Tag Archives: CNTs

Bomb-sniffing and other sniffing possibilities from Utah (US state)

A Nov. 4, 2014 news item on Phys.org features some research in Utah on the use of carbon nanotubes for sensing devices,

University of Utah engineers have developed a new type of carbon nanotube material for handheld sensors that will be quicker and better at sniffing out explosives, deadly gases and illegal drugs.

A carbon nanotube is a cylindrical material that is a hexagonal or six-sided array of carbon atoms rolled up into a tube. Carbon nanotubes are known for their strength and high electrical conductivity and are used in products from baseball bats and other sports equipment to lithium-ion batteries and touchscreen computer displays.

Vaporsens, a university spin-off company, plans to build a prototype handheld sensor by year’s end and produce the first commercial scanners early next year, says co-founder Ling Zang, a professor of materials science and engineering and senior author of a study of the technology published online Nov. 4 [2014] in the journal Advanced Materials.

The new kind of nanotubes also could lead to flexible solar panels that can be rolled up and stored or even “painted” on clothing such as a jacket, he adds.

Here’s Ling Zang holding a prototype of the device,

Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering, holds a prototype detector that uses a new type of carbon nanotube material for use in handheld scanners to detect explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Zang and colleagues developed the new material, which will make such scanners quicker and more sensitive than today’s standard detection devices. Ling’s spinoff company, Vaporsens, plans to produce commercial versions of the new kind of scanner early next year. Courtesy: University of Utah

Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering, holds a prototype detector that uses a new type of carbon nanotube material for use in handheld scanners to detect explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Zang and colleagues developed the new material, which will make such scanners quicker and more sensitive than today’s standard detection devices. Ling’s spinoff company, Vaporsens, plans to produce commercial versions of the new kind of scanner early next year. Courtesy: University of Utah

A Nov. 4, 2014 University of Utah news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

Zang and his team found a way to break up bundles of the carbon nanotubes with a polymer and then deposit a microscopic amount on electrodes in a prototype handheld scanner that can detect toxic gases such as sarin or chlorine, or explosives such as TNT.

When the sensor detects molecules from an explosive, deadly gas or drugs such as methamphetamine, they alter the electrical current through the nanotube materials, signaling the presence of any of those substances, Zang says.

“You can apply voltage between the electrodes and monitor the current through the nanotube,” says Zang, a professor with USTAR, the Utah Science Technology and Research economic development initiative. “If you have explosives or toxic chemicals caught by the nanotube, you will see an increase or decrease in the current.”

By modifying the surface of the nanotubes with a polymer, the material can be tuned to detect any of more than a dozen explosives, including homemade bombs, and about two-dozen different toxic gases, says Zang. The technology also can be applied to existing detectors or airport scanners used to sense explosives or chemical threats.

Zang says scanners with the new technology “could be used by the military, police, first responders and private industry focused on public safety.”

Unlike the today’s detectors, which analyze the spectra of ionized molecules of explosives and chemicals, the Utah carbon-nanotube technology has four advantages:

• It is more sensitive because all the carbon atoms in the nanotube are exposed to air, “so every part is susceptible to whatever it is detecting,” says study co-author Ben Bunes, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering.

• It is more accurate and generates fewer false positives, according to lab tests.

• It has a faster response time. While current detectors might find an explosive or gas in minutes, this type of device could do it in seconds, the tests showed.

• It is cost-effective because the total amount of the material used is microscopic.

This study was funded by the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, National Science Foundation and NASA. …

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

Photodoping and Enhanced Visible Light Absorption in Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes Functionalized with a Wide Band Gap Oligomer by Benjamin R. Bunes, Miao Xu, Yaqiong Zhang, Dustin E. Gross, Avishek Saha, Daniel L. Jacobs, Xiaomei Yang, Jeffrey S. Moore, and Ling Zang. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201404112 Article first published online: 4 NOV 2014

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone curious about Vaporsens, you can find more here.

Nanozen: protecting us from nanoparticles (maybe)

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

The article starts off in an unexceptionable manner,

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

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

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

It seems ominous and is made more so with this,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA, super-black nanotechnology, and an International Space Station livestreamed event

A super-black nanotechnology-enabled coating (first mentioned here in a July 18, 2013 posting featuring work by John Hagopian, an optics engineer at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA’s] Goddard Space Flight Center on this project) is about to be tested in outer space. From an Oct. 23, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

An emerging super-black nanotechnology that is to be tested for the first time this fall on the International Space Station will be applied to a complex, 3-D component critical for suppressing stray light in a new, smaller, less-expensive solar coronagraph designed to ultimately fly on the orbiting outpost or as a hosted payload on a commercial satellite.

The super-black carbon-nanotube coating, whose development is six years in the making, is a thin, highly uniform coating of multi-walled nanotubes made of pure carbon about 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair. Recently delivered to the International Space Station for testing, the coating is considered especially promising as a technology to reduce stray light, which can overwhelm faint signals that sensitive detectors are supposed to retrieve.

An Oct. 24, 2014 NASA news release by Lori Keesey, which originated the news item, further describes the work being done on the ground simultaneous to the tests on the International Space Station,

While the coating undergoes testing to determine its robustness in space, a team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will apply the carbon-nanotube coating to a complex, cylindrically shaped baffle — a component that helps reduce stray light in telescopes.

Goddard optical engineer Qian Gong designed the baffle for a compact solar coronagraph that Principal Investigator Nat Gopalswamy is now developing. The goal is [to] build a solar coronagraph that could deploy on the International Space Station or as a hosted payload on a commercial satellite — a much-needed capability that could guarantee the continuation of important space weather-related measurements.

The effort will help determine whether the carbon nanotubes are as effective as black paint, the current state-of-the-art technology, for absorbing stray light in complex space instruments and components.

Preventing errant light is an especially tricky challenge for Gopalswamy’s team. “We have to have the right optical system and the best baffles going,” said Doug Rabin, a Goddard heliophysicist who studies diffraction and stray light in coronagraphs.

The new compact coronagraph — designed to reduce the mass, volume, and cost of traditional coronagraphs by about 50 percent — will use a single set of lenses, rather than a conventional three-stage system, to image the solar corona, and more particularly, coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These powerful bursts of solar material erupt and hurdle across the solar system, sometimes colliding with Earth’s protective magnetosphere and posing significant hazards to spacecraft and astronauts.

“Compact coronagraphs make greater demands on controlling stray light and diffraction,” Rabin explained, adding that the corona is a million times fainter than the sun’s photosphere. Coating the baffle or occulter with the carbon-nanotube material should improve the component’s overall performance by preventing stray light from reaching the focal plane and contaminating measurements.

The project is well timed and much needed, Rabin added.

Currently, the heliophysics community receives coronagraphic measurements from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO).

“SOHO, which we launched in 1995, is one of our Great Observatories,” Rabin said. “But it won’t last forever.” Although somewhat newer, STEREO has operated in space since 2006. “If one of these systems fails, it will affect a lot of people inside and outside NASA, who study the sun and forecast space weather. Right now, we have no scheduled mission that will carry a solar coronagraph. We would like to get a compact coronagraph up there as soon as possible,” Rabin added.

Ground-based laboratory testing indicates it could be a good fit. Testing has proven that the coating absorbs 99.5 percent of the light in the ultraviolet and visible and 99.8 percent in the longer infrared bands due to the fact that the carbon atoms occupying the tiny nested tubes absorb the light and prevent it from reflecting off surfaces, said Goddard optics engineer John Hagopian, who is leading the technology’s advancement. Because only a tiny fraction of light reflects off the coating, the human eye and sensitive detectors see the material as black — in this case, extremely black.

“We’ve made great progress on the coating,” Hagopian said. “The fact the coatings have survived the trip to the space station already has raised the maturity of the technology to a level that qualifies them for flight use. In many ways the external exposure of the samples on the space station subjects them to a much harsher environment than components will ever see inside of an instrument.”

Given the need for a compact solar coronagraph, Hagopian said he’s especially excited about working with the instrument team. “This is an important instrument-development effort, and, of course, one that could showcase the effectiveness of our technology on 3-D parts,” he said, adding that the lion’s share of his work so far has concentrated on 2-D applications.

By teaming with Goddard technologist Vivek Dwivedi, Hagopian believes the baffle project now is within reach. Dwivedi is advancing a technique called atomic layer deposition (ALD) that lays down a catalyst layer necessary for carbon-nanotube growth on complex, 3-D parts. “Previous ALD chambers could only hold objects a few millimeters high, while the chamber Vivek has developed for us can accommodate objects 20 times bigger; a necessary step for baffles of this type,” Hagopian said.

Other NASA researchers have flown carbon nanotubes on the space station, but their samples were designed for structural applications, not stray-light suppression — a completely different use requiring that the material demonstrate greater absorption properties, Hagopian said.

“We have extreme stray light requirements. Let’s see how this turns out,” Rabin said.

The researchers from NASA have kindly made available an image of a baffle prior to receiving its super-black coating,

This is a close-up view of a baffle that will be coated with a carbon-nanotube coating. Image Credit:  NASA Goddard/Paul Nikulla

This is a close-up view of a baffle that will be coated with a carbon-nanotube coating.
Image Credit: NASA Goddard/Paul Nikulla

There’s more information about the project in this August 12, 2014 NASA news release first announcing the upcoming test.

Serendipitously or not, NASA is hosting an interactive Space Technology Forum on Oct. 27, 2014 (this coming Monday) focusing on technologies being demonstrated on the International Space Station (ISS) according to an Oct. 20, 2014 NASA media advisory,

Media are invited to interact with NASA experts who will answer questions about technologies being demonstrated on the International Space Station (ISS) during “Destination Station: ISS Technology Forum” from 10 to 11 a.m. EDT (9 to 10 a.m. CDT [7 to 8 am PDT]) Monday, Oct. 27, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The forum will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The Destination Station forums are a series of live, interactive panel discussions about the space station. This is the second in the series, and it will feature a discussion on how technologies are tested aboard the orbiting laboratory. Thousands of investigations have been performed on the space station, and although they provide benefits to people on Earth, they also prepare NASA to send humans farther into the solar system than ever before.

Forum panelists and exhibits will focus on space station environmental and life support systems; 3-D printing; Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) systems; and Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES).

The forum’s panelists are:
– Jeffrey Sheehy, senior technologist in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate
– Robyn Gatens, manager for space station System and Technology Demonstration, and Environmental Control Life Support System expert
– Jose Benavides, SPHERES chief engineer
– Rich Reinhart, principal investigator for the SCaN Testbed
– Niki Werkeiser, project manager for the space station 3-D printer

During the forum, questions will be taken from the audience, including media, students and social media participants. Online followers may submit questions via social media using the hashtag, #asknasa. [emphasis mine] …

The “Destination Station: ISS Technology Forum” coincides with the 7th Annual Von Braun Memorial Symposium at the University of Alabama in Huntsville Oct. 27-29. Media can attend the three-day symposium, which features NASA officials, including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operation William Gerstenmaier and Assistant Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill. Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency, will be a special guest speaker. Representatives from industry and academia also will be participating.

For NASA TV streaming video, scheduling and downlink information, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

For more information on the International Space Station and its crews, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/station

I have checked out the livestreaming/tv site and it appears that registration is not required for access. Sadly, I don’t see any the ‘super-black’ coating team members mentioned in the news release on the list of forum participants.

ETA Oct. 27, 2014: You can check out Dexter Johnson’s Oct. 24, 2014 posting on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website for a little more information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Replacing copper wire in motors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The researchers have produced this video about their research,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Kickstarters,

Thanks for taking the time check out our campaign.

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian Li

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teijin Aramid/Rice University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBM weighs in with plans for a 7nm computer chip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 nanometer technology and beyond

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

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

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

Bridge to a “Post-Silicon” Era

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

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

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

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

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

Quantum Computing

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

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

Neurosynaptic Computing

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

Silicon Photonics

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

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

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

III-V technologies

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

Carbon Nanotubes

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

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

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

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

Graphene

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

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

Next Generation Low Power Transistors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silicon versus Nanomaterials

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

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

The relationship between Valyrian steel (from Game of Thrones), Damascus steel, and nuclear nanotechnology

There’s a very interesting June 20, 2014 posting by Charles Day on his Dayside blog (located on the Physics Today website). Day manages to relate the Game of Thrones tv series to nuclear power and nanotechnology,

The military technology of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, is medieval with an admixture of the supernatural. Dragons aside, among the most prized weapons are swords made from Valyrian steel, which are lighter, stronger, and sharper than ordinary steel swords.

Like many of the features in the rich world of the novels and their TV adaptation, Game of Thrones, Valyrian steel has a historical inspiration. Sometime before 300 BC, metalworkers in Southern India discovered a way to make small cakes of high-carbon steel known as wootz. Thanks to black wavy bands of Fe3C particles that pervade the metal, wootz steel was already strong. …

Perhaps because the properties of wootz and Damascus steels depended, in part, on a particular kind of iron ore, the ability of metallurgists to make the alloys was lost sometime in the 18th century. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the plot plays out during an era in which making Valyrian steel is a long-lost art.

Martin’s knowledge of metallurgy is perhaps shaky. …

Interestingly, the comments on the blog posting largely concern themselves with whether George RR Martin knows anything about metallurgy. The consensus being that he does and that the problems in the Game of Thrones version of metallurgy lie with the series writers.

I first came across the Damascus steel, wootz, and carbon nanotube story in 2008 and provided a concise description on my Nanotech Mysteries wiki Middle Ages page,

Damascus steel blades were first made in the 8th century CE when they acquired a legendary status as unlike other blades they were able to cut through bone and stone while remaining sharp enough to cut a piece of silk. They were also flexible which meant they didn’t break off easily in a sword fight. The secret for making the blades died (history does not record how) about 1700 CE and there hasn’t been a new blade since.

 The blades were generally made from metal ingots prepared in India using special recipes which probably put just the right amount of carbon and other impurities into the iron. By following these recipes and following specific forging techniques craftsmen ended up making nanotubes … When these blades were nearly finished, blacksmiths would etch them with acid. This brought out the wavy light and dark lines that make Damascus swords easy to recognize.3

 It turns out part of the secret to the blade is nanotechnology. Scientists discovered this by looking at a Damascus steel blade from 1700 under an electron microscope. It seems those unknown smiths were somehow encasing cementite nanowires in carbon nanotubes then forging them into the steel blades giving them their legendary strength and flexibility.

The reference information I used then seems to be no longer available online but there is this more than acceptable alternative, a Sept. 27, 2008 postiing by Ed Yong from his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog (on ScienceBlogs.com; Note: A link has been removed),

In medieval times, crusading Christian knights cut a swathe through the Middle East in an attempt to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Muslims in turn cut through the invaders using a very special type of sword, which quickly gained a mythical reputation among the Europeans. These ‘Damascus blades‘ were extraordinarily strong, but still flexible enough to bend from hilt to tip. And they were reputedly so sharp that they could cleave a silk scarf floating to the ground, just as readily as a knight’s body.

They were superlative weapons that gave the Muslims a great advantage, and their blacksmiths carefully guarded the secret to their manufacture. The secret eventually died out in the eighteenth century and no European smith was able to fully reproduce their method.

Two years ago, Marianne Reibold and colleagues from the University of Dresden uncovered the extraordinary secret of Damascus steel – carbon nanotubes. The smiths of old were inadvertently using nanotechnology.

Getting back to Day, he goes on to explain the Damascus/Valyrian steel connection to nuclear power (Note: Links have been removed),

Valyrian and Damascus steels were on my mind earlier this week when I attended a session at TechConnect World on the use of nanotechnology in the nuclear power industry.

Scott Anderson of Lockheed Martin gave the introductory talk. Before the Fukushima disaster, Anderson pointed out, the principal materials science challenge in the nuclear industry lay in extending the lifetime of fuel rods. Now the focus has shifted to accident-tolerant fuels and safer, more durable equipment.

Among the other speakers was MIT’s Ju Li, who described his group’s experiments with incorporating carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in aluminum to boost the metal’s resistance to radiation damage. In a reactor core, neutrons and other ionizing particles penetrate vessels, walls, and other structures, where they knock atoms off lattice sites. The cumulative effect of those displacements is to create voids and other defects that weaken the structures.

Li isn’t sure yet how the CNTs resist irradiation and toughen the aluminum, but at the end of his talk he recalled their appearance in another metal, steel.

In 2006 Peter Paufler of Dresden University of Technology and his collaborators used high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to examine the physical and chemical microstructure of a sample of Damascus steel from the 17th century.

The saber from which the sample was taken was forged in Isfahan, Persia, by the famed blacksmith Assad Ullah. As part of their experiment, Paufler and his colleagues washed the sample in hydrochloric acid to remove Fe3C particles. A second look with TEM revealed the presence of CNTs.

There’s still active interest in researching Damascus steel blades as not all the secrets behind the blade’s extraordinary qualities have been revealed yet. There is a March 13, 2014 posting here which describes a research project where Chinese researchers are attempting (using computational software) to uncover the reason for the blade’s unique patterns,

It seems that while researchers were able to answer some questions about the blade’s qualities, researchers in China believe they may have answered the question about the blade’s unique patterns, from a March 12, 2014 news release on EurekAlert,

Blacksmiths and metallurgists in the West have been puzzled for centuries as to how the unique patterns on the famous Damascus steel blades were formed. Different mechanisms for the formation of the patterns and many methods for making the swords have been suggested and attempted, but none has produced blades with patterns matching those of the Damascus swords in the museums. The debate over the mechanism of formation of the Damascus patterns is still ongoing today. Using modern metallurgical computational software (Thermo-Calc, Stockholm, Sweden), Professor Haiwen Luo of the Central Iron and Steel Research Institute in Beijing, together with his collaborator, have analyzed the relevant published data relevant to the Damascus blades, and present a new explanation that is different from other proposed mechanisms.

At the time the researchers were hoping to have someone donate a piece of genuine Damascus steel blade. From my March 13, 2014 posting,

Note from the authors: It would be much appreciated if anyone would like to donate a piece of genuine Damascus blade for our research.

Corresponding Author:

LUO Haiwen
Email: [email protected]

Perhaps researchers will manage to solve the puzzle of how medieval craftsman were once able to create extraordinary steel blades.

Quality carbon nanotubes

Before launching into this latest item about carbon nanotubes (CNTs), I have an April 11, 2013 posting which offers a brief overview of the topic and a link to my Mar. 14, 2013 posting titled: The long, the short, the straight, and the curved of them: all about carbon nanotubes, which holds an embedded video by Dr. Andrew Maynard where he describes their somewhat ‘unruly’ nature.

These postings will help those unfamiliar with carbon nanotubes to better understand the importance of a June 14, 2014 news item on Nanowerk announcing a new CNT characterization and certification service for single-walled CNTs,

Intertek, a leading quality solutions provider to industries worldwide, today announced a comprehensive facility for characterising key structural and quality parameters of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs).

A June 12, 2014 Intertek press release, which originated the news item, describes the company’s reasons for adding this to their suite of services,

Carbon nanotubes are very thin tubes of elemental carbon with exceptional mechanical, optical and electrical properties that have the potential to significantly improve the performance of a wide range of materials by altering their fundamental properties. Recent advancements in manufacturing processes mean that SWNTs are now becoming available in sufficient quantity for industrial-scale evaluation and application and so it is increasingly important to be able to verify their quality though robust analytical testing. Applications currently being explored include additives for batteries, composites for the automotive and aerospace industry, electrodes and semiconductor devices such as transistors.

With dimensions of approximately 1/100000th the thickness of a single human hair, SWNTs can present analytical challenges for assessing their quality and structure. No single technique can adequately characterise a nanotube product, and so a diverse set of complementary analytical techniques which have exquisite precision and sensitivity are required. This comprehensive analytical service is commercially available to both manufacturers of nanotubes and to developers who wish to incorporate nanotubes into their products.

It seems to me this is a necessary step on the road to commercializing products utilizing single-walled CNTs.

Hitchhikers at the nanoscale show how cells stir themselves

A May 30, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights some molecule-tracking research,

Chemical engineers from Rice University and biophysicists from Georg-August Universität Göttingen in Germany and the VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands have successfully tracked single molecules inside living cells with carbon nanotubes.

Through this new method, the researchers found that cells stir their interiors using the same motor proteins that serve in muscle contraction.

A May 29, 2014 Rice University news release by Mike Williams, which originated the news item, describes the researchers’ work,

The team attached carbon nanotubes to transport molecules known as kinesin motors to visualize and track them as they moved through the cytoplasm of living cells.

Carbon nanotubes are hollow cylinders of pure carbon with one-atom-thick walls. They naturally fluoresce with near-infrared wavelengths when exposed to visible light, a property discovered at Rice by Professor Rick Smalley a decade ago and then leveraged by Rice Professor Bruce Weisman to image carbon nanotubes. When attached to a molecule, the hitchhiking nanotubes serve as tiny beacons that can be precisely tracked over long periods of time to investigate small, random motions inside cells.

“Any probe that can hitch the length and breadth of the cell, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where its protein is, is clearly a probe to be reckoned with,” said lead author Nikta Fakhri, paraphrasing “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Fakhri, who earned her Rice doctorate in Pasquali’s lab in 2011, is currently a Human Frontier Science Program Fellow at Göttingen.

“In fact, the exceptional stability of these probes made it possible to observe intracellular motions from times as short as milliseconds to as long as hours,” she said.

For long-distance transport, such as along the long axons of nerve cells, cells usually employ motor proteins tied to lipid vesicles, the cell’s “cargo containers.” This process involves considerable logistics: Cargo needs to be packed, attached to the motors and sent off in the right direction.

“This research has helped uncover an additional, much simpler mechanism for transport within the cell interior,” said principal investigator Christoph Schmidt, a professor of physics at Göttingen. “Cells vigorously stir themselves, much in the way a chemist would accelerate a reaction by shaking a test tube. This will help them to move objects around in the highly crowded cellular environment.”

The researchers showed the same type of motor protein used for muscle contraction is responsible for stirring. They reached this conclusion after exposing the cells to drugs that suppressed these specific motor proteins. The tests showed that the stirring was suppressed as well.

The mechanical cytoskeleton of cells consists of networks of protein filaments, like actin. Within the cell, the motor protein myosin forms bundles that actively contract the actin network for short periods. The researchers found random pinching of the elastic actin network by many myosin bundles resulted in the global internal stirring of the cell. Both actin and myosin play a similar role in muscle contraction.

The highly accurate measurements of internal fluctuations in the cells were explained in a theoretical model developed by VU co-author Fred MacKintosh, who used the elastic properties of the cytoskeleton and the force-generation characteristics of the motors.

“The new discovery not only promotes our understanding of cell dynamics, but also points to interesting possibilities in designing ‘active’ technical materials,” said Fakhri, who will soon join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty as an assistant professor of physics. “Imagine a microscopic biomedical device that mixes tiny samples of blood with reagents to detect disease or smart filters that separate squishy from rigid materials.”

There is an accompanying video,

This video is typical of the kind of visual image that nanoscientists look at and provides an interesting contrast to ‘nano art’ where colours and other enhancements are added. as per this example, NanoOrchard, from a May 13, 2014 news item on Nanowerk about the 2014 Materials Research Society spring meeting and their Science as Art competition,

NanoOrchard – Electrochemically overgrown CuNi nanopillars. (Image courtesy of the Materials Research Society Science as Art Competition and Josep Nogues, Institut Catala de Nanociencia i Nanotecnologia (ICN2), Spain, and A. Varea, E. Pellicer, S. Suriñach, M.D. Baro, J. Sort, Univ. Autonoma de Barcelona) [downloaded from http://www.nanowerk.com/nanotechnology-news/newsid=35631.php]

NanoOrchard – Electrochemically overgrown CuNi nanopillars. (Image courtesy of the Materials Research Society Science as Art Competition and Josep Nogues, Institut Catala de Nanociencia i Nanotecnologia (ICN2), Spain, and A. Varea, E. Pellicer, S. Suriñach, M.D. Baro, J. Sort, Univ. Autonoma de Barcelona) [downloaded from http://www.nanowerk.com/nanotechnology-news/newsid=35631.php]

Getting back to the carbon nanotube hitchhikers, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

High-resolution mapping of intracellular fluctuations using carbon nanotubes by Nikta Fakhri, Alok D. Wessel, Charlotte Willms, Matteo Pasquali, Dieter R. Klopfenstein, Frederick C. MacKintosh, and Christoph F. Schmidt. Science 30 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6187 pp. 1031-1035 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250170

This article is behind a paywall.

One final comment, I am delighted by the researcher’s reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.