Tag Archives: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Largest database of elemental crystal surfaces and shapes in the world

A Sept. 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes the database,

Nanoengineers at the University of California San Diego [UCSD], in collaboration with the Materials Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), have created the world’s largest database of elemental crystal surfaces and shapes to date. Dubbed Crystalium, this new open-source database can help researchers design new materials for technologies in which surfaces and interfaces play an important role, such as fuel cells, catalytic converters in cars, computer microchips, nanomaterials and solid-state batteries.

rystalium is a new open-source database with the largest collection of elemental crystal surfaces and shapes to date. Image courtesy of the Materials Virtual Lab at UC San Diego

Crystalium is a new open-source database with the largest collection of elemental crystal surfaces and shapes to date. Image courtesy of the Materials Virtual Lab at UC San Diego

A Sept. 13, 2016 UCSD news release reveals more about the goals for the database and the database itself (Note: Links have been removed),

“This work is an important starting point for studying the material surfaces and interfaces, where many novel properties can be found. We’ve developed a new resource that can be used to better understand surface science and find better materials for surface-driven technologies,” said Shyue Ping Ong, a nanoengineering professor at UC San Diego and senior author of the study.

For example, fuel cell performance is partly influenced by the reaction of molecules such as hydrogen and oxygen on the surfaces of metal catalysts. Also, interfaces between the electrodes and electrolyte in a rechargeable lithium-ion battery host a variety of chemical reactions that can limit the battery’s performance. The work in this study is useful for these applications, said Ong, who is also part of a larger effort by the UC San Diego Sustainable Power and Energy Center to design better battery materials.

“Researchers can use this database to figure out which elements or materials are more likely to be viable catalysts for processes like ammonia production or making hydrogen gas from water,” said Richard Tran, a nanoengineering PhD student in Ong’s Materials Virtual Lab and the study’s first author. Tran did this work while he was an undergraduate at UC San Diego.

The work, published Sept. 13 [2016] in the journal Scientific Data, provides the surface energies and equilibrium crystal shapes of more than 100 polymorphs of 72 elements in the periodic table. Surface energy describes the stability of a surface; it is a measure of the excess energy of atoms on the surface relative to those in the bulk material. Knowing surface energies is useful for designing materials that perform their functions primarily on their surfaces, like catalysts and nanoparticles.

The surface energies of some elements in their crystal form have been measured experimentally, but this is not a trivial task. It involves melting the crystal, measuring the resulting liquid’s surface tension at the melting temperature, then extrapolating that value back to room temperature. This process also requires that the sample have a clean surface, which is challenging because other atoms and molecules (like oxygen and water) can easily adsorb to the surface and modify the surface energy.

Surface energies obtained by this method are averaged values that lack the facet-specific resolution that is necessary for design, Ong said. “This is one of the areas where the ’virtual laboratory’ can create the most value—by allowing us to precisely control the models and conditions in a way that is extremely difficult to do in experiments.”

Also, the surface energy is not just a single number for each crystal because it depends on the crystal’s orientation. “A crystal is a regular arrangement of atoms. When you cut a crystal in different places and at different angles, you expose different facets with unique arrangements of atoms,” explained Ong, who teaches the course NANO106 – Crystallography of Materials at UC San Diego.

To carry out this ambitious project, Ong and his team developed highly sophisticated automated workflows to calculate surface energies from first principles. These workflows are built on the popular open-source Python Materials Genomics library and FireWorks workflow codes of the Materials Project, which were co-authored by Ong.

“The techniques for calculating surface energies have been known for decades. The major accomplishment is the codification of how to generate surface models and run these complex calculations in a robust and efficient manner,” Tran said. The surface model generation software code developed by the team has already been extended by others to study substrates and interfaces. Powerful supercomputers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab were used for the calculations.

Ong’s team worked with researchers from the Berkeley Lab’s Materials Project to develop and construct Crystalium’s website. Co-founded and directed by Berkeley Lab scientist Kristin Persson, the Materials Project is a Google-like database of material properties calculated by supercomputers.

“The Materials Project was designed to be an open and accessible tool for scientists and engineers to accelerate materials innovation,” Persson said. “In five years, it has attracted more than 20,000 users working on everything from batteries to photovoltaics to thermoelectrics, and it’s extremely gratifying to see scientists like Ong providing lots of high quality computed data of high interest and making it freely available and easily accessible to the public.”

The researchers pointed out that their database is the most extensive collection of calculated surface energies for elemental crystalline solids to date. Compared to previous compilations, Crystalium contains surface energies for far more elements, including both metals and non-metals, and for more facets in each crystal. The elements that have been excluded from their calculations are gases and radioactive elements. Notably, Ong and his team have validated their calculated surface energies with those from experiments, and the values are in excellent agreement.

Moving forward, the team will work on expanding the scope of the database beyond single elements to multi-element compounds like alloys, which are made of two or more different metals, and binary oxides, which are made of oxygen and one other element. Efforts are also underway to study the effect of common adsorbates, such as hydrogen, on surface energies, which is key to understanding the stability of surfaces in aqueous media.

“As we continue to build this database, we hope that the research community will see it as a useful resource for the rational design of target surface or interfacial properties,” said Ong,

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

Surface energies of elemental crystals by Richard Tran, Zihan Xu, Balachandran Radhakrishnan, Donald Winston, Wenhao Sun, Kristin A. Persson, & Shyue Ping Ong.  Scientific Data 3, Article number: 160080 (2016)  doi:10.1038/sdata.2016.80 Published online: 13 September 2016

This paper is open access.

Here, too, is a link to Crystalium.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (US) and five of its nanoscience projects

An Aug 3, 2016 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory news release (also on Azonano as an Aug. 5, 2016 news item) features a selection of their nanoscience projects (Note: Links, embedded images, and embedded videos have been removed),

1. A DIY paint-on coating for energy efficient windows

This “cool” DIY retrofit tech could improve the energy efficiency of windows and save money. Researchers are developing a polymer-based heat-reflective coating that makes use of the unusual molecular architecture of a polymer.

It has the potential to be painted on windows at one-tenth the cost of current retrofit approaches. Window films on the market today reflect infrared solar energy back to the sky while allowing visible light to pass through, but a professional contractor is needed to install them. A low-cost option could significantly expand adoption and result in potential annual energy savings equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road.

2. Nanowires that move data at light speed

Researchers have found a new way to produce nanoscale wires that can serve as tiny, tunable lasers. The excellent performance of these tiny lasers is promising for the field of optoelectronics, which is focused on combining electronics and light to transmit data, among other applications. Miniaturizing lasers to the nanoscale could further revolutionize computing, bringing light-speed data transmission to desktop, and ultimately, handheld computing devices.

3. Nano sponges that fight climate change

Scientists are developing nano sponges that could capture carbon from power plants before it enters the atmosphere. Initial tests show the hybrid membrane, composed of nano-sized cages (called metal-organic frameworks) and a polymer, is eight times more carbon dioxide permeable than membranes composed only of the polymer.

Boosting carbon dioxide permeability is a big goal in efforts to develop carbon capture materials that are energy efficient and cost competitive. Watch this video for more on this technology.

4. Custom-made chemical factories

Scientists have recently reengineered a building block of a nanocompartment that occurs naturally in bacteria, greatly expanding the potential of nanocompartments to serve as custom-made chemical factories. Researchers hope to tailor this new use to produce high-value chemical products, such as medicines, on demand

The sturdy nanocompartments are formed by hundreds of copies of just three different types of proteins. Their natural counterparts, known as bacterial microcompartments, encase a wide variety of enzymes that carry out highly specialized chemistry in bacteria.

5. Nanotubes that assemble themselves

Researchers have discovered a family of nature-inspired polymers that, when placed in water, spontaneously assemble into hollow crystalline nanotubes. What’s more, the nanotubes can be tuned to all have the same diameter of between five and ten nanometers.

Controlling the diameter of nanotubes, and the chemical groups exposed in their interior, enables scientists to control what goes through. Nanotubes have the potential to be incredibly useful, from delivering cancer-fighting drugs inside cells to desalinating seawater.

It’s nice to see projects grouped together like that as it gives you a bigger picture of what’s taking place at the lab than you’re likely to get reading news releases about individual projects and breakthroughs.

Berkeley Lab has also got an introductory video which does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of conveying the concept of the nanoscale,

H/t to Aug. 10, 2016 news item on Nanowerk for the Berkeley Lab’s ‘nano penny’ video.

Self-healing diamond-like carbon from the Argonne Lab (US)

Argonne researchers, from left, Subramanian Sankaranarayanan, Badri Narayanan, Ali Erdemir, Giovanni Ramirez and Osman Levent Eryilmaz show off metal engine parts that have been treated with a diamond-like carbon coating similar to one developed and explored by the team. The catalytic coating interacts with engine oil to create a self-healing diamond-like film that could have profound implications for the efficiency and durability of future engines. (photo by Wes Agresta)

Argonne researchers, from left, Subramanian Sankaranarayanan, Badri Narayanan, Ali Erdemir, Giovanni Ramirez and Osman Levent Eryilmaz show off metal engine parts that have been treated with a diamond-like carbon coating similar to one developed and explored by the team. The catalytic coating interacts with engine oil to create a self-healing diamond-like film that could have profound implications for the efficiency and durability of future engines. (photo by Wes Agresta)

An Aug. 5, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily makes the announcement,

Fans of Superman surely recall how the Man of Steel used immense heat and pressure generated by his bare hands to form a diamond out of a lump of coal.

The tribologists — scientists who study friction, wear, and lubrication — and computational materials scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Argonne National Laboratory will probably never be mistaken for superheroes. However, they recently applied the same principles and discovered a revolutionary diamond-like film of their own that is generated by the heat and pressure of an automotive engine.

An Aug. 5, 2016 Argonne National Laboratory news release (also on EurekAlert) by Greg Cunningham, which originated the news item, explains further,

The discovery of this ultra-durable, self-lubricating tribofilm – a film that forms between moving surfaces — was first reported yesterday in the journal Nature. It could have profound implications for the efficiency and durability of future engines and other moving metal parts that can be made to develop self-healing, diamond-like carbon (DLC) tribofilms.

“This is a very unique discovery, and one that was a little unexpected,” said Ali Erdemir, the Argonne Distinguished Fellow who leads the team. “We have developed many types of diamond-like carbon coatings of our own, but we’ve never found one that generates itself by breaking down the molecules of the lubricating oil and can actually regenerate the tribofilm as it is worn away.”

The phenomenon was first discovered several years ago by Erdemir and his colleague Osman Levent Eryilmaz in the Tribology and Thermal-Mechanics Department in Argonne’s Center for Transportation Research. But it took theoretical insight enhanced by the massive computing resources available at Argonne to fully understand what was happening at the molecular level in the experiments. The theoretical understanding was provided by lead theoretical researcher Subramanian Sankaranarayanan and postdoctoral researcher Badri Narayanan from the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), while the computing power was provided by the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. CNM, ALCF and NERSC are all DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

The original discovery occurred when Erdemir and Eryilmaz decided to see what would happen when a small steel ring was coated with a catalytically active nanocoating – tiny molecules of metals that promote chemical reactions to break down other materials – then subjected to high pressure and heat using a base oil without the complex additives of modern lubricants. When they looked at the ring after the endurance test, they didn’t see the expected rust and surface damage, but an intact ring with an odd blackish deposit on the contact area.

“This test creates extreme contact pressure and temperatures, which are supposed to cause the ring to wear and eventually seize,” said Eryilmaz. “But this ring didn’t significantly wear and this blackish deposit was visible. We said, ‘This material is strange. Maybe this is what is causing this unusual effect.'”

Looking at the deposit using high-powered optical and laser Raman microscopes, the experimentalists realized the deposit was a tribofilm of diamond-like carbon, similar to several other DLCs developed at Argonne in the past. But it worked even better. Tests revealed the DLC tribofilm reduced friction by 25 to 40 percent and that wear was reduced to unmeasurable values.

Further experiments, led by postdoctoral researcher Giovanni Ramirez, revealed that multiple types of catalytic coatings can yield DLC tribofilms. The experiments showed the coatings interact with the oil molecules to create the DLC film, which adheres to the metal surfaces. When the tribofilm is worn away, the catalyst in the coating is re-exposed to the oil, causing the catalysis to restart and develop new layers of tribofilm. The process is self-regulating, keeping the film at consistent thickness. The scientists realized the film was developing spontaneously between the sliding surfaces and was replenishing itself, but they needed to understand why and how.

To provide the theoretical understanding of what the tribology team was seeing in its experiments, they turned to Sankaranarayanan and Narayanan, who used the immense computing power of ALCF’s 10-petaflop supercomputer, Mira. They ran large-scale simulations to understand what was happening at the atomic level, and determined that the catalyst metals in the nanocomposite coatings were stripping hydrogen atoms from the hydrocarbon chains of the lubricating oil, then breaking the chains down into smaller segments. The smaller chains joined together under pressure to create the highly durable DLC tribofilm.

“This is an example of catalysis under extreme conditions created by friction. It is opening up a new field where you are merging catalysis and tribology, which has never been done before,” said Sankaranarayanan. “This new field of tribocatalysis has the potential to change the way we look at lubrication.”

The theorists explored the origins of the catalytic activity to understand how catalysis operates under the extreme heat and pressure in an engine. By gaining this understanding, they were able to predict which catalysts would work, and which would create the most advantageous tribofilms.

“Interestingly, we found several metals or composites that we didn’t think would be catalytically active, but under these circumstances, they performed quite well,” said Narayanan. “This opens up new pathways for scientists to use extreme conditions to enhance catalytic activity.”

The implications of the new tribofilm for efficiency and reliability of engines are huge. Manufacturers already use many different types of coatings — some developed at Argonne — for metal parts in engines and other applications. The problem is those coatings are expensive and difficult to apply, and once they are in use, they only last until the coating wears through. The new catalyst allows the tribofilm to be continually renewed during operation.

Additionally, because the tribofilm develops in the presence of base oil, it could allow manufacturers to reduce, or possibly eliminate, some of the modern anti-friction and anti-wear additives in oil. These additives can decrease the efficiency of vehicle catalytic converters and can be harmful to the environment because of their heavy metal content.

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

Carbon-based tribofilms from lubricating oils by Ali Erdemir, Giovanni Ramirez, Osman L. Eryilmaz, Badri Narayanan, Yifeng Liao, Ganesh Kamath, & Subramanian K. R. S. Sankaranarayanan. Nature 536, 67–71 (04 August 2016) doi:10.1038/nature18948 Published online 03 August 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Pushing efficiency of perovskite-based solar cells to 31%

This atomic force microscopy image of the grainy surface of a perovskite solar cell reveals a new path to much greater efficiency. Individual grains are outlined in black, low-performing facets are red, and high-performing facets are green. A big jump in efficiency could possibly be obtained if the material can be grown so that more high-performing facets develop. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

This atomic force microscopy image of the grainy surface of a perovskite solar cell reveals a new path to much greater efficiency. Individual grains are outlined in black, low-performing facets are red, and high-performing facets are green. A big jump in efficiency could possibly be obtained if the material can be grown so that more high-performing facets develop. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

It’s always fascinating to observe a trend (or a craze) in science, an endeavour that outsiders (like me) tend to think of as impervious to such vagaries. Perovskite seems to be making its way past the trend/craze phase and moving into a more meaningful phase. From a July 4, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have discovered a possible secret to dramatically boosting the efficiency of perovskite solar cells hidden in the nanoscale peaks and valleys of the crystalline material.

Solar cells made from compounds that have the crystal structure of the mineral perovskite have captured scientists’ imaginations. They’re inexpensive and easy to fabricate, like organic solar cells. Even more intriguing, the efficiency at which perovskite solar cells convert photons to electricity has increased more rapidly than any other material to date, starting at three percent in 2009 — when researchers first began exploring the material’s photovoltaic capabilities — to 22 percent today. This is in the ballpark of the efficiency of silicon solar cells.

Now, as reported online July 4, 2016 in the journal Nature Energy (“Facet-dependent photovoltaic efficiency variations in single grains of hybrid halide perovskite”), a team of scientists from the Molecular Foundry and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, both at Berkeley Lab, found a surprising characteristic of a perovskite solar cell that could be exploited for even higher efficiencies, possibly up to 31 percent.

A July 4, 2016 Berkeley Lab news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details the research,

Using photoconductive atomic force microscopy, the scientists mapped two properties on the active layer of the solar cell that relate to its photovoltaic efficiency. The maps revealed a bumpy surface composed of grains about 200 nanometers in length, and each grain has multi-angled facets like the faces of a gemstone.

Unexpectedly, the scientists discovered a huge difference in energy conversion efficiency between facets on individual grains. They found poorly performing facets adjacent to highly efficient facets, with some facets approaching the material’s theoretical energy conversion limit of 31 percent.

The scientists say these top-performing facets could hold the secret to highly efficient solar cells, although more research is needed.

“If the material can be synthesized so that only very efficient facets develop, then we could see a big jump in the efficiency of perovskite solar cells, possibly approaching 31 percent,” says Sibel Leblebici, a postdoctoral researcher at the Molecular Foundry.

Leblebici works in the lab of Alexander Weber-Bargioni, who is a corresponding author of the paper that describes this research. Ian Sharp, also a corresponding author, is a Berkeley Lab scientist at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. Other Berkeley Lab scientists who contributed include Linn Leppert, Francesca Toma, and Jeff Neaton, the director of the Molecular Foundry.

A team effort

The research started when Leblebici was searching for a new project. “I thought perovskites are the most exciting thing in solar right now, and I really wanted to see how they work at the nanoscale, which has not been widely studied,” she says.

She didn’t have to go far to find the material. For the past two years, scientists at the nearby Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis have been making thin films of perovskite-based compounds, and studying their ability to convert sunlight and CO2 into useful chemicals such as fuel. Switching gears, they created pervoskite solar cells composed of methylammonium lead iodide. They also analyzed the cells’ performance at the macroscale.

The scientists also made a second set of half cells that didn’t have an electrode layer. They packed eight of these cells on a thin film measuring one square centimeter. These films were analyzed at the Molecular Foundry, where researchers mapped the cells’ surface topography at a resolution of ten nanometers. They also mapped two properties that relate to the cells’ photovoltaic efficiency: photocurrent generation and open circuit voltage.

This was performed using a state-of-the-art atomic force microscopy technique, developed in collaboration with Park Systems, which utilizes a conductive tip to scan the material’s surface. The method also eliminates friction between the tip and the sample. This is important because the material is so rough and soft that friction can damage the tip and sample, and cause artifacts in the photocurrent.

Surprise discovery could lead to better solar cells

The resulting maps revealed an order of magnitude difference in photocurrent generation, and a 0.6-volt difference in open circuit voltage, between facets on the same grain. In addition, facets with high photocurrent generation had high open circuit voltage, and facets with low photocurrent generation had low open circuit voltage.

“This was a big surprise. It shows, for the first time, that perovskite solar cells exhibit facet-dependent photovoltaic efficiency,” says Weber-Bargioni.

Adds Toma, “These results open the door to exploring new ways to control the development of the material’s facets to dramatically increase efficiency.”

In practice, the facets behave like billions of tiny solar cells, all connected in parallel. As the scientists discovered, some cells operate extremely well and others very poorly. In this scenario, the current flows towards the bad cells, lowering the overall performance of the material. But if the material can be optimized so that only highly efficient facets interface with the electrode, the losses incurred by the poor facets would be eliminated.

“This means, at the macroscale, the material could possibly approach its theoretical energy conversion limit of 31 percent,” says Sharp.

A theoretical model that describes the experimental results predicts these facets should also impact the emission of light when used as an LED. …

The Molecular Foundry is a DOE Office of Science User Facility located at Berkeley Lab. The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis is a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by the California Institute of Technology in partnership with Berkeley Lab.

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

Facet-dependent photovoltaic efficiency variations in single grains of hybrid halide perovskite by Sibel Y. Leblebici, Linn Leppert, Yanbo Li, Sebastian E. Reyes-Lillo, Sebastian Wickenburg, Ed Wong, Jiye Lee, Mauro Melli, Dominik Ziegler, Daniel K. Angell, D. Frank Ogletree, Paul D. Ashby, Francesca M. Toma, Jeffrey B. Neaton, Ian D. Sharp, & Alexander Weber-Bargioni. Nature Energy 1, Article number: 16093 (2016  doi:10.1038/nenergy.2016.93 Published online: 04 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dexter Johnson’s July 6, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website} presents his take on the impact that this new finding may have,

The rise of the crystal perovskite as a potential replacement for silicon in photovoltaics has been impressive over the last decade, with its conversion efficiency improving from 3.8 to 22.1 percent over that time period. Nonetheless, there has been a vague sense that this rise is beginning to peter out of late, largely because when a solar cell made from perovskite gets larger than 1 square centimeter the best conversion efficiency had been around 15.6 percent. …

X-rays reveal memristor workings

A June 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily focuses on memristors. (It’s been about two months since my last memristor posting on April 22, 2016 regarding electronic synapses and neural networks). This piece announces new insight into how memristors function at the atomic scale,

In experiments at two Department of Energy national labs — SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — scientists at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) [also referred to as HP Labs or Hewlett Packard Laboratories] have experimentally confirmed critical aspects of how a new type of microelectronic device, the memristor, works at an atomic scale.

This result is an important step in designing these solid-state devices for use in future computer memories that operate much faster, last longer and use less energy than today’s flash memory. …

“We need information like this to be able to design memristors that will succeed commercially,” said Suhas Kumar, an HPE scientist and first author on the group’s technical paper.

A June 13, 2016 SLAC news release, which originated the news item, offers a brief history according to HPE and provides details about the latest work,

The memristor was proposed theoretically [by Dr. Leon Chua] in 1971 as the fourth basic electrical device element alongside the resistor, capacitor and inductor. At its heart is a tiny piece of a transition metal oxide sandwiched between two electrodes. Applying a positive or negative voltage pulse dramatically increases or decreases the memristor’s electrical resistance. This behavior makes it suitable for use as a “non-volatile” computer memory that, like flash memory, can retain its state without being refreshed with additional power.

Over the past decade, an HPE group led by senior fellow R. Stanley Williams has explored memristor designs, materials and behavior in detail. Since 2009 they have used intense synchrotron X-rays to reveal the movements of atoms in memristors during switching. Despite advances in understanding the nature of this switching, critical details that would be important in designing commercially successful circuits  remained controversial. For example, the forces that move the atoms, resulting in dramatic resistance changes during switching, remain under debate.

In recent years, the group examined memristors made with oxides of titanium, tantalum and vanadium. Initial experiments revealed that switching in the tantalum oxide devices could be controlled most easily, so it was chosen for further exploration at two DOE Office of Science User Facilities – SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS).

At ALS, the HPE researchers mapped the positions of oxygen atoms before and after switching. For this, they used a scanning transmission X-ray microscope and an apparatus they built to precisely control the position of their sample and the timing and intensity of the 500-electronvolt ALS X-rays, which were tuned to see oxygen.

The experiments revealed that even weak voltage pulses create a thin conductive path through the memristor. During the pulse the path heats up, which creates a force that pushes oxygen atoms away from the path, making it even more conductive. Reversing the voltage pulse resets the memristor by sucking some of oxygen atoms back into the conducting path, thereby increasing the device’s resistance. The memristor’s resistance changes between 10-fold and 1 million-fold, depending on operating parameters like the voltage-pulse amplitude. This resistance change is dramatic enough to exploit commercially.

To be sure of their conclusion, the researchers also needed to understand if the tantalum atoms were moving along with the oxygen during switching. Imaging tantalum required higher-energy, 10,000-electronvolt X-rays, which they obtained at SSRL’s Beam Line 6-2. In a single session there, they determined that the tantalum remained stationary.

“That sealed the deal, convincing us that our hypothesis was correct,” said HPE scientist Catherine Graves, who had worked at SSRL as a Stanford graduate student. She added that discussions with SLAC experts were critical in guiding the HPE team toward the X-ray techniques that would allow them to see the tantalum accurately.

Kumar said the most promising aspect of the tantalum oxide results was that the scientists saw no degradation in switching over more than a billion voltage pulses of a magnitude suitable for commercial use. He added that this knowledge helped his group build memristors that lasted nearly a billion switching cycles, about a thousand-fold improvement.

“This is much longer endurance than is possible with today’s flash memory devices,” Kumar said. “In addition, we also used much higher voltage pulses to accelerate and observe memristor failures, which is also important in understanding how these devices work. Failures occurred when oxygen atoms were forced so far away that they did not return to their initial positions.”

Beyond memory chips, Kumar says memristors’ rapid switching speed and small size could make them suitable for use in logic circuits. Additional memristor characteristics may also be beneficial in the emerging class of brain-inspired neuromorphic computing circuits.

“Transistors are big and bulky compared to memristors,” he said. “Memristors are also much better suited for creating the neuron-like voltage spikes that characterize neuromorphic circuits.”

The researchers have provided an animation illustrating how memristors can fail,

This animation shows how millions of high-voltage switching cycles can cause memristors to fail. The high-voltage switching eventually creates regions that are permanently rich (blue pits) or deficient (red peaks) in oxygen and cannot be switched back. Switching at lower voltages that would be suitable for commercial devices did not show this performance degradation. These observations allowed the researchers to develop materials processing and operating conditions that improved the memristors’ endurance by nearly a thousand times. (Suhas Kumar) Courtesy: SLAC

This animation shows how millions of high-voltage switching cycles can cause memristors to fail. The high-voltage switching eventually creates regions that are permanently rich (blue pits) or deficient (red peaks) in oxygen and cannot be switched back. Switching at lower voltages that would be suitable for commercial devices did not show this performance degradation. These observations allowed the researchers to develop materials processing and operating conditions that improved the memristors’ endurance by nearly a thousand times. (Suhas Kumar) Courtesy: SLAC

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

Direct Observation of Localized Radial Oxygen Migration in Functioning Tantalum Oxide Memristors by Suhas Kumar, Catherine E. Graves, John Paul Strachan, Emmanuelle Merced Grafals, Arthur L. David Kilcoyne3, Tolek Tyliszczak, Johanna Nelson Weker, Yoshio Nishi, and R. Stanley Williams. Advanced Materials, First published: 2 February 2016; Print: Volume 28, Issue 14 April 13, 2016 Pages 2772–2776 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201505435

This paper is behind a paywall.

Some of the ‘memristor story’ is contested and you can find a brief overview of the discussion in this Wikipedia memristor entry in the section on ‘definition and criticism’. There is also a history of the memristor which dates back to the 19th century featured in my May 22, 2012 posting.

A treasure trove of molecule and battery data released to the public

Scientists working on The Materials Project have taken the notion of open science to their hearts and opened up access to their data according to a June 9, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

The Materials Project, a Google-like database of material properties aimed at accelerating innovation, has released an enormous trove of data to the public, giving scientists working on fuel cells, photovoltaics, thermoelectrics, and a host of other advanced materials a powerful tool to explore new research avenues. But it has become a particularly important resource for researchers working on batteries. Co-founded and directed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) scientist Kristin Persson, the Materials Project uses supercomputers to calculate the properties of materials based on first-principles quantum-mechanical frameworks. It was launched in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science.

A June 8, 2016 Berkeley Lab news release, which originated the news item, provides more explanation about The Materials Project,

The idea behind the Materials Project is that it can save researchers time by predicting material properties without needing to synthesize the materials first in the lab. It can also suggest new candidate materials that experimentalists had not previously dreamed up. With a user-friendly web interface, users can look up the calculated properties, such as voltage, capacity, band gap, and density, for tens of thousands of materials.

Two sets of data were released last month: nearly 1,500 compounds investigated for multivalent intercalation electrodes and more than 21,000 organic molecules relevant for liquid electrolytes as well as a host of other research applications. Batteries with multivalent cathodes (which have multiple electrons per mobile ion available for charge transfer) are promising candidates for reducing cost and achieving higher energy density than that available with current lithium-ion technology.

The sheer volume and scope of the data is unprecedented, said Persson, who is also a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “As far as the multivalent cathodes, there’s nothing similar in the world that exists,” she said. “To give you an idea, experimentalists are usually able to focus on one of these materials at a time. Using calculations, we’ve added data on 1,500 different compositions.”

While other research groups have made their data publicly available, what makes the Materials Project so useful are the online tools to search all that data. The recent release includes two new web apps—the Molecules Explorer and the Redox Flow Battery Dashboard—plus an add-on to the Battery Explorer web app enabling researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium.

“Not only do we give the data freely, we also give algorithms and software to interpret or search over the data,” Persson said.

The Redox Flow Battery app gives scientific parameters as well as techno-economic ones, so battery designers can quickly rule out a molecule that might work well but be prohibitively expensive. The Molecules Explorer app will be useful to researchers far beyond the battery community.

“For multivalent batteries it’s so hard to get good experimental data,” Persson said. “The calculations provide rich and robust benchmarks to assess whether the experiments are actually measuring a valid intercalation process or a side reaction, which is particularly difficult for multivalent energy technology because there are so many problems with testing these batteries.”

Here’s a screen capture from the Battery Explorer app,

The Materials Project’s Battery Explorer app now allows researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium.

The Materials Project’s Battery Explorer app now allows researchers to work with other ions in addition to lithium. Courtesy: The Materials Project

The news release goes on to describe a new discovery made possible by The Materials Project (Note: A link has been removed),

Together with Persson, Berkeley Lab scientist Gerbrand Ceder, postdoctoral associate Miao Liu, and MIT graduate student Ziqin Rong, the Materials Project team investigated some of the more promising materials in detail for high multivalent ion mobility, which is the most difficult property to achieve in these cathodes. This led the team to materials known as thiospinels. One of these thiospinels has double the capacity of the currently known multivalent cathodes and was recently synthesized and tested in the lab by JCESR researcher Linda Nazar of the University of Waterloo, Canada.

“These materials may not work well the first time you make them,” Persson said. “You have to be persistent; for example you may have to make the material very phase pure or smaller than a particular particle size and you have to test them under very controlled conditions. There are people who have actually tried this material before and discarded it because they thought it didn’t work particularly well. The power of the computations and the design metrics we have uncovered with their help is that it gives us the confidence to keep trying.”

The researchers were able to double the energy capacity of what had previously been achieved for this kind of multivalent battery. The study has been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science in an article titled, “A High Capacity Thiospinel Cathode for Mg Batteries.”

“The new multivalent battery works really well,” Persson said. “It’s a significant advance and an excellent proof-of-concept for computational predictions as a valuable new tool for battery research.”

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

A high capacity thiospinel cathode for Mg batteries by Xiaoqi Sun, Patrick Bonnick, Victor Duffort, Miao Liu, Ziqin Rong, Kristin A. Persson, Gerbrand Ceder and  Linda F. Nazar. Energy Environ. Sci., 2016, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C6EE00724D First published online 24 May 2016

This paper seems to be behind a paywall.

Getting back to the news release, there’s more about The Materials Project in relationship to its membership,

The Materials Project has attracted more than 20,000 users since launching five years ago. Every day about 20 new users register and 300 to 400 people log in to do research.

One of those users is Dane Morgan, a professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who develops new materials for a wide range of applications, including highly active catalysts for fuel cells, stable low-work function electron emitter cathodes for high-powered microwave devices, and efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally safe solar materials.

“The Materials Project has enabled some of the most exciting research in my group,” said Morgan, who also serves on the Materials Project’s advisory board. “By providing easy access to a huge database, as well as tools to process that data for thermodynamic predictions, the Materials Project has enabled my group to rapidly take on materials design projects that would have been prohibitive just a few years ago.”

More materials are being calculated and added to the database every day. In two years, Persson expects another trove of data to be released to the public.

“This is the way to reach a significant part of the research community, to reach students while they’re still learning material science,” she said. “It’s a teaching tool. It’s a science tool. It’s unprecedented.”

Supercomputing clusters at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a DOE Office of Science User Facility hosted at Berkeley Lab, provide the infrastructure for the Materials Project.

Funding for the Materials Project is provided by the Office of Science (US Department of Energy], including support through JCESR [Joint Center for Energy Storage Research].

Happy researching!

Nature-inspired nanotubes from the Lawrence Berkeley National* Laboratory

A March 29, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now  announces a new technique for nature-inspired self-assembling polymer nanotubes,

When it comes to the various nanowidgets scientists are developing, nanotubes are especially intriguing. That’s because hollow tubes that have diameters of only a few billionths of a meter have the potential to be incredibly useful, from delivering cancer-fighting drugs inside cells to desalinating seawater.

But building nanostructures is difficult. And creating a large quantity of nanostructures with the same trait, such as millions of nanotubes with identical diameters, is even more difficult. This kind of precision manufacturing is needed to create the nanotechnologies of tomorrow.

Help could be on the way. As reported online the week of March 28 [2016] in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS], researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have discovered a family of nature-inspired polymers that, when placed in water, spontaneously assemble into hollow crystalline nanotubes. What’s more, the nanotubes can be tuned to all have the same diameter of between five and ten nanometers, depending on the length of the polymer chain.

A March 28, 2016 Berkeley Lab news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The polymers have two chemically distinct blocks that are the same size and shape. The scientists learned these blocks act like molecular tiles that form rings, which stack together to form nanotubes up to 100 nanometers long, all with the same diameter.

“This points to a new way we can use synthetic polymers to create complex nanostructures in a very precise way,” says Ron Zuckermann, who directs the Biological Nanostructures Facility in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, where much of this research was conducted.

Several other Berkeley Lab scientists contributed to this research, including Nitash Balsara of the Materials Sciences Division and Ken Downing of the Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging Division.

“Creating uniform structures in high yield is a goal in nanotechnology,” adds Zuckermann. “For example, if you can control the diameter of nanotubes, and the chemical groups exposed in their interior, then you can control what goes through—which could lead to new filtration and desalination technologies, to name a few examples.”

The research is the latest in the effort to build nanostructures that approach the complexity and function of nature’s proteins, but are made of durable materials. In this work, the Berkeley Lab scientists studied a polymer that is a member of the peptoid family. Peptoids are rugged synthetic polymers that mimic peptides, which nature uses to form proteins. They can be tuned at the atomic scale to carry out specific functions.

For the past several years, the scientists have studied a particular type of peptoid, called a diblock copolypeptoid, because it binds with lithium ions and could be used as a battery electrolyte. Along the way, they serendipitously found the compounds form nanotubes in water. How exactly these nanotubes form has yet to be determined, but this latest research sheds light on their structure, and hints at a new design principle that could be used to build nanotubes and other complex nanostructures.

Diblock copolypeptoids are composed of two peptoid blocks, one that’s hydrophobic one that’s hydrophilic. The scientists discovered both blocks crystallize when they meet in water, and form rings consisting of two to three individual peptoids. The rings then form hollow nanotubes.

Cryo-electron microscopy imaging of 50 of the nanotubes showed the diameter of each tube is highly uniform along its length, as well as from tube to tube. This analysis also revealed a striped pattern across the width of the nanotubes, which indicates the rings stack together to form tubes, and rules out other packing arrangements. In addition, the peptoids are thought to arrange themselves in a brick-like pattern, with hydrophobic blocks lining up with other hydrophobic blocks, and the same for hydrophilic blocks.

“Images of the tubes captured by electron microscopy were essential for establishing the presence of this unusual structure,” says Balsara. “The formation of tubular structures with a hydrophobic core is common for synthetic polymers dispersed in water, so we were quite surprised to see the formation of hollow tubes without a hydrophobic core.”

X-ray scattering analyses conducted at beamline 7.3.3 of the Advanced Light Source revealed even more about the nanotubes’ structure. For example, it showed that one of the peptoid blocks, which is usually amorphous, is actually crystalline.

Remarkably, the nanotubes assemble themselves without the usual nano-construction aids, such as electrostatic interactions or hydrogen bond networks.

“You wouldn’t expect something as intricate as this could be created without these crutches,” says Zuckermann. “But it turns out the chemical interactions that hold the nanotubes together are very simple. What’s special here is that the two peptoid blocks are chemically distinct, yet almost exactly the same size, which allows the chains to pack together in a very regular way. These insights could help us design useful nanotubes and other structures that are rugged and tunable—and which have uniform structures.”

This cryo-electron microscopy image shows the self-assembling nanotubes have the same diameter. The circles are head-on views of nanotubes. The dark-striped features likely result from crystallized peptoid blocks. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

This cryo-electron microscopy image shows the self-assembling nanotubes have the same diameter. The circles are head-on views of nanotubes. The dark-striped features likely result from crystallized peptoid blocks. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

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

Self-assembly of crystalline nanotubes from monodisperse amphiphilic diblock copolypeptoid tiles by Jing Sun, Xi Jiang, Reidar Lund, Kenneth H. Downing, Nitash P. Balsara, and Ronald N. Zuckermann. PNAS 2016 ; published ahead of print March 28, 2016, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1517169113

This paper is behind a paywall.

*’Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’ changed to ‘Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’ on April 3, 2016.

Weaving at the nanoscale

A Jan. 21, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces a brand new technique,

For the first time, scientists have been able to weave a material at molecular level. The research is led by University of California Berkeley, in cooperation with Stockholm University. …

A Jan. 21, 2016 Stockholm University press release, which originated the news item, provides more information,

Weaving is a well-known way of making fabric, but has until now never been used at the molecular level. Scientists have now been able to weave organic threads into a three-dimensional material, using copper as a template. The new material is a COF, covalent organic framework, and is named COF-505. The copper ions can be removed and added without changing the underlying structure, and at the same time the elasticity can be reversibly changed.

– It almost looks like a molecular version of the Vikings chain-armour. The material is very flexible, says Peter Oleynikov, researcher at the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University.

COF’s are like MOF’s porous three-dimensional crystals with a very large internal surface that can adsorb and store enormous quantities of molecules. A potential application is capture and storage of carbon dioxide, or using COF’s as a catalyst to make useful molecules from carbon dioxide.

Complex structure determined in Stockholm

The research is led by Professor Omar Yaghi at University of California Berkeley. At Stockholm University Professor Osamu Terasaki, PhD Student Yanhang Ma and Researcher Peter Oleynikov have contributed to determine the structure of COF-505 at atomic level from a nano-crystal, using electron crystallography methods.

– It is a difficult, complicated structure and it was very demanding to resolve. We’ve spent lot of time and efforts on the structure solution. Now we know exactly where the copper is and we can also replace the metal. This opens up many possibilities to make other materials, says Yanhang Ma, PhD Student at the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University.

Another of the collaborating institutions, US Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory issued a Jan. 21, 2016 news release on EurekAlert, providing a different perspective and some additional details,

There are many different ways to make nanomaterials but weaving, the oldest and most enduring method of making fabrics, has not been one of them – until now. An international collaboration led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley, has woven the first three-dimensional covalent organic frameworks (COFs) from helical organic threads. The woven COFs display significant advantages in structural flexibility, resiliency and reversibility over previous COFs – materials that are highly prized for their potential to capture and store carbon dioxide then convert it into valuable chemical products.

“Weaving in chemistry has been long sought after and is unknown in biology,” Yaghi says [Omar Yaghi, chemist who holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and UC Berkeley’s Chemistry Department and is the co-director of the Kavli Energy NanoScience Institute {Kavli-ENSI}]. “However, we have found a way of weaving organic threads that enables us to design and make complex two- and three-dimensional organic extended structures.”

COFs and their cousin materials, metal organic frameworks (MOFs), are porous three-dimensional crystals with extraordinarily large internal surface areas that can absorb and store enormous quantities of targeted molecules. Invented by Yaghi, COFs and MOFs consist of molecules (organics for COFs and metal-organics for MOFs) that are stitched into large and extended netlike frameworks whose structures are held together by strong chemical bonds. Such frameworks show great promise for, among other applications, carbon sequestration.

Through another technique developed by Yaghi, called “reticular chemistry,” these frameworks can also be embedded with catalysts to carry out desired functions: for example, reducing carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, which serves as a primary building block for a wide range of chemical products including fuels, pharmaceuticals and plastics.

In this latest study, Yaghi and his collaborators used a copper(I) complex as a template for bringing threads of the organic compound “phenanthroline” into a woven pattern to produce an immine-based framework they dubbed COF-505. Through X-ray and electron diffraction characterizations, the researchers discovered that the copper(I) ions can be reversibly removed or restored to COF-505 without changing its woven structure. Demetalation of the COF resulted in a tenfold increase in its elasticity and remetalation restored the COF to its original stiffness.

“That our system can switch between two states of elasticity reversibly by a simple operation, the first such demonstration in an extended chemical structure, means that cycling between these states can be done repeatedly without degrading or altering the structure,” Yaghi says. “Based on these results, it is easy to imagine the creation of molecular cloths that combine unusual resiliency, strength, flexibility and chemical variability in one material.”

Yaghi says that MOFs can also be woven as can all structures based on netlike frameworks. In addition, these woven structures can also be made as nanoparticles or polymers, which means they can be fabricated into thin films and electronic devices.

“Our weaving technique allows long threads of covalently linked molecules to cross at regular intervals,” Yaghi says. “These crossings serve as points of registry, so that the threads have many degrees of freedom to move away from and back to such points without collapsing the overall structure, a boon to making materials with exceptional mechanical properties and dynamics.”


This research was primarily supported by BASF (Germany) and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).

It’s unusual that neither Stockholm University not the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory list all of the institutions involved. To get a sense of this international collaboration’s size, I’m going to list them,

  • 1Department of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, Materials Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 2Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry, Stockholm University, SE-10691 Stockholm, Sweden.
  • 3Department of New Architectures in Materials Chemistry, Materials Science Institute of Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid 28049, Spain.
  • 4Nanomaterials Research Institute, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Tsukuba 305-8565, Japan.
  • 5NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC), University of California at Berkeley, 3112 Etcheverry Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 6Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 7King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology, Post Office Box 6086, Riyadh 11442, Saudi Arabia.
  • 8Material Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1 Cyclotron Road, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
  • 9School of Physical Science and Technology, ShanghaiTech University, Shanghai 201210, China.

Given that some of the money came from a German company, I’m surprised not one German institution was involved.

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

Weaving of organic threads into a crystalline covalent organic framework by Yuzhong Liu, Yanhang Ma, Yingbo Zhao, Xixi Sun, Felipe Gándara, Hiroyasu Furukawa, Zheng Liu, Hanyu Zhu, Chenhui Zhu, Kazutomo Suenaga, Peter Oleynikov, Ahmad S. Alshammari, Xiang Zhang, Osamu Terasaki, Omar M. Yaghi. Science  22 Jan 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6271, pp. 365-369 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4011

This paper is behind a paywall.

Training your bacterium to perform photosynthesis

A Jan. 4, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now announces a rather distinctive approach to artificial photosynthesis,

Trainers of dogs, horses, and other animal performers take note: a bacterium named Moorella thermoacetica has been induced to perform only a single trick, but it’s a doozy. Berkeley Lab researchers are using M. thermoacetica to perform photosynthesis – despite being non-photosynthetic – and also to synthesize semiconductor nanoparticles in a hybrid artificial photosynthesis system for converting sunlight into valuable chemical products.

“We’ve demonstrated the first self-photosensitization of a non-photosynthetic bacterium, M. thermoacetica, with cadmium sulfide nanoparticles to produce acetic acid from carbon dioxide at efficiencies and yield that are comparable to or may even exceed the capabilities of natural photosynthesis,” says Peidong Yang, a chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, who led this work.

“The bacteria/inorganic-semiconductor hybrid artificial photosynthesis system we’ve created is self-replicating through the bio-precipitation of cadmium sulfide nanoparticles, which serve as the light harvester to sustain cellular metabolism,” Yang says. “Demonstrating this cyborgian ability to self-augment the functionality of biological systems through inorganic chemistry opens up the integration of biotic and abiotic components for the next generation of advanced solar-to-chemical conversion technologies.”

A Jan. 1, 2016 Berkeley Lab news release, which originated the news item, provides a little more detail,

Photosynthesis is the process by which nature harvests sunlight and uses the solar energy to synthesize carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water. Artificial versions of photosynthesis are being explored for the clean, green and sustainable production of chemical products now made from petroleum, primarily fuels and plastics. Yang and his research group have been at the forefront of developing artificial photosynthetic technologies that can realize the full potential of solar-to-chemical synthesis.

“In our latest study, we combined the highly efficient light harvesting of an inorganic semiconductor with the high specificity, low cost, and self-replication and self-repair of a biocatalyst,” Yang says. “By inducing the self-photosensitization of M. thermoacetica with cadmium sulfide nanoparticles, we enabled the photosynthesis of acetic acid from carbon dioxide over several days of light-dark cycles at relatively high quantum yields, demonstrating a self-replicating route toward solar-to-chemical carbon dioxide reduction.”

Cadmium sulfide is a well-studied semiconductor with a band structure and that is well-suited for photosynthesis. As both an “electrograph” (meaning it can undergo direct electron transfers from an electrode), and an “acetogen” (meaning it can direct nearly 90-percent of its photosynthetic products towards acetic acid), M. thermoacetica serves as the ideal model organism for demonstrating the capabilities of this hybrid artificial photosynthesis system.

“Our hybrid system combines the best of both worlds: the light-harvesting capabilities of semiconductors with the catalytic power of biology,” Yang says. “In this study, we’ve demonstrated not only that biomaterials can be of sufficient quality to carry out useful photochemistry, but that in some ways they may be even more advantageous in biological applications.”

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

Self-photosensitization of nonphotosynthetic bacteria for solar-to-chemical production by Kelsey K. Sakimoto, Andrew Barnabas Wong, Peidong Yang. Science 1 January 2016: Vol. 351 no. 6268 pp. 74-77 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad3317

This paper is behind a paywall.

A fatigue-free stretchable conductor for foldable electronics

There’s been a lot of talk about foldable, stretchable, and/or bendable electronics, which is exciting in itself but I find this work on developing a fatigue-free conductor particularly intriguing. After all, who hasn’t purchased something that stretches, folds, etc. only to find that it becomes ‘fatigued’ and is now ‘stretched out’.

A Sept. 23, 2015 news item on Azonano describes the new conductors,

Researchers have discovered a new stretchable, transparent conductor that can be folded or stretched and released, resulting in a large curvature or a significant strain, at least 10,000 times without showing signs of fatigue.

This is a crucial step in creating a new generation of foldable electronics – think a flat-screen television that can be rolled up for easy portability – and implantable medical devices. The work, published Monday [Sept. 21, 2015] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pairs gold nanomesh with a stretchable substrate made with polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS.

The research is the result of an international collaboration including the University of Houston (US), Harvard University (US), Methodist Research Institute (US), Zhengzhou University (China), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL; US).

A Sept. 22, 2015 University of Houston news release by Jeannie Kever, which originated the news item, describes this -fatigue-free material in more detail,

The substrate is stretched before the gold nanomesh is placed on it – a process known as “prestretching” – and the material showed no sign of fatigue when cyclically stretched to a strain of more than 50 percent.

The gold nanomesh also proved conducive to cell growth, indicating it is a good material for implantable medical devices.

Fatigue is a common problem for researchers trying to develop a flexible, transparent conductor, making many materials that have good electrical conductivity, flexibility and transparency – all three are needed for foldable electronics – wear out too quickly to be practical, said Zhifeng Ren, a physicist at the University of Houston and principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity, who was the lead author for the paper.

The new material, produced by grain boundary lithography, solves that problem, he said.

In addition to Ren, other researchers on the project included Chuan Fei Guo and Ching-Wu “Paul” Chu, both from UH; Zhigang Suo, Qihan Liu and Yecheng Wang, all from Harvard University, and Guohui Wang and Zhengzheng Shi, both from the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

In materials science, “fatigue” is used to describe the structural damage to a material caused by repeated movement or pressure, known as “strain cycling.” Bend a material enough times, and it becomes damaged or breaks.    That means the materials aren’t durable enough for consumer electronics or biomedical devices.

“Metallic materials often exhibit high cycle fatigue, and fatigue has been a deadly disease for metals,” the researchers wrote.

“We weaken the constraint of the substrate by making the interface between the Au (gold) nanomesh and PDMS slippery, and expect the Au nanomesh to achieve superstretchability and high fatigue resistance,” they wrote in the paper. “Free of fatigue here means that both the structure and the resistance do not change or have little change after many strain cycles.”

As a result, they reported, “the Au nanomesh does not exhibit strain fatigue when it is stretched to 50 percent for 10,000 cycles.”

Many applications require a less dramatic stretch – and many materials break with far less stretching – so the combination of a sufficiently large range for stretching and the ability to avoid fatigue over thousands of cycles indicates a material that would remain productive over a long period of time, Ren said.

The grain boundary lithography involved a bilayer lift-off metallization process, which included an indium oxide mask layer and a silicon oxide sacrificial layer and offers good control over the dimensions of the mesh structure.

The researchers used mouse embryonic fibroblast cells to determine biocompatibility; that, along with the fact that the stretchability of gold nanomesh on a slippery substrate resembles the bioenvironment of tissue or organ surfaces, suggest the nanomesh “might be implanted in the body as a pacemaker electrode, a connection to nerve endings or the central nervous system, a beating heart, and so on,” they wrote.

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

Fatigue-free, superstretchable, transparent, and biocompatible metal electrodes by Chuan Fei Guo, Qihan Liu, Guohui Wang, Yecheng Wang, Zhengzheng Shi, Zhigang Suo, Ching-Wu Chu, and Zhifeng Ren. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516873112 Published online Sept. 21, 2015

This paper appears to be open access.