.

“This technology can potentially enable very large-area technically active optics in space,” Chen said. “Applications address everything from astronomy and Earth observing to deep-space communications.”

Dexter Johnson provides some additional tidbits in his July 14, 2016 post (on his Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] about the Cubesat mirrors.

Putting a gold atom in a silver nanocluster changes things

Considering that the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opened on Sept. 23, 2009 (mentioned in my Sept. 24, 2009 post; scroll down about 50% of the way), the university has done a remarkable job of establishing itself within the research community. Here’s some of the latest news from KAUST in a July 15, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

The appearance of metals, such as their shiny surface or their electrical conductivity, is determined by the ensemble of atoms that comprise the metal. The situation differs on the molecular scale, and KAUST researchers have shown that replacing a single atom in a cluster of 25 silver atoms with one gold atom fundamentally changes its properties …

Composing a silver nanocrystal: the center silver atom (a) surrounded by a cage of 12 other silver atoms (b) embedded by further atoms (c) and stabilized by further ligands (d). Reproduced with permission from ref 1.© 2016 John Wiley and Sons.

Composing a silver nanocrystal: the center silver atom (a) surrounded by a cage of 12 other silver atoms (b) embedded by further atoms (c) and stabilized by further ligands (d). Reproduced with permission from ref 1.© 2016 John Wiley and Sons.

A July (??), 2016 KAUST news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Metal atom nanoclusters are made from a core of a few metal atoms surrounded by a protective shell of stabilizing ligands. Nanoclusters come in different sizes, but each stable variation of nanoclusters has exactly the same number of metal atoms. This leads to very controllable properties, noted Osman Bakr, KAUST associate professor of material science and engineering and leader of the research team.

“Nanoclusters have unique arrangements of atoms and size-dependent absorption, fluorescence, electronic and catalytic properties,” he said.

A popular metal nanocluster is [Ag25(SR)18], which consists of of 25 silver atoms. This nanocluster is unique as it corresponds to a gold nanocluster that has exactly the same number of atoms. Both clusters have different properties due to the different metal used. To understand how exactly the atomic composition affects these properties, the researchers replaced a single silver atom with gold.

Replacing a single atom in a nanocluster is a difficult task. Direct chemical methods can be used, but these give little control over how many atoms are replaced, making it difficult to ascribe particular properties to the nanocluster structure.

Instead, the researchers used a galvanic replacement process that relies on difference in the electrochemical potential between the incoming and outgoing atoms to induce atomic replacements. To their surprise, the process produced a reliable and precise atomic exchange in which only the center silver atom is replaced by gold.

The replacement yielded dramatic changes in the nanocluster. A solution of the silver nanoclusters appears orange, whereas after the replacement of the central atom the color turns dark green.

This indicates more fundamental changes in properties, Bakr said. “The ambient stability and fluorescence of the nanocluster were enhanced by a factor of 25 as a result of this single atom replacement. Furthermore, we are now able to demonstrate the importance of a single atom impurity on nanoparticles and modulate the properties at the single atom level,” he noted.

The reliable replacement of only a single gold atom opens the door to a more systematic investigation of metal nanoclusters, which can help to uncover the mechanisms of the chemical and physical changes arising from the replacement.

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

Templated Atom-Precise Galvanic Synthesis and Structure Elucidation of a [Ag24Au(SR)18] Nanocluster by Dr. Megalamane S. Bootharaju, Chakra P. Joshi, Dr. Manas R. Parida, Prof. Omar F. Mohammed and Prof. Osman M. Bakr. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201509381 Version of Record online: 27 NOV 2015

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

They’ve certainly waited a while to tout this research. Ah well. This paper is behind a paywall.

A carbon nanotube ‘bridge’ for nerves

Italian researchers have developed a three-dimensional carbon nanotube sponge (or bridge) that could be used in conjunction with neural explants according to a July 15, 2016 SISSA press release (also on EurekAlert), which describes the work,

A complex study, lasting several years and involving work groups with specialties in various fields, has shown that a new material (a three-dimensional sponge made of carbon nanotubes) supports the growth of nerve fibers, bridging segregated neural explants and providing a functional re-connection. The study, which was coordinated by the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, in collaboration with the University of Rome Tor Vergata and the University of Trieste, also observed biocompatibility in vivo of the material, demonstrating that implanting it into  the brain of small rodents does not cause large scars or a marked immune response.

“Under the microscope, it looks like a knotted tangle of tubes. It was initially studied by Maurizio De Crescenzi’s team at the University of Rome Tor Vergata for cleaning up spilled hydrocarbons in the sea,” explains Laura Ballerini, SISSA Professor and coordinator of the recently-published study. It was Maurizio Prato’s intuition, however, that pushed them to investigate the possibility of applying such a material to nerve tissue. The idea of developing the hybrids of neurons and nano-materials was the result of a long-term project and collaboration between Prato (University of Trieste) and Ballerini’s (SISSA) groups.

In the present study, Ballerini and her team first investigated the material’s reaction to nerve tissue in vitro. “We explanted two spinal cord segments and cultured them together but separated by 300 microns,” says Sadaf Usmani, a PhD student at the School and first author of the study. “In those conditions, without any scaffolds reconstructing the space between the two explants, we observed growth of nerve fibers which extended in a straight bundles in any direction, but not necessarily towards the other tissue. If we insert a small piece of the carbon sponge into the space between the two, however, we see dense growth of nerve fibers that fill the structure and intertwine with the other sample.”

“Observing fiber reaching the contralateral explant is not enough, however,” points out University of Trieste researcher and one of the authors of the study, Denis Scaini. “You have to show that there is a functional connection between the two populations of neurons.” For this, SISSA Professor, David Zoccolan and his team’s contribution was crucial. “With signal analysis techniques they had already developed, we were able to demonstrate two things: first, that spontaneous nervous activity in the two samples was actually correlated, indicating a connection, that was not there when the sponge was absent, and second,, that by applying an electrical signal to one of the samples, the activity of the second sample could be triggered, but only when the nanotubes were present.”

Tests for Biocompatibility

The results in the lab were extremely positive. But this was not sufficient for Ballerini and her colleagues. “In order to continue to invest additional energy and resources to the study for potential applications, is crucial to test if the material is accepted by living organisms without negative consequences,” says Ballerini.

To perform these tests, Ballerini’s team worked closely with SISSA Post-Doc researcher, and member of Zoccolan’s team, Federica Rosselli. “We implanted small portions of the material into the brain of healthy rodents. After four weeks, we observed that the material was well tolerated. There were limited scars, as well as low immune responses, some biological indicators even showed that there could be positive implications. There was also a progressive invasion of neurons within the sponge. The rats were vital and healthy during the entire four weeks,” says Usmani.

“In conclusion,” says Ballerini, “the excellent results at the structural and functional level in vitro and in vivo showed biocompatibility are encouraging us to continue this line of research. These materials could be useful for covering electrodes used for treating movement disorders like Parkinson’s because they are well accepted by tissue, while the implants being used today become less effective over time because of scar tissue. We hope this encourages other research teams with multidisciplinary expertise to expand this type of study even further.”

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

3D meshes of carbon nanotubes guide functional reconnection of segregated spinal explants by Sadaf Usmani, Emily Rose Aurand, Manuela Medelin, Alessandra Fabbro, Denis Scaini, Jummi Laishram, Federica B. Rosselli, Alessio Ansuini, Davide Zoccola1, Manuela Scarselli, Maurizio De Crescenzi, Susanna Bosi, Maurizio Prato, and Laura Ballerini. Science Advances  15 Jul 2016: Vol. 2, no. 7, e1600087 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600087 Published 01 July 2016

This paper is open access.

H/t July 15, 2016 news item on phys.org.

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.

A method for producing two-dimensional quasicrystals from metal organic networks

A July 13, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily highlights an advance where quasicrystals are concerned,

Unlike classical crystals, quasicrystals do not comprise periodic units, even though they do have a superordinate structure. The formation of the fascinating mosaics that they produce is barely understood. In the context of an international collaborative effort, researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have now presented a methodology that allows the production of two-dimensional quasicrystals from metal-organic networks, opening the door to the development of promising new materials.

A July 13, 2016 TUM press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further,

Physicist Daniel Shechtman [emphasis mine] merely put down three question marks in his laboratory journal, when he saw the results of his latest experiment one day in 1982. He was looking at a crystalline pattern that was considered impossible at the time. According to the canonical tenet of the day, crystals always had so-called translational symmetry. They comprise a single basic unit, the so-called elemental cell, that is repeated in the exact same form in all spatial directions.

Although Shechtman’s pattern did contain global symmetry, the individual building blocks could not be mapped onto each other merely by translation. The first quasicrystal had been discovered. In spite of partially stark criticism by reputable colleagues, Shechtman stood fast by his new concept and thus revolutionized the scientific understanding of crystals and solid bodies. In 2011 he ultimately received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. To this day, both the basic conditions and mechanisms by which these fascinating structures are formed remain largely shrouded in mystery.

A toolbox for quasicrystals

Now a group of scientists led by Wilhelm Auwärter and Johannes Barth, both professors in the Department of Surface Physics at TU Munich, in collaboration with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST, Prof. Nian Lin, et al) and the Spanish research institute IMDEA Nanoscience (Dr. David Écija), have developed a new basis for producing two-dimensional quasicrystals, which might bring them a good deal closer to understanding these peculiar patterns.

The TUM doctoral candidate José Ignacio Urgel made the pioneering measurements in the course of a research fellowship at HKUST. “We now have a new set of building blocks that we can use to assemble many different new quasicrystalline structures. This diversity allows us to investigate on how quasicrystals are formed,” explain the TUM physicists.

The researchers were successful in linking europium – a metal atom in the lanthanide series – with organic compounds, thereby constructing a two-dimensional quasicrystal that even has the potential to be extended into a three-dimensional quasicrystal. To date, scientists have managed to produce many periodic and in part highly complex structures from metal-organic networks, but never a quasicrystal.

The researchers were also able to thoroughly elucidate the new network geometry in unparalleled resolution using a scanning tunnelling microscope. They found a mosaic of four different basic elements comprising triangles and rectangles distributed irregularly on a substrate. Some of these basic elements assembled themselves to regular dodecagons that, however, cannot be mapped onto each other through parallel translation. The result is a complex pattern, a small work of art at the atomic level with dodecagonal symmetry.

Interesting optical and magnetic properties

In their future work, the researchers are planning to vary the interactions between the metal centers and the attached compounds using computer simulation and experiments in order to understand the conditions under which two-dimensional quasicrystals form. This insight could facilitate the future development of new tailored quasicrystalline layers.

These kinds of materials hold great promise. After all, the new metal-organic quasicrystalline networks may have properties that make them interesting in a wide variety of application. “We have discovered a new playing field on which we can not only investigate quasicrystallinity, but also create new functionalities, especially in the fields of optics and magnetism,” says Dr. David Écija of IMDEA Nanoscience.

For one, scientists could one day use the new methodology to create quasicrystalline coatings that influence photons in such a manner that they are transmitted better or that only certain wavelengths can pass through the material.

In addition, the interactions of the lanthanide building blocks in the new quasicrystals could facilitate the development of magnetic systems with very special properties, so-called “frustrated systems”. Here, the individual atoms in a crystalline grid interfere with each other in a manner that prevents grid points from achieving a minimal energy state. The result: exotic magnetic ground states that can be investigated as information stores for future quantum computers.

The researchers have made an image available,

The quasicrystalline network built up with europium atoms linked with para-quaterphenyl–dicarbonitrile on a gold surface (yellow) - Image: Carlos A. Palma / TUM

The quasicrystalline network built up with europium atoms linked with para-quaterphenyl–dicarbonitrile on a gold surface (yellow) – Image: Carlos A. Palma / TUM

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

Quasicrystallinity expressed in two-dimensional coordination networks by José I. Urgel, David Écija, Guoqing Lyu, Ran Zhang, Carlos-Andres Palma, Willi Auwärter, Nian Lin, & Johannes V. Barth. Nature Chemistry 8, 657–662 (2016) doi:10.1038/nchem.2507 Published online 16 May 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone interested in more about the Daniel Schechter story and how he was reviled for his discovery of quasicrystals, there’s more in my Dec. 24, 2013 posting (scroll down about 60% of the way).

European Commission (EC) responds to a 2014 petition calling for a European Union (EU)-wide ban on microplastics and nanoparticles

Lynn Bergeson’s July 12, 2016 posting on Nanotechnology Now features information about the European Commission’s response to a petition to ban the use of microplastics and nanoparticles throughout the European Union,

On June 29, 2016, the European Commission (EC) provided a notice to the European Parliament regarding its response to a 2014 petition calling for a European Union (EU)-wide ban on microplastics and nanoparticles. … In its response, the EC states that nanoparticles “are ubiquitous in the environment,” and while some manufactured nanomaterials may potentially be carcinogenic, others are not. The EC states that the general regulatory framework on chemicals, along with the sectoral legislation, “are appropriate to assess and manage the risks from nanomaterials, provided that a case-by-case assessment is performed.” The EC notes that the need to modify the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation to include more specific requirements for nanomaterials was identified. According to the EC, a final impact assessment of the proposed changes is being prepared, and the modification of technical REACH Annexes to include specific considerations for nanomaterials is planned for early 2017. The EC states that it created a web portal intended to improve communication regarding nanomaterials, and that this web portal will soon be superseded by the EU Nano Observatory, which will be managed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

I was imagining the petition was made by a consortium of civil society groups but it seems it was initiated by an individual, Ludwig Bühlmeier. You can find the notice of the petition here and the petition itself (PDF) here. I believe the still current EC portal “… intended to improve communication regarding nanomaterials …” is the JRC (Joint Research Centre) Web Platform on Nanomaterials.

Spain’s first nanotechnology industries association

Spain has created its first nanotechnology industries association according to a July 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

On 30 June 2016, following several months of negotiations, Spain’s AEINA nanotechnology industry association was officially incorporated.

Unlike other European countries, until now Spain lacked an association that pooled the interests of firms working in sectors in which nanotechnology plays a significant role. After a string of meetings, a group of Spain’s leading firms — many with sales operations at home and abroad — agreed to join forces to create the association.

Its main objectives will be to support the sector’s companies, aiding development of nanotechnology-based innovations that enhance consumers’ quality of life, and to raise awareness in Spain about how nanotechnology contributes to society and helps build a better world. The nanotechnology sector is tipped to expand enormously in coming years and will play a key role in developing and upgrading Spain’s technology.

According to the news item on Nanowerk, Spain is the ninth largest nanotechnology power in the world.

You can find AEINA (Asociación Española de Industrias Nanotecnológicas) here.

Robots judge a beauty contest

I have a lot of respect for good PR gimmicks and a beauty contest judged by robots (or more accurately, artificial intelligence) is a provocative idea wrapped up in a good public relations (PR) gimmick. A July 12, 2016 In Silico Medicine press release on EurekAlert reveals more,

Beauty.AI 2.0, a platform,” a platform, where human beauty is evaluated by a jury of robots and algorithm developers compete on novel applications of machine intelligence to perception is supported by Ernst and Young.

“We were very impressed by E&Y’s recent advertising campaign with a robot hand holding a beautiful butterfly and a slogan “How human is your algorithm?” and immediately invited them to participate. This slogan captures the very essence of our contest, which is constantly exploring new ideas in machine perception of humans”, said Anastasia Georgievskaya, Managing Scientist at Youth Laboratories, the organizer of Beauty.AI.

Beauty.AI contest is supported by the many innovative companies from the US, Europe, and Asia with some of the top cosmetics companies participating in collaborative research projects. Imagene Labs, one of the leaders in linking facial and biological information from Singapore operating across Asia, is a gold sponsor and research partner of the contest.

There are many approaches to evaluating human beauty. Features like symmetry, pigmentation, pimples, wrinkles may play a role and similarity to actors, models and celebrities may be used in the calculation of the overall score. However, other innovative approaches have been proposed. A robot developed by Insilico Medicine compares the chronological age with the age predicted by a deep neural network. Another team is training an artificially-intelligent system to identify features that contribute to the popularity of the people on dating sites.

“We look forward to collaborating with the Youth Laboratories team to create new AI algorithms. These will eventually allow consumers to objectively evaluate how well their wellness interventions – such as diet, exercise, skincare and supplements – are working. Based on the results they can then fine tune their approach to further improve their well-being and age better”, said Jia-Yi Har, Vice President of Imagene Labs.

The contest is open to anyone with a modern smartphone running either Android or iOS operating system, and Beauty.AI 2.0 app can be downloaded for free from either Google or Apple markets. Programmers and companies can participate by submitting their algorithm to the organizers through the Beauty.AI website.

“The beauty of Beauty.AI pageants is that algorithms are much more impartial than humans, and we are trying to prevent any racial bias and run the contest in multiple age categories. Most of the popular beauty contests discriminate by age, gender, marital status, body weight and race. Algorithms are much less partial”, said Alex Shevtsov, CEO of Youth Laboratories.

Very interesting take on beauty and bias. I wonder if they’re building change into their algorithms. After all, standards for beauty don’t remain static, they change over time.

Unfortunately, that question isn’t asked in Wency Leung’s July 4, 2016 article on the robot beauty contest for the Globe and Mail but she does provides more details about the contest and insight into the world of international cosmetics companies and their use of technology,

Teaching computers about aesthetics involves designing sophisticated algorithms to recognize and measure features like wrinkles, face proportions, blemishes and skin colour. And the beauty industry is rapidly embracing these high-tech tools to respond to consumers’ demand for products that suit their individual tastes and attributes.

Companies like Sephora and Avon, for instance, are using face simulation technology to provide apps that allow customers to virtually try on and shop for lipsticks and eye shadows using their mobile devices. Skincare producers are using similar technologies to track and predict the effects of serums and creams on various skin types. And brands like L’Oréal’s Lancôme are using facial analysis to read consumers’ skin tones to create personalized foundations.

“The more we’re able to use these tools like augmented reality [and] artificial intelligence to provide new consumer experiences, the more we can move to customizing and personalizing products for every consumer around the world, no matter what their skin tone is, no matter where they live, no matter who they are,” says Guive Balooch, global vice-president of L’Oréal’s technology incubator.

Balooch was tasked with starting up the company’s tech research hub four years ago, with a mandate to predict and invent solutions to how consumers would choose and use products in the future. Among its innovations, his team has come up with the Makeup Genius app, a virtual mirror that allows customers to try on products on a mobile screen, and a device called My UV Patch, a sticker sensor that users wear on their skin, which informs them through an app how much UV exposure they get.

These tools may seem easy enough to use, but their simplicity belies the work that goes on behind the scenes. To create the Makeup Genius app, for example, Balooch says the developers sought expertise from the animation industry to enable users to see themselves move onscreen in real time. The developers also brought in hundreds of consumers with different skin tones to test real products in the lab, and they tested the app on some 100,000 images in more than 40 lighting conditions, to ensure the colours of makeup products appeared the same in real life as they did onscreen, Balooch says.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

For the seriously curious, you can find Beauty AI here, In Silico Medicine here, and Imagene Labs here. I cannot find a website for Youth Laboratories featuring Anastasia Georgievskaya.

I last wrote about In Silico Medicine in a May 31, 2016 post about deep learning, wrinkles, and aging.