Category Archives: nanotechnology

Graphene and neurons in a UK-Italy-Spain collaboration

There’s been a lot of talk about using graphene-based implants in the brain due to the material’s flexibility along with its other properties. A step forward has been taking according to a Jan. 29, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Researchers have successfully demonstrated how it is possible to interface graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – with neurons, or nerve cells, while maintaining the integrity of these vital cells. The work may be used to build graphene-based electrodes that can safely be implanted in the brain, offering promise for the restoration of sensory functions for amputee or paralysed patients, or for individuals with motor disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease.

A Jan. 29, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Previously, other groups had shown that it is possible to use treated graphene to interact with neurons. However the signal to noise ratio from this interface was very low. By developing methods of working with untreated graphene, the researchers retained the material’s electrical conductivity, making it a significantly better electrode.

“For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Trieste in Italy. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signalling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.”

Our understanding of the brain has increased to such a degree that by interfacing directly between the brain and the outside world we can now harness and control some of its functions. For instance, by measuring the brain’s electrical impulses, sensory functions can be recovered. This can be used to control robotic arms for amputee patients or any number of basic processes for paralysed patients – from speech to movement of objects in the world around them. Alternatively, by interfering with these electrical impulses, motor disorders (such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s) can start to be controlled.

Scientists have made this possible by developing electrodes that can be placed deep within the brain. These electrodes connect directly to neurons and transmit their electrical signals away from the body, allowing their meaning to be decoded.

However, the interface between neurons and electrodes has often been problematic: not only do the electrodes need to be highly sensitive to electrical impulses, but they need to be stable in the body without altering the tissue they measure.

Too often the modern electrodes used for this interface (based on tungsten or silicon) suffer from partial or complete loss of signal over time. This is often caused by the formation of scar tissue from the electrode insertion, which prevents the electrode from moving with the natural movements of the brain due to its rigid nature.

Graphene has been shown to be a promising material to solve these problems, because of its excellent conductivity, flexibility, biocompatibility and stability within the body.

Based on experiments conducted in rat brain cell cultures, the researchers found that untreated graphene electrodes interfaced well with neurons. By studying the neurons with electron microscopy and immunofluorescence the researchers found that they remained healthy, transmitting normal electric impulses and, importantly, none of the adverse reactions which lead to the damaging scar tissue were seen.

According to the researchers, this is the first step towards using pristine graphene-based materials as an electrode for a neuro-interface. In future, the researchers will investigate how different forms of graphene, from multiple layers to monolayers, are able to affect neurons, and whether tuning the material properties of graphene might alter the synapses and neuronal excitability in new and unique ways. “Hopefully this will pave the way for better deep brain implants to both harness and control the brain, with higher sensitivity and fewer unwanted side effects,” said Ballerini.

“We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications,” said Professor Maurizio Prato from the University of Trieste. “In this scenario, the development and translation in neurology of graphene-based high-performance biodevices requires the exploration of the interactions between graphene nano- and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signalling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is only a first step in that direction.”

“These initial results show how we are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of graphene and related materials in bio-applications and medicine,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “The expertise developed at the Cambridge Graphene Centre allows us to produce large quantities of pristine material in solution, and this study proves the compatibility of our process with neuro-interfaces.”

The research was funded by the Graphene Flagship [emphasis mine],  a European initiative which promotes a collaborative approach to research with an aim of helping to translate graphene out of the academic laboratory, through local industry and into society.

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

Graphene-Based Interfaces Do Not Alter Target Nerve Cells by Alessandra Fabbro, Denis Scaini, Verónica León, Ester Vázquez, Giada Cellot, Giulia Privitera, Lucia Lombardi, Felice Torrisi, Flavia Tomarchio, Francesco Bonaccorso, Susanna Bosi, Andrea C. Ferrari, Laura Ballerini, and Maurizio Prato. ACS Nano, 2016, 10 (1), pp 615–623 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b05647 Publication Date (Web): December 23, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

There are a couple things I found a bit odd about this project. First, all of the funding is from the Graphene Flagship initiative. I was expecting to see at least some funding from the European Union’s other mega-sized science initiative, the Human Brain Project. Second, there was no mention of Spain nor were there any quotes from the Spanish researchers. For the record, the Spanish institutions represented were: University of Castilla-La Mancha, Carbon Nanobiotechnology Laboratory, and the Basque Foundation for Science.

‘Beleafing’ in magic; a new type of battery

A Jan. 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the ‘beleaf’,

Scientists have a new recipe for batteries: Bake a leaf, and add sodium. They used a carbonized oak leaf, pumped full of sodium, as a demonstration battery’s negative terminal, or anode, according to a paper published yesterday in the journal ACS Applied Materials Interfaces.

Scientists baked a leaf to demonstrate a battery. Credit: Image courtesy of Maryland NanoCenter

Scientists baked a leaf to demonstrate a battery.
Credit: Image courtesy of Maryland NanoCenter

A Jan. ??, 2016 Maryland NanoCenter (University of Maryland) news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about the nature (pun intended) of the research,

“Leaves are so abundant. All we had to do was pick one up off the ground here on campus,” said Hongbian Li, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland’s department of materials science and engineering and one of the main authors of the paper. Li is a member of the faculty at the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing, China.

Other studies have shown that melon skin, banana peels and peat moss can be used in this way, but a leaf needs less preparation.

The scientists are trying to make a battery using sodium where most rechargeable batteries sold today use lithium. Sodium would hold more charge, but can’t handle as many charge-and-discharge cycles as lithium can.

One of the roadblocks has been finding an anode material that is compatible with sodium, which is slightly larger than lithium. Some scientists have explored graphene, dotted with various materials to attract and retain the sodium, but these are time consuming and expensive to produce.  In this case, they simply heated the leaf for an hour at 1,000 degrees C (don’t try this at home) to burn off all but the underlying carbon structure.

The lower side of the maple [?] leaf is studded with pores for the leaf to absorb water. In this new design, the pores absorb the sodium electrolyte. At the top, the layers of carbon that made the leaf tough become sheets of nanostructured carbon to absorb the sodium that carries the charge.

“The natural shape of a leaf already matches a battery’s needs: a low surface area, which decreases defects; a lot of small structures packed closely together, which maximizes space; and internal structures of the right size and shape to be used with sodium electrolyte,” said Fei Shen, a visiting student in the department of materials science and engineering and the other main author of the paper.

“We have tried other natural materials, such as wood fiber, to make a battery,” said Liangbing Hu, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “A leaf is designed by nature to store energy for later use, and using leaves in this way could make large-scale storage environmentally friendly.”

The next step, Hu said, is “to investigate different types of leaves to find the best thickness, structure and flexibility” for electrical energy storage.  The researchers have no plans to commercialize at this time.

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

Carbonized-leaf Membrane with Anisotropic Surfaces for Sodium-ion Battery by Hongbian Li, Fei Shen, Wei Luo, Jiaqi Dai, Xiaogang Han, Yanan Chen, Yonggang Yao, Hongli Zhu, Kun Fu, Emily Hitz, and Liangbing Hu. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (3), pp 2204–2210 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b10875 Publication Date (Web): January 4, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cellulose-based nanogenerators to power biomedical implants?

This cellulose nanogenerator research comes from India. A Jan. 27, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release makes the announcement,

Implantable electronics that can deliver drugs, monitor vital signs and perform other health-related roles are on the horizon. But finding a way to power them remains a challenge. Now scientists have built a flexible nanogenerator out of cellulose, an abundant natural material, that could potentially harvest energy from the body — its heartbeats, blood flow and other almost imperceptible but constant movements. …

Efforts to convert the energy of motion — from footsteps, ocean waves, wind and other movement sources — are well underway. Many of these developing technologies are designed with the goal of powering everyday gadgets and even buildings. As such, they don’t need to bend and are often made with stiff materials. But to power biomedical devices inside the body, a flexible generator could provide more versatility. So Md. Mehebub Alam and Dipankar Mandal at Jadavpur University in India set out to design one.

The researchers turned to cellulose, the most abundant biopolymer on earth, and mixed it in a simple process with a kind of silicone called polydimethylsiloxane — the stuff of breast implants — and carbon nanotubes. Repeated pressing on the resulting nanogenerator lit up about two dozen LEDs instantly. It also charged capacitors that powered a portable LCD, a calculator and a wrist watch. And because cellulose is non-toxic, the researchers say the device could potentially be implanted in the body and harvest its internal stretches, vibrations and other movements [also known as, harvesting biomechanical motion].

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

Native Cellulose Microfiber-Based Hybrid Piezoelectric Generator for Mechanical Energy Harvesting Utility by
Md. Mehebub Alam and Dipankar Mandal. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (3), pp 1555–1558 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b08168 Publication Date (Web): January 11, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

I did take a peek at the paper to see if I could determine whether or not they had used wood-derived cellulose and whether cellulose nanocrystals had been used. Based on the references cited for the paper, I think the answer to both questions is yes.

My latest piece on harvesting biomechanical motion is a June 24, 2014 post where I highlight a research project in Korea and another one in the UK and give links to previous posts on the topic.

Constructing a liver

Chinese researchers have taken a step closer to constructing complex (lifelike) liver tissue according to a Jan. 27, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Engineered liver tissue could have a range of important uses, from transplants in patients suffering from the organ’s failure to pharmaceutical testing [this usage is sometimes known as liver-on-a-chip]. Now scientists report in ACS’ journal Analytical Chemistry the development of such a tissue, which closely mimics the liver’s complicated microstructure and function more effectively than existing models.

The liver serves a critical role in digesting food and detoxifying the body. But due to a variety of factors, including viral infections, alcoholism and drug reactions, the organ can develop chronic or acute problems. When it doesn’t work well, a person can suffer abdominal pain, swelling, nausea and other symptoms. Complete liver failure can be life-threatening and can require a transplant, a procedure that currently depends on human donors. To curtail this reliance and provide an improved model for predicting drugs’ side effects, scientists have been engineering liver tissue in the lab. But so far, they haven’t achieved the complex architecture of the real thing. Jinyi Wang and colleagues came up with a new approach.

Wang’s team built a microfluidics-based tissue that copies the liver’s complex lobules, the organ’s tiny structures that resemble wheels with spokes. They did this with human cells from a liver and an aorta, the body’s main artery. In the lab, the engineered tissue had a metabolic rate that was closer to real-life levels than other liver models, and it successfully simulated how a real liver would react to various drug combinations. The researchers conclude their approach could lead to the development of functional liver tissue for clinical applications and screening drugs for side effects and potentially harmful interactions.

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

On-Chip Construction of Liver Lobule-like Microtissue and Its Application for Adverse Drug Reaction Assay by Chao Ma, Lei Zhao, En-Min Zhou, Juan Xu, Shaofei Shen, and Jinyi Wang. Northwest A&F University, China Anal. Chem., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.5b03869 Publication Date (Web): January 7, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

In a teleconference earlier this month (January 2016), I spoke to researchers at the University of Malaya, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), and Harvard University about a joint lung and nanomedicine research project where I asked researcher Joseph Brain (Harvard) about using lung-on-a-chip testing in place of in vivo (animal) testing and he indicated more confidence in the ‘precision cut lung slices’ technique. (You can find out more about the Malaysian project in my Jan. 12, 2016 posting but there’s only a brief mention of Brain’s preferred alternative animal testing technique.)

January 31, 2016 deadlines for early bird tickets (ESOF) and conference abstracts (emerging technologies)

ESOF 2016 (EuroScience Open Forum)

Early bird tickets for this biennial science conference are available until Jan.  31, 2016 according to a Jan. 18, 2016 email notice,

Our most affordable tickets are available to purchase until the end of the month, so make sure you get yours before they disappear. Prices start from only £75 for a full four-day pass for early careers researchers (up to 5 years post doc), and £225 for a full delegate pass. All registrations are entitled to a year long complimentary subscription to Nature at this time.

You can also book your accommodation when you register to attend ESOF. We have worked hard with our city partners to bring you the best deals for your stay in Manchester. With the summer set to be busy with not only ESOF but major international sporting events, make sure you take advantage of these deals.

To register to attend please click here

You can find out more about the event which takes place from July 23 – 27, 2016 in Manchester, England here and/or you can watch this video,

For any interested journalists, media registration has opened (from the Jan. 18, 2016 notice),

Media registration opens

We are delighted to announce our ESOF press accreditation is available for journalists and science communications professionals to register for the conference. Accreditation provides complimentary access to the full ESOF programme, social events and a range of exclusive press only activities. Further details of the eligibility criteria and registration process can be found here.

Nature Publishing Group offers journalists a travel grant which will cover most if not all the expenses associated with attending 2016 ESOF (from the ESOF Nature Travel Grant webpage),

The Nature Travel Grant Scheme offers journalists and members of media organisations from around the world the opportunity to attend ESOF for free. The grant offers complimentary registration as well as help covering travel and accommodation costs.

1. Purpose

Created by EuroScience, the biennial ESOF – EuroScience Open Forum – meeting is the largest pan-European general science conference dedicated to scientific research and innovation. At ESOF meetings leading scientists, researchers, journalists, business people, policy makers and the general public from all over the world discuss new discoveries and debate the direction that research is taking in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Springer Nature is a leading global research, educational and professional publisher, home to an array of respected and trusted brands providing quality content through a range of innovative products and services, including the journal Nature. Springer Nature was formed in 2015 through the merger of Nature Publishing Group, Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Education and Springer Science+Business Media. Nature Publishing Group has supported ESOF since its very first meeting in 2004.

Similar to the 2012 and 2014 edition of meeting, Springer Nature is funding the Nature Travel Grant Scheme for journalists to attend ESOF2016 with the aim to increase the impact of ESOF.

2. The Scheme

In addition to free registration, the Nature Travel Grant Scheme offers a lump sum of £450 for UK based journalists, £600 for journalists based in Europe and £800 for journalists based outside of Europe, to help cover the costs of travel and accommodation to attend ESOF2016.

3. Who can apply?

All journalists irrespective of their gender, age, nationality, place of residence and media type (paper, radio, TV, web) are welcome to apply. Media accreditation will be required.

4. Application procedure

To submit an application sign into the EuroScience Conference and Membership Platform (ESCMP) and click on “Apply for a Grant”. Follow the application procedure.

On submitting the application form for travel grants, you agree to the full acceptance of the rules and to the decision taken by the Selection Committee.

The deadline for submitting an application is February 29th 2016, 12:00 pm CET.

Good luck!

4th Annual Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics Conference

Here’s more about the conference (deadline for abstracts is Jan. 31, 2016) from the conference’s Call for Abstract’s webpage,

Fourth Annual Conference on
Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy, and Ethics

May 24-26, 2016, Tempe, Arizona

Call for abstracts:

The co-sponsors invite submission of abstracts for proposed presentations.  Submitters of abstracts need not provide a written paper, although provision will be made for posting and possible post-conference publication of papers for those presenters interested in such options.  Although abstracts are invited for any aspect or topic relating to the governance of emerging technologies, some particular themes that will be emphasized at this year’s conference include existential or catastrophic risks, governance implications of algorithms, resilience and emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, military technologies, and gene editing.

Abstracts should not exceed 500 words.
Abstracts must be submitted by January 31, 2016 to be considered.
Decisions on abstracts will be made by the program committee and communicated by February 29 [2016]. 

Funding: The sponsors will pay for the conference registration (including all conference meals) for one presenter for each accepted abstract.  In addition, we will have limited funds available for travel subsidies in whole or in part.  After completing your abstract online, you will be asked if you wish to apply for a travel subsidy.  Any such additional funding will be awarded based on the strength of the abstract, demonstration of financial need, and/or the potential to encourage student authors and early-career scholars.  Accepted presenters for whom conference funding is not available will need to pay their own transportation and hotel costs.

For more information, please contact Lauren Burkhart at Lauren.Burkhart@asu.edu.

You don’t often see conference organizers offering to pay registration and meals for a single presenter from each accepted submission. Good luck!

When an atom more or less makes a big difference

As scientists continue exploring the nanoscale, it seems that finding the number of atoms in your particle makes a difference is no longer so surprising. From a Jan. 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Combining experimental investigations and theoretical simulations, researchers have explained why platinum nanoclusters of a specific size range facilitate the hydrogenation reaction used to produce ethane from ethylene. The research offers new insights into the role of cluster shapes in catalyzing reactions at the nanoscale, and could help materials scientists optimize nanocatalysts for a broad class of other reactions.

A Jan. 28, 2016 Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) news release (*also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

At the macro-scale, the conversion of ethylene has long been considered among the reactions insensitive to the structure of the catalyst used. However, by examining reactions catalyzed by platinum clusters containing between 9 and 15 atoms, researchers in Germany and the United States found that at the nanoscale, that’s no longer true. The shape of nanoscale clusters, they found, can dramatically affect reaction efficiency.

While the study investigated only platinum nanoclusters and the ethylene reaction, the fundamental principles may apply to other catalysts and reactions, demonstrating how materials at the very smallest size scales can provide different properties than the same material in bulk quantities. …

“We have re-examined the validity of a very fundamental concept on a very fundamental reaction,” said Uzi Landman, a Regents’ Professor and F.E. Callaway Chair in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We found that in the ultra-small catalyst range, on the order of a nanometer in size, old concepts don’t hold. New types of reactivity can occur because of changes in one or two atoms of a cluster at the nanoscale.”

The widely-used conversion process actually involves two separate reactions: (1) dissociation of H2 molecules into single hydrogen atoms, and (2) their addition to the ethylene, which involves conversion of a double bond into a single bond. In addition to producing ethane, the reaction can also take an alternative route that leads to the production of ethylidyne, which poisons the catalyst and prevents further reaction.

The project began with Professor Ueli Heiz and researchers in his group at the Technical University of Munich experimentally examining reaction rates for clusters containing 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 platinum atoms that had been placed atop a magnesium oxide substrate. The 9-atom nanoclusters failed to produce a significant reaction, while larger clusters catalyzed the ethylene hydrogenation reaction with increasingly better efficiency. The best reaction occurred with 13-atom clusters.

Bokwon Yoon, a research scientist in Georgia Tech’s Center for Computational Materials Science, and Landman, the center’s director, then used large-scale first-principles quantum mechanical simulations to understand how the size of the clusters – and their shape – affected the reactivity. Using their simulations, they discovered that the 9-atom cluster resembled a symmetrical “hut,” while the larger clusters had bulges that served to concentrate electrical charges from the substrate.

“That one atom changes the whole activity of the catalyst,” Landman said. “We found that the extra atom operates like a lightning rod. The distribution of the excess charge from the substrate helps facilitate the reaction. Platinum 9 has a compact shape that doesn’t facilitate the reaction, but adding just one atom changes everything.”

Here’s an illustration featuring the difference between a 9 atom cluster and a 10 atom cluster,

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

The news release explains why the larger clusters function as catalysts,

Nanoclusters with 13 atoms provided the maximum reactivity because the additional atoms shift the structure in a phenomena Landman calls “fluxionality.” This structural adjustment has also been noted in earlier work of these two research groups, in studies of clusters of gold [emphasis mine] which are used in other catalytic reactions.

“Dynamic fluxionality is the ability of the cluster to distort its structure to accommodate the reactants to actually enhance reactivity,” he explained. “Only very small aggregates of metal can show such behavior, which mimics a biochemical enzyme.”

The simulations showed that catalyst poisoning also varies with cluster size – and temperature. The 10-atom clusters can be poisoned at room temperature, while the 13-atom clusters are poisoned only at higher temperatures, helping to account for their improved reactivity.

“Small really is different,” said Landman. “Once you get into this size regime, the old rules of structure sensitivity and structure insensitivity must be assessed for their continued validity. It’s not a question anymore of surface-to-volume ratio because everything is on the surface in these very small clusters.”

While the project examined only one reaction and one type of catalyst, the principles governing nanoscale catalysis – and the importance of re-examining traditional expectations – likely apply to a broad range of reactions catalyzed by nanoclusters at the smallest size scale. Such nanocatalysts are becoming more attractive as a means of conserving supplies of costly platinum.

“It’s a much richer world at the nanoscale than at the macroscopic scale,” added Landman. “These are very important messages for materials scientists and chemists who wish to design catalysts for new purposes, because the capabilities can be very different.”

Along with the experimental surface characterization and reactivity measurements, the first-principles theoretical simulations provide a unique practical means for examining these structural and electronic issues because the clusters are too small to be seen with sufficient resolution using most electron microscopy techniques or traditional crystallography.

“We have looked at how the number of atoms dictates the geometrical structure of the cluster catalysts on the surface and how this geometrical structure is associated with electronic properties that bring about chemical bonding characteristics that enhance the reactions,” Landman added.

I highlighted the news release’s reference to gold nanoclusters as I have noted the number issue in two April 14, 2015 postings, neither of which featured Georgia Tech, Gold atoms: sometimes they’re a metal and sometimes they’re a molecule and Nature’s patterns reflected in gold nanoparticles.

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

Structure sensitivity in the nonscalable regime explored via catalysed ethylene hydrogenation on supported platinum nanoclusters by Andrew S. Crampton, Marian D. Rötzer, Claron J. Ridge, Florian F. Schweinberger, Ueli Heiz, Bokwon Yoon, & Uzi Landman.  Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10389  doi:10.1038/ncomms10389 Published 28 January 2016

This paper is open access.

*’also on EurekAlert’ added Jan. 29, 2016.

Plastic memristors for neural networks

There is a very nice explanation of memristors and computing systems from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT). First their announcement, from a Jan. 27, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A group of scientists has created a neural network based on polymeric memristors — devices that can potentially be used to build fundamentally new computers. These developments will primarily help in creating technologies for machine vision, hearing, and other machine sensory systems, and also for intelligent control systems in various fields of applications, including autonomous robots.

The authors of the new study focused on a promising area in the field of memristive neural networks – polymer-based memristors – and discovered that creating even the simplest perceptron is not that easy. In fact, it is so difficult that up until the publication of their paper in the journal Organic Electronics, there were no reports of any successful experiments (using organic materials). The experiments conducted at the Nano-, Bio-, Information and Cognitive Sciences and Technologies (NBIC) centre at the Kurchatov Institute by a joint team of Russian and Italian scientists demonstrated that it is possible to create very simple polyaniline-based neural networks. Furthermore, these networks are able to learn and perform specified logical operations.

A Jan. 27, 2016 MIPT press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, offers an explanation of memristors and a description of the research,

A memristor is an electric element similar to a conventional resistor. The difference between a memristor and a traditional element is that the electric resistance in a memristor is dependent on the charge passing through it, therefore it constantly changes its properties under the influence of an external signal: a memristor has a memory and at the same time is also able to change data encoded by its resistance state! In this sense, a memristor is similar to a synapse – a connection between two neurons in the brain that is able, with a high level of plasticity, to modify the efficiency of signal transmission between neurons under the influence of the transmission itself. A memristor enables scientists to build a “true” neural network, and the physical properties of memristors mean that at the very minimum they can be made as small as conventional chips.

Some estimates indicate that the size of a memristor can be reduced up to ten nanometers, and the technologies used in the manufacture of the experimental prototypes could, in theory, be scaled up to the level of mass production. However, as this is “in theory”, it does not mean that chips of a fundamentally new structure with neural networks will be available on the market any time soon, even in the next five years.

The plastic polyaniline was not chosen by chance. Previous studies demonstrated that it can be used to create individual memristors, so the scientists did not have to go through many different materials. Using a polyaniline solution, a glass substrate, and chromium electrodes, they created a prototype with dimensions that, at present, are much larger than those typically used in conventional microelectronics: the strip of the structure was approximately one millimeter wide (they decided to avoid miniaturization for the moment). All of the memristors were tested for their electrical characteristics: it was found that the current-voltage characteristic of the devices is in fact non-linear, which is in line with expectations. The memristors were then connected to a single neuromorphic network.

A current-voltage characteristic (or IV curve) is a graph where the horizontal axis represents voltage and the vertical axis the current. In conventional resistance, the IV curve is a straight line; in strict accordance with Ohm’s Law, current is proportional to voltage. For a memristor, however, it is not just the voltage that is important, but the change in voltage: if you begin to gradually increase the voltage supplied to the memristor, it will increase the current passing through it not in a linear fashion, but with a sharp bend in the graph and at a certain point its resistance will fall sharply.

Then if you begin to reduce the voltage, the memristor will remain in its conducting state for some time, after which it will change its properties rather sharply again to decrease its conductivity. Experimental samples with a voltage increase of 0.5V hardly allowed any current to pass through (around a few tenths of a microamp), but when the voltage was reduced by the same amount, the ammeter registered a figure of 5 microamps. Microamps are of course very small units, but in this case it is the contrast that is most significant: 0.1 μA to 5 μA is a difference of fifty times! This is more than enough to make a clear distinction between the two signals.

After checking the basic properties of individual memristors, the physicists conducted experiments to train the neural network. The training (it is a generally accepted term and is therefore written without inverted commas) involves applying electric pulses at random to the inputs of a perceptron. If a certain combination of electric pulses is applied to the inputs of a perceptron (e.g. a logic one and a logic zero at two inputs) and the perceptron gives the wrong answer, a special correcting pulse is applied to it, and after a certain number of repetitions all the internal parameters of the device (namely memristive resistance) reconfigure themselves, i.e. they are “trained” to give the correct answer.

The scientists demonstrated that after about a dozen attempts their new memristive network is capable of performing NAND logical operations, and then it is also able to learn to perform NOR operations. Since it is an operator or a conventional computer that is used to check for the correct answer, this method is called the supervised learning method.

Needless to say, an elementary perceptron of macroscopic dimensions with a characteristic reaction time of tenths or hundredths of a second is not an element that is ready for commercial production. However, as the researchers themselves note, their creation was made using inexpensive materials, and the reaction time will decrease as the size decreases: the first prototype was intentionally enlarged to make the work easier; it is physically possible to manufacture more compact chips. In addition, polyaniline can be used in attempts to make a three-dimensional structure by placing the memristors on top of one another in a multi-tiered structure (e.g. in the form of random intersections of thin polymer fibers), whereas modern silicon microelectronic systems, due to a number of technological limitations, are two-dimensional. The transition to the third dimension would potentially offer many new opportunities.

The press release goes to explain what the researchers mean when they mention a fundamentally different computer,

The common classification of computers is based either on their casing (desktop/laptop/tablet), or on the type of operating system used (Windows/MacOS/Linux). However, this is only a very simple classification from a user perspective, whereas specialists normally use an entirely different approach – an approach that is based on the principle of organizing computer operations. The computers that we are used to, whether they be tablets, desktop computers, or even on-board computers on spacecraft, are all devices with von Neumann architecture; without going into too much detail, they are devices based on independent processors, random access memory (RAM), and read only memory (ROM).

The memory stores the code of a program that is to be executed. A program is a set of instructions that command certain operations to be performed with data. Data are also stored in the memory* and are retrieved from it (and also written to it) in accordance with the program; the program’s instructions are performed by the processor. There may be several processors, they can work in parallel, data can be stored in a variety of ways – but there is always a fundamental division between the processor and the memory. Even if the computer is integrated into one single chip, it will still have separate elements for processing information and separate units for storing data. At present, all modern microelectronic systems are based on this particular principle and this is partly the reason why most people are not even aware that there may be other types of computer systems – without processors and memory.

*) if physically different elements are used to store data and store a program, the computer is said to be built using Harvard architecture. This method is used in certain microcontrollers, and in small specialized computing devices. The chip that controls the function of a refrigerator, lift, or car engine (in all these cases a “conventional” computer would be redundant) is a microcontroller. However, neither Harvard, nor von Neumann architectures allow the processing and storage of information to be combined into a single element of a computer system.

However, such systems do exist. Furthermore, if you look at the brain itself as a computer system (this is purely hypothetical at the moment: it is not yet known whether the function of the brain is reducible to computations), then you will see that it is not at all built like a computer with von Neumann architecture. Neural networks do not have a specialized computer or separate memory cells. Information is stored and processed in each and every neuron, one element of the computer system, and the human brain has approximately 100 billion of these elements. In addition, almost all of them are able to work in parallel (simultaneously), which is why the brain is able to process information with great efficiency and at such high speed. Artificial neural networks that are currently implemented on von Neumann computers only emulate these processes: emulation, i.e. step by step imitation of functions inevitably leads to a decrease in speed and an increase in energy consumption. In many cases this is not so critical, but in certain cases it can be.

Devices that do not simply imitate the function of neural networks, but are fundamentally the same could be used for a variety of tasks. Most importantly, neural networks are capable of pattern recognition; they are used as a basis for recognising handwritten text for example, or signature verification. When a certain pattern needs to be recognised and classified, such as a sound, an image, or characteristic changes on a graph, neural networks are actively used and it is in these fields where gaining an advantage in terms of speed and energy consumption is critical. In a control system for an autonomous flying robot every milliwatt-hour and every millisecond counts, just in the same way that a real-time system to process data from a collider detector cannot take too long to “think” about highlighting particle tracks that may be of interest to scientists from among a large number of other recorded events.

Bravo to the writer!

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

Hardware elementary perceptron based on polyaniline memristive devices by V.A. Demin. V. V. Erokhin, A.V. Emelyanov, S. Battistoni, G. Baldi, S. Iannotta, P.K. Kashkarov, M.V. Kovalchuk. Organic Electronics Volume 25, October 2015, Pages 16–20 doi:10.1016/j.orgel.2015.06.015

This paper is behind a paywall.

4D printing: a hydrogel orchid

In 2013, the 4th dimension for printing was self-assembly according to a March 1, 2013 article by Tuan Nguyen for ZDNET. A Jan. 25, 2016 Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University news release (also on EurekAlert) points to time as the fourth dimension in a description of the Wyss Institute’s latest 4D printed object,

A team of scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has evolved their microscale 3D printing technology to the fourth dimension, time. Inspired by natural structures like plants, which respond and change their form over time according to environmental stimuli, the team has unveiled 4D-printed hydrogel composite structures that change shape upon immersion in water.

“This work represents an elegant advance in programmable materials assembly, made possible by a multidisciplinary approach,” said Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D., senior author on the new study. “We have now gone beyond integrating form and function to create transformable architectures.”

In nature, flowers and plants have tissue composition and microstructures that result in dynamic morphologies that change according to their environments. Mimicking the variety of shape changes undergone by plant organs such as tendrils, leaves, and flowers in response to environmental stimuli like humidity and/or temperature, the 4D-printed hydrogel composites developed by Lewis and her team are programmed to contain precise, localized swelling behaviors. Importantly, the hydrogel composites contain cellulose fibrils that are derived from wood and are similar to the microstructures that enable shape changes in plants.

By aligning cellulose fibrils (also known as, cellulose nanofibrils or nanofibrillated cellulose) during printing, the hydrogel composite ink is encoded with anisotropic swelling and stiffness, which can be patterned to produce intricate shape changes. The anisotropic nature of the cellulose fibrils gives rise to varied directional properties that can be predicted and controlled. Just like wood, which can be split easier along the grain rather than across it. Likewise, when immersed in water, the hydrogel-cellulose fibril ink undergoes differential swelling behavior along and orthogonal to the printing path. Combined with a proprietary mathematical model developed by the team that predicts how a 4D object must be printed to achieve prescribed transformable shapes, the new method opens up many new and exciting potential applications for 4D printing technology including smart textiles, soft electronics, biomedical devices, and tissue engineering.

“Using one composite ink printed in a single step, we can achieve shape-changing hydrogel geometries containing more complexity than any other technique, and we can do so simply by modifying the print path,” said Gladman [A. Sydney Gladman, Wyss Institute a graduate research assistant]. “What’s more, we can interchange different materials to tune for properties such as conductivity or biocompatibility.”

The composite ink that the team uses flows like liquid through the printhead, yet rapidly solidifies once printed. A variety of hydrogel materials can be used interchangeably resulting in different stimuli-responsive behavior, while the cellulose fibrils can be replaced with other anisotropic fillers of choice, including conductive fillers.

“Our mathematical model prescribes the printing pathways required to achieve the desired shape-transforming response,” said Matsumoto [Elisabetta Matsumoto, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss]. “We can control the curvature both discretely and continuously using our entirely tunable and programmable method.”

Specifically, the mathematical modeling solves the “inverse problem”, which is the challenge of being able to predict what the printing toolpath must be in order to encode swelling behaviors toward achieving a specific desired target shape.

“It is wonderful to be able to design and realize, in an engineered structure, some of nature’s solutions,” said Mahadevan [L. Mahadevan, Ph.D., a Wyss Core Faculty member] , who has studied phenomena such as how botanical tendrils coil, how flowers bloom, and how pine cones open and close. “By solving the inverse problem, we are now able to reverse-engineer the problem and determine how to vary local inhomogeneity, i.e. the spacing between the printed ink filaments, and the anisotropy, i.e. the direction of these filaments, to control the spatiotemporal response of these shapeshifting sheets. ”

“What’s remarkable about this 4D printing advance made by Jennifer and her team is that it enables the design of almost any arbitrary, transformable shape from a wide range of available materials with different properties and potential applications, truly establishing a new platform for printing self-assembling, dynamic microscale structures that could be applied to a broad range of industrial and medical applications,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard SEAS [School of Engineering and Applied Science’.

Here’s an animation from the Wyss Institute illustrating the process,

And, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Biomimetic 4D printing by A. Sydney Gladman, Elisabetta A. Matsumoto, Ralph G. Nuzzo, L. Mahadevan, & Jennifer A. Lewis. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4544 Published online 25 January 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Teijin and its fibres at Nano Tech 2016

Teijin is a Japanese chemical and pharmaceutical company known to me due to its production of nanotechnology-enabled fibres. As a consequence, a Jan. 21, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now piqued by interest,

Teijin Limited announced today that it will exhibit a wide range of nanotech materials and products incorporating advanced Teijin technologies during the International Nanotechnology Exhibition and Conference (nano tech 2016), the world’s largest nanotechnology show, at Tokyo Big Sight in Tokyo, Japan from January 27 to 29 [2016].

A Jan. 21, 2016 Teijin news release, which originated the news item, offers further detail,

Teijin’s booth (Stand 4E-09) will present nanotech materials and products for sustainable transportation, information and electronics, safety and protection, environment and energy, and healthcare, including the following:

– Nanofront, an ultra-fine polyester fiber with an unprecedented diameter of just 700 nanometers, features slip-resistance, heat shielding, wiping and filtering properties. It is used for diverse applications, including sportswear, cosmetics and industrial applications such as filters and heat-shielding sheets.

– Carbon nanotube yarn (CNTy) is 100%-CNT continuous yarn offering high electrical and thermal conductivity, easy handling and flexibility. Uses including space, aerospace, medical and wearable devices are envisioned. A motor using CNTy as its coil, developed by Finnish Lappeenranta University of Technology Opening a new window, will be exhibited first time in Japan.

– NanoGram Si paste is a printed electronics material containing 20nm-diameter silicon nanoparticles for photovoltaic cells capable of high conversion efficiency.

– Teijin Tetoron multilayer film is a structurally colored multilayer polyester film that utilizes the interference of each multilayer’s optical path difference rather than dyes or pigments. Decorative films for automotive and other applications will be exhibited.

– High-performance membranes, including a high-precision porous thin polyethylene membrane and multilayer membrane composites for micro filters, are moisture-permeable waterproof sheets.

– Carbon Alloy Catalyst (CAC) (under development) is platinum free catalyst made from polyacrylonitrile (precursor of carbon fiber) in combination with iron species, which is less expensive and more readily available than platinum, enabling production for reduced cost and in higher volumes. Fuel cells in which the cathode consists of the CAC without the platinum catalyst can generate exceptionally high electric power.

– Carbon nanofiber (under development) is a highly conductive carbon nanofiber with an elliptical cross section consisting of well-developed graphite layers ordered in a single direction. Envisioned applications include additives for  lithiumion secondary batteries (LIBs) , thermal conducting materials and plastic-reinforcing materials, among others.

Teijin first came to my attention in 2010 with their Morphotex product, a fabric based on the nanostructures found on the Blue Morpho butterfly’s wing. I updated the story in an April 12, 2012 posting sadly noting that Morphotex was no longer available.

For anyone interested in the exhibition, here’s the nano tech 2016 website.