Tag Archives: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Next supercapacitor: crumpled graphene?

An Oct. 3, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily features the use of graphene as a possible supercapacitor,

When someone crumples a sheet of paper, that usually means it’s about to be thrown away. But researchers have now found that crumpling a piece of graphene “paper” — a material formed by bonding together layers of the two-dimensional form of carbon — can actually yield new properties that could be useful for creating extremely stretchable supercapacitors to store energy for flexible electronic devices.

The finding is reported in the journal Scientific Reports by MIT’s {Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Xuanhe Zhao, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering, and four other authors. The new, flexible superconductors should be easy and inexpensive to fabricate, the team says.

An Oct. 3, 2014 MIT news release by David Chandler (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the technology at more length,

“Many people are exploring graphene paper: It’s a good candidate for making supercapacitors, because of its large surface area per mass,” Zhao says. Now, he says, the development of flexible electronic devices, such as wearable or implantable biomedical sensors or monitoring devices, will require flexible power-storage systems.

Like batteries, supercapacitors can store electrical energy, but they primarily do so electrostatically, rather than chemically — meaning they can deliver their energy faster than batteries can. Now Zhao and his team have demonstrated that by crumpling a sheet of graphene paper into a chaotic mass of folds, they can make a supercapacitor that can easily be bent, folded, or stretched to as much as 800 percent of its original size. The team has made a simple supercapacitor using this method as a proof of principle.

The material can be crumpled and flattened up to 1,000 times, the team has demonstrated, without a significant loss of performance. “The graphene paper is pretty robust,” Zhao says, “and we can achieve very large deformations over multiple cycles.” Graphene, a structure of pure carbon just one atom thick with its carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal array, is one of the strongest materials known.

To make the crumpled graphene paper, a sheet of the material was placed in a mechanical device that first compressed it in one direction, creating a series of parallel folds or pleats, and then in the other direction, leading to a chaotic, rumpled surface. When stretched, the material’s folds simply smooth themselves out.

Forming a capacitor requires two conductive layers — in this case, two sheets of crumpled graphene paper — with an insulating layer in between, which in this demonstration was made from a hydrogel material. Like the crumpled graphene, the hydrogel is highly deformable and stretchable, so the three layers remain in contact even while being flexed and pulled.

Though this initial demonstration was specifically to make a supercapacitor, the same crumpling technique could be applied to other uses, Zhao says. For example, the crumpled graphene material might be used as one electrode in a flexible battery, or could be used to make a stretchable sensor for specific chemical or biological molecules.

Here is a link to and a citation for the paper,

Stretchable and High-Performance Supercapacitors with Crumpled Graphene Papers by Jianfeng Zang, Changyong Cao, Yaying Feng, Jie Liu, & Xuanhe Zhao. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 6492 doi:10.1038/srep06492 Published 01 October 2014

This is an open access article.

ETA Oct. 8, 2014: Dexter Johnson of the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) website has an Oct. 7, 2014 post where he comments about the ‘flexibility’ aspect of this work.

Researchers at Purdue University (Indiana, US) and at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (Chennai, India) develop Star Trek-type ‘tricorders’

To be clear, the Star Trek-type ‘tricorder’ referred to in the heading is, in fact, a hand-held spectrometer and the research from Purdue University and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras represents a developmental leap forward, not a new product. From a March 26, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Nanotechnology is advancing tools likened to Star Trek’s “tricorder” that perform on-the-spot chemical analysis for a range of applications including medical testing, explosives detection and food safety.

Researchers found that when paper used to collect a sample was coated with carbon nanotubes, the voltage required was 1,000 times reduced, the signal was sharpened and the equipment was able to capture far more delicate molecules.

Dexter Johnson in his March 26, 2014 posting (Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) provides some background information about the race to miniaturize spectrometers (Note: A link has been removed),

Recent research has been relying on nanomaterials to build smaller spectrometers. Late last year, a group at the Technische Universität Dresden and the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany developed a novel, miniature spectrometer, based on metallic nanowires, that was small enough to fit into a mobile phone.

Dexter goes on to provide a summary about this latest research, which I strongly recommend reading, especially if you don’t have the patience to read the rest of the news release. The March 25, 2014 Purdue University news release by Elizabeth K. Gardner, which originated the news item, provides insight from the researchers,

“This is a big step in our efforts to create miniature, handheld mass spectrometers for the field,” said R. Graham Cooks, Purdue’s Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. “The dramatic decrease in power required means a reduction in battery size and cost to perform the experiments. The entire system is becoming lighter and cheaper, which brings it that much closer to being viable for easy, widespread use.”

Cooks and Thalappil Pradeep, a professor of chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, led the research.

“Taking science to the people is what is most important,” Pradeep said. “Mass spectrometry is a fantastic tool, but it is not yet on every physician’s table or in the pocket of agricultural inspectors and security guards. Great techniques have been developed, but we need to hone them into tools that are affordable, can be efficiently manufactured and easily used.”

The news release goes on to describe the research,

The National Science Foundation-funded study used an analysis technique developed by Cooks and his colleagues called PaperSpray™ ionization. The technique relies on a sample obtained by wiping an object or placing a drop of liquid on paper wet with a solvent to capture residues from the object’s surface. A small triangle is then cut from the paper and placed on a special attachment of the mass spectrometer where voltage is applied. The voltage creates an electric field that turns the mixture of solvent and residues into fine droplets containing ionized molecules that pop off and are vacuumed into the mass spectrometer for analysis. The mass spectrometer then identifies the sample’s ionized molecules by their mass.

The technique depends on a strong electric field and the nanotubes act like tiny antennas that create a strong electric field from a very small voltage. One volt over a few nanometers creates an electric field equivalent to 10 million volts over a centimeter, Pradeep said.

“The trick was to isolate these tiny, nanoscale antennae and keep them from bundling together because individual nanotubes must project out of the paper,” he said. “The carbon nanotubes work well and can be dispersed in water and applied on suitable substrates.”

The Nano Mission of the Government of India supported the research at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and graduate students Rahul Narayanan and Depanjan Sarkar performed the experiments.

In addition to reducing the size of the battery required and energy cost to run the tests, the new technique also simplified the analysis by nearly eliminating background noise, Cooks said.

“Under these conditions, the analysis is nearly noise free and a sharp, clear signal of the sample is delivered,” he said. “We don’t know why this is – why background molecules that surround us in the air or from within the equipment aren’t being ionized and entering into the analysis. It’s a puzzling, but pleasant surprise.”

The reduced voltage required also makes the method gentler than the standard PaperSpray™ ionization techniques.

“It is a very soft method,” Cooks said. “Fragile molecules and complexes are able to hold together here when they otherwise wouldn’t. This could lead to other potential applications.”

The team plans to investigate the mechanisms behind the reduction in background noise and potential applications of the gentle method, but the most promising aspect of the new technique is its potential to miniaturize the mass spectrometry system, Cooks said.

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

Molecular Ionization from Carbon Nanotube Paper by Rahul Narayanan, Depanjan Sarkar, Prof. R. Graham Cooks, and Prof. Thalappil Pradeep. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Article first published online: 18 MAR 2014 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201311053

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Injectable and more powerful* batteries for live salmon

Today’s live salmon may sport a battery for monitoring purposes and now scientists have developed one that is significantly more powerful according to a Feb. 17, 2014 Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) news release (dated Feb. 18, 2014 on EurekAlert),

Scientists have created a microbattery that packs twice the energy compared to current microbatteries used to monitor the movements of salmon through rivers in the Pacific Northwest and around the world.

The battery, a cylinder just slightly larger than a long grain of rice, is certainly not the world’s smallest battery, as engineers have created batteries far tinier than the width of a human hair. But those smaller batteries don’t hold enough energy to power acoustic fish tags. The new battery is small enough to be injected into an organism and holds much more energy than similar-sized batteries.

Here’s a photo of the battery as it rests amongst grains of rice,

The microbattery created by Jie Xiao and Daniel Deng and colleagues, amid grains of rice. Courtesy PNNL

The microbattery created by Jie Xiao and Daniel Deng and colleagues, amid grains of rice. Courtesy PNNL

The news release goes on to explain why scientists are developing a lighter battery for salmon and how they achieved their goal,

For scientists tracking the movements of salmon, the lighter battery translates to a smaller transmitter which can be inserted into younger, smaller fish. That would allow scientists to track their welfare earlier in the life cycle, oftentimes in the small streams that are crucial to their beginnings. The new battery also can power signals over longer distances, allowing researchers to track fish further from shore or from dams, or deeper in the water.

“The invention of this battery essentially revolutionizes the biotelemetry world and opens up the study of earlier life stages of salmon in ways that have not been possible before,” said M. Brad Eppard, a fisheries biologist with the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“For years the chief limiting factor to creating a smaller transmitter has been the battery size. That hurdle has now been overcome,” added Eppard, who manages the Portland District’s fisheries research program.

The Corps and other agencies use the information from tags to chart the welfare of endangered fish and to help determine the optimal manner to operate dams. Three years ago the Corps turned to Z. Daniel Deng, a PNNL engineer, to create a smaller transmitter, one small enough to be injected, instead of surgically implanted, into fish. Injection is much less invasive and stressful for the fish, and it’s a faster and less costly process.

“This was a major challenge which really consumed us these last three years,” said Deng. “There’s nothing like this available commercially, that can be injected. Either the batteries are too big, or they don’t last long enough to be useful. That’s why we had to design our own.”

Deng turned to materials science expert Jie Xiao to create the new battery design.

To pack more energy into a small area, Xiao’s team improved upon the “jellyroll” technique commonly used to make larger household cylindrical batteries. Xiao’s team laid down layers of the battery materials one on top of the other in a process known as lamination, then rolled them up together, similar to how a jellyroll is created. The layers include a separating material sandwiched by a cathode made of carbon fluoride and an anode made of lithium.

The technique allowed her team to increase the area of the electrodes without increasing their thickness or the overall size of the battery. The increased area addresses one of the chief problems when making such a small battery — keeping the impedance, which is a lot like resistance, from getting too high. High impedance occurs when so many electrons are packed into a small place that they don’t flow easily or quickly along the routes required in a battery, instead getting in each other’s way. The smaller the battery, the bigger the problem.

Using the jellyroll technique allowed Xiao’s team to create a larger area for the electrons to interact, reducing impedance so much that the capacity of the material is about double that of traditional microbatteries used in acoustic fish tags.

“It’s a bit like flattening wads of Play-Doh, one layer at a time, and then rolling them up together, like a jelly roll,” says Xiao. “This allows you to pack more of your active materials into a small space without increasing the resistance.”

The new battery is a little more than half the weight of batteries currently used in acoustic fish tags — just 70 milligrams, compared to about 135 milligrams — and measures six millimeters long by three millimeters wide. The battery has an energy density of about 240 watt hours per kilogram, compared to around 100 for commercially available silver oxide button microbatteries.

The battery holds enough energy to send out an acoustic signal strong enough to be useful for fish-tracking studies even in noisy environments such as near large dams. The battery can power a 744-microsecond signal sent every three seconds for about three weeks, or about every five seconds for a month. It’s the smallest battery the researchers know of with enough energy capacity to maintain that level of signaling.

The batteries also work better in cold water where salmon often live, sending clearer signals at low temperatures compared to current batteries. That’s because their active ingredients are lithium and carbon fluoride, a chemistry that is promising for other applications but has not been common for microbatteries.

Last summer in Xiao’s laboratory, scientists Samuel Cartmell and Terence Lozano made by hand more than 1,000 of the rice-sized batteries. It’s a painstaking process, cutting and forming tiny snippets of sophisticated materials, putting them through a flattening device that resembles a pasta maker, binding them together, and rolling them by hand into tiny capsules. Their skilled hands rival those of surgeons, working not with tissue but with sensitive electronic materials.

A PNNL team led by Deng surgically implanted 700 of the tags into salmon in a field trial in the Snake River last summer. Preliminary results show that the tags performed extremely well. The results of that study and more details about the smaller, enhanced fish tags equipped with the new microbattery will come out in a forthcoming publication. Battelle, which operates PNNL, has applied for a patent on the technology.

I notice that while the second paragraph of the news release (in the first excerpt) says the battery is injectable, the final paragraph (in the second excerpt) says the team “surgically implanted” the tags with their new batteries into the salmon.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the newly published article in Scientific Reports,

Micro-battery Development for Juvenile Salmon Acoustic Telemetry System Applications by Honghao Chen, Samuel Cartmell, Qiang Wang, Terence Lozano, Z. Daniel Deng, Huidong Li, Xilin Chen, Yong Yuan, Mark E. Gross, Thomas J. Carlson, & Jie Xiao. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 3790 doi:10.1038/srep03790 Published 21 January 2014

This paper is open access.

* I changed the headline from ‘Injectable batteries for live salmon made more powerful’ to ‘Injectable and more powerful batteries for live salmon’  to better reflect the information in the news release. Feb. 19, 2014 at 11:43 am PST.

ETA Feb. 20, 2014: Dexter Johnson has weighed in on this very engaging and practical piece of research in a Feb. 19, 2014 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) website (Note: Links have been removed),

There’s no denying that building the world’s smallest battery is a notable achievement. But while they may lay the groundwork for future battery technologies, today such microbatteries are mostly laboratory curiosities.

Developing a battery that’s no bigger than a grain of rice—and that’s actually useful in the real world—is quite another kind of achievement. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have done just that, creating a battery based on graphene that has successfully been used in monitoring the movements of salmon through rivers.

The microbattery is being heralded as a breakthrough in biotelemetry and should give researchers never before insights into the movements and the early stages of life of the fish.

The battery is partly made from a fluorinated graphene that was described last year …

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 2014 international nanotechnology conference in Toronto, Canada

August 18 – 21, 2014 are the dates for the IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 14th International Conference on Nanotechnology.  The deadline for submitting abstracts is March 15, 2014. Here’s a bit more about the conference, from the homepage,

IEEE Nano is one of the largest Nanotechnology conferences in the world, bringing together the brightest engineers and scientists through collaboration and the exchange of ideas.

IEEE Nano 2014 will provide researchers and others in the Nanotechnology field the ability to interact and advance their work through various speakers and workshop sessions.

Possible Topics for Papers

Environmental Health and Safety of Nanotechnology
Micro-to-nano-scale bridging
Modeling and Simulation
•Applications of Biopolymer Nanoparticles for Drug Delivery
•Non-Carbon Based
•Carbon Based
•Circuits and Architecture
Nanofabrication and Nanoassemblies
•Modeling and Theory
•2-D Materials beyond Graphene
•Synthesis and Characterization
•Applications and Enabled Systems
Nanometrology and Nanocharacterization
Nano-optics, Nano-optoelectronics and Nano-photonics:
•Novel fabrication and integration approaches
•Optical Nano-devices
Nanorobotics and Nanomanipulation
Nanoscale Communication and Networks
Nanosensors and Actuators
Nanotechnology Enabled Energy

There is a conference Call For Papers webpage where you can get more information.

Invited speakers include,

John Polanyi
University of Toronto, Canada

John Polanyi, educated at Manchester University, England, was a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University and at the National Research Council of Canada. He is a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada (P.C.), and a Companion of the Order of Canada (C.C.). His awards include the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He has written extensively on science policy, the control of armaments, peacekeeping and human rights.

Charles Lieber
Professor Charles M. Lieber
Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Harvard University

Charles M. Lieber is regarded as a leading chemist worldwide and recognized as a pioneer in the nanoscience and nanotechnology fields. He completed his doctoral studies at Stanford University and currently holds a joint appointment in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, as the Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Lieber is widely known for his contributions to the synthesis, understanding and assembly of nanoscale materials, as well as the founding of two nanotechnology companies: Nanosys and Vista Therapeutics.

Lieber’s achievements have been recognized by a large number of awards, including the Feynman Prize for Nanotechnology (2002), World Technology award in Materials (2003 and 2004) and the Wolf Prize in Chemistry (2012). He has published more than 350 papers in peer-reviewed journals and is the primary inventor on over 35 patents.

Arthur Carty
Professor & Executive Director [Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology]
University of Waterloo, Canada

Arthur Carty has a PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is currently the Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology and research professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Waterloo.

Previously, Dr. Carty served in Canada as the National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and President of the National Research Council (Canada). He was awarded the Order of Canada and holds 14 honorary doctorates.

His research interests are focused on organometallic chemistry and new materials. [Dr. Carty is chair of The Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture; an assessment being conducted by the Canadian Council of Academies as per my Feb. 22, 2013 posting and Dr. Carty is giving a Keynote lecture titled: 'Small World, Large Impact: Driving a Materials Revolution Through Nanotechnology' at the 2014 TAPPI (Technical Association for the Pulp, Paper, Packaging and Converting Industries) nanotechnology conference, June 23-26, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada as per my Nov. 14, 2013 posting.]

William Milne
University of Cambridge, UK

Bill Milne FREng,FIET,FIMMM has been Head of Electrical Engineering at Cambridge University since 1999 and Director of the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE) since 2005. In 1996 he was appointed to the ‘‘1944 Chair in Electrical Engineering’’. He obtained his BSc from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1970 and then went on to read for a PhD in Electronic Materials at Imperial College London. He was awarded his PhD and DIC in 1973 and, in 2003, a D.Eng (Honoris Causa) from University of Waterloo, Canada. He was elected a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering in 2006. He was awarded the J.J. Thomson medal from the IET in 2008 and the NANOSMAT prize in 2010 for excellence in nanotechnology. His research interests include large area Si and carbon based electronics, graphene, carbon nanotubes and thin film materials. Most recently he has been investigating MEMS, SAW and FBAR devices and SOI based micro heaters for ( bio) sensing applications. He has published/presented ~ 800 papers in these areas, of which ~ 150 were invited. He co-founded Cambridge Nanoinstruments with 3 colleagues from the Department and this was bought out by Aixtron in 2008 and in 2009 co-founded Cambridge CMOS Sensors with Julian Gardner from Warwick Univ. and Florin Udrea from Cambridge Univ.

Shuit-Tong Lee
Institute of Functional Nano & Soft Materials (FUNSOM)
Collaboration Innovation Center of Suzhou Nano Science and Technology
College of Nano Science and Technology (CNST)
Soochow University, China
Email: [email protected]

Prof. Lee is the member (academician) of Chinese Academy of Sciences and the fellow of TWAS (the academy of sciences for the developing world). He is a distinguished scientist in material science and engineering. Prof. Lee is the Founding Director of Functional Nano & Soft Materials Laboratory (FUNSOM) and Director of the College of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Soochow University. He is also a Chair Professor of Materials Science and Founding Director of the Center of Super-Diamond and Advanced Films (COSDAF) at City University of Hong Kong and the Founding Director of Nano-Organic Photoelectronic Laboratory at the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry, CAS. He was the Senior Research Scientist and Project Manager at the Research Laboratories of Eastman Kodak Company in the US before he joined City University of Hong Kong in 1994. He won the Humboldt Senior Research Award (Germany) in 2001 and a Croucher Senior Research Fellowship from the Croucher Foundation (HK) in 2002 for the studies of “Nucleation and growth of diamond and new carbon based materials” and “Oxide assisted growth and applications of semiconducting nanowires”, respectively. He also won the National Natural Science Award of PRC (second class) in 2003 and 2005 for the above research achievements. Recently, he was awarded the 2008 Prize for Scientific and Technological Progress of Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation. Prof. Lee’s research work has resulted in more than 650 peer-reviewed publications in prestigious chemistry, physics and materials science journals, 6 book chapters and over 20 US patents, among them 5 papers were published in Science and Nature (London) and some others were selected as cover papers. His papers have more than 10,000 citations by others, which is ranked within world top 25 in the materials science field according to ESI and ISI citation database.

Sergej Fatikow
Full Professor, Dr.-Ing. habil.
Head, Division for Microrobotics & Control Engineering (AMiR)
University of Oldenburg, Germany

Professor Sergej Fatikow studied electrical engineering and computer science at the Ufa Aviation Technical University in Russia, where he received his doctoral degree in 1988 with work on fuzzy control of complex non-linear systems. After that he worked until 1990 as a lecturer at the same university. During his work in Russia he published over 30 papers and successfully applied for over 50 patents in intelligent control and mechatronics. In 1990 he moved to the Institute for Process Control and Robotics at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, where he worked as a postdoctoral scientific researcher and since 1994 as Head of the research group “Microrobotics and Micromechatronics”. He became an assistant professor in 1996 and qualified for a full faculty position by habilitation at the University of Karlsruhe in 1999. In 2000 he accepted a faculty position at the University of Kassel, Germany. A year later, he was invited to establish a new Division for Microrobotics and Control Engineering (AMiR) at the University of Oldenburg, Germany. Since 2001 he is a full professor in the Department of Computing Science and Head of AMiR. His research interests include micro- and nanorobotics, automated robot-based nanohandling in SEM, AFM-based nanohandling, sensor feedback at nanoscale, and neuro-fuzzy robot control. He is author of three books on microsystem technology, microrobotics and microassembly, robot-based nanohandling, and automation at nanoscale, published by Springer in 1997, Teubner in 2000, and Springer in 2008. Since 1990 he published over 100 book chapters and journal papers and over 200 conference papers. Prof. Fatikow is Founding Chair of the International Conference on Manipulation, Manufacturing and Measurement on the Nanoscale (3M-NANO) and Europe- Chair of IEEE-RAS Technical Committee on Micro/Nano Robotics and Automation.

Seiji Samukawa
Distinguished Professor
Innovative Energy Research Center, Institute of Fluid Science, Tohoku University
World Premier International Center Initiative, Advanced Institute for Materials Research, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan

Dr. Seiji Samukawa received a BSc in 1981 from the Faculty of Technology of Keio University and joined NEC Corporation the same year. At NEC Microelectronics Research Laboratories, he was the lead researcher of a group performing fundamental research on advanced plasma etching processes for technology under 0.1 μm. While there, he received the Ishiguro Award—given by NEC’s R&D Group and Semiconductor Business Group— for his work in applying a damage-free plasma etching process to a mass-production line. After spending several years in the business world, however, he returned to Keio University, obtaining a PhD in engineering in 1992. Since 2000, he has served as professor at the Institute of Fluid Science at Tohoku University and developed ultra-low-damage microfabrication techniques that tap into the essential nature of nanomaterials and developed innovative nanodevices. He is also carrying out pioneering, creative research on bio-template technologies, which are based on a completely new concept of treating the super-molecules of living organisms. His motto when conducting research is to “always aim toward eventual practical realization.”

In recognition of his excellent achievements outlined above, he has been elected as a Distinguished Professor of Tohoku University and has been a Fellow of the Japan Society of Applied Physics since 2008 and a Fellow of the American Vacuum Society since 2009. His significant scientific achievements earned him the Outstanding Paper Award at the International Conference on Micro and Nanotechnology (1997), Best Review Paper Award (2001), Japanese Journal of Applied Physics (JJAP) Editorial Contribution Award (2003), Plasma Electronics Award (2004), Fellow Award (2008), JJAP Paper Award (2008) from the Japan Society of Applied Physics, Distinguished Graduate Award (2005) from Keio University, Ichimura Award (2008) from the New Technology Development Foundation, Commendation for Science and Technology from the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2009), Fellow Award of American Vacuum Society (2009), Plasma Electronics Award from the Japan Society of Applied Physics (2010), Best Paper Award from the Japan Society of Applied Physics (2010), and Plasma Prize from the Plasma Science and Technology Division of American Vacuum Society (2010).

Haixia (Alice) Zhang
Institute of Microelectronics
Peking University, China

Haixia(Alice) Zhang, Professor, Institute of Microelectronics, Peking Universituy. She was served on the general chair of IEEE NEMS 2013 Conference, the organizing chair of Transducers’11. As the founder of the International Contest of Applications in Network of things (iCAN), she organized this world-wide event since 2007. She was elected the director of Integrated Micro/Nano System Engineering Center in 2006, the deputy secretary-general of Chinese Society of Micro-Nano Technology in 2005, the Co-chair of Chinese International NEMS Network (CINN) and serves as the chair of IEEE NTC Beijing Chapter. At 2006, Dr. Zhang won National Invention Award of Science & Technology. Her research fields include MEMS Design and Fabrication Technology, SiC MEMS and Micro Energy Technology.

Alice’s Wonderlab: http://www.ime.pku.edu.cn/alice

I wonder if the organizers will be including an Open Forum as they did at the 13th IEEE nanotechnology conference in China. It sounds a little more dynamic and fun than any of the sessions currently listed for the Toronto conference but these things are sometimes best organized in a relatively spontaneous fashion rather than as one of the more formal conference events (from the 13th conference Open Forum),

This Open Forum will be run like a Rump Session to have a lively discussion of various topics of interest to the IEEE Nanotechnology Community. The key to the success of this Forum is participation from the audience with their own opinions and comments on any Nanotechnology subject or issue they can think of. We expect the session to be lively, interesting, controversial, opinionated and more. Here are some topics or issues to think about:

  1. When are we ever going to have a large scale impact of nanotechnology ? Shouldn’t we be afraid that the stakeholders (Tax payers, Politicians) are going to run out of patience ?
  2. Is there a killer app or apps on the horizon ?
  3. Is there a future for carbon nanotubes in electronics ? It has been 15 years + now….
  4. Is there a future for graphene in electronics ?
  5. Is there a future for graphene in anything ? Or will it just run its course on every application people did previously for carbon nanotubes ?
  6. As engineers, are we doing anything different from the physicists/chemists ? Looks like we are also chasing the same old : trying to publish in Nature, Science, and other similar journals with huge impact factor ? Are we prepared adequately to play in someone else’s game ? Should we even be doing it ?
  7. As engineers, aren’t we supposed to come up with working widgets closer to manufacturing ?
  8. As engineers, are we going to take responsibility for the commercial future of nanotechnology as has been done in all previous success stories ?

This list is by no means exhaustive. Please come up with your own questions/issues and speak up at the session.

Good luck with your abstract.

3D printing and the environment (a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars), and new developments with metal 3D printing

I have combined two 3D printing items here. The first is an announcement from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars about an upcoming panel discussion (from the Nov. 25, 2013 announcement),

The Environmental Impacts of 3D Printing

3D printing allows for cheaper and quicker production of complex and novel items. The technology has been used by industry to build prototypes and specialized parts since the 1980s, but interest in desktop applications of the technology has increased in recent years as prices for the machines have dropped.

Proponents of the technology often cite the environmental benefits of 3D printing, though fundamental questions remain: What technologies are involved in 3D printing? How efficient are these technologies in the use of materials and energy? Does the design of printed objects reduce end-of-life options? Does more localized production reduce the carbon footprint? Will simplicity and ubiquity cause us to overprint things, just as we do with paper?

Robert Olson explored some of these questions in his article “3D Printing: A Boon or a Bane?” in the November/December 2013 issue of the Environmental Forum. The article discusses the enormous potential of 3D printing and examines the paucity of research on the environmental impacts of the technology.

Join us at the Wilson Center on Dec. 13 for an event looking at the growth of additive manufacturing and the potential environmental implications of the technology.

When: Dec. 13, 2013 from 9 a.m. – 11 a.m. EST


  • Robert Olson, Senior Fellow, Institute for Alternative Futures
  • David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program, Wilson Center
  • John Pendergrass, Senior Attorney & Director of the State Center, Environmental Law Institute

There is more information on the Event page.

While this panel discussion is likely to be focused on polymer 3D printing, there are other developments in the 3D printing world as per a Nov. 26, 2013 Michigan Technological University (MTU) news release (also on EurekAlert, Dec. 2, 2013),

OK, so maybe you aren’t interested in making your own toys, cellphone cases, or glow-in-the-dark Christmas decorations. How about a brake drum?

Until now, 3D printing has been a polymer affair, with most people in the maker community using the machines to make all manner of plastic consumer goods, from tent stakes to chess sets. A new low-cost 3D printer developed by Michigan Technological University’s Joshua Pearce and his team could add hammers to that list. The detailed plans, software and firmware are all freely available and open-source, meaning anyone can use them to make their own metal 3D printer.

This open access technology is being made accessible to the maker community, preferably to the highly skilled and experienced members, (from the news release),

Pearce is the first to admit that his new printer is a work in progress. So far, the products he and his team have produced are no more intricate than a sprocket. But that’s because the technology is so raw. “Similar to the incredible churn in innovation witnessed with open-sourcing of the first RepRap plastic 3D printers, I anticipate rapid progress when the maker community gets their hands on it,” says Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering/electrical and computer engineering. “Within a month, somebody will make one that’s better than ours, I guarantee it.”

Using under $1,500 worth of materials, including a small commercial MIG welder and an open-source microcontroller, Pearce’s team built a 3D metal printer than can lay down thin layers of steel to form complex geometric objects. Commercial metal printers are available, but they cost over half a million dollars.

His make-it-yourself metal printer is less expensive than off-the-shelf commercial plastic 3D printers and is affordable enough for home use, he said. However, because of safety concerns, Pearce suggests that for now it would be better off in the hands of a shop, garage or skilled DIYer, since it requires more safety gear and fire protection equipment than the typical plastic 3D printer.

While metal 3D printing opens new vistas, it also raises anew the specter of homemade firearms. Some people have already made guns with both commercial metal and plastic 3D printers, with mixed results. While Pearce admits to some sleepless nights as they developed the metal printer, he also believes that the good to come from all types of distributed manufacturing with 3D printing will far outweigh the dangers.

In previous work, his group has already shown that making products at home with a 3D printer is cheaper for the average American and that printing goods at home is greener than buying commercial goods.

In particular, expanded 3D printing would benefit people in the developing world, who have limited access to manufactured goods, and researchers, who can radically cut costs of scientific equipment to further their science, Pearce said. “Small and medium-sized enterprises would be able to build parts and equipment quickly and easily using downloadable, free and open-source designs, which could revolutionize the economy for the benefit of the many.”

“I really don’t know if we are mature enough to handle it,” he added cautiously, “but I think that with open-source approach, we are within reach of a Star Trek-like, post-scarcity society, in which ‘replicators’ can create a vast array of objects on demand, resulting in wealth for everyone at very little cost. Pretty soon, we’ll be able to make almost anything.”

There is a paper and here’s a citation,of sorts,

“A Low-Cost, Open-Source Metal 3-D Printer,” to be published Nov. 25 in IEEE Access (DOI: 10.1109/ACCESS.2013.2293018)

Unfortunately I’ve not been able to locate this paper on IEEE {Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]  Access.

Chart junk: rethinking science data visualization

Which of these visualizations will you remember later? (Images courtesy of Michelle Borkin, Harvard SEAS.)

Which of these visualizations will you remember later? (Images courtesy of Michelle Borkin, Harvard SEAS.)

This chart of data visualization images accompanies an Oct. 16, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily concerning some research into what makes some charts more memorable than others,

It’s easy to spot a “bad” data visualization — one packed with too much text, excessive ornamentation, gaudy colors, and clip art. Design guru Edward Tufte derided such decorations as redundant at best, useless at worst, labeling them “chart junk.” Yet a debate still rages among visualization experts: Can these reviled extra elements serve a purpose?

Taking a scientific approach to design, researchers from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are offering a new take on that debate. The same design elements that attract so much criticism, they report, can also make a visualization more memorable.

Detailed results were presented this week at the IEEE Information Visualization (InfoVis) conference in Atlanta, hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The Oct. 16, 2013 School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) Harvard University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details some of the ways in which the researchers attempted to study data visualizations and memorability (Note: Links from the news release to be found on the SEAS website have been removed),

For lead author Michelle Borkin, a doctoral student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), memorability has a particular importance:

“I spend a lot of my time reading these scientific papers, so I have to wonder, when I walk away from my desk, what am I going to remember? Which of the figures and visualizations in these publications are going to stick with me?”

But it’s more than grad-school anxiety. Working at the interface of computer science and psychology, Borkin specializes in the visual representation of data, looking for the best ways to communicate and interpret complex information. The applications of her work have ranged from astronomy to medical diagnostics and may already help save lives.

Her adviser, Hanspeter Pfister, An Wang Professor of Computer Science at Harvard SEAS, was intrigued by the chart junk debate, which has flared up on design blogs and at visualization conferences year after year.

Together, they turned to Aude Oliva, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and a cognitive psychologist by training. Oliva’s lab has been studying visual memory for about six years now. Her team has found that in photographs, faces and human-centric scenes are typically easy to remember; landscapes are not.

“All of us are sensitive to the same kinds of images, and we forget the same kind as well,” Oliva says. “We like to believe our memories are unique, that they’re like the soul of a person, but in certain situations it’s as if we have the same algorithm in our heads that is going to be sensitive to a particular type of image. So when you find a result like this in photographs, you want to know: is it generalizable to many types of materials—words, sound, images, graphs?”

“Speaking with [Pfister] and his group, it became very exciting, the idea that we could study what makes a visualization memorable or not,” Oliva recalls. “If it turned out to be the same for everyone, we thought this would be a win-win result.”

For Oliva’s group, it would provide more evidence of cognitive similarities in the brain’s visual processing, from person to person. For Pfister’s group, it could suggest that certain design principles make visualizations inherently more memorable than others.

With Harvard students Azalea A. Vo ’13 and Shashank Sunkavalli SM ’13, as well as MIT graduate students Zoya Bylinskii and Phillip Isola, the team designed a large-scale study—in the form of an online game—to rigorously measure the memorability of a wide variety of visualizations. They collected more than 5,000 charts and graphics from scientific papers, design blogs, newspapers, and government reports and manually categorized them by a wide range of attributes. Serving them up in brief glimpses—just one second each—to participants via Amazon Mechanical Turk, the researchers tested the influence of features like color, density, and content themes on users’ ability to recognize which ones they had seen before.

The results meshed well with Oliva’s previous results, but added several new insights.

“A visualization will be instantly and overwhelmingly more memorable if it incorporates an image of a human-recognizable object—if it includes a photograph, people, cartoons, logos—any component that is not just an abstract data visualization,” says Pfister. “We learned that any time you have a graphic with one of those components, that’s the most dominant thing that affects the memorability.”

Visualizations that were visually dense proved memorable, as did those that used many colors. Other results were more surprising.

“You’d think the types of charts you’d remember best are the ones you learned in school—the bar charts, pie charts, scatter plots, and so on,” Borkin says. “But it was the opposite.”

Unusual types of charts, like tree diagrams, network diagrams, and grid matrices, were actually more memorable.

“If you think about those types of diagrams—for example, tree diagrams that show relationships between species, or diagrams that explain a molecular chemical process—every one of them is going to be a little different, but the branching structures feel very natural to us,” explains Borkin. “That combination of the familiar and the unique seems to influence the memorability.”

The best type of chart to use will always depend on the data, but for designers who are required to work within a certain style—for example, to achieve a recognizable consistency within a magazine—the results may be reassuring.

“A graph can be simple or complex, and they both can be memorable,” explains Oliva. “You can make something familiar either by keeping it simple or by having a little story around it. It’s not really that you should choose to use one color or many, or to include additional ornaments or not. If you need to keep it simple because it’s the style your boss likes or the style of your publication, you can still find a way to make it memorable.”

At this stage, however, the team hesitates to issue any sweeping design guidelines for an obvious reason: memorability isn’t the only thing that matters. Visualizations must also be accurate, easy to comprehend, aesthetically pleasing, and appropriate to the context.

“A memorable visualization is not necessarily a good visualization,” Borkin cautions. “As a community we need to keep asking these types of questions: What makes a visualization engaging? What makes it comprehensible?”

As for the chart junk, she says diplomatically, “I think it’s going to be an ongoing debate.”

I believe Michelle Borkin is the lead author of an unpublished (as yet) paper submitted to the 2013 IEEE Information Visualization (InfoVis) conference, which means I can’t offer a link to or a citation for the paper.

Memristors have always been with us

Sprightly, a word not often used in conjunction with technology of any kind,  is the best of way describing the approach that researchers Varun Aggarwal and Gaurav Gandhi, along with Dr. Leon Chua, have taken towards their discovery that memristors are all around us. ( For anyone not familiar with the concept, I suggest reading the Wikipedia essay on memristors as it includes information about the various critiques of the memristor definition, as well as, the definition.)

It was Dexter Johnson in his June 6, 2013 post on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Nanoclast blog who alerted me to this latest memristor work (Note: Links have been removed),

Two researchers from mLabs in India, along with Prof. Leon Chua at the University of California Berkeley, who first postulated the memristor in a paper back in 1971, have discovered the simplest physical implementation for the memristor, which can be built by anyone and everyone.

In two separate papers, one published in arXiv (“Bipolar electrical switching in metal-metal contacts”) and the other in the IEEE’s own Circuits and Systems Magazine (“The First Radios Were Made Using Memristors!”), Chua and the researchers, Varun Aggarwal and Gaurav Gandhi, discovered that simple imperfect point contacts all around us act as memristors.

“Our arXiv paper talks about the coherer, which comprises an imperfect metal-metal contact in embodiments such as a point contact between two metallic balls, granular media or a metal-mercury interface,” Gandhi explained to me via e-email. “On the other hand, the CAS paper comprises an imperfect metal-semiconductor contact (Cat’s Whisker) which was also the first solid-state diode. Both the systems have as their signature an imperfect point contact between two conducting/partially-conducting elements. Both act like memristor.”

I’ll get to the articles in a minutes, first let’s look at the researchers’ website, Mlabs home page (splash page). BTW, I have a soft spot for websites that are easy to navigate and don’t irritate me with movement or pop-ups (thank you mLabs). I think this description of the researchers (Aggarwal and Gandhi) and how they came to develop mLabs (excerpted from the About us page) explains why I described their approach as sprightly,

As they say, anything can happen over a cup of coffee and this story is no different! Gaurav and Varun were friends for over a decade, and one fine day they were sitting at a coffee house discussing Gaurav’s trip to the Second Memristor and Memristive Symposium at Berkeley. Gaurav shared the exciting work around memristor that he witnessed at Berkeley. Varun, who has been an evangelist of Jagadish Chandra Bose’s work thought there was some correlation between the research work of Bose and memristor. He convinced Gaurav to look deeper into these aspects. Soon, a plan was put forth, they wore their engineering gloves and mLabs was born. Gaurav quit his job for full time involvement at mLabs, while Varun assisted and advised throughout.

Three years of curiosity, experimentation, discussions and support from various researchers and professors from different parts of the world, led us to where we are today.

We are also sincerely grateful to Prof. Leon Chua for his continuous support, mentorship and indispensable contribution to our work.

As Dexter notes, Aggarwal and Gandhi have written papers about two different ways to create memristors, the arXiv paper, Bipolar electrical switching in metal-metal contacts, describes how corherers could be used to create simple memristors for research purposes. This paper also makes the argument that the memristor is a fundamental circuit (a claim which is a matter of considerable debate as the Wikipedia Memristor essay notes briefly),

Our new results show that bipolar switching can be observed in a large class of metals by a simple construction in form of a point-contact or granular media. It does not require complex construction, particular materials or small geometries. The signature of all our devices is an imperfect metal-metal contact and the physical mechanism for the observed behavior needs to be further studied. That the electrical behavior of these simple, naturally-occurring physical constructs can be modeled by a memristor, but not the other three passive elements, is an indication of its fundamental nature. By providing the canonic physical implementation for memristor, the present work not only lls an important gap in the study of switching devices, but also brings them into the realm of immediate practical use and implementation.

Due to the fact that the second article, the one in the IEEE published Circuits and Systems magazine, is behind a paywall, I can’t do much more than offer the title and the first paragraph,

The First Radios Were Made Using Memristors!

In 2008, Williams et al. reported the discovery of the fourth fundamental passive circuit element, memristor, which exhibits electrically controllable state-dependent resistance [1]. We show that one of the first wireless radio detector, called cat?s whisker, also the world?s first solid-state diode, had memristive properties. We have identified the state variable governing the resistance state of the device and can program it to switch between multiple stable resistance states. Our observations and results are valid for a larger class of devices called coherers, which include the cat?s whisker. These devices constitute the missing canonical physical implementations for a memristor (ref. Fig. 1).

It’s fascinating when you consider that up until now researching memristors meant having high tech equipment. I wonder how many backyard memristor labs are going to spring up?

On a somewhat related note, Dexter mentions that HP Labs ‘memristor’ products will be available in 2014. This latest date represents two postponements. Originally meant to be on the market in the summer of 2013, the new products were then supposed to brought to market in late 2013 as per my Feb. 7, 2013 posting; scroll down about 75% of the way).

Life-cycle assessment for electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries and nanotechnology is a risk analysis

A May 29, 2013 news item on Azonano features a new study for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on nanoscale technology and lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries for electric vehicles,

Lithium (Li-ion) batteries used to power plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles show overall promise to “fuel” these vehicles and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but there are areas for improvement to reduce possible environmental and public health impacts, according to a “cradle to grave” study of advanced Li-ion batteries recently completed by Abt Associates for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“While Li-ion batteries for electric vehicles are definitely a step in the right direction from traditional gasoline-fueled vehicles and nickel metal-hydride automotive batteries, some of the materials and methods used to manufacture them could be improved,” said Jay Smith, an Abt senior analyst and co-lead of the life-cycle assessment.

Smith said, for example, the study showed that the batteries that use cathodes with nickel and cobalt, as well as solvent-based electrode processing, show the highest potential for certain environmental and human health impacts. The environmental impacts, Smith explained, include resource depletion, global warming, and ecological toxicity—primarily resulting from the production, processing and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds, which can cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological effects in those exposed.

There are viable ways to reduce these impacts, he said, including cathode material substitution, solvent-less electrode processing and recycling of metals from the batteries.

The May 28, 2013 Abt Associates news release, which originated the news item, describes some of the findings,

Among other findings, Shanika Amarakoon, an Abt associate who co-led the life-cycle assessment with Smith, said global warming and other environmental and health impacts were shown to be influenced by the electricity grids used to charge the batteries when driving the vehicles.
“These impacts are sensitive to local and regional grid mixes,” Amarakoon said.  “If the batteries in use are drawing power from the grids in the Midwest or South, much of the electricity will be coming from coal-fired plants.  If it’s in New England or California, the grids rely more on renewables and natural gas, which emit less greenhouse gases and other toxic pollutants.” However,” she added, “impacts from the processing and manufacture of these batteries should not be overlooked.”
In terms of battery performance, Smith said that “the nanotechnology applications that Abt assessed were single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs), which are currently being researched for use as anodes as they show promise for improving the energy density and ultimate performance of the Li-ion batteries in vehicles.  What we found, however, is that the energy needed to produce the SWCNT anodes in these early stages of development is prohibitive. Over time, if researchers focus on reducing the energy intensity of the manufacturing process before commercialization, the environmental profile of the technology has the potential to improve dramatically.”

Abt’s Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles can be found here, all 126 pp.

This assessment was performed under the auspices of an interesting assortment of agencies (from the news release),

The research for the life-cycle assessment was undertaken through the Lithium-ion Batteries and Nanotechnology for Electric Vehicles Partnership, which was led by EPA’s Design for the Environment Program in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and Toxics, and EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory in the Office of Research and Development.  [emphasis mine] The Partnership also included industry partners (i.e., battery manufacturers, recyclers, and suppliers, and other industry groups), the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab, Arizona State University, and the Rochester Institute of Technology

I highlighted the National Risk Management Research Laboratory as it reminded me of the lithium-ion battery fires in airplanes reported in January 2013. I realize that cars and planes are not the same thing but lithium-ion batteries have some well defined problems especially since the summer of 2006 when there was a series of li-ion battery laptop fires. From Tracy V. Wilson’s What causes laptop batteries to overheat? article for How stuff works.com (Note: A link has been removed),

In conjunction with the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Dell and Apple Computer announced large recalls of laptop batteries in the summer of 2006, followed by Toshiba and Lenovo. Sony manufactured all of the recalled batteries, and in October 2006, the company announced its own large-scale recall. Under the right circumstances, these batteries could overheat, potentially causing burns, an explosion or a fire.

Larry Greenemeier in a Jan. 17, 2013 article for Scientific American offers some details about the lithium-ion battery fires in airplanes and elsewhere,

Boeing’s Dreamliner has likely become a nightmare for the company, its airline customers and regulators worldwide. An inflight lithium-ion battery fire broke out Wednesday [Jan. 16, 2013] on an All Nippon Airways 787 over Japan, forcing an emergency landing. And another battery fire occurred last week aboard a Japan Airlines 787 at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Both battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage and smoke on the aircraft, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Lithium-ion batteries—used to power mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles—have summoned plenty of controversy during their relatively brief existence. Introduced commercially in 1991, by the mid 2000s they had become infamous for causing fires in laptop computers.

More recently, the plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt’s lithium-ion battery packs burst into flames following several National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests to measure the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. The NHTSA investigated and concluded in January 2012 that Chevy Volts and other electric vehicles do not pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles.

Philip E. Ross in his Jan. 18, 2013 article about the airplane fires for IEEE’s (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum provides some insight into the fires,

It seems that the batteries heated up in a self-accelerating pattern called thermal runaway. Heat from the production of electricity speeds up the production of electricity, and… you’re off. This sort of things happens in a variety of reactions, not just in batteries, let alone the Li-ion kind. But thermal runaway is particularly grave in Li-ion batteries because they pack a lot more power than the tried-and-true metal-hydride ones, not to speak of Ye Olde lead-acid.

It’s because of this very quality that Li-ion batteries found their first application in small mobile devices, where power is critical and fires won’t cost anyone his life. It’s also why it took so long for the new tech to find its way into electric and hybrid-electric cars.

Perhaps it would have been wiser of Boeing to go for the safest possible Li-ion design, even if it didn’t have quite as much oomph as possible. That’s what today’s main-line electric-drive cars do, as our colleague, John Voelcker, points out.

“The cells in the 787 [Dreamliner], from Japanese company GS Yuasa, use a cobalt oxide (CoO2) chemistry, just as mobile-phone and laptop batteries do,” he writes in greencarreports.com. “That chemistry has the highest energy content, but it is also the most susceptible to overheating that can produce “thermal events” (which is to say, fires). Only one electric car has been built in volume using CoO2 cells, and that’s the Tesla Roadster. Only 2,500 of those cars will ever exist.” Most of today’s electric cars, Voelcker adds, use chemistries that trade some energy density for safety.

The Dreamliner (Boeing 787) is designed to be the lightest of airplanes and using a more energy dense but safer lithium-ion battery seems not to have been an acceptable trade-off.  Interestingly, Boeing according to Ross still had a backlog of orders after the fires.

I find that some of the discussion about risk and nanotechnology-enabled products oddly disconnected. There are the concerns about what happens at the nanoscale (environmental implications, etc.) but that discussion is divorced from some macroscale issues such as battery fires. Taken to absurd lengths, technology at the nanoscale could be considered safe while macroscale issues are completely ignored. It’s as if our institutions are not yet capable of managing multiple scales at once.

For more about an emphasis on scale and other minutiae (pun intended), there’s my May 28, 2013 posting about Steffen Foss Hansen’s plea to revise current European Union legislation to create more categories for nanotechnology regulation, amongst other things.

For more about airplanes and their efforts to get more energy efficient, there’s my May 27, 2013 posting about a biofuel study in Australia.

University of Alberta (Canada) student nanorobotics team demonstrates potential medical technology in competitiion

A University of Alberta (Canada) nanorobotics team has entered its nanobot system into the International Mobile Micro/nanorobotics Competition in Karlsruhe, Germany, as part of the ICRA Robot Challenges at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) being held May 6 – 10, 2013 in Karlsruhe, Germany. From the May 6, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

A team of engineering students is putting a twist on robotics, developing a nano-scale robotics system that could lead to new medical therapies.

In less than a year, the U of A team has assembled a working system that manipulates nano-scale ‘robots’. The team uses magnets to manipulate a droplet filled with iron oxide nanoparticles. Barely visible to the naked eye, the droplet measures 400-500 micrometres.

The May 3, 2013 University of Alberta news release by Richard Cairney, which originated the news item, describes the system,

Using a joystick, team members control the robot, making it travel along a specific route, navigate an obstacle course or to push micro-sized objects from one point to another.

The challenge is simple in concept but highly technical and challenging to execute: the team first injects a water droplet with iron oxide nanoparticles into into oil. The droplet holds its shape because it is encased in a surfactant—a soap-like formula that repels water on one side and attracts water on the other.

“It’s like a capsule,” said team member Yang Gao, who is working on her master’s degree in chemical engineering. “It’s a vehicle for the nanoparticles.”

The iron-filled droplet is placed in a playing ‘field’ measuring 2 x 3 millimetres. The team uses four magnets mounted each side of the rectangular field to move the droplet in a figure-8, manoeuvring it through four gates built into the field.

“We use the magnets to pull the droplet,” explains electrical engineering PhD student Remko van den Hurk.

In a second challenge, the team will be required to use the droplet as a bulldozer of sorts, to arrange micro-scale objects that measure 200 x 300 micrometres into a particular order on an even smaller playing field.

The competition has its serious side, these nanobots could one day be used in medical applications.

In the meantime there’s the competition, good luck!

Skills training: get ready for the robots

If the boffins at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are right, soon we may be learning alongside robots and using the same techniques.  Helen Knight’s Feb. 11, 2013 news release for MIT highlights a recent study showing that robots, like humans, learn better if they cross-train. From the news release,

Robots are increasingly being used in the manufacturing industry to perform tasks that bring them into closer contact with humans. But while a great deal of work is being done to ensure robots and humans can operate safely side-by-side, more effort is needed to make robots smart enough to work effectively with people, says Julie Shah, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and head of the Interactive Robotics Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

“People aren’t robots, they don’t do things the same way every single time,” Shah says. “And so there is a mismatch between the way we program robots to perform tasks in exactly the same way each time and what we need them to do if they are going to work in concert with people.”

Most existing research into making robots better team players is based on the concept of interactive reward, in which a human trainer gives a positive or negative response each time a robot performs a task.

However, human studies carried out by the military have shown that simply telling people they have done well or badly at a task is a very inefficient method of encouraging them to work well as a team.

Here’s the experiment Shah and her student performed,

So Shah and PhD student Stefanos Nikolaidis began to investigate whether techniques that have been shown to work well in training people could also be applied to mixed teams of humans and robots. One such technique, known as cross-training, sees team members swap roles with each other on given days. “This allows people to form a better idea of how their role affects their partner and how their partner’s role affects them,” Shah says.

In a paper to be presented at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Tokyo in March [2013], Shah and Nikolaidis will present the results of experiments they carried out with a mixed group of humans and robots, demonstrating that cross-training is an extremely effective team-building tool.

More specifically,

To allow robots to take part in the cross-training experiments, the pair first had to design a new algorithm to allow the devices to learn from their role-swapping experiences. So they modified existing reinforcement-learning algorithms to allow the robots to take in not only information from positive and negative rewards, but also information gained through demonstration. In this way, by watching their human counterparts switch roles to carry out their work, the robots were able to learn how the humans wanted them to perform the same task.

Each human-robot team then carried out a simulated task in a virtual environment, with half of the teams using the conventional interactive reward approach, and half using the cross-training technique of switching roles halfway through the session. Once the teams had completed this virtual training session, they were asked to carry out the task in the real world, but this time sticking to their own designated roles.

Shah and Nikolaidis found that the period in which human and robot were working at the same time — known as concurrent motion — increased by 71 percent in teams that had taken part in cross-training, compared to the interactive reward teams. They also found that the amount of time the humans spent doing nothing — while waiting for the robot to complete a stage of the task, for example — decreased by 41 percent.

What’s more, when the pair studied the robots themselves, they found that the learning algorithms recorded a much lower level of uncertainty about what their human teammate was likely to do next — a measure known as the entropy level — if they had been through cross-training.

Finally, when responding to a questionnaire after the experiment, human participants in cross-training were far more likely to say the robot had carried out the task according to their preferences than those in the reward-only group, and reported greater levels of trust in their robotic teammate. “This is the first evidence that human-robot teamwork is improved when a human and robot train together by switching roles, in a manner similar to effective human team training practices,” Nikolaidis says.

Shah believes this improvement in team performance could be due to the greater involvement of both parties in the cross-training process. “When the person trains the robot through reward it is one-way: The person says ‘good robot’ or the person says ‘bad robot,’ and it’s a very one-way passage of information,” Shah says. “But when you switch roles the person is better able to adapt to the robot’s capabilities and learn what it is likely to do, and so we think that it is adaptation on the person’s side that results in a better team performance.”

The work shows that strategies that are successful in improving interaction among humans can often do the same for humans and robots, says Kerstin Dautenhahn, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. “People easily attribute human characteristics to a robot and treat it socially, so it is not entirely surprising that this transfer from the human-human domain to the human-robot domain not only made the teamwork more efficient, but also enhanced the experience for the participants, in terms of trusting the robot,” Dautenhahn says.

The paper (Human-Robot Cross-Training: Computational Formulation, Modeling and Evaluation of a Human Team Training Strategy) written by Nikolaidis and Shah can be found here and the website for the conference (International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction [HRI]; 8th ACM [Association of Computing Machinery]/IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Conference on Human-Robot Interaction) where it will be presented is here.