Tag Archives: CNTs

Crowd computing for improved nanotechnology-enabled water filtration

This research is the product of a China/Israel/Switzerland collaboration on water filtration with involvement from the UK and Australia. Here’s some general information about the importance of water and about the collaboration in a July 5, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Nearly 800 million people worldwide don’t have access to safe drinking water, and some 2.5 billion people live in precariously unsanitary conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Together, unsafe drinking water and the inadequate supply of water for hygiene purposes contribute to almost 90% of all deaths from diarrheal diseases — and effective water sanitation interventions are still challenging scientists and engineers.

A new study published in Nature Nanotechnology (“Water transport inside carbon nanotubes mediated by phonon-induced oscillating friction”) proposes a novel nanotechnology-based strategy to improve water filtration. The research project involves the minute vibrations of carbon nanotubes called “phonons,” which greatly enhance the diffusion of water through sanitation filters. The project was the joint effort of a Tsinghua University-Tel Aviv University research team and was led by Prof. Quanshui Zheng of the Tsinghua Center for Nano and Micro Mechanics and Prof. Michael Urbakh of the TAU School of Chemistry, both of the TAU-Tsinghua XIN Center, in collaboration with Prof. Francois Grey of the University of Geneva.

A July 5, 2015 American Friends of Tel Aviv University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details about the work,

“We’ve discovered that very small vibrations help materials, whether wet or dry, slide more smoothly past each other,” said Prof. Urbakh. “Through phonon oscillations — vibrations of water-carrying nanotubes — water transport can be enhanced, and sanitation and desalination improved. Water filtration systems require a lot of energy due to friction at the nano-level. With these oscillations, however, we witnessed three times the efficiency of water transport, and, of course, a great deal of energy saved.”

The research team managed to demonstrate how, under the right conditions, such vibrations produce a 300% improvement in the rate of water diffusion by using computers to simulate the flow of water molecules flowing through nanotubes. The results have important implications for desalination processes and energy conservation, e.g. improving the energy efficiency for desalination using reverse osmosis membranes with pores at the nanoscale level, or energy conservation, e.g. membranes with boron nitride nanotubes.

Crowdsourcing the solution

The project, initiated by IBM’s World Community Grid, was an experiment in crowdsourced computing — carried out by over 150,000 volunteers who contributed their own computing power to the research.

“Our project won the privilege of using IBM’s world community grid, an open platform of users from all around the world, to run our program and obtain precise results,” said Prof. Urbakh. “This was the first project of this kind in Israel, and we could never have managed with just four students in the lab. We would have required the equivalent of nearly 40,000 years of processing power on a single computer. Instead we had the benefit of some 150,000 computing volunteers from all around the world, who downloaded and ran the project on their laptops and desktop computers.

“Crowdsourced computing is playing an increasingly major role in scientific breakthroughs,” Prof. Urbakh continued. “As our research shows, the range of questions that can benefit from public participation is growing all the time.”

The computer simulations were designed by Ming Ma, who graduated from Tsinghua University and is doing his postdoctoral research in Prof. Urbakh’s group at TAU. Ming catalyzed the international collaboration. “The students from Tsinghua are remarkable. The project represents the very positive cooperation between the two universities, which is taking place at XIN and because of XIN,” said Prof. Urbakh.

Other partners in this international project include researchers at the London Centre for Nanotechnology of University College London; the University of Geneva; the University of Sydney and Monash University in Australia; and the Xi’an Jiaotong University in China. The researchers are currently in discussions with companies interested in harnessing the oscillation knowhow for various commercial projects.


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

Water transport inside carbon nanotubes mediated by phonon-induced oscillating friction by Ming Ma, François Grey, Luming Shen, Michael Urbakh, Shuai Wu,    Jefferson Zhe Liu, Yilun Liu, & Quanshui Zheng. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.134 Published online 06 July 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Final comment, I find it surprising that they used labour and computing power from 150,000 volunteers and didn’t offer open access to the paper. Perhaps the volunteers got their own copy? I certainly hope so.

Tiny, electrically conductive 3D-printed chair made from cellulose

Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology researchers have just announced that they’ve printed a very small 3D chair with electrical properties using cellulose nanomaterials. From a June 17, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

A group of researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have managed to print and dry three-dimensional objects made entirely by cellulose for the first time with the help of a 3D-bioprinter. They also added carbon nanotubes to create electrically conductive material. The effect is that cellulose and other raw material based on wood will be able to compete with fossil-based plastics and metals in the on-going additive manufacturing revolution, which started with the introduction of the 3D-printer.

Here’s the 3D-printed chair,

The tiny chair made of cellulose is a demonstrational object, printed using the 3D bioprinter at Chalmers University of Technology. Photo: Peter Widing

The tiny chair made of cellulose is a demonstrational object, printed using the 3D bioprinter at Chalmers University of Technology. Photo: Peter Widing

A June 17, 2015 Chalmers University of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, describes the problem with printing from cellulose nanomaterials and how it was solved,

The difficulty using cellulose in additive manufacturing is that cellulose does not melt when heated. Therefore, the 3D printers and processes designed for printing plastics and metals cannot be used for materials like cellulose. The Chalmers researchers solved this problem by mixing cellulose nanofibrils in a hydrogel consisting of 95-99 percent water. The gel could then in turn be dispensed with high fidelity into the researchers’ 3D bioprinter, which was earlier used to produce scaffolds for growing cells, where the end application is patient-specific implants.

The next challenge was to dry the printed gel-like objects without them losing their three-dimensional shape.

“The drying process is critical,” Paul Gatenholm explains. “We have developed a process in which we freeze the objects and remove the water by different means as to control the shape of the dry objects. It is also possible to let the structure collapse in one direction, creating thin films.”

Furthermore, the cellulose gel was mixed with carbon nanotubes to create electrically conductive ink after drying. Carbon nanotubes conduct electricity, and another project at Wallenberg Wood Science Center aims at developing carbon nanotubes using wood.

Using the two gels together, one conductive and one non-conductive, and controlling the drying process, the researchers produced three-dimensional circuits, where the resolution increased significantly upon drying.

The two gels together provide a basis for the possible development of a wide range of products made by cellulose with in-built electric currents.

“Potential applications range from sensors integrated with packaging, to textiles that convert body heat to electricity, and wound dressings that can communicate with healthcare workers,” says Paul Gatenholm. “Our research group now moves on with the next challenge, to use all wood biopolymers, besides cellulose.”

The research findings are presented this week at the conference New Materials From Trees that takes place in Stockholm, Sweden, June 15-17 [2015].

The research team members are Ida Henriksson, Cristina de la Pena, Karl Håkansson, Volodymyr Kuzmenko and Paul Gatenholm at Chalmers University of Technology.

This research reminds me of another effort, a computer chip fashioned of cellulose nanofibrils (CNF) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (mentioned in my May 27, 2015 post).

* EurekAlert link added June 18, 2015.

Improving battery electrodes and air filters with a ‘transistorized’ carbon nanotube for more precise measurements

Researchers at the University of Washington (state) have been able to use carbon nanotubes to make the most precise measurements yet of the interactions between gas and carbon atoms. From a May 28, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Physicists at the University of Washington have conducted the most precise and controlled measurements yet of the interaction between the atoms and molecules that comprise air and the type of carbon surface used in battery electrodes and air filters — key information for improving those technologies.

A May 28, 2015 University of Washington news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

A team led by David Cobden, UW professor of physics, used a carbon nanotube — a seamless, hollow graphite structure a million times thinner than a drinking straw — acting as a transistor to study what happens when gas atoms come into contact with the nanotube’s surface. …

Cobden said he and co-authors found that when an atom or molecule sticks to the nanotube a tiny fraction of the charge of one electron is transferred to its surface, resulting in a measurable change in electrical resistance.

“This aspect of atoms interacting with surfaces has never been detected unambiguously before,” Cobden said. “When many atoms are stuck to the miniscule tube at the same time, the measurements reveal their collective dances, including big fluctuations that occur on warming analogous to the boiling of water.”

Lithium batteries involve lithium atoms sticking and transferring charges to carbon electrodes, and in activated charcoal filters, molecules stick to the carbon surface to be removed, Cobden explained.

“Various forms of carbon, including nanotubes, are considered for hydrogen or other fuel storage because they have a huge internal surface area for the fuel molecules to stick to. However, these technological situations are extremely complex and difficult to do precise, clear-cut measurements on.”

This work, he said, resulted in the most precise and controlled measurements of these interactions ever made, “and will allow scientists to learn new things about the interplay of atoms and molecules with a carbon surface,” important for improving technologies including batteries, electrodes and air filters.

Here’s an illustration of gas atoms adhering to a carbon nanotube provided by the researchers,

An illustration of atoms sticking to a carbon nanotube, affecting the electrons in its surface.David Cobden and students Courtesy: University of Washington (state)

An illustration of atoms sticking to a carbon nanotube, affecting the electrons in its surface.David Cobden and students Courtesy: University of Washington (state)

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

Surface electron perturbations and the collective behaviour of atoms adsorbed on a cylinder by Boris Dzyubenko, Hao-Chun Lee, Oscar E. Vilches, & David H. Cobden. Nature Physics 11, 398–402 (2015) doi:10.1038/nphys3302 Published online 20 April 2015

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

An efficient method for signal transmission from nanocomponents

A May 23, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes research into perfecting the use of nanocomponents in electronic circuits,

Physicists have developed an innovative method that could enable the efficient use of nanocomponents in electronic circuits. To achieve this, they have developed a layout in which a nanocomponent is connected to two electrical conductors, which uncouple the electrical signal in a highly efficient manner. The scientists at the Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel have published their results in the scientific journal Nature Communications together with their colleagues from ETH Zurich.

A May 22, 2015 University of Basel press release (also on EurkeAlert) describes why there is interest in smaller components and some of the challenges once electrodes can be measured in atoms,

Electronic components are becoming smaller and smaller. Components measuring just a few nanometers – the size of around ten atoms – are already being produced in research laboratories. Thanks to miniaturization, numerous electronic components can be placed in restricted spaces, which will boost the performance of electronics even further in the future.

Teams of scientists around the world are investigating how to produce such nanocomponents with the aid of carbon nanotubes. These tubes have unique properties – they offer excellent heat conduction, can withstand strong currents, and are suitable for use as conductors or semiconductors. However, signal transmission between a carbon nanotube and a significantly larger electrical conductor remains problematic as large portions of the electrical signal are lost due to the reflection of part of the signal.

Antireflex increases efficiency

A similar problem occurs with light sources inside a glass object. A large amount of light is reflected by the walls, which means that only a small proportion reaches the outside. This can be countered by using an antireflex coating on the walls.

The press release goes on to describe new technique for addressing the issue,

Led by Professor Christian Schönenberger, scientists in Basel are now taking a similar approach to nanoelectronics. They have developed an antireflex device for electrical signals to reduce the reflection that occurs during transmission from nanocomponents to larger circuits. To do so, they created a special formation of electrical conductors of a certain length, which are coupled with a carbon nanotube. The researchers were therefore able to efficiently uncouple a high-frequency signal from the nanocomponent.

Differences in impedance cause the problem

Coupling nanostructures with significantly larger conductors proved difficult because they have very different impedances. The greater the difference in impedance between two conducting structures, the greater the loss during transmission. The difference between nanocomponents and macroscopic conductors is so great that no signal will be transmitted unless countermeasures are taken. The antireflex device minimizes this effect and adjusts the impedances, leading to efficient coupling. This brings the scientists significantly closer to their goal of using nanocomponents to transmit signals in electronic parts.

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

Clean carbon nanotubes coupled to superconducting impedance-matching circuits by V. Ranjan, G. Puebla-Hellmann, M. Jung, T. Hasler, A. Nunnenkamp, M. Muoth, C. Hierold, A. Wallraff, & C. Schönenberger. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7165 doi:10.1038/ncomms8165 Published 15 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotubes sense spoiled food


Courtesy: MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

I love this .gif; it says a lot without a word. However for details, you need words and here’s what an April 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk has to say about the research illustrated by the .gif,

MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] chemists have devised an inexpensive, portable sensor that can detect gases emitted by rotting meat, allowing consumers to determine whether the meat in their grocery store or refrigerator is safe to eat.

The sensor, which consists of chemically modified carbon nanotubes, could be deployed in “smart packaging” that would offer much more accurate safety information than the expiration date on the package, says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT.

An April 14, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more from Dr. Swager,

It could also cut down on food waste, he adds. “People are constantly throwing things out that probably aren’t bad,” says Swager, who is the senior author of a paper describing the new sensor this week in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

This latest study is builds on previous work at Swager’s lab (Note: Links have been removed),

The sensor is similar to other carbon nanotube devices that Swager’s lab has developed in recent years, including one that detects the ripeness of fruit. All of these devices work on the same principle: Carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified so that their ability to carry an electric current changes in the presence of a particular gas.

In this case, the researchers modified the carbon nanotubes with metal-containing compounds called metalloporphyrins, which contain a central metal atom bound to several nitrogen-containing rings. Hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood, is a metalloporphyrin with iron as the central atom.

For this sensor, the researchers used a metalloporphyrin with cobalt at its center. Metalloporphyrins are very good at binding to nitrogen-containing compounds called amines. Of particular interest to the researchers were the so-called biogenic amines, such as putrescine and cadaverine, which are produced by decaying meat.

When the cobalt-containing porphyrin binds to any of these amines, it increases the electrical resistance of the carbon nanotube, which can be easily measured.

“We use these porphyrins to fabricate a very simple device where we apply a potential across the device and then monitor the current. When the device encounters amines, which are markers of decaying meat, the current of the device will become lower,” Liu says.

In this study, the researchers tested the sensor on four types of meat: pork, chicken, cod, and salmon. They found that when refrigerated, all four types stayed fresh over four days. Left unrefrigerated, the samples all decayed, but at varying rates.

There are other sensors that can detect the signs of decaying meat, but they are usually large and expensive instruments that require expertise to operate. “The advantage we have is these are the cheapest, smallest, easiest-to-manufacture sensors,” Swager says.

“There are several potential advantages in having an inexpensive sensor for measuring, in real time, the freshness of meat and fish products, including preventing foodborne illness, increasing overall customer satisfaction, and reducing food waste at grocery stores and in consumers’ homes,” says Roberto Forloni, a senior science fellow at Sealed Air, a major supplier of food packaging, who was not part of the research team.

The new device also requires very little power and could be incorporated into a wireless platform Swager’s lab recently developed that allows a regular smartphone to read output from carbon nanotube sensors such as this one.

The funding sources are interesting, as I am appreciating with increasing frequency these days (from the news release),

The researchers have filed for a patent on the technology and hope to license it for commercial development. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

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

Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube/Metalloporphyrin Composites for the Chemiresistive Detection of Amines and Meat Spoilage by Sophie F. Liu, Alexander R. Petty, Dr. Graham T. Sazama, and Timothy M. Swager. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201501434 Article first published online: 13 APR 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

There are other posts here about the quest to create food sensors including this Sept. 26, 2013 piece which features a critique (by another blogger) about trying to create food sensors that may be more expensive than the item they are protecting, a problem Swager claims to have overcome in an April 17, 2015 article by Ben Schiller for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Swager has set up a company to commercialize the technology and he expects to do the first demonstrations to interested clients this summer. The first applications are likely to be for food workers working with meat and fish, but there’s no reason why consumers shouldn’t get their own devices in due time.

There are efforts to create visual clues for food status. But Swager says his method is better because it doesn’t rely on perception: it produces hard data that can be logged and tracked. And it also has potential to be very cheap.

“The resistance method is a game-changer because it’s two to three orders of magnitude cheaper than other technology. It’s hard to imagine doing this cheaper,” he says.

Taking the baking out of aircraft manufacture

It seems that ovens are an essential piece of equipment when manufacturing aircraft parts but that may change if research from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) proves successful. An April 14, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes the current process and the MIT research,

Composite materials used in aircraft wings and fuselages are typically manufactured in large, industrial-sized ovens: Multiple polymer layers are blasted with temperatures up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit, and solidified to form a solid, resilient material. Using this approach, considerable energy is required first to heat the oven, then the gas around it, and finally the actual composite.

Aerospace engineers at MIT have now developed a carbon nanotube (CNT) film that can heat and solidify a composite without the need for massive ovens. When connected to an electrical power source, and wrapped over a multilayer polymer composite, the heated film stimulates the polymer to solidify.

The group tested the film on a common carbon-fiber material used in aircraft components, and found that the film created a composite as strong as that manufactured in conventional ovens — while using only 1 percent of the energy.

The new “out-of-oven” approach may offer a more direct, energy-saving method for manufacturing virtually any industrial composite, says Brian L. Wardle, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.

“Typically, if you’re going to cook a fuselage for an Airbus A350 or Boeing 787, you’ve got about a four-story oven that’s tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure that you don’t need,” Wardle says. “Our technique puts the heat where it is needed, in direct contact with the part being assembled. Think of it as a self-heating pizza. … Instead of an oven, you just plug the pizza into the wall and it cooks itself.”

Wardle says the carbon nanotube film is also incredibly lightweight: After it has fused the underlying polymer layers, the film itself — a fraction of a human hair’s diameter — meshes with the composite, adding negligible weight.

An April 14, 2015 MIT news release, which originated the news item, describes the origins of the team’s latest research, the findings, and the implications,

Carbon nanotube deicers

Wardle and his colleagues have experimented with CNT films in recent years, mainly for deicing airplane wings. The team recognized that in addition to their negligible weight, carbon nanotubes heat efficiently when exposed to an electric current.

The group first developed a technique to create a film of aligned carbon nanotubes composed of tiny tubes of crystalline carbon, standing upright like trees in a forest. The researchers used a rod to roll the “forest” flat, creating a dense film of aligned carbon nanotubes.

In experiments, Wardle and his team integrated the film into airplane wings via conventional, oven-based curing methods, showing that when voltage was applied, the film generated heat, preventing ice from forming.

The deicing tests inspired a question: If the CNT film could generate heat, why not use it to make the composite itself?

How hot can you go?

In initial experiments, the researchers investigated the film’s potential to fuse two types of aerospace-grade composite typically used in aircraft wings and fuselages. Normally the material, composed of about 16 layers, is solidified, or cross-linked, in a high-temperature industrial oven.

The researchers manufactured a CNT film about the size of a Post-It note, and placed the film over a square of Cycom 5320-1. They connected electrodes to the film, then applied a current to heat both the film and the underlying polymer in the Cycom composite layers.

The team measured the energy required to solidify, or cross-link, the polymer and carbon fiber layers, finding that the CNT film used one-hundredth the electricity required for traditional oven-based methods to cure the composite. Both methods generated composites with similar properties, such as cross-linking density.

Wardle says the results pushed the group to test the CNT film further: As different composites require different temperatures in order to fuse, the researchers looked to see whether the CNT film could, quite literally, take the heat.

“At some point, heaters fry out,” Wardle says. “They oxidize, or have different ways in which they fail. What we wanted to see was how hot could this material go.”

To do this, the group tested the film’s ability to generate higher and higher temperatures, and found it topped out at over 1,000 F. In comparison, some of the highest-temperature aerospace polymers require temperatures up to 750 F in order to solidify.

“We can process at those temperatures, which means there’s no composite we can’t process,” Wardle says. “This really opens up all polymeric materials to this technology.”

The team is working with industrial partners to find ways to scale up the technology to manufacture composites large enough to make airplane fuselages and wings.

“There needs to be some thought given to electroding, and how you’re going to actually make the electrical contact efficiently over very large areas,” Wardle says. “You’d need much less power than you are currently putting into your oven. I don’t think it’s a challenge, but it has to be done.”

Gregory Odegard, a professor of computational mechanics at Michigan Technological University, says the group’s carbon nanotube film may go toward improving the quality and efficiency of fabrication processes for large composites, such as wings on commercial aircraft. The new technique may also open the door to smaller firms that lack access to large industrial ovens.

“Smaller companies that want to fabricate composite parts may be able to do so without investing in large ovens or outsourcing,” says Odegard, who was not involved in the research. “This could lead to more innovation in the composites sector, and perhaps improvements in the performance and usage of composite materials.”

It can be interesting to find out who funds the research (from the news release),

This research was funded in part by Airbus Group, Boeing, Embraer, Lockheed Martin, Saab AB, TohoTenax, ANSYS Inc., the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and the U.S. Army Research Office.

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

Impact of carbon nanotube length on electron transport in aligned carbon nanotube networks by Jeonyoon Lee, Itai Y. Stein, Mackenzie E. Devoe, Diana J. Lewis, Noa Lachman, Seth S. Kessler, Samuel T. Buschhorn, and Brian L. Wardle. Appl. Phys. Lett. 106, 053110 (2015); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4907608

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanobionic plant materials

This is a bioinspired story with a bit of a twist. From a March 30, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Humans have been inspired by nature since the beginning of time. We mimic nature to develop new technologies, with examples ranging from machinery to pharmaceuticals to new materials. Planes are modelled on birds and many drugs have their origins in plants. Researchers at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering [ETH Zurich; Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] have taken it a step further: in order to develop an extremely sensitive temperature sensor they took a close look at temperature-sensitive plants. However, they did not mimic the properties of the plants; instead, they developed a hybrid material that contains, in addition to synthetic components, the plant cells themselves (“Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+”). [emphasis mine] “We let nature do the job for us,” explains Chiara Daraio, Professor of Mechanics and Materials.

The scientists were able to develop by far the most sensitive temperature sensor: an electronic module that changes its conductivity as a function of temperature. “No other sensor can respond to such small temperature fluctuations with such large changes in conductivity. Our sensor reacts with a responsivity at least 100 times higher compared to the best existing sensors,” says Raffaele Di Giacomo, a post-doc in Daraio’s group.

The scientists have provided an illustration of their concept using a tobacco leaf as the backdrop,

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

A March 31, 2015 ETH Zurich press release, which despite the release date originated the news item, describes the concept in more detail,

It has been known for decades that plants have the extraordinary ability to register extremely fine temperature differences and respond to them through changes in the conductivity of their cells. In doing so, plants are better than any man-made sensor so far.

Di Giacomo experimented with tobacco cells in a cell culture. “We asked ourselves how we might transfer these cells into a lifeless, dry material in such a way that their temperature-sensitive properties are preserved,” he recounts. The scientists achieved their objective by growing the cells in a medium containing tiny tubes of carbon. These electrically conductive carbon nanotubes formed a network between the tobacco cells and were also able to penetrate the cell walls. When Di Giacomo dried the nanotube-cultivated cells, he discovered a woody, firm material that he calls ‘cyberwood’. In contrast to wood, this material is electrically conductive thanks to the nanotubes, and interestingly the conductivity is temperature-dependent and extremely sensitive, just like in living tobacco cells.

The scientists considered  the new material’s (cyberwood) properties and possible future applications (from the news release),

As demonstrated by experiments, the cyberwood sensor can identify warm bodies even at distance; for example, a hand approaching the sensor from a distance of a few dozen centimetres. The sensor’s conductivity depends directly on the hand’s distance from the sensor.

According to the scientists, cyberwood could be used in a wide range of applications; for instance, in the development of a ‘touchless touchscreen’ that reacts to gestures, with the gestures recorded by multiple sensors. Equally conceivable might be heat-sensitive cameras or night-vision devices.

The Swiss researchers along with a collaborator at the University of Salerno (Italy) did further research into the origins of the material’s behaviour (from the news release),

The ETH scientists, together with a collaborator at the University of Salerno, Italy, not only subjected their new material’s properties to a detailed examination, they also analysed the origins of their extraordinary behaviour. They discovered that pectins and charged atoms (ions) play a key role in the temperature sensitivity of both living plant cells and the dry cyberwood. Pectins are sugar molecules found in plant cell walls that can be cross-linked, depending on temperature, to form a gel. Calcium and magnesium ions are both present in this gel. “As the temperature rises, the links of the pectin break apart, the gel becomes softer, and the ions can move about more freely,” explains Di Giacomo. As a result, the material conducts electricity better when temperature increases.

The news release goes on to mention a patent and future plans,

The scientists submitted a patent application for their sensor. In ongoing work, they are now further developing it such that it functions without plant cells, essentially with only pectin and ions. Their goal is to create a flexible, transparent and even biocompatible sensor with the same ultrahigh temperature sensitivity. Such a sensor could be moulded into arbitrary shapes and produced at extremely low cost. This will open the door to new applications for thermal sensors in biomedical devices, consumer products and low cost thermal cameras.

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

Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+ by Raffaele Di Giacomo, Chiara Daraio, and Bruno Maresca. Published online before print March 30, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421020112 PNAS March 30, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

What is a buckybomb?

I gather buckybombs have something to do with cancer treatments. From a March 18, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

In 1996, a trio of scientists won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery of Buckminsterfullerene — soccer-ball-shaped spheres of 60 joined carbon atoms that exhibit special physical properties.

Now, 20 years later, scientists have figured out how to turn them into Buckybombs.

These nanoscale explosives show potential for use in fighting cancer, with the hope that they could one day target and eliminate cancer at the cellular level — triggering tiny explosions that kill cancer cells with minimal impact on surrounding tissue.

“Future applications would probably use other types of carbon structures — such as carbon nanotubes, but we started with Bucky-balls because they’re very stable, and a lot is known about them,” said Oleg V. Prezhdo, professor of chemistry at the USC [University of Southern California] Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and corresponding author of a paper on the new explosives that was published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry on February 24 [2015].

A March 19, 2015 USC news release by Robert Perkins, which despite its publication date originated the news item, describes current cancer treatments with carbon nanotubes and this new technique with fullerenes,

Carbon nanotubes, close relatives of Bucky-balls, are used already to treat cancer. They can be accumulated in cancer cells and heated up by a laser, which penetrates through surrounding tissues without affecting them and directly targets carbon nanotubes. Modifying carbon nanotubes the same way as the Buckybombs will make the cancer treatment more efficient — reducing the amount of treatment needed, Prezhdo said.

To build the miniature explosives, Prezhdo and his colleagues attached 12 nitrous oxide molecules to a single Bucky-ball and then heated it. Within picoseconds, the Bucky-ball disintegrated — increasing temperature by thousands of degrees in a controlled explosion.

The source of the explosion’s power is the breaking of powerful carbon bonds, which snap apart to bond with oxygen from the nitrous oxide, resulting in the creation of carbon dioxide, Prezhdo said.

I’m glad this technique would make treatment more effective but I do pause at the thought of having exploding buckyballs in my body or, for that matter, anyone else’s.

The research was highlighted earlier this month in a March 5, 2015 article by Lisa Zynga for phys.org,

The buckybomb combines the unique properties of two classes of materials: carbon structures and energetic nanomaterials. Carbon materials such as C60 can be chemically modified fairly easily to change their properties. Meanwhile, NO2 groups are known to contribute to detonation and combustion processes because they are a major source of oxygen. So, the scientists wondered what would happen if NO2 groups were attached to C60 molecules: would the whole thing explode? And how?

The simulations answered these questions by revealing the explosion in step-by-step detail. Starting with an intact buckybomb (technically called dodecanitrofullerene, or C60(NO2)12), the researchers raised the simulated temperature to 1000 K (700 °C). Within a picosecond (10-12 second), the NO2 groups begin to isomerize, rearranging their atoms and forming new groups with some of the carbon atoms from the C60. As a few more picoseconds pass, the C60 structure loses some of its electrons, which interferes with the bonds that hold it together, and, in a flash, the large molecule disintegrates into many tiny pieces of diatomic carbon (C2). What’s left is a mixture of gases including CO2, NO2, and N2, as well as C2.

I encourage you to read Zynga’s article in whole as she provides more scientific detail and she notes that this discovery could have applications for the military and for industry.

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

Buckybomb: Reactive Molecular Dynamics Simulation by Vitaly V. Chaban, Eudes Eterno Fileti, and Oleg V. Prezhdo. J. Phys. Chem. Lett., 2015, 6 (5), pp 913–917 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.5b00120 Publication Date (Web): February 24, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Spinal cords, brains, implants, and remote control

I have two items about implants and brains and an item about being able to exert remote control of the brain, all of which hint at a cyborg future for at least a few of us.

e-Dura, the spinal column, and the brain

The first item concerns some research, at the École Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) which features flexible electronics. From a March 24, 2015 article by Ben Schiller for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, have developed the e-Dura—a tiny skinlike device that attaches directly to damaged spinal cords. By sending out small electrical pulses, it stimulates the cord as if it were receiving signals from the brain, thus allowing movement.

“The purpose of the neuro-prosthesis is to excite the neurons that are on the spinal cord below the site of the injury and activate them, just like if they were receiving information from the brain,” says Stéphanie Lacour, a professor at the institute.

A January 8, 2015 (?) EPFL press release provides more information about the research,

EPFL scientists have managed to get rats walking on their own again using a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation. But applying this method to humans would require multifunctional implants that could be installed for long periods of time on the spinal cord without causing any tissue damage. This is precisely what the teams of professors Stéphanie Lacour and Grégoire Courtine have developed. Their e-Dura implant is designed specifically for implantation on the surface of the brain or spinal cord. The small device closely imitates the mechanical properties of living tissue, and can simultaneously deliver electric impulses and pharmacological substances. The risks of rejection and/or damage to the spinal cord have been drastically reduced. An article about the implant will appear in early January [2015] in Science Magazine.

So-called “surface implants” have reached a roadblock; they cannot be applied long term to the spinal cord or brain, beneath the nervous system’s protective envelope, otherwise known as the “dura mater,” because when nerve tissues move or stretch, they rub against these rigid devices. After a while, this repeated friction causes inflammation, scar tissue buildup, and rejection.

Here’s what the implant looks like,

Courtesy: EPFL

Courtesy: EPFL

The press release describes how the implant is placed (Note: A link has been removed),

Flexible and stretchy, the implant developed at EPFL is placed beneath the dura mater, directly onto the spinal cord. Its elasticity and its potential for deformation are almost identical to the living tissue surrounding it. This reduces friction and inflammation to a minimum. When implanted into rats, the e-Dura prototype caused neither damage nor rejection, even after two months. More rigid traditional implants would have caused significant nerve tissue damage during this period of time.

The researchers tested the device prototype by applying their rehabilitation protocol — which combines electrical and chemical stimulation – to paralyzed rats. Not only did the implant prove its biocompatibility, but it also did its job perfectly, allowing the rats to regain the ability to walk on their own again after a few weeks of training.

“Our e-Dura implant can remain for a long period of time on the spinal cord or the cortex, precisely because it has the same mechanical properties as the dura mater itself. This opens up new therapeutic possibilities for patients suffering from neurological trauma or disorders, particularly individuals who have become paralyzed following spinal cord injury,” explains Lacour, co-author of the paper, and holder of EPFL’s Bertarelli Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology.

The press release goes on to describe the engineering achievements,

Developing the e-Dura implant was quite a feat of engineering. As flexible and stretchable as living tissue, it nonetheless includes electronic elements that stimulate the spinal cord at the point of injury. The silicon substrate is covered with cracked gold electric conducting tracks that can be pulled and stretched. The electrodes are made of an innovative composite of silicon and platinum microbeads. They can be deformed in any direction, while still ensuring optimal electrical conductivity. Finally, a fluidic microchannel enables the delivery of pharmacological substances – neurotransmitters in this case – that will reanimate the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue.

The implant can also be used to monitor electrical impulses from the brain in real time. When they did this, the scientists were able to extract with precision the animal’s motor intention before it was translated into movement.

“It’s the first neuronal surface implant designed from the start for long-term application. In order to build it, we had to combine expertise from a considerable number of areas,” explains Courtine, co-author and holder of EPFL’s IRP Chair in Spinal Cord Repair. “These include materials science, electronics, neuroscience, medicine, and algorithm programming. I don’t think there are many places in the world where one finds the level of interdisciplinary cooperation that exists in our Center for Neuroprosthetics.”

For the time being, the e-Dura implant has been primarily tested in cases of spinal cord injury in paralyzed rats. But the potential for applying these surface implants is huge – for example in epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and pain management. The scientists are planning to move towards clinical trials in humans, and to develop their prototype in preparation for commercialization.

EPFL has provided a video of researcher Stéphanie Lacour describing e-Dura and expressing hopes for its commercialization,

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

Electronic dura mater for long-term multimodal neural interfaces by Ivan R. Minev, Pavel Musienko, Arthur Hirsch, Quentin Barraud, Nikolaus Wenger, Eduardo Martin Moraud, Jérôme Gandar, Marco Capogrosso, Tomislav Milekovic, Léonie Asboth, Rafael Fajardo Torres, Nicolas Vachicouras, Qihan Liu, Natalia Pavlova, Simone Duis, Alexandre Larmagnac, Janos Vörös, Silvestro Micera, Zhigang Suo, Grégoire Courtine, Stéphanie P. Lacour. Science 9 January 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6218 pp. 159-163 DOI: 10.1126/science.1260318

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotube fibres could connect to the brain

Researchers at Rice University (Texas, US) are excited about the possibilities that carbon nanotube fibres offer in the field of implantable electronics for the brain. From a March 25, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Carbon nanotube fibers invented at Rice University may provide the best way to communicate directly with the brain.

The fibers have proven superior to metal electrodes for deep brain stimulation and to read signals from a neuronal network. Because they provide a two-way connection, they show promise for treating patients with neurological disorders while monitoring the real-time response of neural circuits in areas that control movement, mood and bodily functions.

New experiments at Rice demonstrated the biocompatible fibers are ideal candidates for small, safe electrodes that interact with the brain’s neuronal system, according to the researchers. They could replace much larger electrodes currently used in devices for deep brain stimulation therapies in Parkinson’s disease patients.

They may also advance technologies to restore sensory or motor functions and brain-machine interfaces as well as deep brain stimulation therapies for other neurological disorders, including dystonia and depression, the researchers wrote.

A March 25, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, provides more details,

The fibers created by the Rice lab of chemist and chemical engineer Matteo Pasquali consist of bundles of long nanotubes originally intended for aerospace applications where strength, weight and conductivity are paramount.

The individual nanotubes measure only a few nanometers across, but when millions are bundled in a process called wet spinning, they become thread-like fibers about a quarter the width of a human hair.

“We developed these fibers as high-strength, high-conductivity materials,” Pasquali said. “Yet, once we had them in our hand, we realized that they had an unexpected property: They are really soft, much like a thread of silk. Their unique combination of strength, conductivity and softness makes them ideal for interfacing with the electrical function of the human body.”

The simultaneous arrival in 2012 of Caleb Kemere, a Rice assistant professor who brought expertise in animal models of Parkinson’s disease, and lead author Flavia Vitale, a research scientist in Pasquali’s lab with degrees in chemical and biomedical engineering, prompted the investigation.

“The brain is basically the consistency of pudding and doesn’t interact well with stiff metal electrodes,” Kemere said. “The dream is to have electrodes with the same consistency, and that’s why we’re really excited about these flexible carbon nanotube fibers and their long-term biocompatibility.”

Weeks-long tests on cells and then in rats with Parkinson’s symptoms proved the fibers are stable and as efficient as commercial platinum electrodes at only a fraction of the size. The soft fibers caused little inflammation, which helped maintain strong electrical connections to neurons by preventing the body’s defenses from scarring and encapsulating the site of the injury.

The highly conductive carbon nanotube fibers also show much more favorable impedance – the quality of the electrical connection — than state-of-the-art metal electrodes, making for better contact at lower voltages over long periods, Kemere said.

The working end of the fiber is the exposed tip, which is about the width of a neuron. The rest is encased with a three-micron layer of a flexible, biocompatible polymer with excellent insulating properties.

The challenge is in placing the tips. “That’s really just a matter of having a brain atlas, and during the experiment adjusting the electrodes very delicately and putting them into the right place,” said Kemere, whose lab studies ways to connect signal-processing systems and the brain’s memory and cognitive centers.

Doctors who implant deep brain stimulation devices start with a recording probe able to “listen” to neurons that emit characteristic signals depending on their functions, Kemere said. Once a surgeon finds the right spot, the probe is removed and the stimulating electrode gently inserted. Rice carbon nanotube fibers that send and receive signals would simplify implantation, Vitale said.

The fibers could lead to self-regulating therapeutic devices for Parkinson’s and other patients. Current devices include an implant that sends electrical signals to the brain to calm the tremors that afflict Parkinson’s patients.

“But our technology enables the ability to record while stimulating,” Vitale said. “Current electrodes can only stimulate tissue. They’re too big to detect any spiking activity, so basically the clinical devices send continuous pulses regardless of the response of the brain.”

Kemere foresees a closed-loop system that can read neuronal signals and adapt stimulation therapy in real time. He anticipates building a device with many electrodes that can be addressed individually to gain fine control over stimulation and monitoring from a small, implantable device.

“Interestingly, conductivity is not the most important electrical property of the nanotube fibers,” Pasquali said. “These fibers are intrinsically porous and extremely stable, which are both great advantages over metal electrodes for sensing electrochemical signals and maintaining performance over long periods of time.”

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

Neural Stimulation and Recording with Bidirectional, Soft Carbon Nanotube Fiber Microelectrodes by Flavia Vitale, Samantha R. Summerson, Behnaam Aazhang, Caleb Kemere, and Matteo Pasquali. ACS Nano, Just Accepted Manuscript DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b01060 Publication Date (Web): March 24, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

The paper is open access provided you register on the website.

Remote control for stimulation of the brain

Mo Costandi, neuroscientist and freelance science writer, has written a March 24, 2015 post for the Guardian science blog network focusing on neuronal remote control,

Two teams of scientists have developed new ways of stimulating neurons with nanoparticles, allowing them to activate brain cells remotely using light or magnetic fields. The new methods are quicker and far less invasive than other hi-tech methods available, so could be more suitable for potential new treatments for human diseases.

Researchers have various methods for manipulating brain cell activity, arguably the most powerful being optogenetics, which enables them to switch specific brain cells on or off with unprecedented precision, and simultaneously record their behaviour, using pulses of light.

This is very useful for probing neural circuits and behaviour, but involves first creating genetically engineered mice with light-sensitive neurons, and then inserting the optical fibres that deliver light into the brain, so there are major technical and ethical barriers to its use in humans.

Nanomedicine could get around this. Francisco Bezanilla of the University of Chicago and his colleagues knew that gold nanoparticles can absorb light and convert it into heat, and several years ago they discovered that infrared light can make neurons fire nervous impulses by heating up their cell membranes.

Polina Anikeeva’s team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adopted a slightly different approach, using spherical iron oxide particles that give off heat when exposed to an alternating magnetic field.

Although still in the experimental stages, research like this may eventually allow for wireless and minimally invasive deep brain stimulation of the human brain. Bezanilla’s group aim to apply their method to develop treatments for macular degeneration and other conditions that kill off light-sensitive cells in the retina. This would involve injecting nanoparticles into the eye so that they bind to other retinal cells, allowing natural light to excite them into firing impulses to the optic nerve.

Costandi’s article is intended for an audience that either understands the science or can deal with the uncertainty of not understanding absolutely everything. Provided you fall into either of those categories, the article is well written and it provides links and citations to the papers for both research teams being featured.

Taken together, the research at EPFL, Rice University, University of Chicago, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides a clue as to how much money and intellectual power is being directed at the brain.

* EurekAlert link added on March 26, 2015.

Carbon nanotube commercialization report from the US National Nanotechnology Initiative

Apparently a workshop on the topic commercializing carbon nanotubes was held in Washington, DC. in Sept. 2014. A March 12, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (originated by  March 12, 2015 US National Nanotechnology Initiative news release on EurekAlert) announces the outcome of that workshop (Note: Links have been removed),

The National Nanotechnology Initiative today published the proceedings of a technical interchange meeting on “Realizing the Promise of Carbon Nanotubes: Challenges, Opportunities, and the Pathway to Commercialization” (pdf), held at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Headquarters on September 15, 2014. This meeting brought together some of the Nation’s leading experts in carbon nanotube materials to identify, discuss, and report on technical barriers to the production of carbon nanotube (CNT)-based bulk and composite materials with properties that more closely match those of individual CNTs and to explore ways to overcome these barriers.

The outcomes of this meeting, as detailed in this report, will help inform the future directions of the NNI Nanotechnology Signature Initiative “Sustainable Nanomanufacturing: Creating the Industries of the Future”, which was launched in 2010 to accelerate the development of industrial-scale methods for manufacturing functional nanoscale systems.

The Technical Interchange Proceedings ‘Realizing the Promise of Carbon Nanotubes: Challenges, Opportunities, and the Pathway to Commercialization‘ (30 pp. PDF) describes areas for improvement in its executive summary,

A number of common themes and areas requiring focused attention were identified:

● Increased efforts devoted to manufacturing, quality control, and scale-up are needed. The development of a robust supply of CNT bulk materials with well-controlled properties would greatly enhance commercialization and spur use in a broad range of applications.
● Improvements are needed in the mechanical and electrical properties of CNT-based bulk materials (composites, sheets, and fibers) to approach the properties of individual CNTs. The development of bulk materials with properties nearing ideal CNT values would accelerate widespread adoption of these materials.
● More effective use of simulation and modeling is needed to provide insight into the fundamentals of the CNT growth process. Theoretical insight into the fundamentals of the growth process will inform the development of processes capable of producing high-quality material in quantity.
● Work is needed to help develop an understanding of the properties of bulk CNT-containing materials at longer length scales. Longer length scale understanding will enable the development of predictive models of structure–process–properties relationships and structural design technology tailored to take advantage of CNT properties.
● Standard materials and protocols are needed to guide the testing of CNT-based products for commercial applications. Advances in measurement methods are also required to characterize bulk CNT material properties and to understand the mechanism(s) of failure to help ensure material reliability.
● Life cycle assessments are needed for gauging commercial readiness. Life cycle assessments should include energy usage, performance lifetime, and degradation or disposal of CNT-based products.
● Collaboration to leverage resources and expertise is needed to advance commercialization of CNT-based products. Coordinated, focused efforts across academia, government laboratories, and industry to target grand challenges with support from public–private partnerships would accelerate efforts to provide solutions to overcome these technical barriers.

This meeting identified a number of the technical barriers that need to be overcome to make the promise of carbon nanotubes a reality. A more concerted effort is needed to focus R&D activities towards addressing these barriers and accelerating commercialization. The outcomes from this meeting will inform the future directions of the NNI Nanomanufacturing Signature Initiative and provide specific areas that warrant broader focus in the CNT research community. [p. vii print; p. 9 PDF]

This report, in its final section, explains the basis for the interest in and the hopes for carbon nanotubes,

Improving the electrical and mechanical properties of bulk carbon nanotube materials (yarns, fibers, wires, sheets, and composites) to more closely match those of individual carbon nanotubes will enable a revolution in materials that will have a broad impact on U.S. industries, global competitiveness, and the environment. Use of composites reinforced with high-strength carbon nanotube fibers in terrestrial and air transportation vehicles could enable a 25% reduction in their overall weight, reduce U.S. oil consumption by nearly 6 million barrels per day by 2035 [42], and reduce worldwide consumption of petroleum and other liquid fuels by 25%. This would result in the reduction of CO2 emissions by as much as 3.75 billion metric tons per year. Use of carbon nanotube-based data and power cables would lead to further reductions in vehicle weight, fuel consumption, and CO2 emissions. For example, replacement of the copper wiring in a Boeing 777 with CNT data and power cables that are 50% lighter would enable a 2,000-pound reduction in airplane weight. Use of carbon nanotube wiring in power distribution lines would reduce transmission losses by approximately 41 billion kilowatt hours annually [42], leading to significant savings in coal and gas consumption and reductions in the electric power industry’s carbon footprint.

The impact of developing these materials on U.S. global competitiveness is also significant. For example, global demand for carbon fibers is expected to grow from 46,000 metric tons per year in 2011 to more than 153,000 metric tons in 2020 due to the exponential growth in the use of composites in commercial aircraft, automobiles, aerospace, and wind energy [43]. Ultrahigh-strength CNT fibers would be highly attractive in each of these applications because they offer the advantage of reduced weight and improved performance over conventional carbon fibers. [p. 10 print; p. 20 PDF]

As these things go, this is a very short document, which makes it a fast read, and it has a reference list, something I always find useful.

My colleague, Dexter Johnson in a March 17, 2015 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) provides some background information before launching into an analysis of the report’s recommendations (Note: Links have been removed),

In the last half-a-decade we have witnessed once-beloved carbon nanotubes (CNTs) slowly being eclipsed by graphene as the “wonder material” of the nanomaterial universe.

This changing of the guard has occurred primarily within the research community, where the amount of papers being published about graphene seems to be steadily increasing. But in terms of commercial development, CNTs still have a leg up on graphene, finding increasing use in creating light but strong composites. Nonetheless, the commercial prospects for CNTs have been taking hits recently, with some producers scaling down capacity because of lack of demand.

With this as the backdrop, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), famous for its estimate back in 2001 that the market for nanotechnology will be worth $1 trillion by 2015,  has released a report based on a meeting held last September. …

I recommend reading Dexter’s analysis.