Tag Archives: China

Graphene not so impermeable after all

I saw the news last week but it took reading Dexter Johnson’s Dec. 2, 2014 post for me to achieve a greater understanding of why graphene’s proton permeability is such a big deal and of the tensions underlying graphene research in the UK.

Let’s start with the news, from a Nov. 26, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Published in the journal Nature (“Proton transport through one-atom-thick crystals”), the discovery could revolutionise fuel cells and other hydrogen-based technologies as they require a barrier that only allow protons – hydrogen atoms stripped off their electrons – to pass through.

In addition, graphene membranes could be used to sieve hydrogen gas out of the atmosphere, where it is present in minute quantities, creating the possibility of electric generators powered by air.

A Nov. 26, 2014 University of Manchester news release, which originated the news item, describes the research in greater detail,

One-atom thick material graphene, first isolated and explored in 2004 by a team at The University of Manchester, is renowned for its barrier properties, which has a number of uses in applications such as corrosion-proof coatings and impermeable packaging.

For example, it would take the lifetime of the universe for hydrogen, the smallest of all atoms, to pierce a graphene monolayer.

Now a group led by Sir Andre Geim tested whether protons are also repelled by graphene. They fully expected that protons would be blocked, as existing theory predicted as little proton permeation as for hydrogen.

Despite the pessimistic prognosis, the researchers found that protons pass through the ultra-thin crystals surprisingly easily, especially at elevated temperatures and if the films were covered with catalytic nanoparticles such as platinum.

The discovery makes monolayers of graphene, and its sister material boron nitride, attractive for possible uses as proton-conducting membranes, which are at the heart of modern fuel cell technology. Fuel cells use oxygen and hydrogen as a fuel and convert the input chemical energy directly into electricity. Without membranes that allow an exclusive flow of protons but prevent other species to pass through, this technology would not exist.

Despite being well-established, fuel-cell technology requires further improvements to make it more widely used. One of the major problems is a fuel crossover through the existing proton membranes, which reduces their efficiency and durability.

The University of Manchester research suggests that the use of graphene or monolayer boron nitride can allow the existing membranes to become thinner and more efficient, with less fuel crossover and poisoning. This can boost competitiveness of fuel cells.

The Manchester group also demonstrated that their one-atom-thick membranes can be used to extract hydrogen from a humid atmosphere. They hypothesise that such harvesting can be combined together with fuel cells to create a mobile electric generator that is fuelled simply by hydrogen present in air.

Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a PhD student and corresponding author of this paper, said: “When you know how it should work, it is a very simple setup. You put a hydrogen-containing gas on one side, apply small electric current and collect pure hydrogen on the other side. This hydrogen can then be burned in a fuel cell.

“We worked with small membranes, and the achieved flow of hydrogen is of course tiny so far. But this is the initial stage of discovery, and the paper is to make experts aware of the existing prospects. To build up and test hydrogen harvesters will require much further effort.”

Dr Sheng Hu, a postdoctoral researcher and the first author in this work, added: “It looks extremely simple and equally promising. Because graphene can be produced these days in square metre sheets, we hope that it will find its way to commercial fuel cells sooner rather than later”.

The work is an international collaboration involving groups from China and the Netherlands who supported theoretical aspects of this research. Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo is funded by a PhD studentship programme between the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico and The University of Manchester.

Here’s more about the research and its implications from Dexter Johnson’s Dec. 2, 2014 post on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers) website (Note: Links have been removed),

This latest development alters the understanding of one of the key properties of graphene: that it is impermeable to all gases and liquids. Even an atom as small as hydrogen would need billions of years for it to pass through the dense electronic cloud of graphene.  In fact, it is this impermeability that has made it attractive for use in gas separation membranes.

But as Geim and his colleagues discovered, in research that was published in the journal Nature, monolayers of graphene and boron nitride are highly permeable to thermal protons under ambient conditions. So hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons could pass right through the one-atom-thick materials.

The surprising discovery that protons could breach these materials means that that they could be used in proton-conducting membranes (also known as proton exchange membranes), which are central to the functioning of fuel cells. Fuel cells operate through chemical reactions involving hydrogen fuel and oxygen, with the result being electrical energy. The membranes used in the fuel cells are impermeable to oxygen and hydrogen but allow for the passage of protons.

Dexter goes into more detail about hydrogen fuel cells and why this discovery is so exciting. He also provides some insight into the UK’s graphene community (Note: A link has been removed),

While some have been frustrated that Geim has focused his attention on fundamental research rather than becoming more active in the commercialization of graphene, he may have just cracked open graphene’s greatest application possibility to date.

I recommend reading Dexter’s post if you want to learn more about fuel cell technology and the impact this discovery may have.

Richard Van Noorden’s Nov. 27, 2014 article for Nature provides another perspective on this work,

Fuel-cell experts say that the work is proof of principle, but are cautious about its immediate application. Factors such as to how grow a sufficiently clean, large graphene sheet, and its cost and lifetime, would have to be taken into account. “It may or may not be a better membrane for a fuel cell,” says Andrew Herring, a chemical engineer at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

Van Noorden also writes about another graphene discovery from last week, which won’t be featured here. Where graphene is concerned I have to draw a line or else this entire blog would be focused on that material alone.

Getting back back to permeability, graphene, and protons, here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Proton transport through one-atom-thick crystals by S. Hu, M. Lozada-Hidalgo, F. C. Wang, A. Mishchenko, F. Schedin, R. R. Nair, E. W. Hill, D. W. Boukhvalov, M. I. Katsnelson, R. A. W. Dryfe, I. V. Grigorieva, H. A. Wu, & A. K. Geim. Nature (2014 doi:10.1038/nature14015 Published online 26 November 2014

This article is behind a paywall.

Legos, geckos (van der Waals force), and single-atom sheets at the University of Kansas (US)

A Nov. 25, 2014 news item on Nanowerk describes the achievement,

Physicists at the University of Kansas have fabricated an innovative substance from two different atomic sheets that interlock much like Lego toy bricks. The researchers said the new material — made of a layer of graphene and a layer of tungsten disulfide — could be used in solar cells and flexible electronics. …

Hsin-Ying Chiu, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and graduate student Matt Bellus fabricated the new material using “layer-by-layer assembly” as a versatile bottom-up nanofabrication technique. Then, Jiaqi He, a visiting student from China, and Nardeep Kumar, a graduate student who now has moved to Intel Corp., investigated how electrons move between the two layers through ultrafast laser spectroscopy in KU’s Ultrafast Laser Lab, supervised by Hui Zhao, associate professor of physics and astronomy.

“To build artificial materials with synergistic functionality has been a long journey of discovery,” Chiu said. “A new class of materials, made of the layered materials, has attracted extensive attention ever since the rapid development of graphene technology. One of the most promising aspects of this research is the potential to devise next-generation materials via atomic layer-level control over its electronic structure.”

A Nov. 25, 2014 University of Kansas news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the problems and the new technique in more detail,

According to the researchers, the approach is to design synergistic materials by combining two single-atom thick sheets, for example, acting as a photovoltaic cell as well as a light-emitting diode, converting energy between electricity and radiation. However, combining layers of atomically thin material is a thorny task that has flummoxed researchers for years.

“A big challenge of this approach is that, most materials don’t connect together because of their different atomic arrangements at the interface — the arrangement of the atoms cannot follow the two different sets of rules at the same time,” Chiu said. “This is like playing with Legos of different sizes made by different manufacturers. As a consequence, new materials can only be made from materials with very similar atomic arrangements, which often have similar properties, too. Even then, arrangement of atoms at the interface is irregular, which often results in poor qualities.”

Layered materials such as those developed by the KU researchers provide a solution for this problem. Unlike conventional materials formed by atoms that are strongly bound in all directions, the new material features two layers where each atomic sheet is composed of atoms bound strongly with their neighbors — but the two atomic sheets are themselves only weakly linked to each other by the so-called van der Waals force, the same attractive phenomenon between molecules that allows geckos to stick to walls and ceilings.

“There exist about 100 different types of layered crystals — graphite is a well-known example,” Bellus said. “Because of the weak interlayer connection, one can choose any two types of atomic sheets and put one on top of the other without any problem. It’s like playing Legos with a flat bottom. There is no restriction. This approach can potentially product a large number of new materials with combined novel properties and transform the material science.”

Chiu and Bellus created the new carbon and tungsten disulfide material with the aim of developing novel materials for efficient solar cells. The single sheet of carbon atoms, known as graphene, excels at moving electrons around, while a single-layer of tungsten disulfide atoms is good at absorbing sunlight and converting it to electricity. By combining the two, this innovative material can potentially perform both tasks well.

The team used scotch tape to lift a single layer of tungsten disulfide atoms from a crystal and apply it to a silicon substrate. Next, they used the same procedure to remove a single layer of carbon atoms from a graphite crystal. With a microscope, they precisely laid the graphene on top of the tungsten disulfide layer. To remove any glue between the two atomic layers that are unintentionally introduced during the process, the material was heated at about 500 degrees Fahrenheit for a half-hour. This allowed the force between the two layers to squeeze out the glue, resulting in a sample of two atomically thin layers with a clean interface.

Doctoral students He and Kumar tested the new material in KU’s Ultrafast Laser Lab. The researchers used a laser pulse to excite the tungsten disulfide layer.

“We found that nearly 100 percent of the electrons that absorbed the energy from the laser pulse move from tungsten disulfide to graphene within one picosecond, or one-millionth of one-millionth second,” Zhao said. “This proves that the new material indeed combines the good properties of each component layer.”

The research groups led by Chiu and Zhao are trying to apply this Lego approach to other materials. For example, by combining two materials that absorb light of different colors, they can make materials that react to diverse parts of the solar spectrum.

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

Electron transfer and coupling in graphene–​tungsten disulfide van der Waals heterostructures by Jiaqi He, Nardeep Kumar, Matthew Z. Bellus,     Hsin-Ying Chiu, Dawei He, Yongsheng Wang, & Hui Zhao. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 5622 doi:10.1038/ncomms6622 Published 25 November 2014

This paper is behind a paywall but there is a few preview available through ReadCube Access.

Killing mosquitos and other pests with genetics-based technology

Having supplied more than one tasty meal for mosquitos (or, as some prefer, mosquitoes), I am not their friend but couldn’t help but wonder about unintended consequences (as per Max Weber) on reading about a new patent awarded to Kansas State University (from a Nov. 12, 2014 news item on Nanowerk),

Kansas State University researchers have developed a patented method of keeping mosquitoes and other insect pests at bay.

U.S. Patent 8,841,272, “Double-Stranded RNA-Based Nanoparticles for Insect Gene Silencing,” was recently awarded to the Kansas State University Research Foundation, a nonprofit corporation responsible for managing technology transfer activities at the university. The patent covers microscopic, genetics-based technology that can help safely kill mosquitos and other insect pests.

A Nov. 12, 2014 Kansas State University news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

Kun Yan Zhu, professor of entomology; Xin Zhang, research associate in the Division of Biology; and Jianzhen Zhang, visiting scientist from Shanxi University in China, developed the technology: nanoparticles comprised of a nontoxic, biodegradable polymer matrix and insect derived double-stranded ribonucleic acid, or dsRNA. Double-stranded RNA is a synthesized molecule that can trigger a biological process known as RNA interference, or RNAi, to destroy the genetic code of an insect in a specific DNA sequence.

The technology is expected to have great potential for safe and effective control of insect pests, Zhu said.

“For example, we can buy cockroach bait that contains a toxic substance to kill cockroaches. However, the bait could potentially harm whatever else ingests it,” Zhu said. “If we can incorporate dsRNA specifically targeting a cockroach gene in the bait rather than a toxic substance, the bait would not harm other organisms, such as pets, because the dsRNA is designed to specifically disable the function of the cockroach gene.”

Researchers developed the technology while looking at how to disable gene functions in mosquito larvae. After testing a series of unsuccessful genetic techniques, the team turned to a nanoparticle-based approach.

Once ingested, the nanoparticles act as a Trojan horse, releasing the loosely bound dsRNA into the insect gut. The dsRNA then triggers a genetic chain reaction that destroys specific messenger RNA, or mRNA, in the developing insects. Messenger RNA carries important genetic information.

In the studies on mosquito larvae, researchers designed dsRNA to target the mRNA encoding the enzymes that help mosquitoes produce chitin, the main component in the hard exoskeleton of insects, crustaceans and arachnids.

Researchers found that the developing mosquitoes produced less chitin. As a result, the mosquitoes were more prone to insecticides as they no longer had a sufficient amount of chitin for a normal functioning protective shell. If the production of chitin can be further reduced, the insects can be killed without using any toxic insecticides.

While mosquitos were the primary insect for which the nanoparticle-based method was developed, the technology can be applied to other insect pests, Zhu said.

“Our dsRNA molecules were designed based on specific gene sequences of the mosquito,” Zhu said. “You can design species-specific dsRNA for the same or different genes for other insect pests. When you make baits containing gene-specific nanoparticles, you may be able to kill the insects through the RNAi pathway. We see this having really broad applications for insect pest management.”

The patent is currently available to license through the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization, which licenses the university’s intellectual property. The Institute for Commercialization can be contacted at 785-532-3900 and [email protected]

Eight U.S. patents have been awarded to the Kansas State University Research Foundation in 2014 for inventions by Kansas State University researchers.

Here’s an image of the ‘Trojan horse’ nanoparticles,

The nanoparticles, pictured as gold colored, are less than 100 nanometers in diameter. photo credit: bogdog Dan via photopincc

The nanoparticles, pictured as gold colored, are less than 100 nanometers in diameter. photo credit: bogdog Dan via photopincc

My guess is that the photographer has added some colour such as the gold and the pink to enhance the image as otherwise this would be a symphony of grey tones.

So, if this material will lead to weakened chitin such that pesticides and insecticides are more effective, does this mean that something else in the food chain will suffer because it no longer has mosquitos and other pests to munch on?

One last note, usually my ‘mosquito’ pieces concern malaria and the most recent of those was a Sept. 4, 2014 posting about a possible malaria vaccine being developed at the University of Connecticut.

Silver nanoparticles: liquid on the outside, crystal on the inside

Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has revealed a new property of metal nanoparticles, in this case, silver. From an Oct. 12, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

A surprising phenomenon has been found in metal nanoparticles: They appear, from the outside, to be liquid droplets, wobbling and readily changing shape, while their interiors retain a perfectly stable crystal configuration.

The research team behind the finding, led by MIT professor Ju Li, says the work could have important implications for the design of components in nanotechnology, such as metal contacts for molecular electronic circuits.

The results, published in the journal Nature Materials, come from a combination of laboratory analysis and computer modeling, by an international team that included researchers in China, Japan, and Pittsburgh, as well as at MIT.

An Oct. 12, 2014 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers both more information about the research and a surprising comparison of nanometers to the width of a human hair,

The experiments were conducted at room temperature, with particles of pure silver less than 10 nanometers across — less than one-thousandth of the width of a human hair. [emphasis mine] But the results should apply to many different metals, says Li, senior author of the paper and the BEA Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

Silver has a relatively high melting point — 962 degrees Celsius, or 1763 degrees Fahrenheit — so observation of any liquidlike behavior in its nanoparticles was “quite unexpected,” Li says. Hints of the new phenomenon had been seen in earlier work with tin, which has a much lower melting point, he says.

The use of nanoparticles in applications ranging from electronics to pharmaceuticals is a lively area of research; generally, Li says, these researchers “want to form shapes, and they want these shapes to be stable, in many cases over a period of years.” So the discovery of these deformations reveals a potentially serious barrier to many such applications: For example, if gold or silver nanoligaments are used in electronic circuits, these deformations could quickly cause electrical connections to fail.

It was a bit surprising to see the reference to 10 nanometers as being less than 1/1,000th (one/one thousandth) of the width of a human hair in a news release from MIT. Generally, a nanometer has been described as being anywhere from less than 1/50,000th to 1/120,000th of the width of a human hair with less than 1/100,000th being one of the most common descriptions. While it’s true that 10 nanometers is less than 1/1,000th of the width of a human hair, it seems a bit misleading when it could be described, in keeping with the more common description, as less than 1/10,000th.

Getting back to the research, the news release offers more details as to how it was conducted,

The researchers’ detailed imaging with a transmission electron microscope and atomistic modeling revealed that while the exterior of the metal nanoparticles appears to move like a liquid, only the outermost layers — one or two atoms thick — actually move at any given time. As these outer layers of atoms move across the surface and redeposit elsewhere, they give the impression of much greater movement — but inside each particle, the atoms stay perfectly lined up, like bricks in a wall.

“The interior is crystalline, so the only mobile atoms are the first one or two monolayers,” Li says. “Everywhere except the first two layers is crystalline.”

By contrast, if the droplets were to melt to a liquid state, the orderliness of the crystal structure would be eliminated entirely — like a wall tumbling into a heap of bricks.

Technically, the particles’ deformation is pseudoelastic, meaning that the material returns to its original shape after the stresses are removed — like a squeezed rubber ball — as opposed to plasticity, as in a deformable lump of clay that retains a new shape.

The phenomenon of plasticity by interfacial diffusion was first proposed by Robert L. Coble, a professor of ceramic engineering at MIT, and is known as “Coble creep.” “What we saw is aptly called Coble pseudoelasticity,” Li says.

Now that the phenomenon has been understood, researchers working on nanocircuits or other nanodevices can quite easily compensate for it, Li says. If the nanoparticles are protected by even a vanishingly thin layer of oxide, the liquidlike behavior is almost completely eliminated, making stable circuits possible.

There are some benefits to this insight (from the news release),

On the other hand, for some applications this phenomenon might be useful: For example, in circuits where electrical contacts need to withstand rotational reconfiguration, particles designed to maximize this effect might prove useful, using noble metals or a reducing atmosphere, where the formation of an oxide layer is destabilized, Li says.

The new finding flies in the face of expectations — in part, because of a well-understood relationship, in most materials, in which mechanical strength increases as size is reduced.

“In general, the smaller the size, the higher the strength,” Li says, but “at very small sizes, a material component can get very much weaker. The transition from ‘smaller is stronger’ to ‘smaller is much weaker’ can be very sharp.”

That crossover, he says, takes place at about 10 nanometers at room temperature — a size that microchip manufacturers are approaching as circuits shrink. When this threshold is reached, Li says, it causes “a very precipitous drop” in a nanocomponent’s strength.

The findings could also help explain a number of anomalous results seen in other research on small particles, Li says.

For more details about the various attempts to create smaller computer chips, you can read my July 11, 2014 posting about IBM and its proposed 7 nanometer chip where you will also find links to announcements and posts about Intel’s smaller chips and HP Labs’ attempt to recreate computers.

As for the research into liquid-like metallic (silver) nanoparticles, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Liquid-like pseudoelasticity of sub-10-nm crystalline ​silver particle by Jun Sun, Longbing He, Yu-Chieh Lo, Tao Xu, Hengchang Bi, Litao Sun, Ze Zhang, Scott X. Mao, & Ju Li. Nature Materials (2014) doi:10.1038/nmat4105 Published online 12 October 2014

This paper is behind a paywall. There is a free preview via ReadCube Access.

Pushing molecular gastronomy boundaries to create new cooking techniques

Researchers are hoping to develop new cooking techniques eventually by looking closely at how chefs practice molecular gastronomy, From an Oct. 1, 2014 news item on phys.org,

One of the most iconic forms of avant-garde cuisine, also known as molecular gastronomy, involves the presentation of flavorful, edible liquids—like cocktails or olive oil—packaged into spheres. Now a team of scientists, in collaboration with world-renowned chef Ferran Adriá, is getting to the bottom of what makes these delectable morsels possible. Their findings appear in ACS’ The Journal of Physical Chemistry B.

For anyone who wants to see these edible liquids, there’s this demonstration by Ferran Adriá

An Oct. 1, 2014 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides a few more details about the research,

Christophe Chipot, Wensheng Cai and colleagues explain that the technique of “spherification” was invented 70 years ago but was popularized in avant-garde cuisine more recently by Adriá. The process of making the spheres involves packaging juice or other liquid ingredients in envelopes of calcium alginate, a gelatinous substance made mostly out of molecules extracted from brown seaweed. Although spherification has become a prominent technique in molecular gastronomy, no one had investigated the formation and stability of the alginates at the atomic level. Chipot’s team wanted to change that.

The researchers used classical molecular dynamics techniques to probe how alginate spheres form. Among other discoveries, they found that alginate chains spontaneously wrap like a net around liquid droplets and that calcium ions were key. They concluded that studies such as these, which bridge the gap between material science and avant-garde cuisine, could help chefs and food scientists rationally design the next generation of innovative cooking techniques.

The funds for this work came from a number of institutions (from the news release),

The authors acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Natural Science Foundation of Tianjin, China and the Cai Yuanpei program of the  [France?] Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et du Développement International.

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

From Material Science to Avant-Garde Cuisine. The Art of Shaping Liquids into Spheres by Haohao Fu, Yingzhe Liu, Ferran Adrià, Xueguang Shao, Wensheng Cai, and Christophe Chipot. J. Phys. Chem. B, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/jp508841p Publication Date (Web): September 15, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

The researchers have also made this image illustrating the transformation of a bowl of peas into a chemical mass and finally into a reconstructed, liquid pea available.

PeaMolecularGastronomy

More on Nanopolis in China’s Suzhou Industrial Park

As far as I can tell, the 2015 opening date for a new building is still in place but, in the meantime, publicists are working hard to remind everyone about China’s Nanopolis complex (mentioned here in a Jan. 20, 2014 posting, which includes an architectural rendering of the proposed new building).

For the latest information, there’s a Sept. 25  2014 news item on Nanowerk,

For several years now Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) has been channeling money, resources and talent into supporting three new strategic industries: nano-technology, biotechnology and cloud computing.

In 2011 it started building a hub for nano-tech development and commercialization called Nanopolis that today is a thriving and diverse economic community where research institutes, academics and start-up companies can co-exist and where new technology can flourish.

Nanopolis benefits from the cross-pollination of ideas that come from both academia and business as it is right next door to the Suzhou Dushu Lake Science & Education Innovation District and its 25 world-class universities.

Earlier this year the University of California, Los Angles [sic] (UCLA) set up an Institute for Technology Advancement that is developing R&D platforms focusing on areas such as new energy technology and in particular nanotechnology. And Oxford University will soon join the growing list of world-class universities setting up centers for innovation there.

To develop a critical mass at Nanopolis SIP has offered incentive plans and provided incubators and shared laboratories, even including nano-safety testing and evaluation. It has also helped companies access venture capital and private equity and eventually go public through IPOs [initial public offerings {to raise money on stock exchanges}].

A Sept. 25, 2014 Suzhou Industrial Park news release (on Business Wire), which originated the news item, provides an interesting view of projects and ambitions for Nanopolis,

 To develop a critical mass at Nanopolis SIP has offered incentive plans and provided incubators and shared laboratories, even including nano-safety testing and evaluation. It has also helped companies access venture capital and private equity and eventually go public through IPOs.

Many companies in Nanopolis are already breaking new ground in the areas of micro and nano-manufacturing (nanofabrication, printed electronics and instruments and devices); energy and environment (batteries, power electronics, water treatment, air purification, clean tech); nano materials (nano particles, nano structure materials, functional nano materials, nano composite materials); and nano biotechnology (targeted drug delivery, nano diagnostics, nano medical devices and nano bio-materials).

Zhang Xijun, Nanopolis’ chief executive and president, says the high-tech hub goes beyond what typical incubators and accelerators provide their clients and he predicts that its importance will only grow over the next five years as demand for nano-technology applications continues to pick up speed.

“As more and more companies want upstream technology they are going to be looking more at nano-technology applications,” he says. “The regional and central government is taking this field very seriously–there is a lot of support.”

Nanopolis can also serve as a bridge for foreign companies in terms of China market entry. “Nanopolis has become like a gateway for companies to access the Chinese market, our research capabilities and Chinese talent,” he says.

Owen Huang, general manager of POLYNOVA, a nano-tech company that set up in SIP five years ago, counts Apple as one of its customers and has annual sales of US$4 million, says the excellent infrastructure, supply chain and international outlook in Nanopolis are part of its allure.

“This site works along the lines of foreign governments and there is no need to entertain local officials [as is often customary in other parts of China],” he says. “Everyone is treated the same according to international standards of business.”

Nanopolis also can serve as a kind of go-between for bilateral projects between businesses and governments in China and those from as far away as Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

In November 2012, for example, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Finland’s Ministry of Employment and the Economy built the China-Finland Nano Innovation Centre to jointly develop cooperation in the research fields of micro-nanofabrication, functional materials and nano-biomedicine.

SIP is also raising the profile of nano-tech and its importance in Nanopolis by hosting international conferences and exhibitions. From Sept. 24-27 [2014] the industrial park is hosting the ChiNano conference, which will be attended by more than more 700 nano-tech specialists from over thirty countries.

Zhang emphasizes that collaboration between academia and industry is an essential aspect of innovation and commercialization and argues that Nanopolis’ appeal goes beyond professor-founded companies. “The companies are in a position to provide good internship programs for students and there are also joint professorship positions made possible,” he explains. “We can also optimize school courses so they are better linked to industry wherever possible.”

Nanopolis’ creators expect that their holistic approach to business development will attract more than 300 organizations and businesses and as many as 30,000 people to the site over the next five years.

Wang Yunjun, chief executive of Mesolight, is one of the success stories. Mesolight, a nano-tech company that specializes in semi-conductor nano-crystals or quantum dots used in flat panel TV screens, mobile phones and lighting devices, recently secured US$2 million in the first round of venture capital funding with the help of the industrial park’s connections in the industry.

Two years ago Wang moved to Nanopolis from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had tried to get his company off the ground. He believes that returning to China and setting up his business in SIP was the best thing he could have done.

“The incubators in SIP are doing much more than the incubators in the United States,” he explains. “In the U.S. I was in an incubator but that just meant getting research space. Here I get a lot of resources. Most importantly, though, I was taught how to run a business.”

Albert Goldson, executive director of Indo-Brazillian Associates LLC, a New York-based global advisory firm and think tank, notes that while the immediate benefits of the industrial park are evident, there are even greater implications over the long-term, including the loss of talented Chinese who leave China to study or set up companies abroad.

“If one creates an architecturally compelling urban design along with a high-tech and innovative hub it will attract young Chinese talent for the long term both professionally and personally,” he says.

Jiang Weiming, executive chairman of the Dushu Lake Science & Education Innovation District concedes that SIP is not Silicon Valley and says that is why the industrial park is evaluating its own DNA and working out its own solutions.

“We have put in place a plan to train nanotech-specific talent and the same for biotech and cloud computing,” he says. “I think the collaboration between the education institutions and the enterprises is fairly impressive.”

Jiang points to faculty members who have taken positions as chief technical officers and vice general managers of science at commercial enterprises so that they have a better idea of what the company needs and how educational institutes can support them. And that in turn is helpful for their own research and teaching.

“The biggest task is to create a healthy ecosystem here,” he concludes.

So far, at least, the ecosystem in Nanopolis and across the rest of the industrial park appears to be thriving.

“The companies will find the right partners,” SIP’s chairman Barry Yang says confidently. “It’s not what the government is here for. What we want to do is provide a good platform and a good environment …Companies are the actors and we build the theaters.”

Between the news item and Business Wire, the news release is here in its entirety since these materials can disappear from the web. While Nanowerk does make its materials available for years but it can’t hurt to have another copy here.

The Nanopolis website can be found here. Note: the English language option is not  operational as of today, Sept. 26, 2014. The Chinano 2014 conference (Sept. 24 – 26) website is here (English language version available).

Referencing Indo-Brazillian Associates LLC, a New York-based global advisory firm and think tank, may have been an indirect reference to the group of countries known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) or, sometimes, as BRIC ((Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Either of these entities may be mentioned with regard to a shift global power.

Russians and Chinese get cozy and talk nano

The Moscow Times has a couple of interesting stories about China and Russia. The first one to catch my eye was this one about Rusnano (Russian Nanotechnologies Corporation) and its invitation to create a joint China-Russian nanotechnology investment fund. From a Sept. 9, 2014 Moscow Times news item,

Rusnano has invited Chinese partners to create a joint fund for investment in nanotechnology, Anatoly Chubais, head of the state technology enterprise, was quoted as saying Tuesday [Sept. 9, 2014] by Prime news agency.

Russia is interested in working with China on nanotechnology as Beijing already invests “gigantic” sums in that sphere, Chubais said.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of news was in the last paragraph of that news item,

Moscow is pivoting toward the east to soften the impact of Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in Ukraine. …

Another Sept. 9, 2014 Moscow Times news item expands on the theme of Moscow pivoting east,

Russia and China pledged on Tuesday [Sept. 9, 2014] to settle more bilateral trade in ruble and yuan and to enhance cooperation between banks, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said, as Moscow seeks to cushion the effects of Western economic sanctions [as a consequence of the situation in the Ukraine].

Russia and China pledged on Tuesday to settle more bilateral trade in ruble and yuan and to enhance cooperation between banks, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said, as Moscow seeks to cushion the effects of Western economic sanctions.

For China, curtailing [the] dollar’s influence fits well with its ambitions to increase the clout of the yuan and turn it into a global reserve currency one day. With 32 percent of its $4 trillion foreign exchange reserves invested in U.S. government debt, Beijing wants to curb investment risks in dollars.

….

China and Russia signed a $400 billion gas supply deal in May [2014], securing the world’s top energy user a major source of cleaner fuel and opening a new market for Moscow as it risks losing European clients over the Ukraine crisis.

This is an interesting turn of events given that China and Russia (specifically the entity known as Soviet Union) have not always had the friendliest of relations almost going to war in 1969 over territorial disputes (Wikipedia entries: Sino-Soviet border conflict and China-Russian Border).

In any event, China may have its own reasons for turning to Russia at this time. According to Jack Chang of Associated Press (Sept. 11, 2014 article on the American Broadcasting News website), there is a major military buildup taking place in Asia as the biggest defence budget in Japan’s history has been requested, Vietnam doubles military spending, and the Philippines assembles a larger naval presence. In addition, India and South Korea are also investing in their military forces. (I was at a breakfast meeting [scroll down for the speaker’s video] in Jan. 2014 about Canada’s trade relations with Asia when a table companion [who’d worked for the Canadian International Development Agency, knew the Asian region very well, and had visited recently] commented that many countries such as Laos and Cambodia were very tense about China’s resurgence and its plans for the region.)

One final tidbit, this comes at an interesting juncture in the US science enterprise. After many years of seeing funding rise, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) saw its 2015 budget request shrink by $200M US from its 2014 budget allotment (first mentioned here in a March 31, 2014 posting).

Sometimes an invitation to create a joint investment fund isn’t just an invitation.

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.

Metaphors in a brief overview of the nanomedicine scene circa August 2014

An Aug. 1, 2014 article by Guizhi Zhu (University of Florida), Lei Mei ((Hunan University; China), and Weihong Tan (University of Florida) for The Scientist provides an overview of the latest and greatest regarding nanomedicine while underscoring the persistence of certain medical metaphors. This overview features a prediction and a relatively benign (pun intended) metaphor,

Both the academic community and the pharmaceutical industry are making increasing investments of time and money in nanotherapeutics. Nearly 50 biomedical products incorporating nanoparticles are already on the market, and many more are moving through the pipeline, with dozens in Phase 2 or Phase 3 clinical trials. Drugmakers are well on their way to realizing the prediction of Christopher Guiffre, chief business officer at the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based nanotherapeutics company Cerulean Pharma, who last November forecast, “Five years from now every pharma will have a nano program.”

Technologies that enable improved cancer detection are constantly racing against the diseases they aim to diagnose, and when survival depends on early intervention, losing this race can be fatal. [emphasis mine] While detecting cancer biomarkers is the key to early diagnosis, the number of bona fide biomarkers that reliably reveal the presence of cancerous cells is low. To overcome this challenge, researchers are developing functional nanomaterials for more sensitive detection of intracellular metabolites, tumor cell–membrane proteins, and even cancer cells that are circulating in the bloodstream. (See “Fighting Cancer with Nanomedicine,” The Scientist, April 2014.)

So, the first metaphor ‘racing’ gives the reader a sense of urgency, the next ones, including “fighting cancer’, provoke a somewhat different state of mind,

Eye on the target

The prototype of targeted drug delivery can be traced back to the concept of a “magic bullet,” proposed by chemotherapy pioneer and 1908 Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich. [emphasis mine] E[hrlich envisioned a drug that could selectively target a disease-causing organism or diseased cells, leaving healthy tissue unharmed. A century later, researchers are developing many types of nanoscale “magic bullets” that can specifically deliver drugs into target cells or tissues.

It would seem we might be in a state of war as you ‘fight cancer’ with your ‘eyes on the target’ as you ‘shoot magic bullets’ in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the start to World War I.

Kostas Kostarelos wrote a Nov. 29, 2013 posting for the Guardian Science Blogs where he (professor of nanomedicine at the University of Manchester and director of the university’s Nanomedicine Lab) discussed war metaphors in medicine and possible unintended consequences (Note: A link has been removed). Here’s his discussion about the metaphors,

Almost every night I have watched the news these past few months my senses have been assaulted by unpleasant, at times distressing, images of war: missiles, killings and chemical bombs in Syria, Kenya, the USA. I wake up the next morning, trying to forget what I watched the night before, and going to work with our researchers to develop the next potential high-tech cure for cancer, thinking: “does what we do matter at all … ?”

So I was intrigued by an article that will be published in one of the scientific journals in our field entitled: “Nanomedicine metaphors: from war to care”. The next lab meeting we had was very awkward, because I was constantly thinking that indeed a lot of the words we were using to communicate our science were directly imported from the language of war. Targeting, stealth nanoparticle, smart bomb, elimination, triggered release, cell death. I struggled to find alternative language.

… Hollywood analogies and simplistic interpretations about “good” and “bad” may be inaccurate, but they do seem appropriate and convincing.

I must say, however, that even in pathology, modern medicine increasingly considers the disease to be part of our body, often leading to successful treatment not by “eradication” and “elimination” but by holistic management of a chronic condition. The case of HIV therapeutics is perhaps the brightest example of such revisionist thinking, which has transformed the disease from a “death sentence” in the early years after its discovery to a nonlethal chronic infection today.

Kostarelos then contrasts the less warlike ‘modern medicine’ metaphors with nanomedicine,

In nanomedicine, which is the application of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials to design medical treatments, the war imagery is even more prevalent. Two of the most clinically successful and intensively studied technologies that operate at the nanoscale are “stealth” and “targeted” medicines. “Stealth” refers to a hydrophilic (water-loving) shield built around a molecule or nanoparticle, made from polymers, that minimises its recognition by the body’s defence mechanisms. “Targeting” refers to the specific binding of certain molecules (such as antibodies, peptides and others) to receptors (or other proteins) present only at the surface of diseased cells. The literature in nanomedicine is abundant with both “stealthing”, “targeting” and combinations thereof.

Kostarelos then asks this question,

The question I keep asking myself since I read the article about war metaphors in nanomedicine has been whether we are using terminology in a simplistic, single-minded manner that could stifle creative and out-of-the-box thinking.

Intriguing unintended consequences, yes?

Getting back to The Scientist article, which I found quite informative and interesting, its ‘war metaphors’ seem to extend even to some of the artwork accompanying the article,

[downloaded from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/40598/title/Nanomedicine/]

[downloaded from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/40598/title/Nanomedicine/]

Is that a capsule or a bullet? Regardless, this * article provides a good overview of the research.

* The word ‘a’ was removed on Aug. 8, 2014.

Things falling apart: both a Nigerian novel and research at the Massachusetts Intitute of Technology

First the Nigerian novel ‘Things Fall Apart‘ (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Things Fall Apart is an English-language novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe published in 1958 by William Heinemann Ltd in the UK; in 1962, it was also the first work published in Heinemann’s African Writers Series. Things Fall Apart is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, one of the first to receive global critical acclaim. It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and is widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world. The title of the novel comes from William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”.[1]

For those unfamiliar with the Yeats poem, this is the relevant passage (from Wikipedia entry for The Second Coming),

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The other ‘Things fall apart’ item, although it’s an investigation into ‘how things fall apart’, is mentioned in an Aug. 4, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Materials that are firmly bonded together with epoxy and other tough adhesives are ubiquitous in modern life — from crowns on teeth to modern composites used in construction. Yet it has proved remarkably difficult to study how these bonds fracture and fail, and how to make them more resistant to such failures.

Now researchers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] have found a way to study these bonding failures directly, revealing the crucial role of moisture in setting the stage for failure. Their findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in a paper by MIT professors of civil and environmental engineering Oral Buyukozturk and Markus Buehler; research associate Kurt Broderick of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories; and doctoral student Denvid Lau, who has since joined the faculty at the City University of Hong Kong.

An Aug. 4, 2014 MIT news release written by David Chandler (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides an unexpectedly fascinating discussion of bonding, interfaces, and infrastructure,

“The bonding problem is a general problem that is encountered in many disciplines, especially in medicine and dentistry,” says Buyukozturk, whose research has focused on infrastructure, where such problems are also of great importance. “The interface between a base material and epoxy, for example, really controls the properties. If the interface is weak, you lose the entire system.”

“The composite may be made of a strong and durable material bonded to another strong and durable material,” Buyukozturk adds, “but where you bond them doesn’t necessarily have to be strong and durable.”

Besides dental implants and joint replacements, such bonding is also critical in construction materials such as fiber-reinforced polymers and reinforced concrete. But while such materials are widespread, understanding how they fail is not simple.

There are standard methods for testing the strength of materials and how they may fail structurally, but bonded surfaces are more difficult to model. “When we are concerned with deterioration of this interface when it is degraded by moisture, classical methods can’t handle that,” Buyukozturk says. “The way to approach it is to look at the molecular level.”

When such systems are exposed to moisture, “it initiates new molecules at the interface,” Buyukozturk says, “and that interferes with the bonding mechanism. How do you assess how weak the interface becomes when it is affected? We came up with an innovative method to assess the interface weakening as a result of exposure to environmental effects.”

The team used a combination of molecular simulations and laboratory tests in its assessment. The modeling was based on fundamental principles of molecular interactions, not on empirical data, Buyukozturk says.

In the laboratory tests, Buyukozturk and his colleagues controlled the residual stresses in a metal layer that was bonded and then forcibly removed. “We validated the method, and showed that moisture has a degrading effect,” he says.

The findings could lead to exploration of new ways to prevent moisture from reaching into the bonded layer, perhaps using better sealants. “Moisture is the No. 1 enemy,” Buyukozturk says.

“I think this is going to be an important step toward assessment of the bonding, and enable us to design more durable composites,” he adds. “It gives a quantitative knowledge of the interface” — for example, predicting that under specific conditions, a given bonded material will lose 30 percent of its strength.

Interface problems are universal, Buyukozturk says, occurring in many areas besides biomedicine and construction. “They occur in mechanical devices, in aircraft, electrical equipment, in the packaging of electronic components,” he says. “We feel this will have very broad applications.”

Bonded composite materials are beginning to be widely used in airplane manufacturing; often these composites are then bonded to traditional materials, like aluminum. “We have not had enough experience to prove the durability of these composite systems is going to be there after 20 years,” Buyukozturk says.

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

A robust nanoscale experimental quantification of fracture energy in a bilayer material system by Denvid Lau, Kurt Broderick, Markus J. Buehler, and Oral Büyüköztürk. PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1402893111 published August 5, 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.