Tag Archives: glass

An exoskeleton for a cell-sized robot

A January 3, 2018 news item on phys.org announces work on cell-sized robots,

An electricity-conducting, environment-sensing, shape-changing machine the size of a human cell? Is that even possible?

Cornell physicists Paul McEuen and Itai Cohen not only say yes, but they’ve actually built the “muscle” for one.

With postdoctoral researcher Marc Miskin at the helm, the team has made a robot exoskeleton that can rapidly change its shape upon sensing chemical or thermal changes in its environment. And, they claim, these microscale machines – equipped with electronic, photonic and chemical payloads – could become a powerful platform for robotics at the size scale of biological microorganisms.

“You could put the computational power of the spaceship Voyager onto an object the size of a cell,” Cohen said. “Then, where do you go explore?”

“We are trying to build what you might call an ‘exoskeleton’ for electronics,” said McEuen, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science and director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science. “Right now, you can make little computer chips that do a lot of information-processing … but they don’t know how to move or cause something to bend.”

Cornell University has produced a video of the researchers discussing their work (about 3 mins. running time)

For those who prefer text or need it to reinforce their understanding, there’s a January 2, 2018 Cornell University news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Jan. 3, 2018) by Tom Fleischman, which originated the news item,

The machines move using a motor called a bimorph. A bimorph is an assembly of two materials – in this case, graphene and glass – that bends when driven by a stimulus like heat, a chemical reaction or an applied voltage. The shape change happens because, in the case of heat, two materials with different thermal responses expand by different amounts over the same temperature change.

As a consequence, the bimorph bends to relieve some of this strain, allowing one layer to stretch out longer than the other. By adding rigid flat panels that cannot be bent by bimorphs, the researchers localize bending to take place only in specific places, creating folds. With this concept, they are able to make a variety of folding structures ranging from tetrahedra (triangular pyramids) to cubes.

In the case of graphene and glass, the bimorphs also fold in response to chemical stimuli by driving large ions into the glass, causing it to expand. Typically this chemical activity only occurs on the very outer edge of glass when submerged in water or some other ionic fluid. Since their bimorph is only a few nanometers thick, the glass is basically all outer edge and very reactive.

“It’s a neat trick,” Miskin said, “because it’s something you can do only with these nanoscale systems.”

The bimorph is built using atomic layer deposition – chemically “painting” atomically thin layers of silicon dioxide onto aluminum over a cover slip – then wet-transferring a single atomic layer of graphene on top of the stack. The result is the thinnest bimorph ever made. One of their machines was described as being “three times larger than a red blood cell and three times smaller than a large neuron” when folded. Folding scaffolds of this size have been built before, but this group’s version has one clear advantage.

“Our devices are compatible with semiconductor manufacturing,” Cohen said. “That’s what’s making this compatible with our future vision for robotics at this scale.”

And due to graphene’s relative strength, Miskin said, it can handle the types of loads necessary for electronics applications. “If you want to build this electronics exoskeleton,” he said, “you need it to be able to produce enough force to carry the electronics. Ours does that.”

For now, these tiniest of tiny machines have no commercial application in electronics, biological sensing or anything else. But the research pushes the science of nanoscale robots forward, McEuen said.

“Right now, there are no ‘muscles’ for small-scale machines,” he said, “so we’re building the small-scale muscles.”

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

Graphene-based bimorphs for micron-sized, autonomous origami machines by Marc Z. Miskin, Kyle J. Dorsey, Baris Bircan, Yimo Han, David A. Muller, Paul L. McEuen, and Itai Cohen. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] 2018 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1712889115 published ahead of print January 2, 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

A pumpkin-shaped molecule for the first real-time methamphetamine and amphetamine sensor

A Sept. 28,2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a portable, inexpensive sensor for drugs (Note: A link has been renewed),

Speed, uppers, chalk, glass, crystal, or whatever you prefer to call them, can be instantly detected from biological fluids with a new portable kit that costs as little as $50. Scientists at the Center for Self-Assembly and Complexity, within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS, South Korea), in collaboration with Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), have devised the first methamphetamine and amphetamine sensor that can detect minute concentrations of these drugs from a single drop of urine in real-time.

Published in the journal Chem (“Point-of-Use Detection of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants with Host-Molecule-Functionalized Organic Transistors”), this simple and flexible sensor, which can be attached to a wristband and connected to an Android app via Bluetooth, could move drug screening from the labs to the streets.

A Sept. 28 (?), 2017 IBS press release by Letizia Diamante (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Easy to synthesize and cheaper than heroin or cocaine, amphetamine-based drugs are the most abused drugs in the world, after cannabis. Conventional drug detection methods require a long time, as the sample must be taken into a lab for the analysis. It also needs experts to run the expensive equipment. The technology reported in this study is instead small, portable, cheap, fast and easy to use.

The idea for this technology came from the IBS chemist HWANG Ilha: “I was watching a TV news report on the usage of illegal drugs, and I thought to check what the chemical structure of methamphetamine looks like.” Soon after, the scientist anticipated that the drug would form a tight complex with a family of hollow pumpkin-shaped molecules, called cucurbituril (CB) members. The team then discovered that cucurbit[7]uril (CB[7])’s empty cavity binds well with amphetamine-based drugs and can be used as the drug recognition unit of a sensor. Cucurbiturils’ hollow chamber has already been studied for various technological uses, but this is the first device application in amphetamine-based drug detection.


▲ Figure 1: Wireless sensor for amphetamine-based drug detection.The kit is made of an organic field-effect transistor (OFET) device, an electric circuit board with a rechargeable battery and an antenna. The OFET device surface is coated with CB[7], whose function is to bind amphetamine and methamphetamine drugs in solution. The binding event is instantly converted to current, whose magnitude is proportional to the concentration of the drug. The app on the smartphone shows a peak as soon as a drop of urine with the drug is applied to the device. Moreover the entire kit can fit in a handy wristband.


▲ Video 1: The detector in action.
[Click text not image]
As soon as a drop of water with 0.0001 ng/mL (1 pM) of amphetamine is applied to the kit, the app shows a peak in current proportional to the concentration of drug. When the liquid is removed, the current level goes back to baseline, and the sensor can be reused. (Modified from Jang et al, Chem 2017)

Combining a transistor coated with CB[7], flexible materials, rechargeable batteries and a Bluetooth antenna, the research team developed a detector wristband connected to an app. In the presence of the drug, the molecular recognition between CB[7] and the drug molecule triggers an electrical signal which appears as a peak on the smartphone screen.

Current drug detection based on immunoassay or liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry techniques has a detection limit of about 10 ng/mL. On the contrary, the sensitivity of this new sensor is about 0.0001 ng/mL in water and 0.1 ng/mL in urine. Therefore, it is expected that this method will allow the detection of drug molecules in biological fluids, like urine and sweat, for a longer time after drug consumption.


▲ Figure 2: Graphic representation of the drug detection platform.Binding of drug molecules to the hollow cucurbit[7]uril (CB[7])’s cavity changes the current signal flowing in the transistor and therefore can be used as a detection system. The molecular structure of amphetamine and methamphetamine bound to cucurbit[7]uril (CB[7]) was confirmed with X-ray crystallography. Each color indicates a different atom (blue: nitrogen, red: oxygen, gray: carbon, and white: hydrogen). CB[7]’s hydrogen atoms have been omitted for clarity.


▲ Figure 3: Humorous view of the pumpkin-shaped molecule, cucurbit[7]uril (CB[7]), able to bind and detect amphetamine and methamphetamine molecules.(Credits: Modified from Titusurya – Freepik.com)

“Real time detection of amphetamine drugs on location would bring a big change to society,” explains another corresponding author KIM Kimoon. “In the same way as police can use a breathalyzer to detect alcohol on the spot, we aim to achieve the same with this device.”

False positives cannot be excluded yet, as urine contains a rich mixture of proteins and other metabolites that could affect the reading. Therefore, before commercializing it, clinical trials with drug users’ biological fluids are necessary. The researchers have patented the technology and they will continue to do further research in the near future.s

“Combining basic science with the latest technology, we can expect that this research will also lead to other new sensors, useful for our daily life,” concludes the third corresponding author OH Joon Hak. Indeed, the team is also keen on developing sensors for other kinds of drugs, as well as kits for the detection of dangerous substances, environmental monitoring, healthcare and safety.

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

Point-of-Use Detection of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants with Host-Molecule-Functionalized Organic Transistors by Yoonjung Jang, Moonjeong Jang, Hyoeun Kim, Sang Jin Lee, Eunyeong Jin, Jin Young Koo, In-Chul Hwang, Yonghwi Kim, Young Ho Ko, Ilha Hwang., Joon Hak Oh, Kimoon Kim. Chem (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.chempr.2017.08.015 Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof

This paper appears to be behind a paywall.

Multicolor, electrochromic glass

Electrochromic (changes color to block light and heat) glass could prove to be a significant market by 2020 according to a March 8, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Rice University’s latest nanophotonics research could expand the color palette for companies in the fast-growing market for glass windows that change color at the flick of an electric switch.

In a new paper in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano, researchers from the laboratory of Rice plasmonics pioneer Naomi Halas report using a readily available, inexpensive hydrocarbon molecule called perylene to create glass that can turn two different colors at low voltages.

“When we put charges on the molecules or remove charges from them, they go from clear to a vivid color,” said Halas, director of the Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP), lead scientist on the new study and the director of Rice’s Smalley-Curl Institute. “We sandwiched these molecules between glass, and we’re able to make something that looks like a window, but the window changes to different types of color depending on how we apply a very low voltage.”

Adam Lauchner, an applied physics graduate student at Rice and co-lead author of the study, said LANP’s color-changing glass has polarity-dependent colors, which means that a positive voltage produces one color and a negative voltage produces a different color.

“That’s pretty novel,” Lauchner said. “Most color-changing glass has just one color, and the multicolor varieties we’re aware of require significant voltage.”

Glass that changes color with an applied voltage is known as “electrochromic,” and there’s a growing demand for the light- and heat-blocking properties of such glass. The projected annual market for electrochromic glass in 2020 has been estimated at more $2.5 billion.

A March 8, 2017 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

Lauchner said the glass project took almost two years to complete, and he credited co-lead author Grant Stec, a Rice undergraduate researcher, with designing the perylene-containing nonwater-based conductive gel that’s sandwiched between glass layers.

“Perylene is part of a family of molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” Stec said. “They’re a fairly common byproduct of the petrochemical industry, and for the most part they are low-value byproducts, which means they’re inexpensive.”

Grant Stec and Adam Lauchner

Grant Stec and Adam Lauchner of Rice University’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics have used an inexpensive hydrocarbon molecule called perylene to create a low-voltage, multicolor, electrochromic glass. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

There are dozens of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), but each contains rings of carbon atoms that are decorated with hydrogen atoms. In many PAHs, carbon rings have six sides, just like the rings in graphene, the much-celebrated subject of the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.

“This is a really cool application of what started as fundamental science in plasmonics,” Lauchner said.

A plasmon is [a] wave of energy, a rhythmic sloshing in the sea of electrons that constantly flow across the surface of conductive nanoparticles. Depending upon the frequency of a plasmon’s sloshing, it can interact with and harvest the energy from passing light. In dozens of studies over the past two decades, Halas, Rice physicist Peter Nordlander and colleagues have explored both the basic physics of plasmons and potential applications as diverse as cancer treatment, solar-energy collection, electronic displays and optical computing.

The quintessential plasmonic nanoparticle is metallic, often made of gold or silver, and precisely shaped. For example, gold nanoshells, which Halas invented at Rice in the 1990s, consist of a nonconducting core that’s covered by a thin shell of gold.

Grant Stec, Naomi Halas and Adam Lauchner

Student researchers Grant Stec (left) and Adam Lauchner (right) with Rice plasmonics pioneer Naomi Halas, director of Rice University’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

“Our group studies many kinds of metallic nanoparticles, but graphene is also conductive, and we’ve explored its plasmonic properties for several years,” Halas said.

She noted that large sheets of atomically thin graphene have been found to support plasmons, but they emit infrared light that’s invisible to the human eye.

“Studies have shown that if you make graphene smaller and smaller, as you go down to nanoribbons, nanodots and these little things called nanoislands, you can actually get graphene’s plasmon closer and closer to the edge of the visible regime,” Lauchner said.

In 2013, then-Rice physicist Alejandro Manjavacas, a postdoctoral researcher in Nordlander’s lab, showed that the smallest versions of graphene — PAHs with just a few carbon rings — should produce visible plasmons. Moreover, Manjavacas calculated the exact colors that would be emitted by different types of PAHs.

“One of the most interesting things was that unlike plasmons in metals, the plasmons in these PAH molecules were very sensitive to charge, which suggested that a very small electrical charge would produce dramatic colors,” Halas said.

Electrochromic glass that glass that turns from clear to black

Rice University researchers demonstrated a new type of glass that turns from clear to black when a low voltage is applied. The glass uses a combination of molecules that block almost all visible light when they each gain a single electron. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Lauchner said the project really took off after Stec joined the research team in 2015 and created a perylene formulation that could be sandwiched between sheets of conductive glass.

In their experiments, the researchers found that applying just 4 volts was enough to turn the clear window greenish-yellow and applying negative 3.5 volts turned it blue. It took several minutes for the windows to fully change color, but Halas said the transition time could easily be improved with additional engineering.

Stec said the team’s other window, which turns from clear to black, was produced later in the project.

“Dr. Halas learned that one of the major hurdles in the electrochromic device industry was making a window that could be clear in one state and completely black in another,” Stec said. “We set out to do that and found a combination of PAHs that captured no visible light at zero volts and almost all visible light at low voltage.”

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

Multicolor Electrochromic Devices Based on Molecular Plasmonics by Grant J. Stec, Adam Lauchner, Yao Cui, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b00364 Publication Date (Web): February 22, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sea sponges don’t buckle under pressure

You wouldn’t think a sponge (the sea creature) was particularly tough but it is according to a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Judging by their name alone, orange puffball sea sponges might seem unlikely paragons of structural strength. But maintaining their shape at the bottom of the churning ocean is critical to the creatures’ survival, and new research shows that tiny structural rods in their bodies have evolved the optimal shape to avoid buckling under pressure.

The rods, called strongyloxea spicules, measure about 2 millimeters long and are thinner than a human hair. Hundreds of them are bundled together, forming stiff rib-like structures inside the orange puffball’s spongy body. It was the odd and remarkably consistent shape of each spicule that caught the eye of Brown University engineers Haneesh Kesari and Michael Monn. Each one is symmetrically tapered along its length — going gradually from fatter in the middle to thinner at the ends.

Caption: Tiny rods found inside the bodies of orange puffball sea sponges have an interesting tapered shape. That shape, new research shows, turns out to be a match for the Clausen profile, a column shape shown to be optimal for resistance to buckling failure. Credit: Michael Monn, Haneesh Kesari / Brown University

A Jan. 4, 2017 Brown University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Using structural mechanics models and a bit of digging in obscure mathematics journals, Monn and Kesari showed the peculiar shape of the spicules to be optimal for resistance to buckling, the primary mode of failure for slender structures. This natural shape could provide a blueprint for increasing the buckling resistance in all kinds of slender human-made structures, from building columns to bicycle spokes to arterial stents, the researchers say.

“This is one of the rare examples that we’re aware of where a natural structure is not just well-suited for a given function, but actually approaches a theoretical optimum,” said Kesari, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown. “There’s no engineering analog for this shape — we don’t see any columns or other slender structures that are tapered in this way. So in this case, nature has shown us something quite new that we think could be useful in engineering.”

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Function and form

Orange puffball sponges (Tethya aurantia) are native to the Mediterranean Sea. They live mainly in rocky coastal environments, where they’re subject to the constant stress of underwater waves and tidal forces. Sponges are filter feeders — they pump water through their bodies to extract nutrients and oxygen. To do this, their bodies need to be porous and compliant, but they also need enough stiffness to avoid being deformed too much.

“If you compress them too much, you’re essentially choking them,” Kesari said. “So maintaining their stiffness is critical to their survival.”

And that means the spicules, which make up the rib-like structures that give sponges their stiffness, are critical components. When Monn and Kesari saw the shapes of the spicules under a microscope, the consistency of the tapered shape from spicule to spicule was hard to miss.

“We saw the shape and wondered if there might be an engineering principle at work here,” Kesari said.

To figure that out, the researchers first needed to understand what forces were acting on each individual spicule. So Monn and Kesari developed a structural mechanics model of spicules bundled within a sponge’s ribs. The model showed that the mismatch in stiffness between the bulk of the sponge’s soft body and the more rigid spicules causes each spicule to experience primarily one type of mechanical loading — a compression load on each of its ends.

“You can imagine taking a toothpick and trying to squeeze it longways between your fingers,” Monn said. “That’s how these spicules see the world.”

The primary mode of failure for a structure with this mechanical load is through buckling. At a certain critical load, the structure starts to bend somewhere along its length. Once the bending starts, the force transferred by the load is amplified at the bending point, which causes the structure to break or collapse.

Once Kesari and Monn knew what forces were acting on the spicules and how they would fail, the next step was looking to see if there was anything special about them that helped them resist buckling. Scanning electron microscope images of the inside of a spicule and other tests showed that they were monolithic silica — essentially glass.

“We could see that there was no funny business going on with the material properties,” Monn said. “If there was anything contributing to its mechanical performance, it would have to be the shape.”

Optimal shape

Kesari and Monn combed the literature to see if they could find anything on tapering in slender structures. They came up empty in the modern engineering literature. But they found something interesting published more than 150 years ago by a German scientist named Thomas Clausen.

In 1851, Clausen proposed that columns that are tapered toward their ends should have more buckling resistance than plain cylinders, which had been and still are the primary design for architectural columns. In the 1960s, mathematician Joseph Keller published an ironclad mathematical proof that the Clausen column was indeed optimal for resistance to buckling — having 33 percent better resistance than a cylinder. Even compared to a very similar shape — an ellipse, which is slightly fatter in the middle and pointier at the ends — the Clausen column had 18 percent better buckling resistance.

Knowing what the optimal column shape is, Monn and Kesari started making precise dimensional measurements of dozens of spicules. They showed that their shapes were remarkably consistent and nearly identical to that of the Clausen column.

“The spicules were a match for the best shape of all possible column shapes,” Monn said.

It seems in this case, natural selection figured out something that engineers have not. Despite the fact that it’s been mathematically shown to be the optimal column shape, the Clausen profile isn’t widely known in the engineering community. Kesari and Monn hope this work might bring it out of the shadows.

“We see this as an addition to our library of structural designs,” Monn said. “We’re not just talking about an improvement of a few percent. This shape is 33 percent better than the cylinder, which is quite an improvement.”

In particular, the shape would be particularly useful in a new generation of materials made from nanoscale truss structures. “It would be easy to 3-D print the Clausen profile into these materials, and you’d get a tremendous increase in buckling resistance, which is often how these materials fail.”

Lessons from nature

The field of bio-inspired engineering began at a time when many people viewed adaptive evolution as an unceasing march toward perfection. If that were true, scientists should find untold numbers of optimal structures in nature.

But the modern understanding of evolution is a bit different. It’s now understood that in order for a trait to be conserved by natural selection, it doesn’t need to be optimal. It just needs to be good enough to work. That has put a bit of a damper on the enthusiasm for bio-inspired engineering, Kesari and Monn say.

However, they say, this work shows that nearly optimal structures are out there if researchers look in the right places. In this case, they looked at creatures from a very old phylum — sea sponges are among the very first animals on Earth — with plenty of time to evolve under consistent selection pressures.

Sponges are also fairly simple creatures, so understanding the function of a given trait is relatively straightforward. In this case, the spicule appears to have one and only one job to do — provide stiffness. Compare that to, for example, human bone, which not only provides support but must also accommodate arteries, provide attachment points for muscles and house bone marrow. Those other functions may cause tradeoffs in adaptations for strength or stiffness.

“With the sponges, you have lots of evolutionary pressure, lots of time and opportunity to respond to that pressure, and functional elements that can be easily identified,” Kesari said.

With those as guiding principles, there may well be more ideal structures out there waiting to be found.

“This work shows that nature can hit an optimum,” Kesari said, “and the biological world can still be hiding completely new designs of considerable technological significance in plain sight.”

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

A new structure-property connection in the skeletal elements of the marine sponge Tethya aurantia that guards against buckling instability by Michael A. Monn & Haneesh Kesari. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 39547 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep39547 Published online: 04 January 2017

This paper is open access.

Kesari and Monn have researched sea sponges previously as can be seen in my April 7, 2015 posting, which highlights their work on strength and Venus’ flower basket sea sponge.

Windows in Swiss trains are about to combine mobile reception and thermal insulation

A Sept. 2, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces a whole new kind of train window,

EPFL [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne; Switzerland] researchers have developed a type of glass that offers excellent energy efficiency and lets mobile telephone signals through. And by teaming up with Swiss manufacturers, they have produced innovative windows. Railway company BLS is about to install them on some of its trains in order to improve energy efficiency.

An Aug. 26, 2016 EPFL press release, by Anne-Muriel Brouet, which originated the news item,

Train travel may be fast, but mobile connectivity onboard often lags behind. This is because the modern train car is a metal box that blocks out microwaves – in physics, this is called a Faraday cage. Even the windows contain an ultra-thin metal coating to improve thermal insulation. But EPFL researchers, working with manufacturing partners, have developed a new type of window that guarantees a comfortable temperature for passengers while at the same time letting mobile phone signals through.

In the rail industry, energy use is critical: around one third of the energy consumed by trains goes into providing heating and air conditioning in the train cars. And around 3% of this escapes through the windows. Double-glazed windows with an ultra-thin metal coating increase energy efficiency by a factor of four compared with untreated windows.

But the problem is that the metal sharply weakens the telecommunication signals. The solution that mobile phone operators and railway companies have used until now consists of placing signal boosters – or repeaters – in the trains. But they are expensive to install and maintain and have to be replaced regularly to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies. And each repeater consumes electricity.

A laser-scribed coating

Andreas Schüler, from EPFL’s Nanotechnology for Solar Energy Conversion Group, had another idea: “A metal coating that reflects heat waves (which are micrometric in size) but lets through both visible light (which is nanometric in size) and the electromagnetic waves of mobile phones (microwaves, which are centimetric in size).” But how is this done? “We breach the Faraday cage by modifying the metal coating with a special laser treatment. The windows then let the signals through,” said Schüler, a specialist in the optical and electronic properties of ultra-thin coatings.

To do this, a special structure is scribed into the metal coating with the aid of a high-precision laser. No more than 2.5% of the surface area of the metal coating is ablated by laser scribing. The resulting pattern is nearly invisible to the naked eye and does not affect the window’s insulating properties.

A manufacturing partnership pays off

Initial laboratory tests were extremely convincing. Several manufacturing partners were brought into the team in order to apply the method on a large scale. Thanks to the skills of glassmaker AGC Verres Industriels and the expertise of Class4Laser, prototype glass samples were produced and tested. “Measurements taken by experts from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) have demonstrated that this works,” said Schüler.

Energy savings for BLS

But the innovative glass needed to prove its mettle under real-life conditions. BLS was enthusiastic about testing the new windows as part of ongoing studies aimed at improving the energy efficiency of its trains. The first full-size windows were produced in the AGC Verres Industriels workshop and installed throughout a NINA-type self-propelled regional train.

The field tests met the partners’ expectations. Swisscom and SUPSI tested the efficacy of the new windows, both in BLS’s workshops and on the Bern-Thun train line. “Mobile reception is just as good in the train through laser-treated insulating glass as it is through ordinary glass,” said Schüler.

As a result, BLS has decided to install the new windows in most of its 36 NINA regional trains, replacing the old, non-insulating windows. Installation will begin in September 2016 as part of the company’s train modernization program. “Our commitment will help bring to market an innovative product designed to improve the energy efficiency of trains without compromising mobile reception for passengers,” said Quentin Sauvagnat, NINA fleet manager at BLS. Thanks to this product, those expensive signal repeaters will no longer be needed.

Are frequency-selective buildings next?

This proven and developed technology could be applied to buildings next. This is because, according to Schüler, “some glass buildings also act like Faraday cages. And as the internet of things continues to grow, there is a real interest in improving the properties of building materials that allow mobile signals through. More broadly, by making materials more frequency-selective, we could, for example, imagine a building that lets electromagnetic waves through but blocks Wi-Fi waves, thus enhancing corporate security.”

I have a friend who may find this train window innovation quite handy. As for frequency selective buildings, I imagine that would open up many possibilities for hackers.

Bacteria and an anti-superbug coating from Ireland’s Sligo Institute of Technology

Unlike today’s (April 28, 2016) earlier piece about dealing with bacteria, the focus for this research is on superbugs and not the bacteria which form biofilm on medical implants and such. An April 21, 2016 news item on RTE News makes the announcement about a new means of dealing with superbugs,

A discovery by a team of scientists in Ireland could stem the spread of deadly superbugs predicted to kill millions of people worldwide over the coming decades.

The research has found an agent that can be baked into everyday items like smart-phones and door handles to combat the likes of MRSA and E. coli.

The nanotechnology has a 99.9 % kill rate of potentially lethal and drug-resistant bacteria, they say.

Lead scientist Professor Suresh C. Pillai, of Sligo Institute of Technology’s Nanotechnology Research Group, says the discovery is the culmination of 12 years work.

“This is a game changer,” he said.

“This breakthrough will change the whole fight against superbugs. It can effectively control the spread of bacteria.”

An April 21, 2016 Sligo Institute of Technology press release provides some context for the work and a few details about the coating,

News of the discovery comes just days after UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warned that superbugs could become deadlier than cancer and are on course to kill 10 million people globally by 2050.

Speaking at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, Mr Osborne warned that the problem would slash global GDP by around €100 trillion if it was not tackled.

Using nanotechnology, the discovery is an effective and practical antimicrobial solution — an agent that kills microorganisms or inhibits their growth — that can be used to protect a range of everyday items.

Items include anything made from glass, metallics and ceramics including computer or tablet screens, smartphones, ATMs, door handles, TVs, handrails, lifts, urinals, toilet seats, fridges, microwaves and ceramic floor or wall tiles.

It will be of particular use in hospitals and medical facilities which are losing the battle against the spread of killer superbugs.

Other common uses would include in swimming pools and public buildings, on glass in public buses and trains, sneeze guards protecting food in delis and restaurants as well as in clean rooms in the medical sector.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to finally be at this stage. This breakthrough will change the whole fight against superbugs. It can effectvely control the spread of bacteria,” said Prof. Pillai.

He continued: “Every single person has a sea of bacteria on their hands. The mobile phone is the most contaminated personal item that we can have. Bacteria grows on the phone and can live there for up to five months. As it is contaminated with proteins from saliva and from the hand, It’s fertile land for bacteria and has been shown to carry 30 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.”

The research started at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT)’s CREST and involves scientists now based at IT Sligo, Dublin City University (DCU) and the University of Surrey. Major researchers included Dr Joanna Carroll and Dr Nigel S. Leyland.

It has been funded for the past eight years by John Browne, founder and CEO of Kastus Technologies Ltd, who is bringing the product to a global market. He was also supported by significant investment from Enterprise Ireland.

As there is nothing that will effectively kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs completely from the surface of items, scientists have been searching for a way to prevent the spread.

This has been in the form of building or ‘baking’ antimicrobial surfaces into products during the manufacturing process.

However, until now, all these materials were toxic or needed UV light in order to make them work. This meant they were not practical for indoor use and had limited commercial application.

“The challenge was the preparation of a solution that was activated by indoor light rather than UV light and we have now done that,” said Prof Pillai.

The new water-based solution can be sprayed onto any glass, ceramic or metallic surface during the production process, rendering the surface 99.9 per cent resistant to superbugs like MRSA, E. coli and other fungi. [emphasis mine]

The solution is sprayed on the product — such as a smartphone glass surface — and then ‘baked’ into it, forming a super-hard surface. The coating is transparent, permanent and scratch resistant and actually forms a harder surface than the original glass or ceramic material.

The team first developed the revolutionary material to work on ceramics and has spent the last five years adapting the formula – which is non-toxic and has no harmful bi-products ‑- to make it work on glass and metallic surfaces.

Research is now underway by the group on how to adapt the solution for use in plastics and paint, allowing even wider use of the protective material.

Prof Pillai, Kastus and the team have obtained a US and a UK patent on the unique process with a number of global patent applications pending. It is rare for such an academic scientific discovery to have such commercial viability.

“I was sold on this from the first moment I heard about it. It’s been a long road to here but it was such a compelling story that it was hard to walk away from so I had to see it through to the end,” said John Browne, Kastus CEO.

He continued: “This is a game changer. The uniqueness of antimicrobia surface treatment means that the applications for it in the real world are endless. The multinational glass manufacturers we are in negotiations with to sell the product to have been searching for years to come up with such a solution but have failed.”

If the coating kills 99.9%, doesn’t that mean 0.1% are immune? If that’s the case, won’t they reproduce and eventually establish themselves as a new kind of superbug?

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

Highly Efficient F, Cu doped TiO2 anti-bacterial visible light active photocatalytic coatings to combat hospital-acquired infections by Nigel S. Leyland, Joanna Podporska-Carroll, John Browne, Steven J. Hinder, Brid Quilty, & Suresh C. Pillai. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 24770 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep24770 Published online: 21 April 2016

This paper is open access.

Foldable glass (well, there’s some plastic too)

Michael Berger has written a fascinating Aug. 11, 2015 Nanowerk Spotlight article on folding glass,

Have you ever heard about foldable glass?

Exactly.

Glass is notorious for its brittleness. Although industry has developed ultra-thin (∼0.1 mm), flexible glass (like Corning’s Willow® Glass) that can be bent for applications liked curved TV and smartphone displays, fully foldable glass had not been demonstrated. Until now.

Khang [Dahl-Young Khang, an Associate Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Yonsei University] and his group have now demonstrated substrate platforms of glass and plastics, which can be reversibly and repeatedly foldable at pre designed location(s) without any mechanical failure or deterioration in device performances.

“We have engineered the substrates to have thinned parts on which the folding deformation should occur,” Moon Jong Han, first author of the paper a graduate student in Khang’s lab, says. “This localizes the deformation strain on those thinned parts only.”

He adds that this approach to engineering substrates has another advantage regarding device materials: “There is no need to adopt any novel materials such as nanowires, carbon nanotubes, graphene, etc. Rather, all the conventional materials that have been used for high-performance devices can be directly applied on our engineered substrates.”

Intriguingly, even ITO (indium tin oxide), a very brittle transparent conducting oxide, can be used as electrode on this novel foldable glass platform.

What makes the approach especially intriguing is the ability to reverse the fold and that it doesn’t require special nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, etc. From Berger’s Aug. 11, 2015 article,

The width of the thinned parts, the gap width, plays the key role in implementing dual foldability. The other key element is the asymmetric design of the gap width for the second folding.

The researchers achieved foldability, in part, by copying a technique used for folding mats and oriental hinge-less screens which have thinned areas to allow folding.

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

Glass and Plastics Platforms for Foldable Electronics and Displays by Moon Jung Han and Dahl-Young Khang. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201501060 First published: 21 July 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Berger’s article is not only fascinating, it is also illustrated with some images provided by the researchers.

Lightning strikes to create glass (reshaping rock at the atomic level)

This features glass (more specifically glass tubes), one of my interests, and it’s a fascinating story. From an Aug. 6, 2015 news item on Azonano,

At a rock outcropping in southern France, a jagged fracture runs along the granite. The surface in and around the crevice is discolored black, as if wet or covered in algae.

But, according to a new paper coauthored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Reto Gieré, the real explanation for the rock’s unusual features is more dramatic: a powerful bolt of lightning.

Here’s what the rock looks like afterwards,

A rock fulgurite revealed that lightning strikes alter quartz's crystal structure on the atomic level. Courtesy: Penn State

A rock fulgurite revealed that lightning strikes alter quartz’s crystal structure on the atomic level. Courtesy: University of Pennsylvania

The researchers have also provided an image taken under an transmission electron microscope,

Gieré and colleagues observed the parallel lines of shock lamellae under a transmission electron microscope Courtesy: Penn State

Gieré and colleagues observed the parallel lines of shock lamellae under a transmission electron microscope Courtesy: University of Pennsylvania

An Aug. 5, 2015 University of Pennsylvania news release, which originated the news item, provides more technical details about the research,

Using extremely high-resolution microscopy, Gieré, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, and his coauthors found that not only had the lightning melted the rock’s surface, resulting in a distinctive black “glaze,” but had transferred enough pressure to deform a thin layer of quartz crystals beneath the surface, resulting in distinct atomic-level structures called shock lamellae.

Prior to this study, the only natural events known to create this type of lamellae were meteorite impacts.

“I think the most exciting thing about this study is just to see what lightning can do,” Gieré said. “To see that lightning literally melts the surface of a rock and changes crystal structures, to me, is fascinating.”

Gieré said the finding serves as a reminder to geologists not to rush to interpret shock lamellae as indicators of a meteorite strike.

“Most geologists are careful; they don’t just use one observation,” he said, “But this is a good reminder to always use multiple observations to draw big conclusions, that there are multiple mechanisms that can result in a similar effect.”

Gieré collaborated on the study with Wolfhard Wimmenauer and Hiltrud Müller-Sigmund of Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Richard Wirth of GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam and Gregory R. Lumpkin and Katherine L. Smith of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization.

The paper was published in the journal American Mineralogist.

Geologists have long known that lightning, through rapid increases in temperature as well as physical and chemical effects, can alter sediments. When it strikes sand, for example, lightning melts the grains, which fuse and form glass tubes known as fulgurites.

Fulgurites can also form when lightning strikes other materials, including rock and soil. The current study examined a rock fulgurite found near Les Pradals, France. Gieré and colleagues took samples from the rock, then cut thin sections and polished them.

Under an optical microscope, they found that the outer black layer — the fulgurite itself — appeared shiny, “almost like a ceramic glaze,” Gieré said.

The layer was also porous, almost like a foam, due to the lightning’s heat vaporizing the rock’s surface. A chemical analysis of the fulgurite layer turned up elevated levels of sulfur dioxide and phosphorous pentoxide, which the researchers believe may have derived from lichen living on the rock’s surface at the time of the lightning strike.

The team further studied the samples using a transmission electron microscope, which allows users to examine specimens at the atomic level. This revealed that the fulgurite lacked any crystalline structure, consistent with it representing a melt formed through the high heat from the lightning strike.

But, in a layer of the sample immediately adjacent to the fulgurite, slightly deeper in the rock, the researchers spotted an unusual feature: a set of straight, parallel lines known as shock lamellae. This feature occurs when the crystal structure of quartz or other minerals deform in response to a vast wave of pressure.

“It’s like if someone pushes you, you rearrange your body to be comfortable,” Gieré said. “The mineral does the same thing.”

The lamellae were present in a layer of the rock only about three micrometers wide, indicating that the energy of the lightning bolt’s impact dissipated over that distance.

This characteristic deformation of crystals had previously only been seen in minerals from sites where meteorites struck. Shock lamellae are believed to form at pressures up to more than 10 gigapascals, or with 20 million times greater force than a boxer’s punch.

Gieré and colleagues hope to study rock fulgurites from other sites to understand the physical and chemical effects of lightning bolts on rocks in greater detail.

Another takeaway for geologists, rock climbers and hikers who spend time on rocks in high, exposed places is to beware when they see the tell-tale shiny black glaze of a rock fulgurite, as it might indicate a site prone to lightning strikes.

“Once it was pointed out to me, I started seeing it again and again,” he said. “I’ve had some close calls with thunderstorms in the field, where I’ve had to throw down my metal instruments and run.”

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

Lightning-induced shock lamellae in quartz by Reto Gieré, Wolfhard Wimmenauer, Hiltrud Müller-Sigmund, Richard Wirth, Gregory R. Lumpkin, and Katherine L. Smith. American Mineralogist, July 2015 v. 100 no. 7 p. 1645-1648 doi: 10.2138/am-2015-5218

This paper is behind a paywall.

Mystery of glass—shattered and Happy Canada Day!

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before but a repetition can’t hurt, “I love glass both for the art and the mystery.” Naturally, I am of two minds about this ‘shattered’ glass mystery from the University of Waterloo (Canada).

A June 29, 2015 University of Waterloo news release (also on EurekAlert) provides a teasing (for impatient people like me) introduction before describing the solution to the mystery,

A physicist at the University of Waterloo is among a team of scientists who have described how glasses form at the molecular level and provided a possible solution to a problem that has stumped scientists for decades.

Their simple theory is expected to open up the study of glasses to non-experts and undergraduates as well as inspire breakthroughs in novel nanomaterials.

The paper published by physicists from the University of Waterloo, McMaster University, ESPCI ParisTech and Université Paris Diderot appeared in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Glasses are much more than silicon-based materials in bottles and windows. In fact, any solid without an ordered, crystalline structure — metal, plastic, a polymer — that forms a molten liquid when heated above a certain temperature is a glass. Glasses are an essential material in technology, pharmaceuticals, housing, renewable energy and increasingly nano electronics.

“We were surprised — delighted — that the model turned out to be so simple,” said author James Forrest, a University Research Chair and professor in the Faculty of Science. “We were convinced it had already been published.”

The theory relies on two basic concepts: molecular crowding and string-like co-operative movement. [emphasis mine] Molecular crowding describes how molecules within glasses move like people in a crowded room. As the number of people increase, the amount of free volume decreases and the slower people can move through the crowd. Those people next to the door are able to move more freely, just as the surfaces of glasses never actually stop flowing, even at lower temperatures.

The more crowded the room, the more you rely on the co-operative movement with your neighbours to get where you’re going. Likewise, individual molecules within a glass aren’t able to move totally freely. They move with, yet are confined by, strings of weak molecular bonds with their neighbours.

Theories of crowding and cooperative movement are decades old. This is the first time scientists combined both theories to describe how a liquid turns into a glass.

“Research on glasses is normally reserved for specialists in condensed matter physics,” said Forrest, who is also an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology.  “Now a whole new generation of scientists can study and apply glasses just using first-year calculus.”

Their theory successfully predicts everything from bulk behaviour to surface flow to the once-elusive phenomenon of the glass transition itself. Forrest and colleagues worked for 20 years to bring theory in agreement with decades of observation on glassy materials.

An accurate theory becomes particularly important when trying to understand glass dynamics at the nanoscale. This finding has implications for developing and manufacturing new nanomaterials, such as glasses with conductive properties, or even calculating the uptake of glassy forms of pharmaceuticals.

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

Cooperative strings and glassy interfaces by Thomas Salez, Justin Salez, Kari Dalnoki-Veress, Elie Raphaël, and James A. Forrest. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) Published online before print June 22, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1503133112

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally and again, Happy Canada Day!