I’m not sure this work is ready for commercialization (I think not) but it’s certainly intriguing. From an April 5, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,
Carbon nanotubes can be used to make very small electronic devices, but they are difficult to handle. University of Groningen scientists, together with colleagues from the University of Wuppertal and IBM Zurich, have developed a method to select semiconducting nanotubes from a solution and make them self-assemble on a circuit of gold electrodes. …
The results look deceptively simple: a self-assembled transistor with nearly 100 percent purity and very high electron mobility. But it took ten years to get there. University of Groningen Professor of Photophysics and Optoelectronics Maria Antonietta Loi designed polymers which wrap themselves around specific carbon nanotubes in a solution of mixed tubes. Thiol side chains on the polymer bind the tubes to the gold electrodes, creating the resultant transistor.
‘In our previous work, we learned a lot about how polymers attach to specific carbon nanotubes’, Loi explains. These nanotubes can be depicted as a rolled sheet of graphene, the two-dimensional form of carbon. ‘Depending on the way the sheets are rolled up, they have properties ranging from semiconductor to semi-metallic to metallic.’ Only the semiconductor tubes can be used to fabricate transistors, but the production process always results in a mixture.
‘We had the idea of using polymers with thiol side chains some time ago’, says Loi. The idea was that as sulphur binds to metals, it will direct polymer-wrapped nanotubes towards gold electrodes. While Loi was working on the problem, IBM even patented the concept. ‘But there was a big problem in the IBM work: the polymers with thiols also attached to metallic nanotubes and included them in the transistors, which ruined them.’
Loi’s solution was to reduce the thiol content of the polymers, with the assistance of polymer chemists from the University of Wuppertal. ‘What we have now shown is that this concept of bottom-up assembly works: by using polymers with a low concentration of thiols, we can selectively bring semiconducting nanotubes from a solution onto a circuit.’ The sulphur-gold bond is strong, so the nanotubes are firmly fixed: enough even to stay there after sonication of the transistor in organic solvents.
The production process is simple: metallic patterns are deposited on a carrier , which is then dipped into a solution of carbon nanotubes. The electrodes are spaced to achieve proper alignment: ‘The tubes are some 500 nanometres long, and we placed the electrodes for the transistors at intervals of 300 nanometres. The next transistor is over 500 nanometres away.’ The spacing limits the density of the transistors, but Loi is confident that this could be increased with clever engineering.
‘Over the last years, we have created a library of polymers that select semiconducting nanotubes and developed a better understanding of how the structure and composition of the polymers influences which carbon nanotubes they select’, says Loi. The result is a cheap and scalable production method for nanotube electronics. So what is the future for this technology? Loi: ‘It is difficult to predict whether the industry will develop this idea, but we are working on improvements, and this will eventually bring the idea closer to the market.’
I have two news bits about Alberta’s nanotechnology scene, one focused on a hockey logo (this year , there are two Canadian teams [Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators] competing to get to the finals and a Stanley Cup win sometime in June; there hasn’t been a win by a Canadian team since 1993); the other news bit concerns funding for research into technology for oil spill cleanups.
National Hockey League (NHL) logo
To celebrate the Edmonton Oilers entry into the semifinals, folks at the University of Alberta have created the smallest NHL logo for them. From a May 1, 2017 news item by Chad Mosleh for Metro News Edmonton,
A department at the University of Alberta has created an Oilers logo so small you could fit 900 million of them on top of a puck.
“We’re constantly trying to push the limit of how small we can make things,” said Eric Flaim, director of the NanoFAB Fabrication & Characterization Centre, which focuses on research on micro and nanoscale units, which are particles so tiny you need an extremely powerful microscope to see them.
The microscopic Oilers logo was created in collaboration with Edmonton-based companies Applied Quantum Materials and Applied Nanotools. The logo is 2.4 micrometres in diameter, 40 times smaller than a similar one they made in 2006, which was roughly the width of a human hair. The university is calling it the world’s smallest NHL logo.
[downloaded from https://www.nanofab.ualberta.ca/2017/news/lets-go-oilers/]
An April 27, 2017 posting by Dr. Eric Flaim for the University of Alberta’s nanoFAB blog notes this (Note: Links have been removed),
Working in partnership with two Edmonton companies who are developing new nanoscale fabrication processes to support commercialization of made-in-Alberta technology for photonics, sensors, and nanomaterials, the nanoFAB took the opportunity to show pride in our Edmonton Oilers.
Using a nanomaterial developed by Applied Quantum Materials, and nanoscale pattern correction methods developed by Applied Nanotools, we thought it would be fitting to re-create the logo we fabricated during the Oilers’ last playoff run…albeit at a much smaller scale.
Whereas the Oilers logo in 2006 was about the width of a human hair, the logo we made for this year’s Orange Crush is over 40× smaller: at only 2.4 µm in diameter, over 900 million of these logos could fit on top of a hockey puck.
Beyond showing team spirit, the fabrication of this logo highlights several of the unique capabilities available at the nanoFAB. The logo was fabricated via electron-beam lithography (EBL) with our Raith 150-TWO system, using AQM SIOX as the EBL resist—a made-in-Edmonton alternative to the ultra-high resolution hydrogen silsesquioxane (HSQ) resist. At such a small length scale, sophisticated pattern correction techniques must be used to ensure the fidelity of the design; this expertise was provided by engineers from Applied Nanotools, who use the same methods for their high-resolution silicon photonics service. Finally, the images of the logos were taken using our Zeiss Orion NanoFab Helium Ion microscope.
I wonder how the University of Ottawa and the Ottawa Senators team are responding to this development?
Oil spills and carbon nanotube (CNT) meshes
An April 28, 2017 Ingenuity Lab news release (which rather weirdly has London, England listed as the location in the dateline) on MarketWired announces Canadian federal government funding for a project centered in Alberta, Canada,
Nanotechnology has had a multitude of applications: from healthcare to textiles to new consumer gadgets, innovative new uses for nanotechnology are constantly emerging. It has now found a new role, with University of Alberta-based nanotechnology accelerator Ingenuity Lab using it as the basis for the development of a revolutionary new way to clean up oil spills. The system has received a vote of confidence from Natural Resources Canada, with the organization providing $1.7m to fund its ongoing development.
Using a carbon-nanotube mesh combined with other minerals and polymers, Ingenuity Lab’s system acts as a sponge that attracts and absorbs oil underwater. When it is fully saturated with oil, the mesh is then removed from the water and exposed to heat, electricity or ultraviolet light, causing it to expel the collected oil.
The oil spill cleaning system has come a long way in a remarkably short amount of time. Director of Ingenuity Lab Dr Carlo Montemango [sic] said his team was able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the membrane approximately a year ago, but is now working on developing a large-scale version of the system. “Where you might see it is being rolled off the back [of a vessel] and dragged or moved through the water. As it becomes saturated, it would be brought on board, the oil would be expelled and it would be redeployed.”
Past tests have shown the system can be remarkably effective and is capable of cleaning up 100 percent of a spill – even the heavier oil that may be trapped below the surface. The system also recovers the oil, allowing it to be reused and potentially recuperate some of the cost associated with cleaning up a spill.
The technology is far more advanced than current methods of containing a spill, which usually involve floating booms and skimming oil from the water’s surface. Ingenuity Lab’s system would make a substantial difference should the world see another event on the scale of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, or the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.
Montemango [sic] said the team is now working on developing a pilot system and beginning field tests in less than two years. “Our mission is to develop solutions to significant societal problems and challenges, and translate those solutions to the marketplace.”
I searched for more information about the new funding and found this news release (?) on the Ingenuity Lab website,
Oil is a common pollutant in oceans; more than three million metric tons of oil contaminate them every year. The accidental release of crude oil into a body of water by an oil tanker, refinery, storage facility, underwater pipeline, or offshore oil-drilling rig, is an environmental emergency. Depending on location, oil spills can be both hazardous as well as environmentally destructive. Timely cleanup is critical to protecting the integrity of the water, the shoreline, and the creatures that depend on these habitats. Due to increased scrutiny of the oil industry (with regards to its environmental record) the attention has focused on the development of new materials and technologies for removing organic contaminants; including spilled oil from waterways. Since existing methods are not sufficiently robust, nanotechnology has initiated the development of new tools using specifically designed materials suited for separations, such as the removal of crude oil from water.
Ingenuity Lab, a multidisciplinary research initiative based in Alberta, received $1.7 million in project funding for the research and development of an effective alternative for recovering heavy oil spilled in marine environments. IngenuityLab developed nanowire-based multifunctional stimuli-responsive membranes and devices capable of recovering the oil from spills.
This project will focus on the recovery of oil through the development of novel technology and devices using a variety of stimuli-responsive nanomaterials. The fabrication of reinforced membranes for oil-water separation (published in Adv. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 3: 1600445) [emphasis mine] uses carbon nanotubes (CNTs), mats, and a few other metal oxide embedded nanowire hybrid membranes. They exhibit the switchable hydrophobic property with the influence of stimuli (UV, heat, electric, etc.). The focus of using the membranes is to develop a pilot facility for separating the oil out of spills to clean the environment while recovering the valuable oils.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper I highlighted in the news release (?),
I have a few comments about this work. it’s encouraging to see these efforts to develop better technologies for cleaning up oil spills but it does seem that none of these proposed solutions ever makes it out of the laboratory. For example, I have an April 17, 2012 posting about CNT nanosponges that absorb oil and which could be wrung out and reused. More recently, I had a Dec. 7, 2015 posting featuring boron nitride nanosponges (or nanosheets) for oil spill cleanups. Personally, I prefer sponges that can be wrung out over meshes or sponges that need additional processing such as exposure ” … to heat, electricity or ultraviolet light … .” Regardless, I hope one of these days, a new oil spill cleanup technology will make its way into the field.
For those not familiar with Alberta and the oil industry, the province is a main source for the fossil fuel and, in particular, the Alberta oil sands, which environmentalists have uncategorically condemned.
This research may help to commercialize use of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), a ‘magical’ nanoscale material with great promise and great difficulties (standardizing production being one of the main difficulties). A Feb. 10, 2017 news item on phys.org describes how researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and other collaborators have recorded carbon nanotubes self-organizing,
For the first time, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists and collaborators have captured a movie of how large populations of carbon nanotubes grow and align themselves.
Understanding how carbon nanotubes (CNT) nucleate, grow and self-organize to form macroscale materials is critical for application-oriented design of next-generation supercapacitors, electronic interconnects, separation membranes and advanced yarns and fabrics.
New research by LLNL scientist Eric Meshot and colleagues from Brookhaven National Laboratory (link is external) (BNL) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (link is external) (MIT) has demonstrated direct visualization of collective nucleation and self-organization of aligned carbon nanotube films inside of an environmental transmission electron microscope (ETEM).
In a pair of studies reported in recent issues of Chemistry of Materials (link is external) and ACS Nano (link is external), the researchers leveraged a state-of-the-art kilohertz camera in an aberration-correction ETEM at BNL to capture the inherently rapid processes that govern the growth of these exciting nanostructures.
Among other phenomena discovered, the researchers are the first to provide direct proof of how mechanical competition among neighboring carbon nanotubes can simultaneously promote self-alignment while also frustrating and limiting growth.
“This knowledge may enable new pathways toward mitigating self-termination and promoting growth of ultra-dense and aligned carbon nanotube materials, which would directly impact several application spaces, some of which are being pursued here at the Laboratory,” Meshot said.
Meshot has led the CNT synthesis development at LLNL for several projects, including those supported by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (link is external) (DTRA) that use CNTs as fluidic nanochannels for applications ranging from single-molecule detection to macroscale membranes for breathable and protective garments.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the both of the papers mentioned in the news release,
Dexter Johnson has written a Jan. 19, 2017 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) about work which could lead to supplanting silicon-based transistors with carbon nanotube-based transistors in the future (Note: Links have been removed),
The end appears nigh for scaling down silicon-based complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) transistors, with some experts seeing the cutoff date as early as 2020.
While carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have long been among the nanomaterials investigated to serve as replacement for silicon in CMOS field-effect transistors (FETs) in a post-silicon future, they have always been bogged down by some frustrating technical problems. But, with some of the main technical showstoppers having been largely addressed—like sorting between metallic and semiconducting carbon nanotubes—the stage has been set for CNTs to start making their presence felt a bit more urgently in the chip industry.
Peking University scientists in China have now developed carbon nanotube field-effect transistors (CNT FETs) having a critical dimension—the gate length—of just five nanometers that would outperform silicon-based CMOS FETs at the same scale. The researchers claim in the journal Science that this marks the first time that sub-10 nanometer CNT CMOS FETs have been reported.
More importantly than just being the first, the Peking group showed that their CNT-based FETs can operate faster and at a lower supply voltage than their silicon-based counterparts.
A Jan. 20, 2017 article by Bob Yirka for phys.org provides more insight into the work at Peking University,
One of the most promising candidates is carbon nanotubes—due to their unique properties, transistors based on them could be smaller, faster and more efficient. Unfortunately, the difficulty in growing carbon nanotubes and their sometimes persnickety nature means that a way to make them and mass produce them has not been found. In this new effort, the researchers report on a method of creating carbon nanotube transistors that are suitable for testing, but not mass production.
To create the transistors, the researchers took a novel approach—instead of growing carbon nanotubes that had certain desired properties, they grew some and put them randomly on a silicon surface and then added electronics that would work with the properties they had—clearly not a strategy that would work for mass production, but one that allowed for building a carbon nanotube transistor that could be tested to see if it would verify theories about its performance. Realizing there would still be scaling problems using traditional electrodes, the researchers built a new kind by etching very tiny sheets of graphene. The result was a very tiny transistor, the team reports, capable of moving more current than a standard CMOS transistor using just half of the normal amount of voltage. It was also faster due to a much shorter switch delay, courtesy of a gate capacitance of just 70 femtoseconds.
Peking University has published an edited and more comprehensive version of the phys.org article first reported by Lisa Zyga and edited by Arthars,
Now in a new paper published in Nano Letters, researchers Tian Pei, et al., at Peking University in Beijing, China, have developed a modular method for constructing complicated integrated circuits (ICs) made from many FETs on individual CNTs. To demonstrate, they constructed an 8-bits BUS system–a circuit that is widely used for transferring data in computers–that contains 46 FETs on six CNTs. This is the most complicated CNT IC fabricated to date, and the fabrication process is expected to lead to even more complex circuits.
SEM image of an eight-transistor (8-T) unit that was fabricated on two CNTs (marked with two white dotted lines). The scale bar is 100 μm. (Copyright: 2014 American Chemical Society)
Ever since the first CNT FET was fabricated in 1998, researchers have been working to improve CNT-based electronics. As the scientists explain in their paper, semiconducting CNTs are promising candidates for replacing silicon wires because they are thinner, which offers better scaling-down potential, and also because they have a higher carrier mobility, resulting in higher operating speeds.
Yet CNT-based electronics still face challenges. One of the most significant challenges is obtaining arrays of semiconducting CNTs while removing the less-suitable metallic CNTs. Although scientists have devised a variety of ways to separate semiconducting and metallic CNTs, these methods almost always result in damaged semiconducting CNTs with degraded performance.
To get around this problem, researchers usually build ICs on single CNTs, which can be individually selected based on their condition. It’s difficult to use more than one CNT because no two are alike: they each have slightly different diameters and properties that affect performance. However, using just one CNT limits the complexity of these devices to simple logic and arithmetical gates.
The 8-T unit can be used as the basic building block of a variety of ICs other than BUS systems, making this modular method a universal and efficient way to construct large-scale CNT ICs. Building on their previous research, the scientists hope to explore these possibilities in the future.
“In our earlier work, we showed that a carbon nanotube based field-effect transistor is about five (n-type FET) to ten (p-type FET) times faster than its silicon counterparts, but uses much less energy, about a few percent of that of similar sized silicon transistors,” Peng said.
“In the future, we plan to construct large-scale integrated circuits that outperform silicon-based systems. These circuits are faster, smaller, and consume much less power. They can also work at extremely low temperatures (e.g., in space) and moderately high temperatures (potentially no cooling system required), on flexible and transparent substrates, and potentially be bio-compatible.”
The ‘artificial nose’ is not a newcomer to this blog. The most recent post prior to this is a March 15, 2016 piece about Disney using an artificial nose for art conservation. Today’s (Jan. 9, 2016) piece concerns itself with work from Israel and ‘sniffing out’ disease, according to a Dec. 30, 2016 news item in Sputnik News,
A team from the Israel Institute of Technology has developed a device that from a single breath can identify diseases such as multiple forms of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. While the machine is still in the experimental stages, it has a high degree of promise for use in non-invasive diagnoses of serious illnesses.
The international team demonstrated that a medical theory first proposed by the Greek physician Hippocrates some 2400 years ago is true, certain diseases leave a “breathprint” on the exhalations of those afflicted. The researchers created a prototype for a machine that can pick up on those diseases using the outgoing breath of a patient. The machine, called the Na-Nose, tests breath samples for the presence of trace amounts of chemicals that are indicative of 17 different illnesses.
An international team of 56 researchers in five countries has confirmed a hypothesis first proposed by the ancient Greeks – that different diseases are characterized by different “chemical signatures” identifiable in breath samples. …
Diagnostic techniques based on breath samples have been demonstrated in the past, but until now, there has not been scientific proof of the hypothesis that different and unrelated diseases are characterized by distinct chemical breath signatures. And technologies developed to date for this type of diagnosis have been limited to detecting a small number of clinical disorders, without differentiation between unrelated diseases.
The study of more than 1,400 patients included 17 different and unrelated diseases: lung cancer, colorectal cancer, head and neck cancer, ovarian cancer, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, kidney cancer, stomach cancer, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s disease (two types), multiple sclerosis, pulmonary hypertension, preeclampsia and chronic kidney disease. Samples were collected between January 2011 and June 2014 from in 14 departments at 9 medical centers in 5 countries: Israel, France, the USA, Latvia and China.
The researchers tested the chemical composition of the breath samples using an accepted analytical method (mass spectrometry), which enabled accurate quantitative detection of the chemical compounds they contained. 13 chemical components were identified, in different compositions, in all 17 of the diseases.
According to Prof. Haick, “each of these diseases is characterized by a unique fingerprint, meaning a different composition of these 13 chemical components. Just as each of us has a unique fingerprint that distinguishes us from others, each disease has a chemical signature that distinguishes it from other diseases and from a normal state of health. These odor signatures are what enables us to identify the diseases using the technology that we developed.”
With a new technology called “artificially intelligent nanoarray,” developed by Prof. Haick, the researchers were able to corroborate the clinical efficacy of the diagnostic technology. The array enables fast and inexpensive diagnosis and classification of diseases, based on “smelling” the patient’s breath, and using artificial intelligence to analyze the data obtained from the sensors. Some of the sensors are based on layers of gold nanoscale particles and others contain a random network of carbon nanotubes coated with an organic layer for sensing and identification purposes.
The study also assessed the efficiency of the artificially intelligent nanoarray in detecting and classifying various diseases using breath signatures. To verify the reliability of the system, the team also examined the effect of various factors (such as gender, age, smoking habits and geographic location) on the sample composition, and found their effect to be negligible, and without impairment on the array’s sensitivity.
“Each of the sensors responds to a wide range of exhalation components,” explain Prof. Haick and his previous Ph.D student, Dr. Morad Nakhleh, “and integration of the information provides detailed data about the unique breath signatures characteristic of the various diseases. Our system has detected and classified various diseases with an average accuracy of 86%.
This is a new and promising direction for diagnosis and classification of diseases, which is characterized not only by considerable accuracy but also by low cost, low electricity consumption, miniaturization, comfort and the possibility of repeating the test easily.”
“Breath is an excellent raw material for diagnosis,” said Prof. Haick. “It is available without the need for invasive and unpleasant procedures, it’s not dangerous, and you can sample it again and again if necessary.”
Here’s a schematic of the study, which the researchers have made available,
Diagram: A schematic view of the study. Two breath samples were taken from each subject, one was sent for chemical mapping using mass spectrometry, and the other was analyzed in the new system, which produced a clinical diagnosis based on the chemical fingerprint of the breath sample. Courtesy: Tech;nion
There is also a video, which covers much of the same ground as the press release but also includes information about the possible use of the Na-Nose technology in the European Union’s SniffPhone project,
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Diagnosis and Classification of 17 Diseases from 1404 Subjects via Pattern Analysis of Exhaled Molecules by Morad K. Nakhleh, Haitham Amal, Raneen Jeries, Yoav Y. Broza, Manal Aboud, Alaa Gharra, Hodaya Ivgi, Salam Khatib, Shifaa Badarneh, Lior Har-Shai, Lea Glass-Marmor, Izabella Lejbkowicz, Ariel Miller, Samih Badarny, Raz Winer, John Finberg, Sylvia Cohen-Kaminsky, Frédéric Perros, David Montani, Barbara Girerd, Gilles Garcia, Gérald Simonneau, Farid Nakhoul, Shira Baram, Raed Salim, Marwan Hakim, Maayan Gruber, Ohad Ronen, Tal Marshak, Ilana Doweck, Ofer Nativ, Zaher Bahouth, Da-you Shi, Wei Zhang, Qing-ling Hua, Yue-yin Pan, Li Tao, Hu Liu, Amir Karban, Eduard Koifman, Tova Rainis, Roberts Skapars, Armands Sivins, Guntis Ancans, Inta Liepniece-Karele, Ilze Kikuste, Ieva Lasina, Ivars Tolmanis, Douglas Johnson, Stuart Z. Millstone, Jennifer Fulton, John W. Wells, Larry H. Wilf, Marc Humbert, Marcis Leja, Nir Peled, and Hossam Haick. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b04930 Publication Date (Web): December 21, 2016
As for SniffPhone, they’re hoping that Na-Nose or something like it will allow them to modify smartphones in a way that will allow diseases to be detected.
I can’t help wondering who will own the data if your smartphone detects a disease. If you think that’s an idle question, here’s an excerpt from Sue Halpern’s Dec. 22, 2016 review of two books (“Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil and “Virtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy” by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice E. Stucke) for the New York Times Review of Books,
We give our data away. We give it away in drips and drops, not thinking that data brokers will collect it and sell it, let alone that it will be used against us. There are now private, unregulated DNA databases culled, in part, from DNA samples people supply to genealogical websites in pursuit of their ancestry. These samples are available online to be compared with crime scene DNA without a warrant or court order. (Police are also amassing their own DNA databases by swabbing cheeks during routine stops.) In the estimation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this will make it more likely that people will be implicated in crimes they did not commit.
Or consider the data from fitness trackers, like Fitbit. As reported in The Intercept:
During a 2013 FTC panel on “Connected Health and Fitness,” University of Colorado law professor Scott Peppet said, “I can paint an incredibly detailed and rich picture of who you are based on your Fitbit data,” adding, “That data is so high quality that I can do things like price insurance premiums or I could probably evaluate your credit score incredibly accurately.”
Halpern’s piece is well worth reading in its entirety.
Who knew that spinach leaves could be turned into electronic devices? The answer is: engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to an Oct. 31, 2016 news item on phys.org,
Spinach is no longer just a superfood: By embedding leaves with carbon nanotubes, MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone.
This is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants, an approach that the researchers call “plant nanobionics.”
“The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.
In this case, the plants were designed to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals is present in the groundwater sampled naturally by the plant, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera. The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user.
“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” says Strano, who believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.
Strano is the senior author of a paper describing the nanobionic plants in the Oct. 31  issue of Nature Materials. The paper’s lead authors are Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student who has started a company called Plantea to further develop this technology, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.
Two years ago, in the first demonstration of plant nanobionics, Strano and former MIT postdoc Juan Pablo Giraldo used nanoparticles to enhance plants’ photosynthesis ability and to turn them into sensors for nitric oxide, a pollutant produced by combustion.
Plants are ideally suited for monitoring the environment because they already take in a lot of information from their surroundings, Strano says.
“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” he says. “They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.”
Strano’s lab has previously developed carbon nanotubes that can be used as sensors to detect a wide range of molecules, including hydrogen peroxide, the explosive TNT, and the nerve gas sarin. When the target molecule binds to a polymer wrapped around the nanotube, it alters the tube’s fluorescence.
In the new study, the researchers embedded sensors for nitroaromatic compounds into the leaves of spinach plants. Using a technique called vascular infusion, which involves applying a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the leaf, they placed the sensors into a leaf layer known as the mesophyll, which is where most photosynthesis takes place.
They also embedded carbon nanotubes that emit a constant fluorescent signal that serves as a reference. This allows the researchers to compare the two fluorescent signals, making it easier to determine if the explosive sensor has detected anything. If there are any explosive molecules in the groundwater, it takes about 10 minutes for the plant to draw them up into the leaves, where they encounter the detector.
To read the signal, the researchers shine a laser onto the leaf, prompting the nanotubes in the leaf to emit near-infrared fluorescent light. This can be detected with a small infrared camera connected to a Raspberry Pi, a $35 credit-card-sized computer similar to the computer inside a smartphone. The signal could also be detected with a smartphone by removing the infrared filter that most camera phones have, the researchers say.
“This setup could be replaced by a cell phone and the right kind of camera,” Strano says. “It’s just the infrared filter that would stop you from using your cell phone.”
Using this setup, the researchers can pick up a signal from about 1 meter away from the plant, and they are now working on increasing that distance.
Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, says this approach holds great potential for engineering not only sensors but many other kinds of bionic plants that might receive radio signals or change color.
“When you have manmade materials infiltrated into a living organism, you can have plants do things that plants don’t ordinarily do,” says McAlpine, who was not involved in the research. “Once you start to think of living organisms like plants as biomaterials that can be combined with electronic materials, this is all possible.”
“A wealth of information”
In the 2014 plant nanobionics study, Strano’s lab worked with a common laboratory plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana. However, the researchers wanted to use common spinach plants for the latest study, to demonstrate the versatility of this technique. “You can apply these techniques with any living plant,” Strano says.
So far, the researchers have also engineered spinach plants that can detect dopamine, which influences plant root growth, and they are now working on additional sensors, including some that track the chemicals plants use to convey information within their own tissues.
“Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Strano says. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”
These sensors could also help botanists learn more about the inner workings of plants, monitor plant health, and maximize the yield of rare compounds synthesized by plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle, which produces drugs used to treat cancer.
“These sensors give real-time information from the plant. It is almost like having the plant talk to us about the environment they are in,” Wong says. “In the case of precision agriculture, having such information can directly affect yield and margins.”
Once getting over the excitement, questions spring to mind. How could this be implemented? Is somebody going to plant a field of spinach and then embed the leaves so they can detect landmines? How will anyone know where to plant the spinach? And on a different track, is this spinach edible? I suspect that if spinach can be successfully used as a sensor, it might not be for explosives but for pollution as the researchers suggest.
Scientists are researching devices other than batteries for wind and solar energy storage according to an Oct. 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,
Saving up excess solar and wind energy for times when the sun is down or the air is still requires a storage device. Batteries get the most attention as a promising solution although pumped hydroelectric storage is currently used most often. Now researchers reporting in ACS’ Journal of Physical Chemistry C are advancing another potential approach using sugar alcohols — an abundant waste product of the food industry — mixed with carbon nanotubes.
Electricity generation from renewables has grown steadily over recent years, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects this rise to continue. To keep up with this expansion, use of battery and flywheel energy storage has increased in the past five years, according to the EIA. These technologies take advantage of chemical and mechanical energy. But storing energy as heat is another feasible option. Some scientists have been exploring sugar alcohols as a possible material for making thermal storage work, but this direction has some limitations. Huaichen Zhang, Silvia V. Nedea and colleagues wanted to investigate how mixing carbon nanotubes with sugar alcohols might affect their energy storage properties.
The researchers analyzed what happened when carbon nanotubes of varying sizes were mixed with two types of sugar alcohols — erythritol and xylitol, both naturally occurring compounds in foods. Their findings showed that with one exception, heat transfer within a mixture decreased as the nanotube diameter decreased. They also found that in general, higher density combinations led to better heat transfer. The researchers say these new insights could assist in the future design of sugar alcohol-based energy storage systems.
Layers of graphene separated by nanotube pillars of boron nitride may be a suitable material to store hydrogen fuel in cars, according to Rice University scientists.
The Department of Energy has set benchmarks for storage materials that would make hydrogen a practical fuel for light-duty vehicles. The Rice lab of materials scientist Rouzbeh Shahsavari determined in a new computational study that pillared boron nitride and graphene could be a candidate.
Shahsavari’s lab had already determined through computer models how tough and resilient pillared graphene structures would be, and later worked boron nitride nanotubes into the mix to model a unique three-dimensional architecture. (Samples of boron nitride nanotubes seamlessly bonded to graphene have been made.)
Just as pillars in a building make space between floors for people, pillars in boron nitride graphene make space for hydrogen atoms. The challenge is to make them enter and stay in sufficient numbers and exit upon demand.
In their latest molecular dynamics simulations, the researchers found that either pillared graphene or pillared boron nitride graphene would offer abundant surface area (about 2,547 square meters per gram) with good recyclable properties under ambient conditions. Their models showed adding oxygen or lithium to the materials would make them even better at binding hydrogen.
They focused the simulations on four variants: pillared structures of boron nitride or pillared boron nitride graphene doped with either oxygen or lithium. At room temperature and in ambient pressure, oxygen-doped boron nitride graphene proved the best, holding 11.6 percent of its weight in hydrogen (its gravimetric capacity) and about 60 grams per liter (its volumetric capacity); it easily beat competing technologies like porous boron nitride, metal oxide frameworks and carbon nanotubes.
At a chilly -321 degrees Fahrenheit, the material held 14.77 percent of its weight in hydrogen.
The Department of Energy’s current target for economic storage media is the ability to store more than 5.5 percent of its weight and 40 grams per liter in hydrogen under moderate conditions. The ultimate targets are 7.5 weight percent and 70 grams per liter.
Shahsavari said hydrogen atoms adsorbed to the undoped pillared boron nitride graphene, thanks to weak van der Waals forces. When the material was doped with oxygen, the atoms bonded strongly with the hybrid and created a better surface for incoming hydrogen, which Shahsavari said would likely be delivered under pressure and would exit when pressure is released.
“Adding oxygen to the substrate gives us good bonding because of the nature of the charges and their interactions,” he said. “Oxygen and hydrogen are known to have good chemical affinity.”
He said the polarized nature of the boron nitride where it bonds with the graphene and the electron mobility of the graphene itself make the material highly tunable for applications.
“What we’re looking for is the sweet spot,” Shahsavari said, describing the ideal conditions as a balance between the material’s surface area and weight, as well as the operating temperatures and pressures. “This is only practical through computational modeling, because we can test a lot of variations very quickly. It would take experimentalists months to do what takes us only days.”
He said the structures should be robust enough to easily surpass the Department of Energy requirement that a hydrogen fuel tank be able to withstand 1,500 charge-discharge cycles.
Shayeganfar [Farzaneh Shayeganfar], a former visiting scholar at Rice, is an instructor at Shahid Rajaee Teacher Training University in Tehran, Iran.
Caption: Simulations by Rice University scientists show that pillared graphene boron nitride may be a suitable storage medium for hydrogen-powered vehicles. Above, the pink (boron) and blue (nitrogen) pillars serve as spacers for carbon graphene sheets (gray). The researchers showed the material worked best when doped with oxygen atoms (red), which enhanced its ability to adsorb and desorb hydrogen (white). Credit: Lei Tao/Rice University
It’s easy to forget how hard we are on our textiles. We rip them, step on them, agitate them in water, splatter them with mud, and more. So, what happens when we integrate batteries and electronics into them? An Oct. 20, 2016 news item on phys.org describes one of the latest ‘textile batter technologies’,
Electronics that can be embedded in clothing are a growing trend. However, power sources remain a problem. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, scientists have now introduced thin, flexible, lithium ion batteries with self-healing properties that can be safely worn on the body. Even after completely breaking apart, the battery can grow back together without significant impact on its electrochemical properties.
Existing lithium ion batteries for wearable electronics can be bent and rolled up without any problems, but can break when they are twisted too far or accidentally stepped on—which can happen often when being worn. This damage not only causes the battery to fail, it can also cause a safety problem: Flammable, toxic, or corrosive gases or liquids may leak out.
A team led by Yonggang Wang and Huisheng Peng has now developed a new family of lithium ion batteries that can overcome such accidents thanks to their amazing self-healing powers. In order for a complicated object like a battery to be made self-healing, all of its individual components must also be self-healing. The scientists from Fudan University (Shanghai, China), the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (South Korea), and the Samsung R&D Institute China, have now been able to accomplish this.
The electrodes in these batteries consist of layers of parallel carbon nanotubes. Between the layers, the scientists embedded the necessary lithium compounds in nanoparticle form (LiMn2O4 for one electrode, LiTi2(PO4)3 for the other). In contrast to conventional lithium ion batteries, the lithium compounds cannot leak out of the electrodes, either while in use or after a break. The thin layer electrodes are each fixed on a substrate of self-healing polymer. Between the electrodes is a novel, solvent-free electrolyte made from a cellulose-based gel with an aqueous lithium sulfate solution embedded in it. This gel electrolyte also serves as a separation layer between the electrodes.
After a break, it is only necessary to press the broken ends together for a few seconds for them to grow back together. Both the self-healing polymer and the carbon nanotubes “stick” back together perfectly. The parallel arrangement of the nanotubes allows them to come together much better than layers of disordered carbon nanotubes. The electrolyte also poses no problems. Whereas conventional electrolytes decompose immediately upon exposure to air, the new gel is stable. Free of organic solvents, it is neither flammable nor toxic, making it safe for this application.
The capacity and charging/discharging properties of a battery “armband” placed around a doll’s elbow were maintained, even after repeated break/self-healing cycles.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
A Self-Healing Aqueous Lithium-Ion Battery by Yang Zhao, Ye Zhang, Hao Sun, Xiaoli Dong, Jingyu Cao, Lie Wang, Yifan Xu, Jing Ren, Yunil Hwang, Dr. In Hyuk Son, Dr. Xianliang Huang, Prof. Yonggang Wang, and Prof. Huisheng Peng. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201607951 Version of Record online: 12 OCT 2016
The essay on brains and machines becoming intertwined is making the rounds. First stop on my tour was its Oct. 4, 2016 appearance on the Mail & Guardian, then there was its Oct. 3, 2016 appearance on The Conversation, and finally (moving forward in time) there was its Oct. 4, 2016 appearance on the World Economic Forum website as part of their Final Frontier series.
The essay was written by Richard Jones of Sheffield University (mentioned here many times before but most recently in a Sept. 4, 2014 posting). His book ‘Soft Machines’ provided me with an important and eminently readable introduction to nanotechnology. He is a professor of physics at the University of Sheffield and here’s more from his essay (Oct. 3, 2016 on The Conversation) about brains and machines (Note: Links have been removed),
Imagine a condition that leaves you fully conscious, but unable to move or communicate, as some victims of severe strokes or other neurological damage experience. This is locked-in syndrome, when the outward connections from the brain to the rest of the world are severed. Technology is beginning to promise ways of remaking these connections, but is it our ingenuity or the brain’s that is making it happen?
Ever since an 18th-century biologist called Luigi Galvani made a dead frog twitch we have known that there is a connection between electricity and the operation of the nervous system. We now know that the signals in neurons in the brain are propagated as pulses of electrical potential, whose effects can be detected by electrodes in close proximity. So in principle, we should be able to build an outward neural interface system – that is to say, a device that turns thought into action.
In fact, we already have the first outward neural interface system to be tested in humans. It is called BrainGate and consists of an array of micro-electrodes, implanted into the part of the brain concerned with controlling arm movements. Signals from the micro-electrodes are decoded and used to control the movement of a cursor on a screen, or the motion of a robotic arm.
A crucial feature of these systems is the need for some kind of feedback. A patient must be able to see the effect of their willed patterns of thought on the movement of the cursor. What’s remarkable is the ability of the brain to adapt to these artificial systems, learning to control them better.
You can find out more about BrainGate in my May 17, 2012 posting which also features a video of a woman controlling a mechanical arm so she can drink from a cup coffee by herself for the first time in 15 years.
Jones goes on to describe the cochlear implants (although there’s no mention of the controversy; not everyone believes they’re a good idea) and retinal implants that are currently available. Jones notes this (Note Links have been removed),
The key message of all this is that brain interfaces now are a reality and that the current versions will undoubtedly be improved. In the near future, for many deaf and blind people, for people with severe disabilities – including, perhaps, locked-in syndrome – there are very real prospects that some of their lost capabilities might be at least partially restored.
Until then, our current neural interface systems are very crude. One problem is size; the micro-electrodes in use now, with diameters of tens of microns, may seem tiny, but they are still coarse compared to the sub-micron dimensions of individual nerve fibres. And there is a problem of scale. The BrainGate system, for example, consists of 100 micro-electrodes in a square array; compare that to the many tens of billions of neurons in the brain. The fact these devices work at all is perhaps more a testament to the adaptability of the human brain than to our technological prowess.
So the challenge is to build neural interfaces on scales that better match the structures of biology. Here, we move into the world of nanotechnology. There has been much work in the laboratory to make nano-electronic structures small enough to read out the activity of a single neuron. In the 1990s, Peter Fromherz, at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, was a pioneer of using silicon field effect transistors, similar to those used in commercial microprocessors, to interact with cultured neurons. In 2006, Charles Lieber’s group at Harvard succeeded in using transistors made from single carbon nanotubes – whiskers of carbon just one nanometer in diameter – to measure the propagation of single nerve pulses along the nerve fibres.
But these successes have been achieved, not in whole organisms, but in cultured nerve cells which are typically on something like the surface of a silicon wafer. It’s going to be a challenge to extend these methods into three dimensions, to interface with a living brain. Perhaps the most promising direction will be to create a 3D “scaffold” incorporating nano-electronics, and then to persuade growing nerve cells to infiltrate it to create what would in effect be cyborg tissue – living cells and inorganic electronics intimately mixed.
For anyone interested in more about the controversy regarding cochlear implants, there’s this page on the Brown University (US) website. You might also want to check out Gregor Wolbring (professor at the University of Calgary) who has written extensively on the concept of ableism (links to his work can be found at the end of this post). I have excerpted from an Aug. 30, 2011 post the portion where Gregor defines ‘ableism’,
The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. It questions and highlights the prejudice and discrimination experienced by persons whose body structure and ability functioning were labelled as ‘impaired’ as sub species-typical. Ableism of this flavor is a set of beliefs, processes and practices, which favors species-typical normative body structure based abilities. It labels ‘sub-normative’ species-typical biological structures as ‘deficient’, as not able to perform as expected.
The disabled people rights discourse and disability studies scholars question the assumption of deficiency intrinsic to ‘below the norm’ labeled body abilities and the favoritism for normative species-typical body abilities. The discourse around deafness and Deaf Culture would be one example where many hearing people expect the ability to hear. This expectation leads them to see deafness as a deficiency to be treated through medical means. In contrast, many Deaf people see hearing as an irrelevant ability and do not perceive themselves as ill and in need of gaining the ability to hear. Within the disabled people rights framework ableism was set up as a term to be used like sexism and racism to highlight unjust and inequitable treatment.