Tag Archives: Georgia Institute of Technology

A human user manual—for robots

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), funded by the US Office of Naval Research (ONR), have developed a program that teaches robots to read stories and more in an effort to educate them about humans. From a June 16, 2016 ONR news release by Warren Duffie Jr. (also on EurekAlert),

With support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created an artificial intelligence software program named Quixote to teach robots to read stories, learn acceptable behavior and understand successful ways to conduct themselves in diverse social situations.

“For years, researchers have debated how to teach robots to act in ways that are appropriate, non-intrusive and trustworthy,” said Marc Steinberg, an ONR program manager who oversees the research. “One important question is how to explain complex concepts such as policies, values or ethics to robots. Humans are really good at using narrative stories to make sense of the world and communicate to other people. This could one day be an effective way to interact with robots.”

The rapid pace of artificial intelligence has stirred fears by some that robots could act unethically or harm humans. Dr. Mark Riedl, an associate professor and director of Georgia Tech’s Entertainment Intelligence Lab, hopes to ease concerns by having Quixote serve as a “human user manual” by teaching robots values through simple stories. After all, stories inform, educate and entertain–reflecting shared cultural knowledge, social mores and protocols.

For example, if a robot is tasked with picking up a pharmacy prescription for a human as quickly as possible, it could: a) take the medicine and leave, b) interact politely with pharmacists, c) or wait in line. Without value alignment and positive reinforcement, the robot might logically deduce robbery is the fastest, cheapest way to accomplish its task. However, with value alignment from Quixote, it would be rewarded for waiting patiently in line and paying for the prescription.

For their research, Riedl and his team crowdsourced stories from the Internet. Each tale needed to highlight daily social interactions–going to a pharmacy or restaurant, for example–as well as socially appropriate behaviors (e.g., paying for meals or medicine) within each setting.

The team plugged the data into Quixote to create a virtual agent–in this case, a video game character placed into various game-like scenarios mirroring the stories. As the virtual agent completed a game, it earned points and positive reinforcement for emulating the actions of protagonists in the stories.

Riedl’s team ran the agent through 500,000 simulations, and it displayed proper social interactions more than 90 percent of the time.

“These games are still fairly simple,” said Riedl, “more like ‘Pac-Man’ instead of ‘Halo.’ However, Quixote enables these artificial intelligence agents to immerse themselves in a story, learn the proper sequence of events and be encoded with acceptable behavior patterns. This type of artificial intelligence can be adapted to robots, offering a variety of applications.”

Within the next six months, Riedl’s team hopes to upgrade Quixote’s games from “old-school” to more modern and complex styles like those found in Minecraft–in which players use blocks to build elaborate structures and societies.

Riedl believes Quixote could one day make it easier for humans to train robots to perform diverse tasks. Steinberg notes that robotic and artificial intelligence systems may one day be a much larger part of military life. This could involve mine detection and deactivation, equipment transport and humanitarian and rescue operations.

“Within a decade, there will be more robots in society, rubbing elbows with us,” said Riedl. “Social conventions grease the wheels of society, and robots will need to understand the nuances of how humans do things. That’s where Quixote can serve as a valuable tool. We’re already seeing it with virtual agents like Siri and Cortana, which are programmed not to say hurtful or insulting things to users.”

This story brought to mind two other projects: RoboEarth (an internet for robots only) mentioned in my Jan. 14, 2014 which was an update on the project featuring its use in hospitals and RoboBrain, a robot learning project (sourcing the internet, YouTube, and more for information to teach robots) was mentioned in my Sept. 2, 2014 posting.

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles have subtle effects on oxidative stress genes?

There’s research from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech; US) suggesting that titanium dioxide nanoparticles may have long term side effects. From a May 10, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A nanoparticle commonly used in food, cosmetics, sunscreen and other products can have subtle effects on the activity of genes expressing enzymes that address oxidative stress inside two types of cells. While the titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles are considered non-toxic because they don’t kill cells at low concentrations, these cellular effects could add to concerns about long-term exposure to the nanomaterial.

A May 9, 2016 Georgia Tech news release on Newswire (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology used high-throughput screening techniques to study the effects of titanium dioxide nanoparticles on the expression of 84 genes related to cellular oxidative stress. Their work found that six genes, four of them from a single gene family, were affected by a 24-hour exposure to the nanoparticles.

The effect was seen in two different kinds of cells exposed to the nanoparticles: human HeLa* cancer cells commonly used in research, and a line of monkey kidney cells. Polystyrene nanoparticles similar in size and surface electrical charge to the titanium dioxide nanoparticles did not produce a similar effect on gene expression.

“This is important because every standard measure of cell health shows that cells are not affected by these titanium dioxide nanoparticles,” said Christine Payne, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Our results show that there is a more subtle change in oxidative stress that could be damaging to cells or lead to long-term changes. This suggests that other nanoparticles should be screened for similar low-level effects.”

The research was reported online May 6 in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the HERCULES Center at Emory University, and by a Vasser Woolley Fellowship.

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles help make powdered donuts white, protect skin from the sun’s rays and reflect light in painted surfaces. In concentrations commonly used, they are considered non-toxic, though several other studies have raised concern about potential effects on gene expression that may not directly impact the short-term health of cells.

To determine whether the nanoparticles could affect genes involved in managing oxidative stress in cells, Payne and colleague Melissa Kemp – an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University – designed a study to broadly evaluate the nanoparticle’s impact on the two cell lines.

Working with graduate students Sabiha Runa and Dipesh Khanal, they separately incubated HeLa cells and monkey kidney cells with titanium oxide at levels 100 times less than the minimum concentration known to initiate effects on cell health. After incubating the cells for 24 hours with the TiO2, the cells were lysed and their contents analyzed using both PCR and Western Blot techniques to study the expression of 84 genes associated with the cells’ ability to address oxidative processes.

Payne and Kemp were surprised to find changes in the expression of six genes, including four from the peroxiredoxin family of enzymes that helps cells degrade hydrogen peroxide, a byproduct of cellular oxidation processes. Too much hydrogen peroxide can create oxidative stress which can damage DNA and other molecules.

The effect measured was significant – changes of about 50 percent in enzyme expression compared to cells that had not been incubated with nanoparticles. The tests were conducted in triplicate and produced similar results each time.

“One thing that was really surprising was that this whole family of proteins was affected, though some were up-regulated and some were down-regulated,” Kemp said. “These were all related proteins, so the question is why they would respond differently to the presence of the nanoparticles.”

The researchers aren’t sure how the nanoparticles bind with the cells, but they suspect it may involve the protein corona that surrounds the particles. The corona is made up of serum proteins that normally serve as food for the cells, but adsorb to the nanoparticles in the culture medium. The corona proteins have a protective effect on the cells, but may also serve as a way for the nanoparticles to bind to cell receptors.

Titanium dioxide is well known for its photo-catalytic effects under ultraviolet light, but the researchers don’t think that’s in play here because their culturing was done in ambient light – or in the dark. The individual nanoparticles had diameters of about 21 nanometers, but in cell culture formed much larger aggregates.

In future work, Payne and Kemp hope to learn more about the interaction, including where the enzyme-producing proteins are located in the cells. For that, they may use HyPer-Tau, a reporter protein they developed to track the location of hydrogen peroxide within cells.

The research suggests a re-evaluation may be necessary for other nanoparticles that could create subtle effects even though they’ve been deemed safe.

“Earlier work had suggested that nanoparticles can lead to oxidative stress, but nobody had really looked at this level and at so many different proteins at the same time,” Payne said. “Our research looked at such low concentrations that it does raise questions about what else might be affected. We looked specifically at oxidative stress, but there may be other genes that are affected, too.”

Those subtle differences may matter when they’re added to other factors.

“Oxidative stress is implicated in all kinds of inflammatory and immune responses,” Kemp noted. “While the titanium dioxide alone may just be modulating the expression levels of this family of proteins, if that is happening at the same time you have other types of oxidative stress for different reasons, then you may have a cumulative effect.”

*HeLa cells are named for Henrietta Lacks who unknowingly donated her immortal cell line to medical research. You can find more about the  story on the Oprah Winfrey website, which features an excerpt from the Rebecca Skloot book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” By the way, on May 2, 2016 it was announced that Oprah Winfrey would star in a movie for HBO as Henrietta Lacks’ daughter in an adaptation of the Rebecca Skloot book. You can read more about the proposed production in a May 3, 2016 article by Benjamin Lee for the Guardian.

Getting back to titanium dioxide nanoparticles and their possible long term effects, here’s a link to and a citation for the Georgia Tech team’s paper,

TiO2 Nanoparticles Alter the Expression of Peroxiredoxin Antioxidant Genes by Sabiha Runa, Dipesh Khanal, Melissa L. Kemp‡, and Christine K. Payne. J. Phys. Chem. C, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcc.6b01939 Publication Date (Web): April 21, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

What robots and humans?

I have two robot news bits for this posting. The first probes the unease currently being expressed (pop culture movies, Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge Centre for Existential Risk, etc.) about robots and their increasing intelligence and increased use in all types of labour formerly and currently performed by humans. The second item is about a research project where ‘artificial agents’ (robots) are being taught human values with stories.

Human labour obsolete?

‘When machines can do any job, what will humans do?’ is the question being asked in a presentation by Rice University computer scientist, Moshe Vardi, for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting held in Washington, D.C. from Feb. 11 – 15, 2016.

Here’s more about Dr. Vardi’s provocative question from a Feb. 14, 2016 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi expects that within 30 years, machines will be capable of doing almost any job that a human can. In anticipation, he is asking his colleagues to consider the societal implications. Can the global economy adapt to greater than 50 percent unemployment? Will those out of work be content to live a life of leisure?

“We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task,” Vardi said. “I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?”

Vardi addressed this issue Sunday [Feb. 14, 2016] in a presentation titled “Smart Robots and Their Impact on Society” at one of the world’s largest and most prestigious scientific meetings — the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

“The question I want to put forward is, Does the technology we are developing ultimately benefit mankind?” Vardi said. He asked the question after presenting a body of evidence suggesting that the pace of advancement in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) is increasing, even as existing robotic and AI technologies are eliminating a growing number of middle-class jobs and thereby driving up income inequality.

Vardi, a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Science, is a Distinguished Service Professor and the Karen Ostrum George Professor of Computational Engineering at Rice, where he also directs Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology. Since 2008 he has served as the editor-in-chief of Communications of the ACM, the flagship publication of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), one of the world’s largest computational professional societies.

Vardi said some people believe that future advances in automation will ultimately benefit humans, just as automation has benefited society since the dawn of the industrial age.

“A typical answer is that if machines will do all our work, we will be free to pursue leisure activities,” Vardi said. But even if the world economic system could be restructured to enable billions of people to live lives of leisure, Vardi questioned whether it would benefit humanity.

“I do not find this a promising future, as I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being,” he said.

“Humanity is about to face perhaps its greatest challenge ever, which is finding meaning in life after the end of ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,’” Vardi said. “We need to rise to the occasion and meet this challenge” before human labor becomes obsolete, he said.

In addition to dual membership in the National Academies, Vardi is a Guggenheim fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Academy of Sciences and the Academia Europa. He is a fellow of the ACM, the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). His numerous honors include the Southeastern Universities Research Association’s 2013 Distinguished Scientist Award, the 2011 IEEE Computer Society Harry H. Goode Award, the 2008 ACM Presidential Award, the 2008 Blaise Pascal Medal for Computer Science by the European Academy of Sciences and the 2000 Goedel Prize for outstanding papers in the area of theoretical computer science.

Vardi joined Rice’s faculty in 1993. His research centers upon the application of logic to computer science, database systems, complexity theory, multi-agent systems and specification and verification of hardware and software. He is the author or co-author of more than 500 technical articles and of two books, “Reasoning About Knowledge” and “Finite Model Theory and Its Applications.”

In a Feb. 5, 2015 post, I rounded up a number of articles about our robot future. It provides a still useful overview of the thinking on the topic.

Teaching human values with stories

A Feb. 12, 2016 Georgia (US) Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) news release (also on EurekAlert) describes the research,

The rapid pace of artificial intelligence (AI) has raised fears about whether robots could act unethically or soon choose to harm humans. Some are calling for bans on robotics research; others are calling for more research to understand how AI might be constrained. But how can robots learn ethical behavior if there is no “user manual” for being human?

Researchers Mark Riedl and Brent Harrison from the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology believe the answer lies in “Quixote” — to be unveiled at the AAAI [Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence]-16 Conference in Phoenix, Ariz. (Feb. 12 – 17, 2016). Quixote teaches “value alignment” to robots by training them to read stories, learn acceptable sequences of events and understand successful ways to behave in human societies.

“The collected stories of different cultures teach children how to behave in socially acceptable ways with examples of proper and improper behavior in fables, novels and other literature,” says Riedl, associate professor and director of the Entertainment Intelligence Lab. “We believe story comprehension in robots can eliminate psychotic-appearing behavior and reinforce choices that won’t harm humans and still achieve the intended purpose.”

Quixote is a technique for aligning an AI’s goals with human values by placing rewards on socially appropriate behavior. It builds upon Riedl’s prior research — the Scheherazade system — which demonstrated how artificial intelligence can gather a correct sequence of actions by crowdsourcing story plots from the Internet.

Scheherazade learns what is a normal or “correct” plot graph. It then passes that data structure along to Quixote, which converts it into a “reward signal” that reinforces certain behaviors and punishes other behaviors during trial-and-error learning. In essence, Quixote learns that it will be rewarded whenever it acts like the protagonist in a story instead of randomly or like the antagonist.

For example, if a robot is tasked with picking up a prescription for a human as quickly as possible, the robot could a) rob the pharmacy, take the medicine, and run; b) interact politely with the pharmacists, or c) wait in line. Without value alignment and positive reinforcement, the robot would learn that robbing is the fastest and cheapest way to accomplish its task. With value alignment from Quixote, the robot would be rewarded for waiting patiently in line and paying for the prescription.

Riedl and Harrison demonstrate in their research how a value-aligned reward signal can be produced to uncover all possible steps in a given scenario, map them into a plot trajectory tree, which is then used by the robotic agent to make “plot choices” (akin to what humans might remember as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel) and receive rewards or punishments based on its choice.

The Quixote technique is best for robots that have a limited purpose but need to interact with humans to achieve it, and it is a primitive first step toward general moral reasoning in AI, Riedl says.

“We believe that AI has to be enculturated to adopt the values of a particular society, and in doing so, it will strive to avoid unacceptable behavior,” he adds. “Giving robots the ability to read and understand our stories may be the most expedient means in the absence of a human user manual.”

So there you have it, some food for thought.

When an atom more or less makes a big difference

As scientists continue exploring the nanoscale, it seems that finding the number of atoms in your particle makes a difference is no longer so surprising. From a Jan. 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Combining experimental investigations and theoretical simulations, researchers have explained why platinum nanoclusters of a specific size range facilitate the hydrogenation reaction used to produce ethane from ethylene. The research offers new insights into the role of cluster shapes in catalyzing reactions at the nanoscale, and could help materials scientists optimize nanocatalysts for a broad class of other reactions.

A Jan. 28, 2016 Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) news release (*also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

At the macro-scale, the conversion of ethylene has long been considered among the reactions insensitive to the structure of the catalyst used. However, by examining reactions catalyzed by platinum clusters containing between 9 and 15 atoms, researchers in Germany and the United States found that at the nanoscale, that’s no longer true. The shape of nanoscale clusters, they found, can dramatically affect reaction efficiency.

While the study investigated only platinum nanoclusters and the ethylene reaction, the fundamental principles may apply to other catalysts and reactions, demonstrating how materials at the very smallest size scales can provide different properties than the same material in bulk quantities. …

“We have re-examined the validity of a very fundamental concept on a very fundamental reaction,” said Uzi Landman, a Regents’ Professor and F.E. Callaway Chair in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We found that in the ultra-small catalyst range, on the order of a nanometer in size, old concepts don’t hold. New types of reactivity can occur because of changes in one or two atoms of a cluster at the nanoscale.”

The widely-used conversion process actually involves two separate reactions: (1) dissociation of H2 molecules into single hydrogen atoms, and (2) their addition to the ethylene, which involves conversion of a double bond into a single bond. In addition to producing ethane, the reaction can also take an alternative route that leads to the production of ethylidyne, which poisons the catalyst and prevents further reaction.

The project began with Professor Ueli Heiz and researchers in his group at the Technical University of Munich experimentally examining reaction rates for clusters containing 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 platinum atoms that had been placed atop a magnesium oxide substrate. The 9-atom nanoclusters failed to produce a significant reaction, while larger clusters catalyzed the ethylene hydrogenation reaction with increasingly better efficiency. The best reaction occurred with 13-atom clusters.

Bokwon Yoon, a research scientist in Georgia Tech’s Center for Computational Materials Science, and Landman, the center’s director, then used large-scale first-principles quantum mechanical simulations to understand how the size of the clusters – and their shape – affected the reactivity. Using their simulations, they discovered that the 9-atom cluster resembled a symmetrical “hut,” while the larger clusters had bulges that served to concentrate electrical charges from the substrate.

“That one atom changes the whole activity of the catalyst,” Landman said. “We found that the extra atom operates like a lightning rod. The distribution of the excess charge from the substrate helps facilitate the reaction. Platinum 9 has a compact shape that doesn’t facilitate the reaction, but adding just one atom changes everything.”

Here’s an illustration featuring the difference between a 9 atom cluster and a 10 atom cluster,

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

The news release explains why the larger clusters function as catalysts,

Nanoclusters with 13 atoms provided the maximum reactivity because the additional atoms shift the structure in a phenomena Landman calls “fluxionality.” This structural adjustment has also been noted in earlier work of these two research groups, in studies of clusters of gold [emphasis mine] which are used in other catalytic reactions.

“Dynamic fluxionality is the ability of the cluster to distort its structure to accommodate the reactants to actually enhance reactivity,” he explained. “Only very small aggregates of metal can show such behavior, which mimics a biochemical enzyme.”

The simulations showed that catalyst poisoning also varies with cluster size – and temperature. The 10-atom clusters can be poisoned at room temperature, while the 13-atom clusters are poisoned only at higher temperatures, helping to account for their improved reactivity.

“Small really is different,” said Landman. “Once you get into this size regime, the old rules of structure sensitivity and structure insensitivity must be assessed for their continued validity. It’s not a question anymore of surface-to-volume ratio because everything is on the surface in these very small clusters.”

While the project examined only one reaction and one type of catalyst, the principles governing nanoscale catalysis – and the importance of re-examining traditional expectations – likely apply to a broad range of reactions catalyzed by nanoclusters at the smallest size scale. Such nanocatalysts are becoming more attractive as a means of conserving supplies of costly platinum.

“It’s a much richer world at the nanoscale than at the macroscopic scale,” added Landman. “These are very important messages for materials scientists and chemists who wish to design catalysts for new purposes, because the capabilities can be very different.”

Along with the experimental surface characterization and reactivity measurements, the first-principles theoretical simulations provide a unique practical means for examining these structural and electronic issues because the clusters are too small to be seen with sufficient resolution using most electron microscopy techniques or traditional crystallography.

“We have looked at how the number of atoms dictates the geometrical structure of the cluster catalysts on the surface and how this geometrical structure is associated with electronic properties that bring about chemical bonding characteristics that enhance the reactions,” Landman added.

I highlighted the news release’s reference to gold nanoclusters as I have noted the number issue in two April 14, 2015 postings, neither of which featured Georgia Tech, Gold atoms: sometimes they’re a metal and sometimes they’re a molecule and Nature’s patterns reflected in gold nanoparticles.

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

Structure sensitivity in the nonscalable regime explored via catalysed ethylene hydrogenation on supported platinum nanoclusters by Andrew S. Crampton, Marian D. Rötzer, Claron J. Ridge, Florian F. Schweinberger, Ueli Heiz, Bokwon Yoon, & Uzi Landman.  Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10389  doi:10.1038/ncomms10389 Published 28 January 2016

This paper is open access.

*’also on EurekAlert’ added Jan. 29, 2016.

$81M for US National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI)

Academics, small business, and industry researchers are the big winners in a US National Science Foundation bonanza according to a Sept. 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

To advance research in nanoscale science, engineering and technology, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide a total of $81 million over five years to support 16 sites and a coordinating office as part of a new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI).

The NNCI sites will provide researchers from academia, government, and companies large and small with access to university user facilities with leading-edge fabrication and characterization tools, instrumentation, and expertise within all disciplines of nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

A Sept. 16, 2015 NSF news release provides a brief history of US nanotechnology infrastructures and describes this latest effort in slightly more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The NNCI framework builds on the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which enabled major discoveries, innovations, and contributions to education and commerce for more than 10 years.

“NSF’s long-standing investments in nanotechnology infrastructure have helped the research community to make great progress by making research facilities available,” said Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director for engineering. “NNCI will serve as a nationwide backbone for nanoscale research, which will lead to continuing innovations and economic and societal benefits.”

The awards are up to five years and range from $500,000 to $1.6 million each per year. Nine of the sites have at least one regional partner institution. These 16 sites are located in 15 states and involve 27 universities across the nation.

Through a fiscal year 2016 competition, one of the newly awarded sites will be chosen to coordinate the facilities. This coordinating office will enhance the sites’ impact as a national nanotechnology infrastructure and establish a web portal to link the individual facilities’ websites to provide a unified entry point to the user community of overall capabilities, tools and instrumentation. The office will also help to coordinate and disseminate best practices for national-level education and outreach programs across sites.

New NNCI awards:

Mid-Atlantic Nanotechnology Hub for Research, Education and Innovation, University of Pennsylvania with partner Community College of Philadelphia, principal investigator (PI): Mark Allen
Texas Nanofabrication Facility, University of Texas at Austin, PI: Sanjay Banerjee

Northwest Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of Washington with partner Oregon State University, PI: Karl Bohringer

Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor, Georgia Institute of Technology with partners North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina-Greensboro, PI: Oliver Brand

Midwest Nano Infrastructure Corridor, University of  Minnesota Twin Cities with partner North Dakota State University, PI: Stephen Campbell

Montana Nanotechnology Facility, Montana State University with partner Carlton College, PI: David Dickensheets
Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental Resource,

Northwestern University with partner University of Chicago, PI: Vinayak Dravid

The Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, PI: Michael Hochella

North Carolina Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network, North Carolina State University with partners Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, PI: Jacob Jones

San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of California, San Diego, PI: Yu-Hwa Lo

Stanford Site, Stanford University, PI: Kathryn Moler

Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility, Cornell University, PI: Daniel Ralph

Nebraska Nanoscale Facility, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, PI: David Sellmyer

Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, Arizona State University with partners Maricopa County Community College District and Science Foundation Arizona, PI: Trevor Thornton

The Kentucky Multi-scale Manufacturing and Nano Integration Node, University of Louisville with partner University of Kentucky, PI: Kevin Walsh

The Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, Harvard University, PI: Robert Westervelt

The universities are trumpeting this latest nanotechnology funding,

NSF-funded network set to help businesses, educators pursue nanotechnology innovation (North Carolina State University, Duke University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Nanotech expertise earns Virginia Tech a spot in National Science Foundation network

ASU [Arizona State University] chosen to lead national nanotechnology site

UChicago, Northwestern awarded $5 million nanotechnology infrastructure grant

That is a lot of excitement.

Brain-friendly interface to replace neural prosthetics one day?

This research will not find itself occupying anyone’s brain for some time to come but it is interesting to find out that neural prosthetics have some drawbacks and there is work being done to address them. From an Aug. 10, 2015 news item on Azonano,

Instead of using neural prosthetic devices–which suffer from immune-system rejection and are believed to fail due to a material and mechanical mismatch–a multi-institutional team, including Lohitash Karumbaiah of the University of Georgia’s Regenerative Bioscience Center, has developed a brain-friendly extracellular matrix environment of neuronal cells that contain very little foreign material. These by-design electrodes are shielded by a covering that the brain recognizes as part of its own composition.

An Aug. 5, 2015 University of Georgia news release, which originated the news item, describes the new approach and technique in more detail,

Although once believed to be devoid of immune cells and therefore of immune responses, the brain is now recognized to have its own immune system that protects it against foreign invaders.

“This is not by any means the device that you’re going to implant into a patient,” said Karumbaiah, an assistant professor of animal and dairy science in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “This is proof of concept that extracellular matrix can be used to ensheathe a functioning electrode without the use of any other foreign or synthetic materials.”

Implantable neural prosthetic devices in the brain have been around for almost two decades, helping people living with limb loss and spinal cord injury become more independent. However, not only do neural prosthetic devices suffer from immune-system rejection, but most are believed to eventually fail because of a mismatch between the soft brain tissue and the rigid devices.

The collaboration, led by Wen Shen and Mark Allen of the University of Pennsylvania, found that the extracellular matrix derived electrodes adapted to the mechanical properties of brain tissue and were capable of acquiring neural recordings from the brain cortex.

“Neural interface technology is literally mind boggling, considering that one might someday control a prosthetic limb with one’s own thoughts,” Karumbaiah said.

The study’s joint collaborators were Ravi Bellamkonda, who conceived the new approach and is chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, as well as Allen, who at the time was director of the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology.

“Hopefully, once we converge upon the nanofabrication techniques that would enable these to be clinically translational, this same methodology could then be applied in getting these extracellular matrix derived electrodes to be the next wave of brain implants,” Karumbaiah said.

Currently, one out of every 190 Americans is living with limb loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. There is a significant burden in cost of care and quality of life for people suffering from this disability.

The research team is one part of many in the prosthesis industry, which includes those who design the robotics for the artificial limbs, others who make the neural prosthetic devices and developers who design the software that decodes the neural signal.

“What neural prosthetic devices do is communicate seamlessly to an external prosthesis,” Karumbaiah said, “providing independence of function without having to have a person or a facility dedicated to their care.”

Karumbaiah hopes further collaboration will allow them to make positive changes in the industry, saying that, “it’s the researcher-to-industry kind of conversation that now needs to take place, where companies need to come in and ask: ‘What have you learned? How are the devices deficient, and how can we make them better?'”

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

Extracellular matrix-based intracortical microelectrodes: Toward a microfabricated neural interface based on natural materials by Wen Shen, Lohitash Karumbaiah, Xi Liu, Tarun Saxena, Shuodan Chen, Radhika Patkar, Ravi V. Bellamkonda, & Mark G. Allen. Microsystems & Nanoengineering 1, Article number: 15010 (2015) doi:10.1038/micronano.2015.10

This appears to be an open access paper.

One final note, I have written frequently about prosthetics and neural prosthetics, which you can find by using either of those terms and/or human enhancement. Here’s my latest piece, a March 25, 2015 posting.

Controlling water with ‘stick-slip surfaces’

Controlling water could lead to better designed microfluidic devices such as ‘lab-on-a-chip’. A July 27, 2015 news item on Nanowerk announces a new technique for controlling water,

Coating the inside of glass microtubes with a polymer hydrogel material dramatically alters the way capillary forces draw water into the tiny structures, researchers have found. The discovery could provide a new way to control microfluidic systems, including popular lab-on-a-chip devices.

Capillary action draws water and other liquids into confined spaces such as tubes, straws, wicks and paper towels, and the flow rate can be predicted using a simple hydrodynamic analysis. But a chance observation by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology [US] will cause a recalculation of those predictions for conditions in which hydrogel films line the tubes carrying water-based liquids.

“Rather than moving according to conventional expectations, water-based liquids slip to a new location in the tube, get stuck, then slip again – and the process repeats over and over again,” explained Andrei Fedorov, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. “Instead of filling the tube with a rate of liquid penetration that slows with time, the water propagates at a nearly constant speed into the hydrogel-coated capillary. This was very different from what we had expected.”

A July 27, 2015 Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) news release (also on EurekAlert) by John Toon, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

When the opening of a thin glass tube is exposed to a droplet of water, the liquid begins to flow into the tube, pulled by a combination of surface tension in the liquid and adhesion between the liquid and the walls of the tube. Leading the way is a meniscus, a curved surface of the water at the leading edge of the water column. An ordinary borosilicate glass tube fills by capillary action at a gradually decreasing rate with the speed of meniscus propagation slowing as a square root of time.

But when the inside of a tube is coated with a very thin layer of poly(N-isopropylacrylamide), a so-called “smart” polymer (PNIPAM), everything changes. Water entering a tube coated on the inside with a dry hydrogel film must first wet the film and allow it to swell before it can proceed farther into the tube. The wetting and swelling take place not continuously, but with discrete steps in which the water meniscus first sticks and its motion remains arrested while the polymer layer locally deforms. The meniscus then rapidly slides for a short distance before the process repeats. This “stick-slip” process forces the water to move into the tube in a step-by-step motion.

The flow rate measured by the researchers in the coated tube is three orders of magnitude less than the flow rate in an uncoated tube. A linear equation describes the time dependence of the filling process instead of a classical quadratic equation which describes filling of an uncoated tube.

“Instead of filling the capillary in a hundredth of a second, it might take tens of seconds to fill the same capillary,” said Fedorov. “Though there is some swelling of the hydrogel upon contact with water, the change in the tube diameter is negligible due to the small thickness of the hydrogel layer. This is why we were so surprised when we first observed such a dramatic slow-down of the filing process in our experiments.”

The researchers – who included graduate students James Silva, Drew Loney and Ren Geryak and senior research engineer Peter Kottke – tried the experiment again using glycerol, a liquid that is not absorbed by the hydrogel. With glycerol, the capillary action proceeded through the hydrogel-coated microtube as with an uncoated tube in agreement with conventional theory. After using high-resolution optical visualization to study the meniscus propagation while the polymer swelled, the researchers realized they could put this previously-unknown behavior to good use.

Water absorption by the hydrogels occurs only when the materials remain below a specific transition temperature. When heated above that temperature, the materials no longer absorb water, eliminating the “stick-slip” phenomenon in the microtubes and allowing them to behave like ordinary tubes.

This ability to turn the stick-slip behavior on and off with temperature could provide a new way to control the flow of water-based liquid in microfluidic devices, including labs-on-a-chip. The transition temperature can be controlled by varying the chemical composition of the hydrogel.

“By locally heating or cooling the polymer inside a microfluidic chamber, you can either speed up the filling process or slow it down,” Fedorov said. “The time it takes for the liquid to travel the same distance can be varied up to three orders of magnitude. That would allow precise control of fluid flow on demand using external stimuli to change polymer film behavior.”

The heating or cooling could be done locally with lasers, tiny heaters, or thermoelectric devices placed at specific locations in the microfluidic devices.

That could allow precise timing of reactions in microfluidic devices by controlling the rate of reactant delivery and product removal, or allow a sequence of fast and slow reactions to occur. Another important application could be controlled drug release in which the desired rate of molecule delivery could be dynamically tuned over time to achieve the optimal therapeutic outcome.

In future work, Fedorov and his team hope to learn more about the physics of the hydrogel-modified capillaries and study capillary flow using partially-transparent microtubes. They also want to explore other “smart” polymers which change the flow rate in response to different stimuli, including the changing pH of the liquid, exposure to electromagnetic radiation, or the induction of mechanical stress – all of which can change the properties of a particular hydrogel designed to be responsive to those triggers.

“These experimental and theoretical results provide a new conceptual framework for liquid motion confined by soft, dynamically evolving polymer interfaces in which the system creates an energy barrier to further motion through elasto-capillary deformation, and then lowers the barrier through diffusive softening,” the paper’s authors wrote. “This insight has implications for optimal design of microfluidic and lab-on-a-chip devices based on stimuli-responsive smart polymers.”

In addition to those already mentioned, the research team included Professor Vladimir Tsukruk from the Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering and Rajesh Naik, Biotechnology Lead and Tech Advisor of the Nanostructured and Biological Materials Branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

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

Stick–slip water penetration into capillaries coated with swelling hydrogel by J. E. Silva, R. Geryak, D. A. Loney, P. A. Kottke, R. R. Naik, V. V. Tsukruk, and A. G. Fedorov. Soft Matter, 2015,11, 5933-5939 DOI: 10.1039/C5SM00660K First published online 23 Jun 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

The perfect keyboard: it self-cleans and self-powers and it can identify its owner(s)

There’s a pretty nifty piece of technology being described in a Jan. 21, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, which focuses on the security aspects first (Note: A link has been removed),

In a novel twist in cybersecurity, scientists have developed a self-cleaning, self-powered smart keyboard that can identify computer users by the way they type. The device, reported in the journal ACS Nano (“Personalized Keystroke Dynamics for Self-Powered Human–Machine Interfacing”), could help prevent unauthorized users from gaining direct access to computers.

A Jan. 21, 2015 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, continues with the keyboard’s security features before briefly mentioning the keyboard’s self-powering and self-cleaning capabilities,

Zhong Lin Wang and colleagues note that password protection is one of the most common ways we control who can log onto our computers — and see the private information we entrust to them. But as many recent high-profile stories about hacking and fraud have demonstrated, passwords are themselves vulnerable to theft. So Wang’s team set out to find a more secure but still cost-effective and user-friendly approach to safeguarding what’s on our computers.

The researchers developed a smart keyboard that can sense typing patterns — including the pressure applied to keys and speed — that can accurately distinguish one individual user from another. So even if someone knows your password, he or she cannot access your computer because that person types in a different way than you would. It also can harness the energy generated from typing to either power itself or another small device. And the special surface coating repels dirt and grime. The scientists conclude that the keyboard could provide an additional layer of protection to boost the security of our computer systems.

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

Personalized Keystroke Dynamics for Self-Powered Human–Machine Interfacing by Jun Chen, Guang Zhu, Jin Yang, Qingshen Jing, Peng Bai, Weiqing Yang, Xuewei Qi, Yuanjie Su, and Zhong Lin Wang. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn506832w Publication Date (Web): December 30, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall. I did manage a peek at the paper and found that the keyboard is able to somehow harvest the mechanical energy of typing and turn it into electricity so it can self-power. Self-cleaning is made possible by a nanostructure surface modification. An idle thought and a final comment. First, I wonder what happens if you want to or have to share your keyboard? Second, a Jan. 21, 2015 article about the intelligent keyboard by Luke Dormehl for Fast Company notes that the researchers are from the US and China and names two of the institutions involved in this collaboration, Georgia Institute of Technology and the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems,.

ETA Jan. 23, 2015: There’s a Georgia Institute of Technology Jan. 21, 2015 news release on EurekAlert about the intelligent keyboard which offers more technical details such as these,

Conventional keyboards record when a keystroke makes a mechanical contact, indicating the press of a specific key. The intelligent keyboard records each letter touched, but also captures information about the amount of force applied to the key and the length of time between one keystroke and the next. Such typing style is unique to individuals, and so could provide a new biometric for securing computers from unauthorized use.

In addition to providing a small electrical current for registering the key presses, the new keyboard could also generate enough electricity to charge a small portable electronic device or power a transmitter to make the keyboard wireless.

An effect known as contact electrification generates current when the user’s fingertips touch a plastic material on which a layer of electrode material has been coated. Voltage is generated through the triboelectric and electrostatic induction effects. Using the triboelectric effect, a small charge can be produced whenever materials are brought into contact and then moved apart.

“Our skin is dielectric and we have electrostatic charges in our fingers,” Wang noted. “Anything we touch can become charged.”

Instead of individual mechanical keys as in traditional keyboards, Wang’s intelligent keyboard is made up of vertically-stacked transparent film materials. Researchers begin with a layer of polyethylene terephthalate between two layers of indium tin oxide (ITO) that form top and bottom electrodes.

Next, a layer of fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP) is applied onto the ITO surface to serve as an electrification layer that generates triboelectric charges when touched by fingertips. FEP nanowire arrays are formed on the exposed FEP surface through reactive ion etching.

The keyboard’s operation is based on coupling between contact electrification and electrostatic induction, rather than the traditional mechanical switching. When a finger contacts the FEP, charge is transferred at the contact interface, injecting electrons from the skin into the material and creating a positive charge.

When the finger moves away, the negative charges on the FEP side induces positive charges on the top electrode, and equal amounts of negative charges on the bottom electrode. Consecutive keystrokes produce a periodic electrical field that drives reciprocating flows of electrons between the electrodes. Though eventually dissipating, the charges remain on the FEP surface for an extended period of time.

Wang believes the new smart keyboard will be competitive with existing keyboards, in both cost and durability. The new device is based on inexpensive materials that are widely used in the electronics industry.

Bendable, stretchable, light-weight, and transparent: a new competitor in the competition for ‘thinnest electric generator’

An Oct. 15, 2014 Columbia University (New York, US) press release (also on EurekAlert), describes another contender for the title of the world’s thinnest electric generator,

Researchers from Columbia Engineering and the Georgia Institute of Technology [US] report today [Oct. 15, 2014] that they have made the first experimental observation of piezoelectricity and the piezotronic effect in an atomically thin material, molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), resulting in a unique electric generator and mechanosensation devices that are optically transparent, extremely light, and very bendable and stretchable.

In a paper published online October 15, 2014, in Nature, research groups from the two institutions demonstrate the mechanical generation of electricity from the two-dimensional (2D) MoS2 material. The piezoelectric effect in this material had previously been predicted theoretically.

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

Piezoelectricity of single-atomic-layer MoS2 for energy conversion and piezotronics by Wenzhuo Wu, Lei Wang, Yilei Li, Fan Zhang, Long Lin, Simiao Niu, Daniel Chenet, Xian Zhang, Yufeng Hao, Tony F. Heinz, James Hone, & Zhong Lin Wang. Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13792 Published online 15 October 2014

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

Getting back to the Columbia University press release, it offers a general description of piezoelectricity and some insight into this new research on molybdenum disulfide,

Piezoelectricity is a well-known effect in which stretching or compressing a material causes it to generate an electrical voltage (or the reverse, in which an applied voltage causes it to expand or contract). But for materials of only a few atomic thicknesses, no experimental observation of piezoelectricity has been made, until now. The observation reported today provides a new property for two-dimensional materials such as molybdenum disulfide, opening the potential for new types of mechanically controlled electronic devices.

“This material—just a single layer of atoms—could be made as a wearable device, perhaps integrated into clothing, to convert energy from your body movement to electricity and power wearable sensors or medical devices, or perhaps supply enough energy to charge your cell phone in your pocket,” says James Hone, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia and co-leader of the research.

“Proof of the piezoelectric effect and piezotronic effect adds new functionalities to these two-dimensional materials,” says Zhong Lin Wang, Regents’ Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Materials Science and Engineering and a co-leader of the research. “The materials community is excited about molybdenum disulfide, and demonstrating the piezoelectric effect in it adds a new facet to the material.”

Hone and his research group demonstrated in 2008 that graphene, a 2D form of carbon, is the strongest material. He and Lei Wang, a postdoctoral fellow in Hone’s group, have been actively exploring the novel properties of 2D materials like graphene and MoS2 as they are stretched and compressed.

Zhong Lin Wang and his research group pioneered the field of piezoelectric nanogenerators for converting mechanical energy into electricity. He and postdoctoral fellow Wenzhuo Wu are also developing piezotronic devices, which use piezoelectric charges to control the flow of current through the material just as gate voltages do in conventional three-terminal transistors.

There are two keys to using molybdenum disulfide for generating current: using an odd number of layers and flexing it in the proper direction. The material is highly polar, but, Zhong Lin Wang notes, so an even number of layers cancels out the piezoelectric effect. The material’s crystalline structure also is piezoelectric in only certain crystalline orientations.

For the Nature study, Hone’s team placed thin flakes of MoS2 on flexible plastic substrates and determined how their crystal lattices were oriented using optical techniques. They then patterned metal electrodes onto the flakes. In research done at Georgia Tech, Wang’s group installed measurement electrodes on samples provided by Hone’s group, then measured current flows as the samples were mechanically deformed. They monitored the conversion of mechanical to electrical energy, and observed voltage and current outputs.

The researchers also noted that the output voltage reversed sign when they changed the direction of applied strain, and that it disappeared in samples with an even number of atomic layers, confirming theoretical predictions published last year. The presence of piezotronic effect in odd layer MoS2 was also observed for the first time.

“What’s really interesting is we’ve now found that a material like MoS2, which is not piezoelectric in bulk form, can become piezoelectric when it is thinned down to a single atomic layer,” says Lei Wang.

To be piezoelectric, a material must break central symmetry. A single atomic layer of MoS2 has such a structure, and should be piezoelectric. However, in bulk MoS2, successive layers are oriented in opposite directions, and generate positive and negative voltages that cancel each other out and give zero net piezoelectric effect.

“This adds another member to the family of piezoelectric materials for functional devices,” says Wenzhuo Wu.

In fact, MoS2 is just one of a group of 2D semiconducting materials known as transition metal dichalcogenides, all of which are predicted to have similar piezoelectric properties. These are part of an even larger family of 2D materials whose piezoelectric materials remain unexplored. Importantly, as has been shown by Hone and his colleagues, 2D materials can be stretched much farther than conventional materials, particularly traditional ceramic piezoelectrics, which are quite brittle.

The research could open the door to development of new applications for the material and its unique properties.

“This is the first experimental work in this area and is an elegant example of how the world becomes different when the size of material shrinks to the scale of a single atom,” Hone adds. “With what we’re learning, we’re eager to build useful devices for all kinds of applications.”

Ultimately, Zhong Lin Wang notes, the research could lead to complete atomic-thick nanosystems that are self-powered by harvesting mechanical energy from the environment. This study also reveals the piezotronic effect in two-dimensional materials for the first time, which greatly expands the application of layered materials for human-machine interfacing, robotics, MEMS, and active flexible electronics.

I see there’s a reference in that last paragraph to “harvesting mechanical energy from  the environment.” I’m not sure what they mean by that but I have written a few times about harvesting biomechanical energy. One of my earliest pieces is a July 12, 2010 post which features work by Zhong Lin Wang on harvesting energy from heart beats, blood flow, muscle stretching, or even irregular vibrations. One of my latest pieces is a Sept. 17, 2014 post about some work in Canada on harvesting energy from the jaw as you chew.

A final note, Dexter Johnson discusses this work in an Oct. 16, 2014 post on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website).

Cardiac pacemakers: Korea’s in vivo demonstration of a self-powered one* and UK’s breath-based approach

As i best I can determine ,the last mention of a self-powered pacemaker and the like on this blog was in a Nov. 5, 2012 posting (Developing self-powered batteries for pacemakers). This latest news from The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is, I believe, the first time that such a device has been successfully tested in vivo. From a June 23, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

As the number of pacemakers implanted each year reaches into the millions worldwide, improving the lifespan of pacemaker batteries has been of great concern for developers and manufacturers. Currently, pacemaker batteries last seven years on average, requiring frequent replacements, which may pose patients to a potential risk involved in medical procedures.

A research team from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), headed by Professor Keon Jae Lee of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at KAIST and Professor Boyoung Joung, M.D. of the Division of Cardiology at Severance Hospital of Yonsei University, has developed a self-powered artificial cardiac pacemaker that is operated semi-permanently by a flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator.

A June 23, 2014 KAIST news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more details,

The artificial cardiac pacemaker is widely acknowledged as medical equipment that is integrated into the human body to regulate the heartbeats through electrical stimulation to contract the cardiac muscles of people who suffer from arrhythmia. However, repeated surgeries to replace pacemaker batteries have exposed elderly patients to health risks such as infections or severe bleeding during operations.

The team’s newly designed flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator directly stimulated a living rat’s heart using electrical energy converted from the small body movements of the rat. This technology could facilitate the use of self-powered flexible energy harvesters, not only prolonging the lifetime of cardiac pacemakers but also realizing real-time heart monitoring.

The research team fabricated high-performance flexible nanogenerators utilizing a bulk single-crystal PMN-PT thin film (iBULe Photonics). The harvested energy reached up to 8.2 V and 0.22 mA by bending and pushing motions, which were high enough values to directly stimulate the rat’s heart.

Professor Keon Jae Lee said:

“For clinical purposes, the current achievement will benefit the development of self-powered cardiac pacemakers as well as prevent heart attacks via the real-time diagnosis of heart arrhythmia. In addition, the flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator could also be utilized as an electrical source for various implantable medical devices.”

This image illustrating a self-powered nanogenerator for a cardiac pacemaker has been provided by KAIST,

This picture shows that a self-powered cardiac pacemaker is enabled by a flexible piezoelectric energy harvester. Credit: KAIST

This picture shows that a self-powered cardiac pacemaker is enabled by a flexible piezoelectric energy harvester.
Credit: KAIST

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

Self-Powered Cardiac Pacemaker Enabled by Flexible Single Crystalline PMN-PT Piezoelectric Energy Harvester by Geon-Tae Hwang, Hyewon Park, Jeong-Ho Lee, SeKwon Oh, Kwi-Il Park, Myunghwan Byun, Hyelim Park, Gun Ahn, Chang Kyu Jeong, Kwangsoo No, HyukSang Kwon, Sang-Goo Lee, Boyoung Joung, and Keon Jae Lee. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201400562
Article first published online: 17 APR 2014

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

There was a May 15, 2014 KAIST news release on EurekAlert announcing this same piece of research but from a technical perspective,

The energy efficiency of KAIST’s piezoelectric nanogenerator has increased by almost 40 times, one step closer toward the commercialization of flexible energy harvesters that can supply power infinitely to wearable, implantable electronic devices

NANOGENERATORS are innovative self-powered energy harvesters that convert kinetic energy created from vibrational and mechanical sources into electrical power, removing the need of external circuits or batteries for electronic devices. This innovation is vital in realizing sustainable energy generation in isolated, inaccessible, or indoor environments and even in the human body.

Nanogenerators, a flexible and lightweight energy harvester on a plastic substrate, can scavenge energy from the extremely tiny movements of natural resources and human body such as wind, water flow, heartbeats, and diaphragm and respiration activities to generate electrical signals. The generators are not only self-powered, flexible devices but also can provide permanent power sources to implantable biomedical devices, including cardiac pacemakers and deep brain stimulators.

However, poor energy efficiency and a complex fabrication process have posed challenges to the commercialization of nanogenerators. Keon Jae Lee, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at KAIST, and his colleagues have recently proposed a solution by developing a robust technique to transfer a high-quality piezoelectric thin film from bulk sapphire substrates to plastic substrates using laser lift-off (LLO).

Applying the inorganic-based laser lift-off (LLO) process, the research team produced a large-area PZT thin film nanogenerators on flexible substrates (2 cm x 2 cm).

“We were able to convert a high-output performance of ~250 V from the slight mechanical deformation of a single thin plastic substrate. Such output power is just enough to turn on 100 LED lights,” Keon Jae Lee explained.

The self-powered nanogenerators can also work with finger and foot motions. For example, under the irregular and slight bending motions of a human finger, the measured current signals had a high electric power of ~8.7 μA. In addition, the piezoelectric nanogenerator has world-record power conversion efficiency, almost 40 times higher than previously reported similar research results, solving the drawbacks related to the fabrication complexity and low energy efficiency.

Lee further commented,

“Building on this concept, it is highly expected that tiny mechanical motions, including human body movements of muscle contraction and relaxation, can be readily converted into electrical energy and, furthermore, acted as eternal power sources.”

The research team is currently studying a method to build three-dimensional stacking of flexible piezoelectric thin films to enhance output power, as well as conducting a clinical experiment with a flexible nanogenerator.

In addition to the 2012 posting I mentioned earlier, there was also this July 12, 2010 posting which described research on harvesting biomechanical movement ( heart beat, blood flow, muscle stretching, or even irregular vibration) at the Georgia (US) Institute of Technology where the lead researcher observed,

…  Wang [Professor Zhong Lin Wang at Georgia Tech] tells Nanowerk. “However, the applications of the nanogenerators under in vivo and in vitro environments are distinct. Some crucial problems need to be addressed before using these devices in the human body, such as biocompatibility and toxicity.”

Bravo to the KAIST researchers for getting this research to the in vivo testing stage.

Meanwhile at the University of Bristol and at the University of Bath, researchers have received funding for a new approach to cardiac pacemakers, designed them with the breath in mind. From a June 24, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Pacemaker research from the Universities of Bath and Bristol could revolutionise the lives of over 750,000 people who live with heart failure in the UK.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is awarding funding to researchers developing a new type of heart pacemaker that modulates its pulses to match breathing rates.

A June 23, 2014 University of Bristol press release, which originated the news item, provides some context,

During 2012-13 in England, more than 40,000 patients had a pacemaker fitted.

Currently, the pulses from pacemakers are set at a constant rate when fitted which doesn’t replicate the natural beating of the human heart.

The normal healthy variation in heart rate during breathing is lost in cardiovascular disease and is an indicator for sleep apnoea, cardiac arrhythmia, hypertension, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.

The device is then briefly described (from the press release),

The novel device being developed by scientists at the Universities of Bath and Bristol uses synthetic neural technology to restore this natural variation of heart rate with lung inflation, and is targeted towards patients with heart failure.

The device works by saving the heart energy, improving its pumping efficiency and enhancing blood flow to the heart muscle itself.  Pre-clinical trials suggest the device gives a 25 per cent increase in the pumping ability, which is expected to extend the life of patients with heart failure.

One aim of the project is to miniaturise the pacemaker device to the size of a postage stamp and to develop an implant that could be used in humans within five years.

Dr Alain Nogaret, Senior Lecturer in Physics at the University of Bath, explained“This is a multidisciplinary project with strong translational value.  By combining fundamental science and nanotechnology we will be able to deliver a unique treatment for heart failure which is not currently addressed by mainstream cardiac rhythm management devices.”

The research team has already patented the technology and is working with NHS consultants at the Bristol Heart Institute, the University of California at San Diego and the University of Auckland. [emphasis mine]

Professor Julian Paton, from the University of Bristol, added: “We’ve known for almost 80 years that the heart beat is modulated by breathing but we have never fully understood the benefits this brings. The generous new funding from the BHF will allow us to reinstate this natural occurring synchrony between heart rate and breathing and understand how it brings therapy to hearts that are failing.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the BHF, said: “This study is a novel and exciting first step towards a new generation of smarter pacemakers. More and more people are living with heart failure so our funding in this area is crucial. The work from this innovative research team could have a real impact on heart failure patients’ lives in the future.”

Given some current events (‘Tesla opens up its patents’, Mike Masnick’s June 12, 2014 posting on Techdirt), I wonder what the situation will be vis à vis patents by the time this device gets to market.

* ‘one’ added to title on Aug. 13, 2014.