Tag Archives: carbon nanotubes

Nanozen: protecting us from nanoparticles (maybe)

Friday, Oct. 24, 2014 the Vancouver Sun (Canada) featured a local nanotechnology company, Nanozen in an article by ‘digital life’ writer, Gillian Shaw. Unfortunately, the article is misleading. Before noting the issues, it should be said that most reporters don’t have much time to prepare stories and are often asked to write on topics that are new or relatively unknown to them. It is a stressful position to be in especially when one is reliant on the interviewee’s expertise and agenda. As for the interviewee, sometimes scientists get excited and enthused and don’t speak with their usual caution.

The article starts off in an unexceptionable manner,

Vancouver startup Nanozen is a creating real-time, wearable particle sensor for use in mines, mills and other industrial locations where dust and other particles can lead to dangerous explosions and debilitating respiratory diseases.

The company founder and, presumably, lead researcher Winnie Chu is described as a former professor of environmental health at the University of British Columbia who has devoted herself to developing a new means of monitoring particles, in particular nanoparticles. Chu is quoted as saying this,

“The current technology is not sufficient to protect workers or the community when concentrations exceed the acceptable level,” she said.

It seems ominous and is made more so with this,

Chu said more than 90 per cent of the firefighters who responded to the 9/11 disaster developed lung disease, having walked into a site full of small and very damaging particles in the air.

“Those nanoparticles go deep into your lungs and cause inflammation and other problems,” Chu said.

It seems odd to mention this particular disaster. The lung issues for the firefighters, first responders and people living close to the site of World Trade Centers collapse are due to a complex mix of materials in the air. Most of the research I can find focuses on micrsoscale particles such as the work from the University of California at Davis’s Delta Group (Detection and Evaluation of the Long-Range Transport of Aerosols). From the Group’s World Trade Center webpage,

The fuming World Trade Center debris pile was a chemical factory that exhaled pollutants in particularly dangerous forms that could penetrate deep into the lungs of workers at Ground Zero, says a new study by UC Davis air-quality experts.

You can find the group’s presentation (-Presentation download (WTC aersols ACS 2003.ppt; 7,500kb)) to an American Chemical Society meeting in 2003 along more details such as this on their webpage,

The conditions would have been “brutal” for people working at Ground Zero without respirators and slightly less so for those working or living in immediately adjacent buildings, said the study’s lead author, Thomas Cahill, a UC Davis professor emeritus of physics and atmospheric science and research professor in engineering.

“Now that we have a model of how the debris pile worked, it gives us a much better idea of what the people working on and near the pile were actually breathing,” Cahill said. “Our first report was based on particles that we collected one mile away. This report gives a reasonable estimate of what type of pollutants were actually present at Ground Zero.

“The debris pile acted like a chemical factory. It cooked together the components of the buildings and their contents, including enormous numbers of computers, and gave off gases of toxic metals, acids and organics for at least six weeks.”

The materials found by this group were not at the nanoscale. In fact, the focus was then and subsequently on materials such as glass shards, asbestos, and metallic aerosols at the microscale, all of which can cause well documented health problems. No doubt effective monitoring would have been helpful It seems the critical issue in the early stages of the disaster was access to a respirator. Also, effective monitoring at later stages which did not seem to have happened would have been a good idea.

A 2004 (?) New York Magazine article by Jennifer Senior titled ‘Fallout‘ had this to say about the air content,

Here, today, is what we know about the dust and air at ground zero: It contained glass shards, pulverized concrete, and many carcinogens, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of asbestos, tens of thousands of pounds of lead, mercury, cadmium, dioxins, PCBs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. It also contained benzene. According to a study done by the U.S. Geological Survey, the dust was so caustic in places that its pH exceeded that of ammonia. Thomas Cahill, a scientist who analyzed the plumes from a rooftop one mile away, says that the levels of acids, insoluble particles, high-temperature organic materials, and metals were in most cases higher in very fine particles (which can slip deep into the lungs) than anyplace ever recorded on earth, including the oil fires of Kuwait.

The article describes at some length the problems for first responders and for those who later moved back into their homes nearby the disaster site under the impression the air was clean.

Getting back to the nanoscale, there were carbon nanotubes (CNTs) present as this 2009 research paper, Case Report: Lung Disease in World Trade Center Responders Exposed to Dust and Smoke: Carbon Nanotubes Found in the Lungs of World Trade Center Patients and Dust Samples, noted in relation to a sample of seven patients,

It may well be the most frequent injury pattern in exposed patients with severe respiratory impairment. b) Interstitial disease was present in four cases (Patients A, B, C, and E), characterized by a generally bronchiolocentric pattern of interstitial inflammation and fibrosis of variable severity. The lungs of these patients contained large amounts of silicates, and three of them showed nanotubes.

CNT of commercial origin, common now, would not have been present in substantial numbers in the WTC complex before the disaster in 2001. However, the high temperatures generated during the WTC disaster as a result of the combustion of fuel in the presence of carbon and metals would have been sufficient to locally generate large numbers of CNT. This scenario could have caused the generation of CNT that we have noted in the dust samples and in the lung biopsy specimens.

Given that CNTs are more common now, it would suggest that a monitor for nanoscale materials such as Chu’s proposed equipment could be an excellent idea. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what Chu is trying to achieve as she appears to make a blunder in the article,

Chu said environmental agencies require testing to distinguish between particles equal to or less than 10 microns and smaller particles 2.5 microns or less.

“When we inhale we inhale both size particles but they go into different parts of the lung,” said Chu, who said research shows the smaller the particle the higher the toxicity. [emphasis mine] The monitor she has developed can detect particles as small as one micron and even less.

The word ‘nanoparticle’ is often used generically to include, CNTs, quantum dots, silver nanoparticles, etc. as Chu seems to be doing throughout the article. The only nanomaterial/nanoparticle that researchers agree unequivocally cause lung problems are long carbon nanotubes which resemble asbestos fibres. This is precisely the opposite of Chu’s statement.

For validation, you can conduct your own search or you can check Swiss toxicologist Harald Krug’s (mentioned in my Nanosafety research: a quality control issue posting of Oct. 30, 2014) statement that most health and safety research of nanomaterials and the resultant conclusions are problematic. But he too is unequivocal with regard long carbon nanotubes (from Krug’s study, Nanosafety Research—Are We on the Right Track?).

Comparison of instillation and inhalation experiments: instillation studies have to be carried out with relatively high local doses and, thus, more often meet overload conditions than inhalation studies. Transient inflammatory effects have been observed frequently in both types of lung exposure, irrespective of the type of ENMs used for the experiment. This finding suggests an unspecific particle effect; moreover, the biological response seems to be comparable to a scenario involving exposure to fine dust. Prominent exceptions are long and rigid carbon nanotube (CNT) bundles, which induce a severe tissue reaction (chronic inflammation) that may ultimately result in tumor formation. Overall, the evaluated studies showed no indication of a “nanospecific” effect in the lung. [from the Summary section; 2nd bulleted point]

You can find the Nanozen website here but there doesn’t appear to be any information on the site yet. These search terms ‘about’, ‘team’, ‘technology’, and ‘product’ yielded no results on website as of Oct. 30, 2014 at 1000 hours PDT.

‘Genius’ grant (MacArthur Fellowship) for reseacher Mark Hersam and his work on carbon nanotubes and the next generation of electronics

It took a few minutes to figure out why Mark Hersam, professor at Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois, US) is being featured in an Oct. 21, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

One of the longstanding problems of working with nanomaterials–substances at the molecular and atomic scale–is controlling their size. When their size changes, their properties also change. This suggests that uniform control over size is critical in order to use them reliably as components in electronics.

Put another way, “if you don’t control size, you will have inhomogeneity in performance,” says Mark Hersam. “You don’t want some of your cell phones to work, and others not.”

Hersam, a professor of materials science engineering, chemistry and medicine at Northwestern University, has developed a method to separate nanomaterials by size, therefore providing a consistency in properties otherwise not available. Moreover, the solution came straight from the life sciences–biochemistry, in fact.

The technique, known as density gradient ultracentrifugation, is a decades-old process used to separate biomolecules. The National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded scientist theorized correctly that he could adapt it to separate carbon nanotubes, rolled sheets of graphene (a single atomic layer of hexagonally bonded carbon atoms), long recognized for their potential applications in computers and tablets, smart phones and other portable devices, photovoltaics, batteries and bioimaging.

The technique has proved so successful that Hersam and his team now hold two dozen pending or issued patents, and in 2007 established their own company, NanoIntegris, jump-started with a $150,000 NSF small business grant. The company has been able to scale up production by 10,000-fold, and currently has 700 customers in 40 countries.
“We now have the capacity to produce ten times the worldwide demand for this material,” Hersam says.

NSF supports Hersam with a $640,000 individual investigator grant awarded in 2010 for five years. Also, he directs Northwestern’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), which NSF funds, including support for approximately 30 faculty members/researchers.

Hersam also is a recent recipient of one of this year’s prestigious MacArthur fellowships, a $625,000 no-strings-attached award, popularly known as a “genius” grant. [emphases mine] These go to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their fields, and are meant to encourage beneficiaries to freely explore their interests without fear of risk-taking.

An Oct. 20, 2014 US National Science Foundation Discoveries article by Marlene Cimons, which originated the news item, describes Hersam’s research and his hopes for it in more detail,

The carbon nanotubes separation process, which Hersam developed, begins with a centrifuge tube. Into that, “we load a water based solution and introduce an additive which allows us to tune the buoyant density of the solution itself,” he explains.

“What we create is a gradient in the buoyant density of the aqueous solution, with low density at the top and high density at the bottom,” he continues. “We then load the carbon nanotubes and put it into the centrifuge, which drives the nanotubes through the gradient. The nanotubes move through the gradient until their density matches that of the gradient. The result is that the nanotubes form separated bands in the centrifuge tube by density. Since the density of the nanotube is a function of its diameter, this method allows separation by diameter.”

One property that distinguishes these materials from traditional semiconductors like silicon is that they are mechanically flexible. “Carbon nanotubes are highly resilient,” Hersam says. “That allows us to integrate electronics on flexible substrates, like clothing, shoes, and wrist bands for real time monitoring of biomedical diagnostics and athletic performance. These materials have the right combination of properties to realize wearable electronics.”

He and his colleagues also are working on energy technologies, such as solar cells and batteries “that can improve efficiency and reduce the cost of solar cells, and increase the capacity and reduce the charging time of batteries,” he says. “The resulting batteries and solar cells are also mechanically flexible, and thus can be integrated with flexible electronics.”

They likely even will prove waterproof. “It turns out that carbon nanomaterials are hydrophobic, so water will roll right off of them,” he says.

A Sept. 17, 2014 Northwestern University news release congratulates Hersam on his award while describing his response to the news and providing more information about his work as a researcher and teacher (Note: Links have been removed),

The phone call from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation delivering the very good news was so out of the blue that Hersam initially thought it was a joke.

“Then I went into shock, and, I think, to some extent I remain in shock,” said Hersam, who received the call in his Cook Hall office. “As time has gone on, I’ve appreciated, of course, that it’s a great honor and, more importantly, a great opportunity.”

A dedicated and popular teacher, Hersam is the Bette and Neison Harris Chair in Teaching Excellence and professor of materials science and engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“There are very few awards that provide unrestricted resources, and this one does. No strings attached,” he said. “That’s a great opportunity for a researcher — to have that level of freedom.”

Hersam is one of 21 new MacArthur Fellows recognized today (Sept. 17) by the MacArthur Foundation for “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

“I am very grateful and thankful to the MacArthur Foundation, to current and previous members of my research group and to my colleagues and collaborators over the years,” Hersam said. “Scientific research is a team effort.”

Hersam views his principal job as that of an educator — a role in which he can have more impact on unsolved problems by harnessing the minds of hundreds of young scientists and engineers.

“I love to teach in the classroom, but I also believe that scientific research is a vehicle for teaching,” Hersam said. “Research exposes students to difficult unsolved problems, forcing them to be creative. I want them to come up with truly new ideas, not just regurgitate established concepts.”

Hersam, who joined Northwestern in 2000, also is professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, professor of medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and director of Northwestern’s Materials Research Center.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach that draws on techniques from materials science, physics, engineering and chemistry, Hersam has established himself as a leading experimentalist in the area of hybrid organic-inorganic materials, with a focus on the study of the electrical and optical properties of carbon and related nanomaterials.

Hersam and his research lab have been working primarily with carbon nanotubes and graphene, but the support of the MacArthur award will allow the lab to diversify its materials set to other elements in the periodic table.

Earlier this year Hersam testified before U.S. Congress to push for “coordinated, predictable and sustained federal funding” for nanotechnology research and development.

The MacArthur Foundation’s website hosts a video on its ‘Mark Hersam’ webpage,

Interestingly, Hersam, in the video, describes a carbon nanotube as a rolled up sheet of graphene (it’s also described that way on the Foundation’s ‘Hersam’ webpage),

Graphene, a single atomic layer of hexagonally bonded carbon atoms, and carbon nanotubes, rolled sheets of graphene in single or multiple layers, have long been recognized for their potential applications in electronics, photovoltaics, batteries, and bioimaging.

It’s a good way of describing carbon nanotubes but the odd thing is that carbon nanotubes were discovered in 1991 (Timeline of carbon nanotubes entry on Wikipedia and in The History of Carbon Nanotubes on nanogloss.com) before graphene was first isolated in 2004 (my Oct. 7, 2010 posting).

Nestling a two-element atomic chain inside a carbon nanotube

While there doesn’t seem to be a short-term application for this research from Japan, the idea of nestling a chain of two elements inside a carbon nanotube is intriguing, from an Oct. 16, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Kazutomo Suenaga of the Nanotube Research Center (NTRC) of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) and Ryosuke Senga of the Nano-carbon Characterization Team, NTRC, AIST, have synthesized an atomic chain in which two elements are aligned alternately and have evaluated its physical properties on an atomic level.

An ionic crystalline atomic chain of cesium iodine (CsI) has been synthesized by aligning a cesium ion (Cs+), a cation and an iodine ion (I-), an anion, alternately by encapsulating CsI in the microscopic space inside a carbon nanotube. Furthermore, by using an advanced aberration-corrected electron microscope, the physical phenomena unique to the CsI atomic chain, such as the difference in dynamic behavior of its cations and anions, have been discovered. In addition, from theoretical calculation using density functional theory (DFT), this CsI atomic chain has been found to indicate different optical properties from a three-dimensional CsI crystal, and applications to new optical devices are anticipated.

An Oct. 16, 2014 National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) press release, which originated the news item, situates the research within a social and historical context,

Social Background of Research

In the accelerating and ballooning information society, electronic devices used in computers and smartphones has constantly demanded higher performance and efficiency. The materials currently drawing expectations are low-dimensional materials with a single to few-atom width and thickness. Two-dimensional materials, typified by graphene, indicate unique physical characteristics not found in three-dimensional materials, such as its excellent electrical transport properties, and are being extensively researched.

An atomic chain, which has an even finer structure with a width of only one atom, has been predicted to display excellent electrical transport properties, like two-dimensional materials. Although expectations were higher than for two-dimensional materials from the viewpoint of integration, it had attracted little attention until now. This is because of the technological difficulties faced by the various processes of academic research from synthesis to analysis of atomic chains, and academic understanding has not progressed far (Fig. 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1 : Transition of target materials in material research

History of Research

AIST has been developing element analysis methods on a single-atom level to detect certain special structures including impurities, dopants and defects, that affect the properties of low-dimensional materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene (AIST press releases on July 6, 2009, January 12, 2010, December 16, 2010 and July 9, 2012). In this research, efforts were made for the synthesis and analysis of the atomic chain, a low-dimensional material, using the accumulated technological expertise. This research has been supported by both the Strategic Basic Research Program of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (FY2012 to FY2016), and the Grants-in-aid for Scientific Research of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, “Development of elemental technology for the atomic-scale evaluation and application of low-dimensional materials using nano-space” (FY2014 to FY2016).

The press release also offers more details about the research and future applications,

Details of Research

The developed technology is the technology to expose carbon nanotubes, with a diameter of 1 nm or smaller, to CsI vapor to encapsulate CsI in the microscopic space inside the carbon nanotubes, to synthesize an atomic chain in which two elements, Cs and I, are aligned alternately. Furthermore, by combining aberration-corrected electron microscopy and an electronic spectroscopic technique known as electron energy-loss spectroscopy (EELS) detailed structural analysis of this atomic chain was conducted. In order to identify each atom aligned at a distance of 1 nm or less without destroying them, the accelerating voltage of the electron microscope was significantly lowered to 60 kV to reduce damage to the sample by electron beams, while maintaining sufficient spatial resolution of around 1 nm. Figure 2 indicates the smallest CsI crystal confirmed so far, and the CsI atomic chain synthesized in this research.

Figure 2
Figure 2 : Comparison of CsI atomic chain and CsI crystal
(Top: Actual annular dark-field images, Bottom: Corresponding models)

Figure 3 shows the annular dark-field (ADF) image of the CsI atomic chain and the element mapping for Cs and I, respectively, obtained by EELS. It can be seen that the two elements are aligned alternately. There has not been any report of this simple and ideal structure actually being produced and observed, and it can be said to be a fundamental, important finding in material science.

Normally, in an ADF image, those with larger atomic numbers appear brighter. However, in this CsI atomic chain, I (atomic number 53) appears brighter than Cs (atomic number 55). This is because Cs, being a cation, moves more actively (more accurately, the total amount of electrons scattered by the Cs atom is not very different from those of the I atom, but the electrons scattered by the moving Cs atom generate spatial expansion), indicating a difference in dynamic behavior of the cation and the anion that cannot occur in a large three-dimensional crystal. Locations where single Cs atom or I atom is absent, namely vacancies, were also found (Fig. 3, right).

The unique behavior and structure influence various physical properties. When optical absorption spectra were calculated using DFT, the response of the CsI atomic chain to light differed with the direction of incidence. Furthermore, it was found that in a CsI atomic chain with vacancies, the electron state of vacancy sites where the I atom is absent possess a donor level at which electrons were easily released, while vacancy sites where the Cs atom is absent possess a receptor level at which electrons were easily received. By making use of these physical properties, applications to new electro-optical devices, such as a micro-light source and an optical switch using light emission from a single vacancy in the CsI atomic chain, are conceivable. In addition, further research into combinations of other elements triggered by the present results may lead to the development of new materials and device applications. There are expectations for atomic chains to be the next-generation materials for devices in search of further miniaturization and integration.

Figure 3
Figure 3 : Synthesized CsI atomic chain, encapsulated in double-walled carbon nanotube
(From left: ADF image, element maps for Cs and I, model, ADF image of CsI atomic chains with vacancies)

Future Plans

Since the CsI atomic chain displays optical properties significantly different from large crystals that can be seen by the human eye, there are expectations for its application for new electro-optical devices such as a micro-light source and an optical switch using light emission from a single vacancy in the CsI atomic chain. The researchers will conduct experimental research in its application, focused on detailed study of its various physical properties, starting with its optical properties. In addition to CsI, efforts will also be made in the development of new materials that combine various elements, by applying this technology to other materials.

Furthermore, the mechanism of all adsorbents of radioactive substances (carbon nanotubes, zeolite, Prussian blue, etc.) currently being developed for commercial use are methods of encapsulating radioactive atoms inside microscopic space in the material. The researchers hope to utilize the knowledge of the behavior of the Cs atom in a microscopic space obtained in this research, to improve adsorption performance.

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

Atomic structure and dynamic behaviour of truly one-dimensional ionic chains inside ​carbon nanotubes by Ryosuke Senga, Hannu-Pekka Komsa, Zheng Liu, Kaori Hirose-Takai, Arkady V. Krasheninnikov, & Kazu Suenaga. Nature Materials (2014) doi:10.1038/nmat4069 Published online 14 September 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Replacing copper wire in motors?

Finnish researchers at Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) believe it may be possible to replace copper wire used in motors with spun carbon nanotubes. From an Oct. 15, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) introduces the first electrical motor applying carbon nanotube yarn. The material replaces copper wires in windings. The motor is a step towards lightweight, efficient electric drives. Its output power is 40 W and rotation speed 15000 rpm.

Aiming at upgrading the performance and energy efficiency of electrical machines, higher-conductivity wires are searched for windings. Here, the new technology may revolutionize the industry. The best carbon nanotubes (CNTs) demonstrate conductivities far beyond the best metals; CNT windings may have double the conductivity of copper windings.

”If we keep the design parameters unchanged only replacing copper with carbon nanotube yarns, the Joule losses in windings can be reduced to half of present machine losses. By lighter and more ecological CNT yarn, we can reduce machine dimensions and CO2 emissions in manufacturing and operation. Machines could also be run in higher temperatures,” says Professor Pyrhönen [Juha Pyrhönen], leading the prototype design at LUT.

An Oct. ??, 2014 (?) LUT press release, which originated the news item, further describes the work,

Traditionally, the windings in electrical machines are made of copper, which has the second best conductivity of metals at room temperature. Despite the high conductivity of copper, a large proportion of the electrical machine losses occur in the copper windings. For this reason, the Joule losses are often referred to as copper losses. The carbon nanotube yarn does not have a definite upper limit for conductivity (e.g. values of 100 MS/m have already been measured).

According to Pyrhönen, the electrical machines are so ubiquitous in everyday life that we often forget about their presence. In a single-family house alone there can be tens of electrical machines in various household appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, hair dryers, and ventilators.

“In the industry, the number of electrical motors is enormous: there can be up to tens of thousands of motors in a single process industry unit. All these use copper in the windings. Consequently, finding a more efficient material to replace the copper conductors would lead to major changes in the industry,” tells Professor Pyrhönen.

There are big plans for this work according to the press release,

The prototype motor uses carbon nanotube yarns spun and converted into an isolated tape by a Japanese-Dutch company Teijin Aramid, which has developed the spinning technology in collaboration with Rice University, the USA. The industrial applications of the new material are still in their infancy; scaling up the production capacity together with improving the yarn performance will facilitate major steps in the future, believes Business Development Manager Dr. Marcin Otto from Teijin Aramid, agreeing with Professor Pyrhönen.

“There is a significant improvement potential in the electrical machines, but we are now facing the limits of material physics set by traditional winding materials. Superconductivity appears not to develop to such a level that it could, in general, be applied to electrical machines. Carbonic materials, however, seem to have a pole position: We expect that in the future, the conductivity of carbon nanotube yarns could be even three times the practical conductivity of copper in electrical machines. In addition, carbon is abundant while copper needs to be mined or recycled by heavy industrial processes.”

The researchers have produced this video about their research,

There’s a reference to some work done at Rice University (Texas, US) with Teijin Armid (Japanese-Dutch company) and Technion Institute (Israel) with spinning carbon nanotubes into threads that look like black cotton (you’ll see the threads in the video). It’s this work that has made the latest research in Finland possible. I have more about the the Rice/Teijin Armid/Technion CNT project in my Jan. 11, 2013 posting, Prima donna of nanomaterials (carbon nanotubes) tamed by scientists at Rice University (Texas, US), Teijin Armid (Dutch/Japanese company), and Technion Institute (based in Israel).

Carbon nanotube accumulation in Duke University’s (US) mesocosm

This Oct. 1, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily about carbon nanotubes accumulating in the wetlands is carefully worded,

A Duke University team has found that nanoparticles called single-walled carbon nanotubes accumulate quickly in the bottom sediments of an experimental wetland setting, an action they say could indirectly damage the aquatic food chain. [emphasis mine]

The results indicate little risk to humans ingesting the particles through drinking water, say scientists at Duke’s Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT). But the researchers warn that, based on their previous research, the tendency for the nanotubes to accumulate in sediment could indirectly damage the aquatic food chain in the long term if the nanoparticles provide “Trojan horse” piggyback rides to other harmful molecules. [emphases mine]

There’s a lot of hedging (could, if) in the way this research is being described. I imagine the researchers are indicating they have concerns but have no wish to stimulate panic and worry.

An Oct. 1, 2014 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, goes on to explain the interest in carbon nanotubes specifically,

Carbon nanotubes are rapidly becoming more common because of their usefulness in nanoelectric devices, composite materials and biomedicine.

The Duke study was done using small-scale replications of a wetland environment, called “mesocosms,” that include soil, sediments, microbes, insects, plants and fish. These ecosystems-in-a-box are “semi-closed,” meaning they get fresh air and rainwater but don’t drain to their surroundings. While not perfect representations of a natural environment, mesocosms provide a reasonable compromise between the laboratory and the real world.

“The wetland mesocosms we used are a much closer approximation of the natural processes constantly churning in the environment,” said Lee Ferguson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke. “Although it’s impossible to know if our results are fully accurate to natural ecosystems, it is clear that the processes we’ve seen should be considered by regulators and manufacturers.”

Ferguson and his colleagues dosed the mesocosms with single-walled carbon nanotubes and measured their concentrations in the water, soil and living organisms during the course of a year. They found that the vast majority of the nanoparticles quickly accumulated in the sediment on the “pond” floor. However, they found no sign of nanoparticle buildup in any plants, insects or fish living in the mesocosms.

That sounds marvelous and then the researchers provide a few facts about carbon nanotubes,

While this is good news for humans or other animals drinking water after a potential spill or other contamination event, the accumulation in sediment does pose concerns for both sediment-dwelling organisms and the animals that eat them. Previous research has shown that carbon nanotubes take a long time to degrade through natural processes — if they do at all — and any chemical that binds to them cannot easily be degraded either.

“These nanoparticles are really good at latching onto other molecules, including many known organic contaminants,” said Ferguson. “Coupled with their quick accumulation in sediment, this may allow problematic chemicals to linger instead of degrading. The nanoparticle-pollutant package could then be eaten by sediment-dwelling organisms in a sort of ‘Trojan horse’ effect, allowing the adsorbed contaminants to accumulate up the food chain.

“The big question is whether or not these pollutants can be stripped away from the carbon nanotubes by these animals’ digestive systems after being ingested,” continued Ferguson. “That’s a question we’re working to answer now.”

It’s good to see this research is being followed up so quickly. I will keep an eye out for it and, in the meantime, wonder how the followup research will be conducted and what animals will be used for the tests.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ most recent paper on possible ‘Trojan’ carbon nanotubes,

Fate of single walled carbon nanotubes in wetland ecosystems by Ariette Schierz, Benjamin Espinasse, Mark R. Wiesner, Joseph H. Bisesi, Tara Sabo-Attwood, and P. Lee Ferguson. Environ. Sci.: Nano, 2014, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C4EN00063C First published online 03 Sep 2014

This is an open access paper.

I have written about Duke University and its nanoparticle research in mesocosms before. Most recently, there was a Feb. 28, 2013 posting about work on silver nanoparticles which mentions research in the ‘mesocosm’ (scroll down about 50% of the way). There’s also an Aug. 15, 2011 posting which describes the ‘mesocosm’ project at some length.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Trojan horse story (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The Trojan Horse is a tale from the Trojan War about the subterfuge that the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy and win the war. In the canonical version, after a fruitless 10-year siege, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, decisively ending the war.

Keeping your chef’s jackets clean and a prize for Teijin Aramid/Rice University

Australian start-up company, Fabricor Workwear launched a Kickstarter campaign on Sept. 18, 2014 to raise funds for a stain-proof and water-repellent chef’s jacket according to a Sept. 25, 2014 news item on Azonano,

An Australian startup is using a patented nanotechnology to create ‘hydrophobic’ chef jackets and aprons. Fabricor says this means uniforms that stay clean for longer, and saving time and money.

The company was started because cofounder and MasterChef mentor Adrian Li, was frustrated with keeping his chef jackets and aprons clean.

“As a chef I find it really difficult to keep my chef jacket white, and we like our jackets white,” Li said. …

The nanotechnology application works by modifying the fabric at a molecular level by permanently attaching hydrophobic ‘whiskers’ to individual fibres which elevate liquids, causing them to bead up and roll off.

The Fabricor: Stain-proof workwear for the hospitality industry Kickstarter campaign has this to say on its homepage (Note: Links have been removed),

Hi Kickstarters,

Thanks for taking the time check out our campaign.

Traditional chef jackets date back to the mid 19th century and since then haven’t changed much.

We’re tired of poor quality hospitality workwear that doesn’t last and hate spending our spare time and money washing or replacing our uniforms.

So we designed a range of stain-resistant Chef Jackets and Aprons using the world’s leading patented hydrophobic nanotechnology that repels water, dirt and oil.

Most stains either run off by themselves or can easily be rinsed off with a little water. This means they don’t need to be washed as often saving you time and money.

We’re really proud of what we’ve created and we hope you you’ll support us.

Adrian Li

Head Chef at Saigon Sally
Mentor on MasterChef Australia – Asian Street Food Challenge
Cofounder at Fabricor Workwear

At this point (Sept. 24, 2014), the campaign has raised approximately $2700US towards a $5000US goal and there are 22 days left to the campaign.

I did find more information at the Fabricor Workwear website in this Sept. 13, 2014 press release,

The fabric’s patented technology can extend the life of the apparel is because the apparel doesn’t have to be washed as often and can be washed in cooler temperatures, the company stated.

Fabricor’s products are not made with spray-application like many on the market which can destroy fabrics and contain carcinogenic chemical. Its hydrophobic properties are embedded into the weave during the production of the fabric.

Li said chefs spend too much money on chef jackets that are poorly designed and don’t last. The long-lasting fabric in Fabricor’s chef’s apparel retains its natural softness and breathability.

It seems to me that the claim about fewer washes can be made for all superhydrophobic textiles. As for carcinogenic chemicals in other superhydrophobic textiles, it’s the first I’ve heard of it, which may or may not be significant. I.e., I look at a lot of material but don’t focus on superhydrophobic textiles here and do not seek out research on risks specific to these textiles.

Teijin Aramid/Rice University

Still talking about textile fibres but on a completely different track, I received a news release this morning (Sept. 25, 2014) from Teijin Aramid about carbon nanotubes and fibres,

Researchers of Teijin Aramid, based in the Netherlands, and Rice University in the USA are awarded with the honorary ‘Paul Schlack Man-Made Fibers Prize’ for corporate-academic partnerships in fiber research. Their new super fibers are now driving innovation in aerospace, healthcare, automotive, and (smart) clothing.

The honorary Paul Schlack prize was granted by the European Man-made Fibers Association to Dr. Marcin Otto, Business Development Manager at Teijin Aramid and Prof. Dr. Matteo Pasquali from Rice University Texas, for the development of a new generation super fibers using carbon nanotubes (CNT). The new super fibers combine high thermal and electrical conductivity, as seen in metals, with the flexibility, robust handling and strength of textile fibers.

“The introduction of carbon nanotube fibers marked the beginning of a series of innovations in various industries”, says Marcin Otto, Business Development Manager at Teijin Aramid. “For example, CNT fibers can be lifesaving for heart patients: one string of CNT fiber in the cardiac muscle suffices to transmit vital electrical pulses to the heart. Or by replacing copper in data cables and light power cables by CNT fibers it’s possible to make satellites, aircraft and high end cars lighter and more robust at the same time.”

Since 1971, the Paul Schlack foundation annually grants one monetary prize to an individual young researcher for outstanding research in the field of fiber research, and an honorary prize to the leader(s) of excellent academic and corporate research partnerships to promote research at universities and research institutes.

For several years, leading researchers at Rice University and Teijin Aramid worked together on the development of CNT production. Teijin Aramid and Rice University published their research findings on carbon nanotubes fibers in the leading scientific journal, Science, beginning of 2013.

Teijin Aramid and some of its carbon nanotube projects have been mentioned here before, notably, in a Jan. 11, 2013 posting and in a Feb. 17, 2014.

Good luck on the Kickstarter campaign and congratulations on the award!

Bespoke (custom made) carbon nanotubes

Researchers have found a way to create single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) that  are consistent and, hopefully, designed for specific applications if I’m reading the research rightly, (I have an embedded video in a March 15, 2013 posting which illustrates some of the issues with producing carbon nanotubes.) Getting back to this latest research, it suggests that we could order SWCNTs-on-demand. An Aug. 14, 2014 news item on Azonano provides more insight,

In future, it will be possible to specifically equip carbon nanotubes with properties which they need for electronic applications, for example. Researchers at Empa in Dübendorf/Switzerland and the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart [Germany] have succeeded for the first time in growing single-walled carbon nanotubes (CNTs) with only a single, prespecified structure.

The nanotubes thereby have identical electronic properties. The decisive trick here: The team has taken up an idea which originated from the Stuttgart-based Max Planck researchers and produced the CNT from custom-made organic precursor molecules. The researchers started with these precursor molecules and have built up the nanotubes on a platinum surface, as they report in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature. Such CNTs could be used in future, for instance, in ultra-sensitive light detectors and very tiny transistors.

An Aug. 13, 2014 Max Planck Institute press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

For 20 years, material scientists working on the development of carbon nanotubes for a range of applications have been battling a problem – now an elegant solution is at hand. With their unusual mechanical, thermal and electronic properties, the tiny tubes with their honeycomb lattice of graphitic carbon have become the embodiment of nanomaterials. They could be used to manufacture the next generation of electronic and electro-optical components so that they are even smaller and with even faster switching times than before. But to achieve this, the material scientists must specifically equip the nanotubes with desired properties, and these depend on their structure. The production methods used to date, however, always result in a mixture of different CNTs. The team from Empa  and the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research has now remedied the situation with a new production path for single-walled nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes with the best possible varietal purity are in demand

With a diameter of around one nanometre, single-walled CNTs (SWCNTs) are deemed to be quantum structures; very tiny structural differences, in the diameter, for example, or in the orientation of the atomic lattice, can dramatically change the electronic properties: one SWCNT can be a metal, while one with a slightly different structure is semi-conducting. Correspondingly great is the interest in reliable methods for producing SWCNTs with the best possible varietal purity. Researchers working with Martin Jansen, Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research, have been pursuing suitable concepts for the synthesis for ten years. But it is only now that the surface physicists at Empa and the chemists at the Stuttgart-based Max Planck Institute have succeeded in implementing one of these ideas in the laboratory. The researchers allowed structurally identical SWCNTs to grow on a platinum surface in a self-organised process and were able to unambiguously define their electronic properties.

The Max Planck research team headed by Martin Jansen had the idea of starting with small precursor molecules to synthesise carbon nanotubes. They felt it should be possible to achieve controlled conversion of the precursor molecules into a cap which acts as the seed for a SWCNT and thus unambiguously specify the structure of the nanotube. With this concept, they approached the Empa team working with Roman Fasel, head of Empa’s «nanotech@surfaces» department and titular professor at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry of the University of Bern. This group has already been working for some time on how molecules on a surface can be converted or combined into complex nanostructures according to the principle of molecular self-organisation. “The challenge now consists in finding the right precursor molecule which would actually grow on a smooth surface,” says Roman Fasel. This was ultimately achieved by Andreas Mueller and Konstantin Amsharov from the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart with the synthesis of a hydrocarbon molecule from a not-inconsiderable 150 atoms.

Molecular origami on the platinum surface

What exactly is the process in which the carbon nanotube forms? In the first step, the flat precursor molecule must – as is the case in origami – convert into a three-dimensional object, the seed. This takes place on a hot platinum surface with the aid of a catalytic reaction, whereby hydrogen atoms split off from the precursor molecule and form new carbon-carbon bonds at very specific positions. The seed folds up from the flat molecule: a tiny, domed shape with open rim, which sits on the platinum surface. This so-called end cap forms the top of the growing SWCNT.

In a second chemical process, further carbon atoms, which are formed during the catalytic decomposition of ethanol on the platinum surface, are taken up. They deposit on the open rim between end cap and platinum surface and lift the cap higher and higher; the tube slowly grows upwards. The atomic structure of the nanotube is determined solely by the shape of the seed. The researchers proved this by analysing the vibrational modes of the SWCNTs and taking measurements with the scanning tunnelling microscope. Further investigations at Empa showed that the SWCNTs produced were over 300 nanometres in length.

Different nanotubes are formed from suitable precursor molecules

The researchers have thus proved that they can unambiguously specify the growth and thus the structure of long SWCNTs using custom-made molecular seeds. The SWCNTs synthesised in this study can exist in two forms, which correspond to an object and its mirror image. By choosing the precursor molecule appropriately, the researchers were able to influence which of the two variants forms. Depending on how the honeycomb atomic lattice is derived from the original molecule – straight or oblique with respect to the CNT axis – it is also possible for helically wound tubes, i.e. with right- or left-handed rotation, and with non-mirror symmetry to form. And it is precisely this structure that then determines which electronic, thermo-electric and optical properties of the material. In principle, the researchers can therefore specifically produce materials with different properties through their choice of precursor molecule.

In further steps, Roman Fasel and his colleagues want to gain an even better understanding of how SWCNTs establish themselves on a surface. Even if well in excess of 100 million nanotubes per square centimetre already grow on the platinum surface, only a relatively small fraction of the seeds actually develop into «mature» nanotubes. The question remains as to which processes are responsible for this, and how the yield can be increased.

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

Controlled synthesis of single-chirality carbon nanotubes by Juan Ramon Sanchez-Valencia, Thomas Dienel, Oliver Gröning, Ivan Shorubalko, Andreas Mueller, Martin Jansen, Konstantin Amsharov, Pascal Ruffieux, & Roman Fasel. Nature 512, 61–64 (07 August 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13607

Published online 06 August 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Wearable solar panels with perovskite

There was a bit of a flutter online in late July 2014 about solar cell research and perovskite, a material that could replace silicon therefore making solar cells more affordable, which hopefully would lead to greater adoption of the technology. Happily, the publishers of the study seem to have reissued their news release (h/t Aug. 11, 2014 news item on Nanwerk).

From the Wiley online press release Nr. 29/2014,

Textile solar cells are an ideal power source for small electronic devices incorporated into clothing. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, Chinese scientists have now introduced novel solar cells in the form of fibers that can be woven into a textile. The flexible, coaxial cells are based on a perovskite material and carbon nanotubes; they stand out due to their excellent energy conversion efficiency of 3.3 % and their low production cost.

The dilemma for solar cells: they are either inexpensive and inefficient, or they have a reasonable efficiency and are very expensive. One solution may come from solar cells made of perovskite materials, which are less expensive than silicon and do not require any expensive additives. Perovskites are materials with a special crystal structure that is like that of perovskite, a calcium titanate. These structures are often semiconductors and absorb light relatively efficiently. Most importantly, they can move electrons excited by light for long distances within the crystal lattice before they return to their energetic ground state and take up a solid position – a property that is very important in solar cells.

A team led by Hisheng Peng at Fudan University in Shanghai has now developed perovskite solar cells in the form of flexible fibers that can be woven into electronic textiles. Their production process is relatively simple and inexpensive because it uses a solution-based process to build up the layers.

The anode is a fine stainless steel wire coated with a compact n-semiconducting titanium dioxide layer. A layer of porous nanocrystalline titanium dioxide is deposited on top of this. This provides a large surface area for the subsequent deposition of the perovskite material CH3NH3PbI3. This is followed by a layer made of a special organic material. Finally a transparent layer of aligned carbon nanotubes is continuously wound over the whole thing to act as the cathode. The resulting fiber is so fine and flexible that it can be woven into textiles.

The perovskite layer absorbs light, that excites electrons and sets them free, causing a charge separation between the electrons and the formally positively charged “holes” The electrons enter the conducting band of the compact titanium dioxide layer and move to the anode. The “holes” are captured by the organic layer. The large surface area and the high electrical conductivity of the carbon nanotube cathode aid in the rapid conduction of the charges with high photoelectric currents. The fiber solar cell can attain an energy conversion efficiency of 3.3 %, exceeding that of all previous coaxial fiber solar cells made with either dyes or polymers.

Here’s an image used in the press release illustrating the new fiber,

[downloaded from http://www.wiley-vch.de/vch/journals/2002/press/201429press.pdf]

[downloaded from http://www.wiley-vch.de/vch/journals/2002/press/201429press.pdf]

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

Integrating Perovskite Solar Cells into a Flexible Fiber by Longbin Qiu, Jue Deng, Xin Lu, Zhibin Yang, and Prof. Huisheng Peng. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201404973 Article first published online: 22 JUL 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

I found a second item about perovskite and solar cells in a May 16, 2014 article by Vicki Marshall for Chemistry World which discussed some research in the UK (Note: Links have been removed),

A lead-free and non-toxic alternative to current perovskite solar-cell technology has been reported by researchers in the UK: tin halide perovskite solar cells. They are also cheaper to manufacture than the silicon solar cells currently dominating the market.

Nakita Noel, part of Henry Snaith’s research team at the University of Oxford, describes how perovskite materials have caused a bit of a whirlwind since they came out in 2009: ‘Everybody that’s working in the solar community is looking to beat silicon.’ Despite the high efficiency of conventional crystalline silicon solar cells (around 20%), high production and installation costs decrease their economic feasibility and widespread use.

The challenge to find a cheaper alternative led to the development of perovskite-based solar cells, as organic–inorganic metal trihalide perovskites have both abundant and cheap starting materials. However, the presence of lead in some semiconductors could create toxicology issues in the future. As Noel puts it ‘every conference you present at somebody is bound to put up their hand and ask “What about the lead – isn’t this toxic?”’

Brian Hardin, co-founder of PLANT PV, US, and an expert in new materials for photovoltaic cells, says the study ‘should be considered a seminal work on alternative perovskites and is extremely valuable to the field as they look to better understand how changes in chemistry affect solar cell performance and stability.’

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

Lead-free organic–inorganic tin halide perovskites for photovoltaic applications by Nakita K. Noel, Samuel D. Stranks, Antonio Abate, Christian Wehrenfennig, Simone Guarnera, Amir-Abbas Haghighirad, Aditya Sadhana, Giles E. Eperon, Sandeep K. Pathak, Michael B. Johnston, Annamaria Petrozza, Laura M. Herza, and Henry J. Snaith. Energy Environ. Sci., 2014, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C4EE01076K First published online 01 May 2014

This article was open access until June 27, 2014 but now it is behind a paywall.

I notice there’s no mention of lead in the materials describing the research paper from the Chinese scientists. Perhaps they were working with lead-free materials.

Extracting biomolecules from live cells with carbon nanotubes

Being able to extract biomolecules from living cells means nondestruction of the rest of the cell and the ability to observe the consequences of the extraction. From a July 18, 2014 news item on Azonano,

University of Houston researchers have devised a new method for extracting molecules from live cells without disrupting cell development, work that could provide new avenues for the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases.

The researchers used magnetized carbon nanotubes to extract biomolecules from live cells, allowing them to retrieve molecular information without killing the individual cells. A description of the work appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A July 16, 2014 University of Houston news release by Jeannie Kever, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Most current methods of identifying intracellular information result in the death of the individual cells, making it impossible to continue to gain information and assess change over time, said Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair professor of physics and principal investigator at the Center for Superconductivity at UH and lead author of the paper. The work was a collaboration between Ren’s lab and that of Paul Chu, T.L.L. Temple Chair of Science and founding director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity.

Chu, a co-author of the paper, said the new technique will allow researchers to draw fundamental information from a single cell.The researchers said the steps outlined in the paper offer proof of concept. Ren said the next step “will be more study of the biological and chemical processes of the cell, more analysis.”

The initial results hold promise for biomedicine, he said.  “This shows how nanoscience and nanoengineering can help the medical field.”

Cai said the new method will be helpful for cancer drug screening and carcinogenesis study, as well as for studies that allow researchers to obtain information from single cells, replacing previous sampling methods that average out cellular diversity and obscure the specificity of the biomarker profiles.

In the paper, the researchers explain their rationale for the work – most methods for extracting molecular information result in cell death, and those that do spare the cell carry special challenges, including limited efficiency.

This method is relatively straightforward, requiring the use of magnetized carbon nanotubes as the transporter and a polycarbonate filter as a collector, they report. Cells from a human embryonic kidney cancer cell line were used for the experiment.

The work builds on a 2005 paper published by Ren’s group in Nature Methods, which established that magnetized carbon nanotubes can deliver molecular payloads into cells. The current research takes that one step further to move molecules out of cells by magnetically driving them through the cell walls.

The carbon nanotubes were grown with a plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition system, with magnetic nickel particles enclosed at the tips. A layer of nickel was also deposited along the surface of individual nanotubes in order to make the nanotubes capable of penetrating a cell wall guided by a magnet.

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

Molecular extraction in single live cells by sneaking in and out magnetic nanomaterials by Zhen Yang, Liangzi Deng, Yucheng Lan, Xiaoliu Zhang, Zhonghong Gao, Ching-Wu Chu, Dong Cai, and Zhifeng Ren. PNAS 2014 ; published ahead of print July 16, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1411802111

This paper is behind a paywall.

IBM weighs in with plans for a 7nm computer chip

On the heels of Intel’s announcement about a deal utilizing their 14nm low-power manufacturing process and speculations about a 10nm computer chip (my July 9, 2014 posting), IBM makes an announcement about a 7nm chip as per this July 10, 2014 news item on Azonano,

IBM today [July 10, 2014] announced it is investing $3 billion over the next 5 years in two broad research and early stage development programs to push the limits of chip technology needed to meet the emerging demands of cloud computing and Big Data systems. These investments will push IBM’s semiconductor innovations from today’s breakthroughs into the advanced technology leadership required for the future.

A very comprehensive July 10, 2014 news release lays out the company’s plans for this $3B investment representing 10% of IBM’s total research budget,

The first research program is aimed at so-called “7 nanometer and beyond” silicon technology that will address serious physical challenges that are threatening current semiconductor scaling techniques and will impede the ability to manufacture such chips. The second is focused on developing alternative technologies for post-silicon era chips using entirely different approaches, which IBM scientists and other experts say are required because of the physical limitations of silicon based semiconductors.

Cloud and big data applications are placing new challenges on systems, just as the underlying chip technology is facing numerous significant physical scaling limits.  Bandwidth to memory, high speed communication and device power consumption are becoming increasingly challenging and critical.

The teams will comprise IBM Research scientists and engineers from Albany and Yorktown, New York; Almaden, California; and Europe. In particular, IBM will be investing significantly in emerging areas of research that are already underway at IBM such as carbon nanoelectronics, silicon photonics, new memory technologies, and architectures that support quantum and cognitive computing. [emphasis mine]

These teams will focus on providing orders of magnitude improvement in system level performance and energy efficient computing. In addition, IBM will continue to invest in the nanosciences and quantum computing–two areas of fundamental science where IBM has remained a pioneer for over three decades.

7 nanometer technology and beyond

IBM Researchers and other semiconductor experts predict that while challenging, semiconductors show promise to scale from today’s 22 nanometers down to 14 and then 10 nanometers in the next several years.  However, scaling to 7 nanometers and perhaps below, by the end of the decade will require significant investment and innovation in semiconductor architectures as well as invention of new tools and techniques for manufacturing.

“The question is not if we will introduce 7 nanometer technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?” said John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research. “IBM engineers and scientists, along with our partners, are well suited for this challenge and are already working on the materials science and device engineering required to meet the demands of the emerging system requirements for cloud, big data, and cognitive systems. This new investment will ensure that we produce the necessary innovations to meet these challenges.”

“Scaling to 7nm and below is a terrific challenge, calling for deep physics competencies in processing nano materials affinities and characteristics. IBM is one of a very few companies who has repeatedly demonstrated this level of science and engineering expertise,” said Richard Doherty, technology research director, The Envisioneering Group.

Bridge to a “Post-Silicon” Era

Silicon transistors, tiny switches that carry information on a chip, have been made smaller year after year, but they are approaching a point of physical limitation. Their increasingly small dimensions, now reaching the nanoscale, will prohibit any gains in performance due to the nature of silicon and the laws of physics. Within a few more generations, classical scaling and shrinkage will no longer yield the sizable benefits of lower power, lower cost and higher speed processors that the industry has become accustomed to.

With virtually all electronic equipment today built on complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) technology, there is an urgent need for new materials and circuit architecture designs compatible with this engineering process as the technology industry nears physical scalability limits of the silicon transistor.

Beyond 7 nanometers, the challenges dramatically increase, requiring a new kind of material to power systems of the future, and new computing platforms to solve problems that are unsolvable or difficult to solve today. Potential alternatives include new materials such as carbon nanotubes, and non-traditional computational approaches such as neuromorphic computing, cognitive computing, machine learning techniques, and the science behind quantum computing.

As the leader in advanced schemes that point beyond traditional silicon-based computing, IBM holds over 500 patents for technologies that will drive advancements at 7nm and beyond silicon — more than twice the nearest competitor. These continued investments will accelerate the invention and introduction into product development for IBM’s highly differentiated computing systems for cloud, and big data analytics.

Several exploratory research breakthroughs that could lead to major advancements in delivering dramatically smaller, faster and more powerful computer chips, include quantum computing, neurosynaptic computing, silicon photonics, carbon nanotubes, III-V technologies, low power transistors and graphene:

Quantum Computing

The most basic piece of information that a typical computer understands is a bit. Much like a light that can be switched on or off, a bit can have only one of two values: “1” or “0.” Described as superposition, this special property of qubits enables quantum computers to weed through millions of solutions all at once, while desktop PCs would have to consider them one at a time.

IBM is a world leader in superconducting qubit-based quantum computing science and is a pioneer in the field of experimental and theoretical quantum information, fields that are still in the category of fundamental science – but one that, in the long term, may allow the solution of problems that are today either impossible or impractical to solve using conventional machines. The team recently demonstrated the first experimental realization of parity check with three superconducting qubits, an essential building block for one type of quantum computer.

Neurosynaptic Computing

Bringing together nanoscience, neuroscience, and supercomputing, IBM and university partners have developed an end-to-end ecosystem including a novel non-von Neumann architecture, a new programming language, as well as applications. This novel technology allows for computing systems that emulate the brain’s computing efficiency, size and power usage. IBM’s long-term goal is to build a neurosynaptic system with ten billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses, all while consuming only one kilowatt of power and occupying less than two liters of volume.

Silicon Photonics

IBM has been a pioneer in the area of CMOS integrated silicon photonics for over 12 years, a technology that integrates functions for optical communications on a silicon chip, and the IBM team has recently designed and fabricated the world’s first monolithic silicon photonics based transceiver with wavelength division multiplexing.  Such transceivers will use light to transmit data between different components in a computing system at high data rates, low cost, and in an energetically efficient manner.

Silicon nanophotonics takes advantage of pulses of light for communication rather than traditional copper wiring and provides a super highway for large volumes of data to move at rapid speeds between computer chips in servers, large datacenters, and supercomputers, thus alleviating the limitations of congested data traffic and high-cost traditional interconnects.

Businesses are entering a new era of computing that requires systems to process and analyze, in real-time, huge volumes of information known as Big Data. Silicon nanophotonics technology provides answers to Big Data challenges by seamlessly connecting various parts of large systems, whether few centimeters or few kilometers apart from each other, and move terabytes of data via pulses of light through optical fibers.

III-V technologies

IBM researchers have demonstrated the world’s highest transconductance on a self-aligned III-V channel metal-oxide semiconductor (MOS) field-effect transistors (FETs) device structure that is compatible with CMOS scaling. These materials and structural innovation are expected to pave path for technology scaling at 7nm and beyond.  With more than an order of magnitude higher electron mobility than silicon, integrating III-V materials into CMOS enables higher performance at lower power density, allowing for an extension to power/performance scaling to meet the demands of cloud computing and big data systems.

Carbon Nanotubes

IBM Researchers are working in the area of carbon nanotube (CNT) electronics and exploring whether CNTs can replace silicon beyond the 7 nm node.  As part of its activities for developing carbon nanotube based CMOS VLSI circuits, IBM recently demonstrated — for the first time in the world — 2-way CMOS NAND gates using 50 nm gate length carbon nanotube transistors.

IBM also has demonstrated the capability for purifying carbon nanotubes to 99.99 percent, the highest (verified) purities demonstrated to date, and transistors at 10 nm channel length that show no degradation due to scaling–this is unmatched by any other material system to date.

Carbon nanotubes are single atomic sheets of carbon rolled up into a tube. The carbon nanotubes form the core of a transistor device that will work in a fashion similar to the current silicon transistor, but will be better performing. They could be used to replace the transistors in chips that power data-crunching servers, high performing computers and ultra fast smart phones.

Carbon nanotube transistors can operate as excellent switches at molecular dimensions of less than ten nanometers – the equivalent to 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair and less than half the size of the leading silicon technology. Comprehensive modeling of the electronic circuits suggests that about a five to ten times improvement in performance compared to silicon circuits is possible.

Graphene

Graphene is pure carbon in the form of a one atomic layer thick sheet.  It is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and it is also remarkably strong and flexible.  Electrons can move in graphene about ten times faster than in commonly used semiconductor materials such as silicon and silicon germanium. Its characteristics offer the possibility to build faster switching transistors than are possible with conventional semiconductors, particularly for applications in the handheld wireless communications business where it will be a more efficient switch than those currently used.

Recently in 2013, IBM demonstrated the world’s first graphene based integrated circuit receiver front end for wireless communications. The circuit consisted of a 2-stage amplifier and a down converter operating at 4.3 GHz.

Next Generation Low Power Transistors

In addition to new materials like CNTs, new architectures and innovative device concepts are required to boost future system performance. Power dissipation is a fundamental challenge for nanoelectronic circuits. To explain the challenge, consider a leaky water faucet — even after closing the valve as far as possible water continues to drip — this is similar to today’s transistor, in that energy is constantly “leaking” or being lost or wasted in the off-state.

A potential alternative to today’s power hungry silicon field effect transistors are so-called steep slope devices. They could operate at much lower voltage and thus dissipate significantly less power. IBM scientists are researching tunnel field effect transistors (TFETs). In this special type of transistors the quantum-mechanical effect of band-to-band tunneling is used to drive the current flow through the transistor. TFETs could achieve a 100-fold power reduction over complementary CMOS transistors, so integrating TFETs with CMOS technology could improve low-power integrated circuits.

Recently, IBM has developed a novel method to integrate III-V nanowires and heterostructures directly on standard silicon substrates and built the first ever InAs/Si tunnel diodes and TFETs using InAs as source and Si as channel with wrap-around gate as steep slope device for low power consumption applications.

“In the next ten years computing hardware systems will be fundamentally different as our scientists and engineers push the limits of semiconductor innovations to explore the post-silicon future,” said Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president, IBM Systems and Technology Group. “IBM Research and Development teams are creating breakthrough innovations that will fuel the next era of computing systems.”

IBM’s historic contributions to silicon and semiconductor innovation include the invention and/or first implementation of: the single cell DRAM, the “Dennard scaling laws” underpinning “Moore’s Law”, chemically amplified photoresists, copper interconnect wiring, Silicon on Insulator, strained engineering, multi core microprocessors, immersion lithography, high speed silicon germanium (SiGe), High-k gate dielectrics, embedded DRAM, 3D chip stacking, and Air gap insulators.

IBM researchers also are credited with initiating the era of nano devices following the Nobel prize winning invention of the scanning tunneling microscope which enabled nano and atomic scale invention and innovation.

IBM will also continue to fund and collaborate with university researchers to explore and develop the future technologies for the semiconductor industry. In particular, IBM will continue to support and fund university research through private-public partnerships such as the NanoElectornics Research Initiative (NRI), and the Semiconductor Advanced Research Network (STARnet), and the Global Research Consortium (GRC) of the Semiconductor Research Corporation.

I highlighted ‘memory systems’ as this brings to mind HP Labs and their major investment in ‘memristive’ technologies noted in my June 26, 2014 posting,

… During a two-hour presentation held a year and a half ago, they laid out how the computer might work, its benefits, and the expectation that about 75 percent of HP Labs personnel would be dedicated to this one project. “At the end, Meg {Meg Whitman, CEO of HP Labs] turned to [Chief Financial Officer] Cathie Lesjak and said, ‘Find them more money,’” says John Sontag, the vice president of systems research at HP, who attended the meeting and is in charge of bringing the Machine to life. “People in Labs see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The Machine is based on the memristor and other associated technologies.

Getting back to IBM, there’s this analysis of the $3B investment ($600M/year for five years) by Alex Konrad in a July 10, 2014 article for Forbes (Note: A link has been removed),

When IBM … announced a $3 billion commitment to even tinier semiconductor chips that no longer depended on silicon on Wednesday, the big news was that IBM’s putting a lot of money into a future for chips where Moore’s Law no longer applies. But on second glance, the move to spend billions on more experimental ideas like silicon photonics and carbon nanotubes shows that IBM’s finally shifting large portions of its research budget into more ambitious and long-term ideas.

… IBM tells Forbes the $3 billion isn’t additional money being added to its R&D spend, an area where analysts have told Forbes they’d like to see more aggressive cash commitments in the future. IBM will still spend about $6 billion a year on R&D, 6% of revenue. Ten percent of that research budget, however, now has to come from somewhere else to fuel these more ambitious chip projects.

Neal Ungerleider’s July 11, 2014 article for Fast Company focuses on the neuromorphic computing and quantum computing aspects of this $3B initiative (Note: Links have been removed),

The new R&D initiatives fall into two categories: Developing nanotech components for silicon chips for big data and cloud systems, and experimentation with “post-silicon” microchips. This will include research into quantum computers which don’t know binary code, neurosynaptic computers which mimic the behavior of living brains, carbon nanotubes, graphene tools and a variety of other technologies.

IBM’s investment is one of the largest for quantum computing to date; the company is one of the biggest researchers in the field, along with a Canadian company named D-Wave which is partnering with Google and NASA to develop quantum computer systems.

The curious can find D-Wave Systems here. There’s also a January 19, 2012 posting here which discusses the D-Wave’s situation at that time.

Final observation, these are fascinating developments especially for the insight they provide into the worries troubling HP Labs, Intel, and IBM as they jockey for position.

ETA July 14, 2014: Dexter Johnson has a July 11, 2014 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) about the IBM announcement and which features some responses he received from IBM officials to his queries,

While this may be a matter of fascinating speculation for investors, the impact on nanotechnology development  is going to be significant. To get a better sense of what it all means, I was able to talk to some of the key figures of IBM’s push in nanotechnology research.

I conducted e-mail interviews with Tze-Chiang (T.C.) Chen, vice president science & technology, IBM Fellow at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center and Wilfried Haensch, senior manager, physics and materials for logic and communications, IBM Research.

Silicon versus Nanomaterials

First, I wanted to get a sense for how long IBM envisioned sticking with silicon and when they expected the company would permanently make the move away from CMOS to alternative nanomaterials. Unfortunately, as expected, I didn’t get solid answers, except for them to say that new manufacturing tools and techniques need to be developed now.

He goes on to ask about carbon nanotubes and graphene. Interestingly, IBM does not have a wide range of electronics applications in mind for graphene.  I encourage you to read Dexter’s posting as Dexter got answers to some very astute and pointed questions.