Category Archives: biomimcry

Smartphone battery inspired by your guts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

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

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

Ocean-inspired coatings for organic electronics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

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

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

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

‘Robomussels’ for climate change

These ‘robomussels’ are not voting but they are being used to monitor mussel bed habitats according to an Oct. 17, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Tiny robots have been helping researchers study how climate change affects biodiversity. Developed by Northeastern University scientist Brian Helmuth, the “robomussels” have the shape, size, and color of actual mussels, with miniature built-in sensors that track temperatures inside the mussel beds.

Caption: This is a robomussel, seen among living mussels and other sea creatures. Credit: Allison Matzelle

Caption: This is a robomussel, seen among living mussels and other sea creatures. Credit: Allison Matzelle

An Oct. 12, 2016 Northeastern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes a project some 20 years in the making,

For the past 18 years, every 10 to 15 minutes, Helmuth and a global research team of 48 scientists have used robomussels to track internal body temperature, which is determined by the temperature of the surrounding air or water, and the amount of solar radiation the devices absorb. They place the robots inside mussel beds in oceans around the globe and record temperatures. The researchers have built a database of nearly two decades worth of data enabling scientists to pinpoint areas of unusual warming, intervene to help curb damage to vital marine ecosystems, and develop strategies that could prevent extinction of certain species.

Housed at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, this largest-ever database is not only a remarkable way to track the effects of climate change, the findings can also reveal emerging hotspots so policymakers and scientists can step in and relieve stressors such as erosion and water acidification before it’s too late.

“They look exactly like mussels but they have little green blinking lights in them,” says Helmuth. “You basically pluck out a mussel and then glue the device to the rock right inside the mussel bed. They enable us to link our field observations with the physiological impact of global climate change on these ecologically and economically important animals.”

For ecological forecasters such as Helmuth, mussels act as a barometer of climate change. That’s because they rely on external sources of heat such as air temperature and sun exposure for their body heat and thrive, or not, depending on those conditions. Using fieldwork along with mathematical and computational models, Helmuth forecasts the patterns of growth, reproduction, and survival of mussels in intertidal zones.

Over the years, he and his colleagues have found surprises: “Our expectations of where to look for the effects of climate change in nature are more complex than anticipated,” says Helmuth. For example, in an earlier paper in the journal Science, his team found that hotspots existed not only at the southern end of the species’ distribution, in this case, southern California; they also existed at sites up north, in Oregon and Washington state.

“These datasets tell us when and where to look for the effects of climate change,” he says. “Without them we could miss early warning signs of trouble.”

The robomussels’ near-continuous measurements serve as an early warning system. “If we start to see sites where the animals are regularly getting to temperatures that are right below what kills them, we know that any slight increase is likely to send them over the edge, and we can act,” says Helmuth.

It’s not only the mussels that may be pulled back from the brink. The advance notice could inform everything from maintaining the biodiversity of coastal systems to determining the best–and worst–places to locate mussel farms.

“Losing mussel beds is essentially like clearing a forest,” says Helmuth. “If they go, everything that’s living in them will go. They are a major food supply for many species, including lobsters and crabs. They also function as filters along near-shore waters, clearing huge amounts of particulates. So losing them can affect everything from the growth of species we care about because we want to eat them to water clarity to biodiversity of all the tiny animals that live on the insides of the beds.”

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

Long-term, high frequency in situ measurements of intertidal mussel bed temperatures using biomimetic sensors by Brian Helmuth, Francis Choi, Gerardo Zardi.  Scientific Data 3, Article number: 160087 (2016) doi:10.1038/sdata.2016.87 Published online: 11 October 2016

This paper is open access.

Cicada wings for anti-reflective surfaces

This bioinspired piece of research comes courtesy of China. From an Oct. 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

A team of Shanghai Jiao Tong University researchers has used the shape of cicada wings as a template to create antireflective structures fabricated with one of the most intriguing semiconductor materials, titanium dioxide (TiO2). The antireflective structures they produced are capable of suppressing visible light — 450 to 750 nanometers — at different angles of incidence.

An Oct. 11,2016 American Institute of Physics news release, which originated the news item, explains why the researchers focused on cicada wings and how their observations led to a new anti-reflective material,

Why cicada wings? The surfaces of the insect’s wings are composed of highly ordered, tiny vertical “nano-nipple” arrays, according to the researchers. As they report this week in Applied Physics Letters, from AIP Publishing, the resulting biomorphic TiO2 surface they created with antireflective structures shows a significant decrease in reflectivity.

“This can be attributed to an optimally graded refractive index profile between air and the TiO2 via antireflective structures on the surface,” explained Wang Zhang, associate professor at State Key Laboratory of Metal Matrix Composites, Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.

Small spaces between the ordered nano-antireflective structures “can be thought of as a light-transfer path that let incident light rays into the interior surface of the biomorphic TiO2 — allowing the incident light rays to completely enter the structure,” Zhang continued. “The multiple reflective and scattering effects of the antireflective structures prevented the incident light from returning to the outside atmosphere.”

Significantly, the team’s work relies on “a simple and low-cost sol-gel (wet chemical) method to fabricate biomorphic TiO2 with precise subwavelength antireflective surfaces,” Zhang pointed out. “The TiO2 was a purely anatase phase (a mineral form of TiO2), which has unique antireflective surfaces. This led to an optimally graded refractive index and, ultimately, to angle-dependent antireflective properties within the visible light range.”

In terms of applications, the team’s biomorphic TiO2 antireflective structures “show great potential for photovoltaic devices such as solar cells,” Zhang said. “We expect our work to inspire and motivate engineers to develop antireflective surfaces with unique structures for various practical applications.”

Even after high calcination at 500 C, the antireflective structures retain their morphology and high-performance antireflection properties. These qualities should enable the coatings to withstand harsh environments and make them suitable for long-term applications.

In the future, the team plans “to reduce the optical losses in solar cells by using materials with a higher refractive index such as tantalum pentoxide or any other semiconductor materials,” Zhang said.

I. Photograph and scanning electron microscope characterizations of a black cicada wing (Cryptympana atrata Fabricius). II. Synthesis process of biomorphic TiO2 with ordered nano-nipple array structures. III. Counter map angle-dependent antireflection of biomorphic TiO2 and non-templated TiO2, respectively. CREDIT: Shanghai Jiao Tong University

I. Photograph and scanning electron microscope characterizations of a black cicada wing (Cryptympana atrata Fabricius).
II. Synthesis process of biomorphic TiO2 with ordered nano-nipple array structures.
III. Counter map angle-dependent antireflection of biomorphic TiO2 and non-templated TiO2, respectively.
CREDIT: Shanghai Jiao Tong University

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

Angle dependent antireflection property of TiO2 inspired by cicada wings by Imran Zada, Wang Zhang, Yao Li, Peng Sun, Nianjin Cai, Jiajun Gu, Qinglei Liu, Huilan Su, and Di Zhang.  Appl. Phys. Lett. 109, 153701 (2016); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4962903

This paper appears to be open access.

A new memristor circuit

Apparently engineers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have developed a new kind of memristor. A Sept. 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

Engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are leading a research team that is developing a new type of nanodevice for computer microprocessors that can mimic the functioning of a biological synapse—the place where a signal passes from one nerve cell to another in the body. The work is featured in the advance online publication of Nature Materials (“Memristors with diffusive dynamics as synaptic emulators for neuromorphic computing”).

Such neuromorphic computing in which microprocessors are configured more like human brains is one of the most promising transformative computing technologies currently under study.

While it doesn’t sound different from any other memristor, that’s misleading. Do read on. A Sept. 27, 2016 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the researchers and the work,

J. Joshua Yang and Qiangfei Xia are professors in the electrical and computer engineering department in the UMass Amherst College of Engineering. Yang describes the research as part of collaborative work on a new type of memristive device.

Memristive devices are electrical resistance switches that can alter their resistance based on the history of applied voltage and current. These devices can store and process information and offer several key performance characteristics that exceed conventional integrated circuit technology.

“Memristors have become a leading candidate to enable neuromorphic computing by reproducing the functions in biological synapses and neurons in a neural network system, while providing advantages in energy and size,” the researchers say.

Neuromorphic computing—meaning microprocessors configured more like human brains than like traditional computer chips—is one of the most promising transformative computing technologies currently under intensive study. Xia says, “This work opens a new avenue of neuromorphic computing hardware based on memristors.”

They say that most previous work in this field with memristors has not implemented diffusive dynamics without using large standard technology found in integrated circuits commonly used in microprocessors, microcontrollers, static random access memory and other digital logic circuits.

The researchers say they proposed and demonstrated a bio-inspired solution to the diffusive dynamics that is fundamentally different from the standard technology for integrated circuits while sharing great similarities with synapses. They say, “Specifically, we developed a diffusive-type memristor where diffusion of atoms offers a similar dynamics [?] and the needed time-scales as its bio-counterpart, leading to a more faithful emulation of actual synapses, i.e., a true synaptic emulator.”

The researchers say, “The results here provide an encouraging pathway toward synaptic emulation using diffusive memristors for neuromorphic computing.”

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

Memristors with diffusive dynamics as synaptic emulators for neuromorphic computing by Zhongrui Wang, Saumil Joshi, Sergey E. Savel’ev, Hao Jiang, Rivu Midya, Peng Lin, Miao Hu, Ning Ge, John Paul Strachan, Zhiyong Li, Qing Wu, Mark Barnell, Geng-Lin Li, Huolin L. Xin, R. Stanley Williams [emphasis mine], Qiangfei Xia, & J. Joshua Yang. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4756 Published online 26 September 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I’ve emphasized R. Stanley Williams’ name as he was the lead researcher on the HP Labs team that proved Leon Chua’s 1971 theory about the memristor and exerted engineering control of the memristor in 2008. (Bernard Widrow, in the 1960s,  predicted and proved the existence of something he termed a ‘memistor’. Chua arrived at his ‘memristor’ theory independently.)

Austin Silver in a Sept. 29, 2016 posting on The Human OS blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) delves into this latest memristor research (Note: Links have been removed),

In research published in Nature Materials on 26 September [2016], Yang and his team mimicked a crucial underlying component of how synaptic connections get stronger or weaker: the flow of calcium.

The movement of calcium into or out of the neuronal membrane, neuroscientists have found, directly affects the connection. Chemical processes move the calcium in and out— triggering a long-term change in the synapses’ strength. 2015 research in ACS NanoLetters and Advanced Functional Materials discovered that types of memristors can simulate some of the calcium behavior, but not all.

In the new research, Yang combined two types of memristors in series to create an artificial synapse. The hybrid device more closely mimics biological synapse behavior—the calcium flow in particular, Yang says.

The new memristor used–called a diffusive memristor because atoms in the resistive material move even without an applied voltage when the device is in the high resistance state—was a dielectic film sandwiched between Pt [platinum] or Au [gold] electrodes. The film contained Ag [silver] nanoparticles, which would play the role of calcium in the experiments.

By tracking the movement of the silver nanoparticles inside the diffusive memristor, the researchers noticed a striking similarity to how calcium functions in biological systems.

A voltage pulse to the hybrid device drove silver into the gap between the diffusive memristor’s two electrodes–creating a filament bridge. After the pulse died away, the filament started to break and the silver moved back— resistance increased.

Like the case with calcium, a force made silver go in and a force made silver go out.

To complete the artificial synapse, the researchers connected the diffusive memristor in series to another type of memristor that had been studied before.

When presented with a sequence of voltage pulses with particular timing, the artificial synapse showed the kind of long-term strengthening behavior a real synapse would, according to the researchers. “We think it is sort of a real emulation, rather than simulation because they have the physical similarity,” Yang says.

I was glad to find some additional technical detail about this new memristor and to find the Human OS blog, which is new to me and according to its home page is a “biomedical blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.”

Noniridescent photonics inspired by tarantulas

Last year, I was quite taken with a structural colour story centering on tarantulas which was featured in my Dec. 7, 2015 posting.

Cobalt Blue Tarantula [downloaded from http://www.tarantulaguide.com/tarantula-pictures/cobalt-blue-tarantula-4/]

Cobalt Blue Tarantula [downloaded from http://www.tarantulaguide.com/tarantula-pictures/cobalt-blue-tarantula-4/]

On Oct. 17, 2016 I was delighted to receive an email with the latest work from the same team who this time around crowdfunded resources to complete their research. Before moving on to the paper, here’s more from the team’s crowdfunder on Experiment was titled “The Development of Non-iridescent Structurally Colored Material Inspired by Tarantula Hairs,”

Many vibrant colors in nature are produced by nanostructures rather than pigments. But their application is limited by iridescence – changing hue and brightness with viewing angles. This project aims to mimic the nanostructures that tarantulas use to produce bright, non-iridescent blue colors to inspire next-generation, energy efficient, wide-angle color displays. Moreover, one day non-iridescent structural colorants may replace costly and toxic pigments and dyes.

What is the context of this research?

We recently discovered that some tarantulas produce vivid blue colors using unique nanostructures not found in other blue organisms like birds and Morpho butterflies. We described a number of different nanostructures that help explain how blue color evolved at least eight times within tarantulas. These colors are also remarkably non-iridescent so that they stay bright blue even at wide viewing angles, unlike the “flashy” structural colors seen in many birds and butterflies. We hypothesize that although the hue is produced by multilayer nanostructure, it is the hierarchical morphology of the hairs controls iridescence. We would like to validate our results from preliminary optical simulations by making nano-3D printed physical prototypes with and without key features of the tarantula hairs.

What is the significance of this project?

While iridescence can make a flashy signal to a mating bird or butterfly, it isn’t so useful in optical technology. This limits the application of structural colors in human contexts, even though they can be more vibrant and resist fading better than traditional pigment-based colors. For example, despite being energy efficient and viewable in direct sunlight, this butterfly-inspired color display, that utilizes principles of structural colors, has never made it into the mainstream because iridescence limits its viewing angle. We believe this limitation could be overcome using tarantula-inspired nanostructures that could be mass-produced in an economically viable way through top-down approaches. Those nanostructures may even be used to replace pigments and dyes someday!

What are the goals of the project?

We have designed five models that vary in complexity, incorporating successively more details of real tarantula hairs. We would like to fabricate those five designs by 3D nano-printing, so that we can test our hypothesis experimentally and determine which features produce blue and which remove iridescence. We’ll start making those designs as soon as we reach our goal and the project is fully funded. Once these designs are made, we will compare the angle-dependency of the colors produced by each design through angle-resolved reflectance spectrometry. We’ll also compare them visually through photography by taking series of shots from different angles similar to Fig. S4. Through those steps, we’ll be able to identify how each feature of the complex nanostructure contributes to color.

Budget
Ultra-high resolution (nano-scale) 3D printing
$6,000
To fund nano 3D printing completely
$1,700

This project has been designed using Biomimicry Thinking, and is a follow-up to our published, well-received tarantula research. In order to test our hypothesis, we are planning to use Photonic Professional GT by nanoscribe to fabricate tarantula hair-inspired prototypes by 3D printing nanostructures within millimeter sized swatches. To be able to 3D print nanostructures across these relatively large-sized swatches is critical to the success of our project. Currently, there’s no widely-accessible technology out there that meets our needs other than Photonic Professional GT. However, the estimated cost just for 3D printing those nanostructures alone is $20,000. So far, we have successfully raised and allocated $13,000 of research funds through conventional means, but we are still $7,000 short. Initial trial of our most complex prototype was a success. Therefore, we’re here, seeking your help. Please help us make this nano fabrication happen, and make this project a success! Thank you!

The researchers managed to raise $7, 708.00 in total, making this paper possible,

Tarantula-Inspired Noniridescent Photonics with Long-Range Order by Bor-Kai Hsiung, Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Lijia Jiang, Ying Liu, Yongfeng Lu, Matthew D. Shawkey, and Todd A. Blackledge. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adom.201600599 Version of Record online: 11 OCT 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall but I did manage to get my hands on a copy. So here are a few highlights from the paper,

Pigment-based colorants are used for applications ranging from textiles to packaging to cosmetics.[1] However, structural-based alternatives can be more vibrant, durable, and eco-friendly relative to pigmentary colors.[2] Moreover, optical nanostructures are highly tunable, they can achieve a full color gamut by slight alterations to spacing.[3] However, light interference and/or diffraction from most photonic structures results in iridescence,[4] which limits their broader applications. Iridescent colors that change hue when viewed from different directions are useful for niche markets, such as security and anticounterfeiting, {emphasis mine} [5] but are not desirable for most applications, such as paints, coatings, electronic displays, and apparels. Hence, fabricating a photonic structure that minimizes iridescence is a key step to unlocking the potential applications of structural colors.

Noniridescent structural colors in nature are produced by coherent scattering of light by quasi-ordered, amorphous photonic structures (i.e., photonic glass),[6–10] or photonic polycrystals [9,11–14] that possess only short-range order. Iridescence is thought to be a fundamental component of photonic structures with long-range order, such as multilayers.[4] However, the complexity of short-range order photonic structures prohibits their design and fabrication using top-down approaches while bottom-up synthesis using colloidal suspension[15,16] or self-assembly[17–20] lack the tight controls over the spatial and temporal scales needed for industrial mass production. Photonic structures with long-range order are easier to model mathematically. Hence, long-range order photonic structures are intrinsically suitable for top-down fabrication, where precise feature placement and scalability can be guaranteed.

Recently, we found blue color produced by multilayer interference on specialized hairs from two species of blue tarantulas (Poecilotheria metallica (Figure 1a,b) and Lampropelma violaceopes) that was largely angle independent.[21] We hypothesize that the iridescent effects of the multilayer are reduced by hierarchical structuring of the hairs. Specifically, the hairs have: (1) high degrees of rotational symmetry, (2) hierarchy—with subcylindrical multilayers surrounding a larger, overarching multilayer cylinder, and (3) nanoscale surface grooves. Because all of these structures co-occur on the tarantulas, it is impossible to decouple them simply by observing nature. Here, we use optical simulation and nano-3D rapid prototyping to demonstrate that introducing design features seen in these tarantulas onto a multilayer photonic structure nearly eliminates iridescence. As far as we are aware, this is the first known example of a noniridescent structural color produced by a photonic structure with both short and long-range order. This opens up an array of new possibilities for photonic structure design and fabrication to produce noniridescent structural colors and is a key first step to achieving economically viable solutions for mass production of noniridescent structural color.  … (p. 1 PDF)

There is a Canadian security and anti-counterfeiting company (Nanotech Security Corp.), inspired by the Morpho butterfly and its iridescent blue, which got its start in Bozena Kaminska’s laboratory at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada).

Getting back to the paper, after a few twists and turns, they conclude with this,

This approach of producing noniridescent structural colors using photonic structures with long-range order (i.e., modified multilayer) has, to our knowledge, not been explored previously. Our findings reaffirm the value of using nature and the biomimetic process as a tool for innovation and our approach also may help to overcome the current inability of colloidal self-assembly to achieve pure noniridescent structural red due to single-particle scattering and/or multiple scattering.[25] As a result, our research provides a new and easy way for designing structural colorants with customizable hues (see Figure S6, Supporting Information, as one of the potential examples) and iridescent effects to satisfy the needs of different applications. While nano-3D printing of these nanostructures is not viable for mass production, it does identify the key features that are necessary for top-down fabrication. With promising nanofabrication techniques, such as preform drawing[26]—a generally scalable methodology that has been demonstrated for fabricating particles with complex internal architectures and continuously tunable diameters down to nanometer scale[27] – it is possible to mass produce these “designer structural colorants” in an economically viable manner. Our discovery of how to produce noniridescent structural colors using long-range order may therefore lead to a more sustainable future that does not rely upon toxic and wasteful synthetic pigments and dyes. (p. 5)

I’m glad to have gotten caught up with the work. Thank you, Bor-Kai Hsiung.

Oil-absorbing hairy fern leaves lead to ‘nanofur’ for oil spill cleanups

German researchers have developed a biomimetic material branded as ‘nanofur’ for oil spill cleanups, according to an Aug. 23, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Some water ferns can absorb large volumes of oil within a short time, because their leaves are strongly water-repellent and, at the same time, highly oil-absorbing. Researchers of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, together with colleagues of Bonn University, have found that the oil-binding capacity of the water plant results from the hairy microstructure of its leaves (Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, “Microstructures of superhydrophobic plant leaves – inspiration for efficient oil spill cleanup materials”). It is now used as a model to further develop the new Nanofur material for the environmentally friendly cleanup of oil spills.

An Aug.(?) 23 (?), 2016 Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, explains the interest in improving technology for oil spill cleanups and provides insight into this  innovation,

Damaged pipelines, oil tanker disasters, and accidents on oil drilling and production platforms may result in pollutions [sic] of water with crude or mineral oil. Conventional methods to clean up the oil spill are associated with specific drawbacks. Oil combustion or the use of chemical substances to accelerate oil decomposition cause secondary environmental pollution. Many natural materials to take up the oil, such as sawdust or plant fibers, are hardly effective, because they also absorb large amounts of water. On their search for an environmentally friendly alternative to clean up oil spills, the researchers compared various species of aquatic ferns. “We already knew that the leaves of these plants repel water, but for the first time now, we have studied their capacity to absorb oil,” Claudia Zeiger says. She conducted the project at KIT’s Institute of Microstructure Technology.

Damaged pipelines, oil tanker disasters, and accidents on oil drilling and production platforms may result in pollutions of water with crude or mineral oil. Conventional methods to clean up the oil spill are associated with specific drawbacks. Oil combustion or the use of chemical substances to accelerate oil decomposition cause secondary environmental pollution. Many natural materials to take up the oil, such as sawdust or plant fibers, are hardly effective, because they also absorb large amounts of water. On their search for an environmentally friendly alternative to clean up oil spills, the researchers compared various species of aquatic ferns. “We already knew that the leaves of these plants repel water, but for the first time now, we have studied their capacity to absorb oil,” Claudia Zeiger says. She conducted the project at KIT’s Institute of Microstructure Technology.

Aquatic ferns originally growing in tropical and subtropical regions can now also be found in parts of Europe. As they reproduce strongly, they are often considered weed. However, they have a considerable potential as low-cost, rapid, and environmentally friendly oil absorbers, which is obvious from a short video (see below). ”The plants might be used in lakes to absorb accidental oil spills,” Zeiger says. After less than 30 seconds, the leaves reach maximum absorption and can be skimmed off together with the absorbed oil. The water plant named salvinia has trichomes on the leaf surface – hairy extensions of 0.3 to 2.5 mm in length. Comparison of different salvinia species revealed that leaves with the longest hairs did not absorb the largest amounts of oil. “Oil-absorbing capacity is determined by the shape of the hair ends,” Zeiger emphasizes. The largest quantity of oil was absorbed by leaves of the water fern salvinia molesta, whose hair ends are shaped like an eggbeater.

Based on this new knowledge on the relationship between surface structure of leaves and their oil-absorbing capacity, the researchers improved the ‘Nanofur’ material developed at their institute. This plastic nanofur mimics the water-repellent and oil-absorbing effect of salvinia to separate oil and water. “We study nanostructures and microstructures in nature for potential technical developments,” says Hendrik Hölscher, Head of the Biomimetic Surfaces Group of the Institute of Microstructure Technology of KIT. He points out that different properties of plants made of the same material frequently result from differences of their finest structures.

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

Microstructures of superhydrophobic plant leaves – inspiration for efficient oil spill cleanup materials by Claudia Zeiger, Isabelle C Rodrigues da Silva, Matthias Mail, Maryna N Kavalenka, Wilhelm Barthlott, and Hendrik Hölscher. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, Volume 11, Number 5 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-3190/11/5/056003

Published 16 August 2016, © 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd

This article appears to be open access.

There is also a video demonstration of the material,

Enjoy!

Spider silk as a bio super-lens

Bangor University (Wales, UK) is making quite the impact these days. I’d never heard of the institution until their breakthrough with nanobeads (Sept. 7, 2016 posting) to break through a resolution barrier and now there’s a second breakthrough with their partners at Oxford University (England, UK). From an Aug. 19, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

Scientists at the UK’s Bangor and Oxford universities have achieved a world first: using spider-silk as a superlens to increase the microscope’s potential.

Extending the limit of classical microscope’s resolution has been the ‘El Dorado’ or ‘Holy Grail’ of microscopy for over a century. Physical laws of light make it impossible to view objects smaller than 200 nm — the smallest size of bacteria, using a normal microscope alone. However, superlenses which enable us to see beyond the current magnification have been the goal since the turn of the millennium.

Hot on the heels of a paper (Sci. Adv. 2 e1600901,2016) revealing that a team at Bangor University’s School of Electronic Engineering has used a nanobead-derived superlens to break the perceived resolution barrier, the same team has achieved another world first.

Now the team, led by Dr Zengbo Wang and in colloboration with Prof. Fritz Vollrath’s silk group at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, has used a naturally occurring material — dragline silk of the golden web spider, as an additional superlens, applied to the surface of the material to be viewed, to provide an additional 2-3 times magnification.

This is the first time that a naturally occurring biological material has been used as a superlens.

An Aug. 19, 2016 Bangor University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about the new work,

In the paper in Nano Letters (DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b02641, Aug 17 2016), the joint team reveals how they used a cylindrical piece of spider silk from the thumb sized Nephila spider as a lens.

Dr Zengbo Wang said:

“We have proved that the resolution barrier of microscope can be broken using a superlens, but production of manufactured superlenses invovles some complex engineering processes which are not widely accessible to other reserchers. This is why we have been interested in looking for naturally occurring superlenses provided by ‘Mother Nature’, which may exist around us, so that everyone can access superlenses.”

Prof Fritz Vollrath adds:

“It is very exciting to find yet another cutting edge and totally novel use for a spider silk, which we have been studying for over two decades in my laboratory.”

These lenses could be used for seeing and viewing previously ‘invisible’ structures, including engineered nano-structures and biological micro-structures as well as, potentially, native germs and viruses.

The natural cylindrical structure at a micron- and submicron-scale make silks ideal candidates, in this case, the individual filaments had diameters of one tenth of a thin human hair.

The spider filament enabled the group to view details on a micro-chip and a blue- ray disk which would be invisible using the unmodified optical microscope.

In much the same was as when you look through a cylindrical glass or bottle, the clearest image only runs along the narrow strip directly opposite your line of vision, or resting on the surface being viewed, the single filament provides a one dimensional viewing image along its length.

Wang explains:

“The cylindrical silk lens has advantages in the larger field-of-view when compared to a microsphere superlens. Importantly for potential commercial applications, a spider silk nanoscope would be robust and economical, which in turn could provide excellent manufacturing platforms for a wide range of applications.”

James Monks, a co-author on the paper comments: “it has been an exciting time to be able to develop this project as part of my honours degree in electronic engineering at Bangor University and I am now very much looking forward to joining Dr Wang’s team as a PhD student in nano-photonics.”

The researchers have provided a close up image with details,

Caption: (a) Nephila edulis spider in its web. (b) Schematic drawing of reflection mode silk biosuperlens imaging. The spider silk was placed directly on top of the sample surface by using a soft tape, which magnify underlying nano objects 2-3 times (c) SEM image of Blu-ray disk with 200/100 nm groove and lines (d) Clear magnified image (2.1x) of Blu-ray disk under spider silk superlens. Credit: Bangor University/ University of Oxford

Caption: (a) Nephila edulis spider in its web. (b) Schematic drawing of reflection mode silk biosuperlens imaging. The spider silk was placed directly on top of the sample surface by using a soft tape, which magnify underlying nano objects 2-3 times (c) SEM image of Blu-ray disk with 200/100 nm groove and lines (d) Clear magnified image (2.1x) of Blu-ray disk under spider silk superlens. Credit: Bangor University/ University of Oxford

Here’s a link to and a citation for the ‘spider silk’ superlens paper,

Spider Silk: Mother Nature’s Bio-Superlens by James N. Monks, Bing Yan, Nicholas Hawkins, Fritz Vollrath, and Zengbo Wang. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b02641 Publication Date (Web): August 17, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Graphene ribbons in solution bending and twisting like DNA

An Aug. 15, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into graphene nanoribbons and their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)-like properties,

Graphene nanoribbons (GNRs) bend and twist easily in solution, making them adaptable for biological uses like DNA analysis, drug delivery and biomimetic applications, according to scientists at Rice University.

Knowing the details of how GNRs behave in a solution will help make them suitable for wide use in biomimetics, according to Rice physicist Ching-Hwa Kiang, whose lab employed its unique capabilities to probe nanoscale materials like cells and proteins in wet environments. Biomimetic materials are those that imitate the forms and properties of natural materials.

An Aug. 15, 2016 Rice University (Texas, US) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the ribbons and the research in more detail,

Graphene nanoribbons can be thousands of times longer than they are wide. They can be produced in bulk by chemically “unzipping” carbon nanotubes, a process invented by Rice chemist and co-author James Tour and his lab.

Their size means they can operate on the scale of biological components like proteins and DNA, Kiang said. “We study the mechanical properties of all different kinds of materials, from proteins to cells, but a little different from the way other people do,” she said. “We like to see how materials behave in solution, because that’s where biological things are.” Kiang is a pioneer in developing methods to probe the energy states of proteins as they fold and unfold.

She said Tour suggested her lab have a look at the mechanical properties of GNRs. “It’s a little extra work to study these things in solution rather than dry, but that’s our specialty,” she said.

Nanoribbons are known for adding strength but not weight to solid-state composites, like bicycle frames and tennis rackets, and forming an electrically active matrix. A recent Rice project infused them into an efficient de-icer coating for aircraft.

But in a squishier environment, their ability to conform to surfaces, carry current and strengthen composites could also be valuable.

“It turns out that graphene behaves reasonably well, somewhat similar to other biological materials. But the interesting part is that it behaves differently in a solution than it does in air,” she said. The researchers found that like DNA and proteins, nanoribbons in solution naturally form folds and loops, but can also form helicoids, wrinkles and spirals.

Kiang, Wijeratne [Sithara Wijeratne, Rice graduate now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University] and Jingqiang Li, a co-author and student in the Kiang lab, used atomic force microscopy to test their properties. Atomic force microscopy can not only gather high-resolution images but also take sensitive force measurements of nanomaterials by pulling on them. The researchers probed GNRs and their precursors, graphene oxide nanoribbons.

The researchers discovered that all nanoribbons become rigid under stress, but their rigidity increases as oxide molecules are removed to turn graphene oxide nanoribbons into GNRs. They suggested this ability to tune their rigidity should help with the design and fabrication of GNR-biomimetic interfaces.

“Graphene and graphene oxide materials can be functionalized (or modified) to integrate with various biological systems, such as DNA, protein and even cells,” Kiang said. “These have been realized in biological devices, biomolecule detection and molecular medicine. The sensitivity of graphene bio-devices can be improved by using narrow graphene materials like nanoribbons.”

Wijeratne noted graphene nanoribbons are already being tested for use in DNA sequencing, in which strands of DNA are pulled through a nanopore in an electrified material. The base components of DNA affect the electric field, which can be read to identify the bases.

The researchers saw nanoribbons’ biocompatibility as potentially useful for sensors that could travel through the body and report on what they find, not unlike the Tour lab’s nanoreporters that retrieve information from oil wells.

Further studies will focus on the effect of the nanoribbons’ width, which range from 10 to 100 nanometers, on their properties.

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

Detecting the Biopolymer Behavior of Graphene Nanoribbons in Aqueous Solution by Sithara S. Wijeratne, Evgeni S. Penev, Wei Lu, Jingqiang Li, Amanda L. Duque, Boris I. Yakobson, James M. Tour, & Ching-Hwa Kiang. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 31174 (2016)  doi:10.1038/srep31174 Published online: 09 August 2016

This paper is open access.

Robots built from living tissue

Biohybrid robots, as they are known, are built from living tissue but not in a Frankenstein kind of way as Victoria Webster PhD candidate at Case Western Reserve University (US) explains in her Aug. 9, 2016 essay on The Conversation (also on phys.org as an Aug. 10, 2016 news item; Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers are increasingly looking for solutions to make robots softer or more compliant – less like rigid machines, more like animals. With traditional actuators – such as motors – this can mean using air muscles or adding springs in parallel with motors. …

But there’s a growing area of research that’s taking a different approach. By combining robotics with tissue engineering, we’re starting to build robots powered by living muscle tissue or cells. These devices can be stimulated electrically or with light to make the cells contract to bend their skeletons, causing the robot to swim or crawl. The resulting biobots can move around and are soft like animals. They’re safer around people and typically less harmful to the environment they work in than a traditional robot might be. And since, like animals, they need nutrients to power their muscles, not batteries, biohybrid robots tend to be lighter too.

Webster explains how these biobots are built,

Researchers fabricate biobots by growing living cells, usually from heart or skeletal muscle of rats or chickens, on scaffolds that are nontoxic to the cells. If the substrate is a polymer, the device created is a biohybrid robot – a hybrid between natural and human-made materials.

If you just place cells on a molded skeleton without any guidance, they wind up in random orientations. That means when researchers apply electricity to make them move, the cells’ contraction forces will be applied in all directions, making the device inefficient at best.

So to better harness the cells’ power, researchers turn to micropatterning. We stamp or print microscale lines on the skeleton made of substances that the cells prefer to attach to. These lines guide the cells so that as they grow, they align along the printed pattern. With the cells all lined up, researchers can direct how their contraction force is applied to the substrate. So rather than just a mess of firing cells, they can all work in unison to move a leg or fin of the device.

Researchers sometimes mimic animals when creating their biobots (Note: Links have been removed),

Others have taken their cues from nature, creating biologically inspired biohybrids. For example, a group led by researchers at California Institute of Technology developed a biohybrid robot inspired by jellyfish. This device, which they call a medusoid, has arms arranged in a circle. Each arm is micropatterned with protein lines so that cells grow in patterns similar to the muscles in a living jellyfish. When the cells contract, the arms bend inwards, propelling the biohybrid robot forward in nutrient-rich liquid.

More recently, researchers have demonstrated how to steer their biohybrid creations. A group at Harvard used genetically modified heart cells to make a biologically inspired manta ray-shaped robot swim. The heart cells were altered to contract in response to specific frequencies of light – one side of the ray had cells that would respond to one frequency, the other side’s cells responded to another.

Amazing, eh? And, this is quite a recent video; it was published on YouTube on July 7, 2016.

Webster goes on to describe work designed to make these robots hardier and more durable so they can leave the laboratory,

… Here at Case Western Reserve University, we’ve recently begun to investigate … by turning to the hardy marine sea slug Aplysia californica. Since A. californica lives in the intertidal region, it can experience big changes in temperature and environmental salinity over the course of a day. When the tide goes out, the sea slugs can get trapped in tide pools. As the sun beats down, water can evaporate and the temperature will rise. Conversely in the event of rain, the saltiness of the surrounding water can decrease. When the tide eventually comes in, the sea slugs are freed from the tidal pools. Sea slugs have evolved very hardy cells to endure this changeable habitat.

We’ve been able to use Aplysia tissue to actuate a biohybrid robot, suggesting that we can manufacture tougher biobots using these resilient tissues. The devices are large enough to carry a small payload – approximately 1.5 inches long and one inch wide.

Webster has written a fascinating piece and, if you have time, I encourage you to read it in its entirety.