Tag Archives: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Ingestible origami robot gets one step closer

Fiction, more or less seriously, has been exploring the idea of ingestible, tiny robots that can enter the human body for decades (Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace are two movie examples). The concept is coming closer to being realized as per a May 12, 2016 news item on phys.org,

In experiments involving a simulation of the human esophagus and stomach, researchers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology have demonstrated a tiny origami robot that can unfold itself from a swallowed capsule and, steered by external magnetic fields, crawl across the stomach wall to remove a swallowed button battery or patch a wound.

A May 12, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides some fascinating depth to this story (Note: Links have been removed),

The new work, which the researchers are presenting this week at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, builds on a long sequence of papers on origami robots from the research group of Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“It’s really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care,” says Rus, who also directs MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system. It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether.”

Although the new robot is a successor to one reported at the same conference last year, the design of its body is significantly different. Like its predecessor, it can propel itself using what’s called a “stick-slip” motion, in which its appendages stick to a surface through friction when it executes a move, but slip free again when its body flexes to change its weight distribution.

Also like its predecessor — and like several other origami robots from the Rus group — the new robot consists of two layers of structural material sandwiching a material that shrinks when heated. A pattern of slits in the outer layers determines how the robot will fold when the middle layer contracts.

Material difference

The robot’s envisioned use also dictated a host of structural modifications. “Stick-slip only works when, one, the robot is small enough and, two, the robot is stiff enough,” says Guitron [Steven Guitron, a graduate student in mechanical engineering]. “With the original Mylar design, it was much stiffer than the new design, which is based on a biocompatible material.”

To compensate for the biocompatible material’s relative malleability, the researchers had to come up with a design that required fewer slits. At the same time, the robot’s folds increase its stiffness along certain axes.

But because the stomach is filled with fluids, the robot doesn’t rely entirely on stick-slip motion. “In our calculation, 20 percent of forward motion is by propelling water — thrust — and 80 percent is by stick-slip motion,” says Miyashita [Shuhei Miyashita, who was a postdoc at CSAIL when the work was done and is now a lecturer in electronics at the University of York, England]. “In this regard, we actively introduced and applied the concept and characteristics of the fin to the body design, which you can see in the relatively flat design.”

It also had to be possible to compress the robot enough that it could fit inside a capsule for swallowing; similarly, when the capsule dissolved, the forces acting on the robot had to be strong enough to cause it to fully unfold. Through a design process that Guitron describes as “mostly trial and error,” the researchers arrived at a rectangular robot with accordion folds perpendicular to its long axis and pinched corners that act as points of traction.

In the center of one of the forward accordion folds is a permanent magnet that responds to changing magnetic fields outside the body, which control the robot’s motion. The forces applied to the robot are principally rotational. A quick rotation will make it spin in place, but a slower rotation will cause it to pivot around one of its fixed feet. In the researchers’ experiments, the robot uses the same magnet to pick up the button battery.

Porcine precedents

The researchers tested about a dozen different possibilities for the structural material before settling on the type of dried pig intestine used in sausage casings. “We spent a lot of time at Asian markets and the Chinatown market looking for materials,” Li [Shuguang Li, a CSAIL postdoc] says. The shrinking layer is a biodegradable shrink wrap called Biolefin.

To design their synthetic stomach, the researchers bought a pig stomach and tested its mechanical properties. Their model is an open cross-section of the stomach and esophagus, molded from a silicone rubber with the same mechanical profile. A mixture of water and lemon juice simulates the acidic fluids in the stomach.

Every year, 3,500 swallowed button batteries are reported in the U.S. alone. Frequently, the batteries are digested normally, but if they come into prolonged contact with the tissue of the esophagus or stomach, they can cause an electric current that produces hydroxide, which burns the tissue. Miyashita employed a clever strategy to convince Rus that the removal of swallowed button batteries and the treatment of consequent wounds was a compelling application of their origami robot.

“Shuhei bought a piece of ham, and he put the battery on the ham,” Rus says. [emphasis mine] “Within half an hour, the battery was fully submerged in the ham. So that made me realize that, yes, this is important. If you have a battery in your body, you really want it out as soon as possible.”

“This concept is both highly creative and highly practical, and it addresses a clinical need in an elegant way,” says Bradley Nelson, a professor of robotics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. “It is one of the most convincing applications of origami robots that I have seen.”

I wonder if they ate the ham afterwards.

Happily, MIT has produced a video featuring this ingestible, origami robot,

Finally, this team has a couple more members than the previously mentioned Rus, Miyashita, and Li,

…  Kazuhiro Yoshida of Tokyo Institute of Technology, who was visiting MIT on sabbatical when the work was done; and Dana Damian of the University of Sheffield, in England.

As Rus notes in the video, the next step will be in vivo (animal) studies.

Tightening the skin (and protecting it and removing wrinkles, temporarily)

“It’s an invisible layer that can provide a barrier, provide cosmetic improvement, and potentially deliver a drug locally to the area that’s being treated. Those three things together could really make it ideal for use in humans,” Daniel Anderson says. Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT

“It’s an invisible layer that can provide a barrier, provide cosmetic improvement, and potentially deliver a drug locally to the area that’s being treated. Those three things together could really make it ideal for use in humans,” Daniel Anderson says. Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT

It almost looks like he’s peeling off his own skin and I imagine that’s the secret to this polymer’s success. A May 9, 2016 news item on phys.org describes the work being done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and elsewhere with collaborators,

Scientists at MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, Living Proof, and Olivo Labs have developed a new material that can temporarily protect and tighten skin, and smooth wrinkles. With further development, it could also be used to deliver drugs to help treat skin conditions such as eczema and other types of dermatitis.

A May 9, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The material, a silicone-based polymer that could be applied on the skin as a thin, imperceptible coating, mimics the mechanical and elastic properties of healthy, youthful skin. In tests with human subjects, the researchers found that the material was able to reshape “eye bags” under the lower eyelids and also enhance skin hydration. This type of “second skin” could also be adapted to provide long-lasting ultraviolet protection, the researchers say.

“It’s an invisible layer that can provide a barrier, provide cosmetic improvement, and potentially deliver a drug locally to the area that’s being treated. Those three things together could really make it ideal for use in humans,” says Daniel Anderson, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES).

Anderson is one of the authors of a paper describing the polymer in the May 9 online issue of Nature Materials. Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute, is the paper’s senior author, and the paper’s lead author is Betty Yu SM ’98, ScD ’02, former vice president at Living Proof. Langer and Anderson are co-founders of Living Proof and Olivo Labs, and Yu earned her master’s and doctorate at MIT.

Mimicking skin

As skin ages, it becomes less firm and less elastic — problems that can be exacerbated by sun exposure. This impairs skin’s ability to protect against extreme temperatures, toxins, microorganisms, radiation, and injury. About 10 years ago, the research team set out to develop a protective coating that could restore the properties of healthy skin, for both medical and cosmetic applications.

“We started thinking about how we might be able to control the properties of skin by coating it with polymers that would impart beneficial effects,” Anderson says. “We also wanted it to be invisible and comfortable.”

The researchers created a library of more than 100 possible polymers, all of which contained a chemical structure known as siloxane — a chain of alternating atoms of silicon and oxygen. These polymers can be assembled into a network arrangement known as a cross-linked polymer layer (XPL). The researchers then tested the materials in search of one that would best mimic the appearance, strength, and elasticity of healthy skin.

“It has to have the right optical properties, otherwise it won’t look good, and it has to have the right mechanical properties, otherwise it won’t have the right strength and it won’t perform correctly,” Langer says.

The best-performing material has elastic properties very similar to those of skin. In laboratory tests, it easily returned to its original state after being stretched more than 250 percent (natural skin can be elongated about 180 percent). In laboratory tests, the novel XPL’s elasticity was much better than that of two other types of wound dressings now used on skin — silicone gel sheets and polyurethane films.

“Creating a material that behaves like skin is very difficult,” says Barbara Gilchrest, a dermatologist at MGH and an author of the paper. “Many people have tried to do this, and the materials that have been available up until this have not had the properties of being flexible, comfortable, nonirritating, and able to conform to the movement of the skin and return to its original shape.”

The XPL is currently delivered in a two-step process. First, polysiloxane components are applied to the skin, followed by a platinum catalyst that induces the polymer to form a strong cross-linked film that remains on the skin for up to 24 hours. This catalyst has to be added after the polymer is applied because after this step the material becomes too stiff to spread. Both layers are applied as creams or ointments, and once spread onto the skin, XPL becomes essentially invisible.

High performance

The researchers performed several studies in humans to test the material’s safety and effectiveness. In one study, the XPL was applied to the under-eye area where “eye bags” often form as skin ages. These eye bags are caused by protrusion of the fat pad underlying the skin of the lower lid. When the material was applied, it applied a steady compressive force that tightened the skin, an effect that lasted for about 24 hours.

In another study, the XPL was applied to forearm skin to test its elasticity. When the XPL-treated skin was distended with a suction cup, it returned to its original position faster than untreated skin.

The researchers also tested the material’s ability to prevent water loss from dry skin. Two hours after application, skin treated with the novel XPL suffered much less water loss than skin treated with a high-end commercial moisturizer. Skin coated with petrolatum was as effective as XPL in tests done two hours after treatment, but after 24 hours, skin treated with XPL had retained much more water. None of the study participants reported any irritation from wearing XPL.

“I think it has great potential for both cosmetic and noncosmetic applications, especially if you could incorporate antimicrobial agents or medications,” says Thahn Nga Tran, a dermatologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the research.

Living Proof has spun out the XPL technology to Olivo Laboratories, LLC, a new startup formed to focus on the further development of the XPL technology. Initially, Olivo’s team will focus on medical applications of the technology for treating skin conditions such as dermatitis.

 

This video supplied by MIT shows how to apply the polymer and offers a description and demonstration of its properties once applied,

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

An elastic second skin by Betty Yu, Soo-Young Kang, Ariya Akthakul, Nithin Ramadurai, Morgan Pilkenton, Alpesh Patel, Amir Nashat, Daniel G. Anderson, Fernanda H. Sakamoto, Barbara A. Gilchrest, R. Rox Anderson & Robert Langer. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4635 Published online 09 May 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final comment, I wonder who’s lining up to invest in this product.

MIT.nano building update

A few years ago I featured a story (my May 6, 2014 posting) about a new building, the MIT.nano, being constructed on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus. Now at about 1/2 way through the construction (the building is due to open in 2018) MIT has issued an update in an April 20, 2016 news release by Leda Zimmerman,

A spectacular show has been going on outside the windows of central-campus buildings all spring. An enormous steel structure has been growing — piece by piece, and bolt by bolt — out of a giant hole in the ground formerly occupied by Building 12. At a March 24 [2016] “tool talk” information session for the MIT community on the construction of MIT.nano, representatives from MIT Facilities and the contractors who are building the new 200,000 square foot nanoscale characterization and fabrication facility gave an overview not only of where things stand with the project, but how they got stood up.

“In our structural-steel erection progress log, we’ve been averaging around 23 tons per day,” said Peter Johnson of Turner Construction. “We’re putting up 2,101 tons total, and we’re 22 percent complete.”

There is a Canadian connection,

Working with Ontario-based steel fabricator, Canatal, Johnson and his colleagues at Turner developed a four-dimensional plan for steel engineering, delivery, and installation. “We went through a painstaking process to maximize efficiency of this sequence,” says Johnson. “This allows us to avoid times when a crane is down because it’s waiting” for a delivery of steel.

There are some very interesting details in the news release but if you don’t have the time, there is this picture,

MIT.nano steel structure, looking northwest. Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of Engineering

MIT.nano steel structure, looking northwest. Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of Engineering

The colours are quite striking (I suspect they have been enhanced).

New kind of long-range particle interactions found by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team

A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found unexpected long-range interactions amongst particles in a liquid medium according to an April 12, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Moving bodies can be attracted to each other, even when they’re quite far apart and separated by many other objects: That, in a nutshell, is the somewhat unexpected finding by a team of researchers at MIT.

Scientists have known for a long time that small particles of matter, from the size of dust to sand grains, can exert influences on each other through electrical, magnetic, or chemical effects. Now, this team has found a new kind of long-range interaction between particles, in a liquid medium, that is based entirely on their motions. And these interactions should apply to any kind of particles that move, whether they be living cells or metal particles whirled by magnetic fields.

An April 11, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

The discovery, which holds for both living and nonliving particles, is described in a paper by Alfredo Alexander-Katz, the Walter Henry Gale Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, and his co-researchers, in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Alexander-Katz describes the kind of interactions his team found as being related to the research field of active matter. Example of active systems are the flocking behavior of birds or the schooling of fish. Each individual member of the system may be responding just to others in its vicinity, but the result is a coherent overall pattern of movement that can span a large region. Cells in a fluid medium, or even tiny structures moving within a cell, exhibit similar kinds of motion, he says.

The researchers studied magnetic particles a few micrometers (millionths of a meter) across, comparable to the size of some cells. A small number of these magnetic metal microparticles were interspersed with a much larger quantity of inert particles of comparable size, all suspended in water. When a rotating magnetic field was applied, the metal particles would begin to spin, simulating the movements of living cells in the midst of nonliving or relatively inert objects — such as when cells migrate through tissues or move in a crowded environment.

They found that the spinning particles, even when separated by distances tens of times their size, would ultimately migrate toward each other. Though that attraction progressed through a slow and apparently random series of motions, the particles would in the end almost always come together.

While there has been a lot of research on interactions among active particles, Alexander-Katz says, this is one of the few studies that has looked at the way such particles interact when they are surrounded by inactive particles. “In the absence of the inactive particles there are essentially no interactions,” he says.

The unexpected finding might ultimately lead to a better understanding of the behavior of some natural biological systems or new methods for creating synthetic active materials which could be useful for selectively delivering drugs into certain parts of the body, Alexander-Katz suggests. It could also end up finding applications in electronics or energy-harvesting systems, for example providing a way to flip a crystal structure between two different configurations.

“What we’re addressing is collective excitations of the system, or coherent excitations,” he explains. “What we’re looking at is, what are the interactions as a function of activity” of the individual particles.

The faster the particles spin, the greater the attraction between them, the team found. Below a certain speed the effect stops altogether. But the amount of inert matter also makes a difference, they found.

With no inert particles — if the moving particles are suspended in clear water — there is no motion-based attraction. But when the nonspinning particles are added and their concentration reaches a certain point, “there is attraction!” Alexander-Katz says.

One unexpected aspect of the findings was how far the effect extended. “What was really surprising was that the range of the interactions is gigantic,” he says. By way of comparison, he says, imagine you’re in a crowd, and you start to move a bit, and someone else also starts to move, while everyone else tries to stand still. “I would be able to sense, even 20 people away or more, that that person is also active — assuming that the other folks around us are not active.”

The attraction, he says, “is not chemical, it is not magnetic, it is not electrostatic, it’s just based on activity.” And because the range is so long, these interactions could not be modeled in simulations but required physical experiments to be uncovered. The tests by Alexander-Katz and his team used two-dimensional films, similar to particle sediments that form on a rock surface, he says.

He speculates that some biological organisms may use this phenomenon as a way of sensing parts of their environment, though this has not yet been tested.

There is an MIT video illustrating the work,

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

Emergent ultra–long-range interactions between active particles in hybrid active–inactive systems by Joshua P. Steimel, Juan L. Aragones, Helen Hu, Naser Qureshi, and Alfredo Alexander-Katz. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  2016; 201520481 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1520481113

This paper is behind a paywall.

Split some water molecules and save solar and wind (energy) for a future day

Professor Ted Sargent’s research team at the University of Toronto has a developed a new technique for saving the energy harvested by sun and wind farms according to a March 28, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

We can’t control when the wind blows and when the sun shines, so finding efficient ways to store energy from alternative sources remains an urgent research problem. Now, a group of researchers led by Professor Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering may have a solution inspired by nature.

The team has designed the most efficient catalyst for storing energy in chemical form, by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, just like plants do during photosynthesis. Oxygen is released harmlessly into the atmosphere, and hydrogen, as H2, can be converted back into energy using hydrogen fuel cells.

Discovering a better way of storing energy from solar and wind farms is “one of the grand challenges in this field,” Ted Sargent says (photo above by Megan Rosenbloom via flickr) Courtesy: University of Toronto

Discovering a better way of storing energy from solar and wind farms is “one of the grand challenges in this field,” Ted Sargent says (photo above by Megan Rosenbloom via flickr) Courtesy: University of Toronto

A March 24, 2016 University of Toronto news release by Marit Mitchell, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Today on a solar farm or a wind farm, storage is typically provided with batteries. But batteries are expensive, and can typically only store a fixed amount of energy,” says Sargent. “That’s why discovering a more efficient and highly scalable means of storing energy generated by renewables is one of the grand challenges in this field.”

You may have seen the popular high-school science demonstration where the teacher splits water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, by running electricity through it. Today this requires so much electrical input that it’s impractical to store energy this way — too great proportion of the energy generated is lost in the process of storing it.

This new catalyst facilitates the oxygen-evolution portion of the chemical reaction, making the conversion from H2O into O2 and H2 more energy-efficient than ever before. The intrinsic efficiency of the new catalyst material is over three times more efficient than the best state-of-the-art catalyst.

Details are offered in the news release,

The new catalyst is made of abundant and low-cost metals tungsten, iron and cobalt, which are much less expensive than state-of-the-art catalysts based on precious metals. It showed no signs of degradation over more than 500 hours of continuous activity, unlike other efficient but short-lived catalysts. …

“With the aid of theoretical predictions, we became convinced that including tungsten could lead to a better oxygen-evolving catalyst. Unfortunately, prior work did not show how to mix tungsten homogeneously with the active metals such as iron and cobalt,” says one of the study’s lead authors, Dr. Bo Zhang … .

“We invented a new way to distribute the catalyst homogenously in a gel, and as a result built a device that works incredibly efficiently and robustly.”

This research united engineers, chemists, materials scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists across three countries. A chief partner in this joint theoretical-experimental studies was a leading team of theorists at Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory under the leadership of Dr. Aleksandra Vojvodic. The international collaboration included researchers at East China University of Science & Technology, Tianjin University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Canadian Light Source and the Beijing Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

“The team developed a new materials synthesis strategy to mix multiple metals homogeneously — thereby overcoming the propensity of multi-metal mixtures to separate into distinct phases,” said Jeffrey C. Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This work impressively highlights the power of tightly coupled computational materials science with advanced experimental techniques, and sets a high bar for such a combined approach. It opens new avenues to speed progress in efficient materials for energy conversion and storage.”

“This work demonstrates the utility of using theory to guide the development of improved water-oxidation catalysts for further advances in the field of solar fuels,” said Gary Brudvig, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Yale University and director of the Yale Energy Sciences Institute.

“The intensive research by the Sargent group in the University of Toronto led to the discovery of oxy-hydroxide materials that exhibit electrochemically induced oxygen evolution at the lowest overpotential and show no degradation,” said University Professor Gabor A. Somorjai of the University of California, Berkeley, a leader in this field. “The authors should be complimented on the combined experimental and theoretical studies that led to this very important finding.”

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

Homogeneously dispersed, multimetal oxygen-evolving catalysts by Bo Zhang, Xueli Zheng, Oleksandr Voznyy, Riccardo Comin, Michal Bajdich, Max García-Melchor, Lili Han, Jixian Xu, Min Liu, Lirong Zheng, F. Pelayo García de Arquer, Cao Thang Dinh, Fengjia Fan, Mingjian Yuan, Emre Yassitepe, Ning Chen, Tom Regier, Pengfei Liu, Yuhang Li, Phil De Luna, Alyf Janmohamed, Huolin L. Xin, Huagui Yang, Aleksandra Vojvodic, Edward H. Sargent. Science  24 Mar 2016: DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf1525

This paper is behind a paywall.

Solar cells and soap bubbles

The MIT team has achieved the thinnest and lightest complete solar cells ever made, they say. To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping the bubble. Photo: Joel Jean and Anna Osherov

The MIT team has achieved the thinnest and lightest complete solar cells ever made, they say. To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping the bubble. Photo: Joel Jean and Anna Osherov

That’s quite a compelling image and it comes to us courtesy of researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). From a Feb. 25, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert),

Imagine solar cells so thin, flexible, and lightweight that they could be placed on almost any material or surface, including your hat, shirt, or smartphone, or even on a sheet of paper or a helium balloon.

Researchers at MIT have now demonstrated just such a technology: the thinnest, lightest solar cells ever produced. Though it may take years to develop into a commercial product, the laboratory proof-of-concept shows a new approach to making solar cells that could help power the next generation of portable electronic devices.

Bulović [Vladimir Bulović ], MIT’s associate dean for innovation and the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology, says the key to the new approach is to make the solar cell, the substrate that supports it, and a protective overcoating to shield it from the environment, all in one process. The substrate is made in place and never needs to be handled, cleaned, or removed from the vacuum during fabrication, thus minimizing exposure to dust or other contaminants that could degrade the cell’s performance.

“The innovative step is the realization that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device,” Bulović says.

In this initial proof-of-concept experiment, the team used a common flexible polymer called parylene as both the substrate and the overcoating, and an organic material called DBP as the primary light-absorbing layer. Parylene is a commercially available plastic coating used widely to protect implanted biomedical devices and printed circuit boards from environmental damage. The entire process takes place in a vacuum chamber at room temperature and without the use of any solvents, unlike conventional solar-cell manufacturing, which requires high temperatures and harsh chemicals. In this case, both the substrate and the solar cell are “grown” using established vapor deposition techniques.

One process, many materials

The team emphasizes that these particular choices of materials were just examples, and that it is the in-line substrate manufacturing process that is the key innovation. Different materials could be used for the substrate and encapsulation layers, and different types of thin-film solar cell materials, including quantum dots or perovskites, could be substituted for the organic layers used in initial tests.

But already, the team has achieved the thinnest and lightest complete solar cells ever made, they say. To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping the bubble. The researchers acknowledge that this cell may be too thin to be practical — “If you breathe too hard, you might blow it away,” says Jean [Joel Jean, doctoral student] — but parylene films of thicknesses of up to 80 microns can be deposited easily using commercial equipment, without losing the other benefits of in-line substrate formation.

A flexible parylene film, similar to kitchen cling-wrap but only one-tenth as thick, is first deposited on a sturdier carrier material – in this case, glass. Figuring out how to cleanly separate the thin material from the glass was a key challenge, explains Wang [Annie Wang, research scientist], who has spent many years working with parylene.

The researchers lift the entire parylene/solar cell/parylene stack off the carrier after the fabrication process is complete, using a frame made of flexible film. The final ultra-thin, flexible solar cells, including substrate and overcoating, are just one-fiftieth of the thickness of a human hair and one-thousandth of the thickness of equivalent cells on glass substrates — about two micrometers thick — yet they convert sunlight into electricity just as efficiently as their glass-based counterparts.

No miracles needed

“We put our carrier in a vacuum system, then we deposit everything else on top of it, and then peel the whole thing off,” explains Wang. Bulović says that like most new inventions, it all sounds very simple — once it’s been done. But actually developing the techniques to make the process work required years of effort.

While they used a glass carrier for their solar cells, Jean says “it could be something else. You could use almost any material,” since the processing takes place under such benign conditions. The substrate and solar cell could be deposited directly on fabric or paper, for example.

While the solar cell in this demonstration device is not especially efficient, because of its low weight, its power-to-weight ratio is among the highest ever achieved. That’s important for applications where weight is important, such as on spacecraft or on high-altitude helium balloons used for research. Whereas a typical silicon-based solar module, whose weight is dominated by a glass cover, may produce about 15 watts of power per kilogram of weight, the new cells have already demonstrated an output of 6 watts per gram — about 400 times higher.

“It could be so light that you don’t even know it’s there, on your shirt or on your notebook,” Bulović says. “These cells could simply be an add-on to existing structures.”

Still, this is early, laboratory-scale work, and developing it into a manufacturable product will take time, the team says. Yet while commercial success in the short term may be uncertain, this work could open up new applications for solar power in the long term. “We have a proof-of-concept that works,” Bulović says. The next question is, “How many miracles does it take to make it scalable? We think it’s a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed.”

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

In situ vapor-deposited parylene substrates for ultra-thin, lightweight organic solar cells by Joel Jean, Annie Wang, Vladimir Bulović. Organic Electronics Volume 31, April 2016, Pages 120–126 doi:10.1016/j.orgel.2016.01.022

This paper is behind a paywall.

Viewing quantum entanglement with the naked eye

A Feb. 18, 2016 article by Bob Yirka for phys.org suggests there may be a way to see quantum entanglement with the naked eye,

A trio of physicists in Europe has come up with an idea that they believe would allow a person to actually witness entanglement. Valentina Caprara Vivoli, with the University of Geneva, Pavel Sekatski, with the University of Innsbruck and Nicolas Sangouard, with the University of Basel, have together written a paper describing a scenario where a human subject would be able to witness an instance of entanglement—they have uploaded it to the arXiv server for review by others.
Entanglement, is of course, where two quantum particles are intrinsically linked to the extent that they actually share the same existence, even though they can be separated and moved apart. The idea was first proposed nearly a century ago, and it has not only been proven, but researchers routinely cause it to occur, but, to date, not one single person has every actually seen it happen—they only know it happens by conducting a series of experiments. It is not clear if anyone has ever actually tried to see it happen, but in this new effort, the research trio claim to have found a way to make it happen—if only someone else will carry out the experiment on a willing volunteer.

A Feb. 17, 2016 article for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review describes this proposed project in detail,

Finding a way for a human eye to detect entangled photons sounds straightforward. After all, the eye is a photon detector, so it ought to be possible for an eye to replace a photo detector in any standard entanglement detecting experiment.

Such an experiment might consist of a source of entangled pairs of photons, each of which is sent to a photo detector via an appropriate experimental setup.

By comparing the arrival of photons at each detector and by repeating the detecting process many times, it is possible to determine statistically whether entanglement is occurring.

It’s easy to imagine that this experiment can be easily repeated by replacing one of the photodetectors with an eye. But that turns out not to be the case.

The main problem is that the eye cannot detect single photons. Instead, each light-detecting rod at the back of the eye must be stimulated by a good handful of photons to trigger a detection. The lowest number of photons that can do the trick is thought to be about seven, but in practice, people usually see photons only when they arrive in the hundreds or thousands.

Even then, the eye is not a particularly efficient photodetector. A good optics lab will have photodetectors that are well over 90 percent efficient. By contrast, at the very lowest light levels, the eye is about 8 percent efficient. That means it misses lots of photons.

That creates a significant problem. If a human eye is ever to “see” entanglement in this way, then physicists will have to entangle not just two photons but at least seven, and ideally many hundreds or thousands of them.

And that simply isn’t possible with today’s technology. At best, physicists are capable of entangling half a dozen photons but even this is a difficult task.

But the researchers have come up with a solution to the problem,

Vivoli and co say they have devised a trick that effectively amplifies a single entangled photon into many photons that the eye can see. Their trick depends on a technique called a displacement operation, in which two quantum objects interfere so that one changes the phase of another.

One way to do this with photons is with a beam splitter. Imagine a beam of coherent photons from a laser that is aimed at a beam splitter. The beam is transmitted through the splitter but a change of phase can cause it to be reflected instead.

Now imagine another beam of coherent photons that interferes with the first. This changes the phase of the first beam so that it is reflected rather than transmitted. In other words, the second beam can switch the reflection on and off.

Crucially, the switching beam needn’t be as intense as the main beam—it only needs to be coherent. Indeed, a single photon can do this trick of switching more intense beam, at least in theory.

That’s the basis of the new approach. The idea is to use a single entangled photon to switch the passage of more powerful beam through a beam splitter. And it is this more powerful beam that the eye detects and which still preserves the quantum nature of the original entanglement.

… this experiment will be hard to do. Ensuring that the optical amplifier works as they claim will be hard, for example.

And even if it does, reliably recording each detection in the eye will be even harder. The test for entanglement is a statistical one that requires many counts from both detectors. That means an individual would have to sit in the experiment registering a yes or no answer for each run, repeated thousands or tens of thousands of times. Volunteers will need to have plenty of time on their hands.

Of course, experiments like this will quickly take the glamor and romance out of the popular perception of entanglement. Indeed, it’s hard to see why anybody would want to be entangled with a photodetector over the time it takes to do this experiment.

There is a suggestion as to how to make this a more attractive proposition for volunteers,

One way to increase this motivation would be to modify the experiment so that it entangles two humans. It’s not hard to imagine a people wanting to take part in such an experiment, perhaps even eagerly.

That will require a modified set up in which both detectors are human eyes, with their high triggering level and their low efficiency. Whether this will be possible with Vivoli and co’s setup isn’t yet clear.

Only then will volunteers be able to answer the question that sits uncomfortably with most physicists. What does it feel like to be entangled with another human?

Given the nature of this experiment, the answer will be “mind-numbingly boring.” But as Vivoli and co point out in their conclusion: “It is safe to say that probing human vision with quantum light is terra incognita. This makes it an attractive challenge on its own.”

You can read the arXiv paper,

What Does It Take to See Entanglement? by Valentina Caprara Vivoli, Pavel Sekatski, Nicolas Sangouard arxiv.org/abs/1602.01907 Submitted Feb. 5, 2016

This is an open access paper and this site encourages comments and peer review.

One final comment, the articles reminded me of a March 1, 2012 posting which posed this question Can we see entangled images? a question for physicists in the headline for a piece about a physicist’s (Geraldo Barbosa) challenge and his arXiv paper. Coincidentally, the source article was by Bob Yirka and was published on phys.org.

Graphene like water

This is graphene research from Harvard University and Raytheon according to a Feb. 11, 2016 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s one atom thick [i.e., two-dimensional], stronger than steel, harder than diamond and one of the most conductive materials on earth.

But, several challenges must be overcome before graphene products are brought to market. Scientists are still trying to understand the basic physics of this unique material. Also, it’s very challenging to make and even harder to make without impurities.

In a new paper published in Science, researchers at the [sic] Harvard and Raytheon BBN Technology have advanced our understanding of graphene’s basic properties, observing for the first time electrons in a metal behaving like a fluid.

A Feb. 11, 2016 Harvard University press release by Leah Burrows (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

In order to make this observation, the team improved methods to create ultra-clean graphene and developed a new way measure its thermal conductivity. This research could lead to novel thermoelectric devices as well as provide a model system to explore exotic phenomena like black holes and high-energy plasmas.

An electron super highway

In ordinary, three-dimensional metals, electrons hardly interact with each other. But graphene’s two-dimensional, honeycomb structure acts like an electron superhighway in which all the particles have to travel in the same lane. The electrons in graphene act like massless relativistic objects, some with positive charge and some with negative charge. They move at incredible speed — 1/300 of the speed of light — and have been predicted to collide with each other ten trillion times a second at room temperature.  These intense interactions between charge particles have never been observed in an ordinary metal before.

The team created an ultra-clean sample by sandwiching the one-atom thick graphene sheet between tens of layers of an electrically insulating perfect transparent crystal with a similar atomic structure of graphene.

“If you have a material that’s one atom thick, it’s going to be really affected by its environment,” said Jesse Crossno, a graduate student in the Kim Lab [Philip Kim, professor of physics and applied physics] and first author of the paper.  “If the graphene is on top of something that’s rough and disordered, it’s going to interfere with how the electrons move. It’s really important to create graphene with no interference from its environment.”

The technique was developed by Kim and his collaborators at Columbia University before he moved to Harvard in 2014 and now have been perfected in his lab at SEAS [Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences].

Next, the team set up a kind of thermal soup of positively charged and negatively charged particles on the surface of the graphene, and observed how those particles flowed as thermal and electric currents.

What they observed flew in the face of everything they knew about metals.

A black hole on a chip

Most of our world — how water flows or how a curve ball curves —  is described by classical physics. Very small things, like electrons, are described by quantum mechanics while very large and very fast things, like galaxies, are described by relativistic physics, pioneered by Albert Einstein.

Combining these laws of physics is notoriously difficult but there are extreme examples where they overlap. High-energy systems like supernovas and black holes can be described by linking classical theories of hydrodynamics with Einstein’s theories of relativity.

But it’s difficult to run an experiment on a black hole. Enter graphene.

When the strongly interacting particles in graphene were driven by an electric field, they behaved not like individual particles but like a fluid that could be described by hydrodynamics.

“Instead of watching how a single particle was affected by an electric or thermal force, we could see the conserved energy as it flowed across many particles, like a wave through water,” said Crossno.

“Physics we discovered by studying black holes and string theory, we’re seeing in graphene,” said Andrew Lucas, co-author and graduate student with Subir Sachdev, the Herchel Smith Professor of Physics at Harvard. “This is the first model system of relativistic hydrodynamics in a metal.”

Moving forward, a small chip of graphene could be used to model the fluid-like behavior of other high-energy systems.

Industrial implications

So we now know that strongly interacting electrons in graphene behave like a liquid — how does that advance the industrial applications of graphene?

First, in order to observe the hydrodynamic system, the team needed to develop a precise way to measure how well electrons in the system carry heat.  It’s very difficult to do, said co-PI Kin Chung Fong, scientist with Raytheon BBN Technology.

Materials conduct heat in two ways: through vibrations in the atomic structure or lattice; and carried by the electrons themselves.

“We needed to find a clever way to ignore the heat transfer from the lattice and focus only on how much heat is carried by the electrons,” Fong said.

To do so, the team turned to noise. At finite temperature, the electrons move about randomly:  the higher the temperature, the noisier the electrons. By measuring the temperature of the electrons to three decimal points, the team was able to precisely measure the thermal conductivity of the electrons.

“This work provides a new way to control the rate of heat transduction in graphene’s electron system, and as such will be key for energy and sensing-related applications,” said Leonid Levitov, professor of physics at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].

“Converting thermal energy into electric currents and vice versa is notoriously hard with ordinary materials,” said Lucas. “But in principle, with a clean sample of graphene there may be no limit to how good a device you could make.”

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

Observation of the Dirac fluid and the breakdown of the Wiedemann-Franz law in graphene by Jesse Crossno, Jing K. Shi, Ke Wang, Xiaomeng Liu, Achim Harzheim, Andrew Lucas, Subir Sachdev, Philip Kim, Takashi Taniguchi, Kenji Watanabe, Thomas A. Ohki, Kin Chung Fong.Science  11 Feb 2016: pp. DOI: 10.1126/science.aad0343

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here’s an image illustrating the research,

Caption: In a new paper published in Science, researchers at the Harvard and Raytheon BBN Technology have advanced our understanding of graphene's basic properties, observing for the first time electrons in a metal behaving like a fluid. Credit: Peter Allen/Harvard SEAS

Caption: In a new paper published in Science, researchers at the Harvard and Raytheon BBN Technology have advanced our understanding of graphene’s basic properties, observing for the first time electrons in a metal behaving like a fluid. Credit: Peter Allen/Harvard SEAS

Handling massive digital datasets the quantum way

A Jan. 25, 2016 news item on phys.org describes a new approach to analyzing and managing huge datasets,

From gene mapping to space exploration, humanity continues to generate ever-larger sets of data—far more information than people can actually process, manage, or understand.

Machine learning systems can help researchers deal with this ever-growing flood of information. Some of the most powerful of these analytical tools are based on a strange branch of geometry called topology, which deals with properties that stay the same even when something is bent and stretched every which way.

Such topological systems are especially useful for analyzing the connections in complex networks, such as the internal wiring of the brain, the U.S. power grid, or the global interconnections of the Internet. But even with the most powerful modern supercomputers, such problems remain daunting and impractical to solve. Now, a new approach that would use quantum computers to streamline these problems has been developed by researchers at [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] MIT, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Southern California [USC}.

A Jan. 25, 2016 MIT news release (*also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, describes the theory in more detail,

… Seth Lloyd, the paper’s lead author and the Nam P. Suh Professor of Mechanical Engineering, explains that algebraic topology is key to the new method. This approach, he says, helps to reduce the impact of the inevitable distortions that arise every time someone collects data about the real world.

In a topological description, basic features of the data (How many holes does it have? How are the different parts connected?) are considered the same no matter how much they are stretched, compressed, or distorted. Lloyd [ explains that it is often these fundamental topological attributes “that are important in trying to reconstruct the underlying patterns in the real world that the data are supposed to represent.”

It doesn’t matter what kind of dataset is being analyzed, he says. The topological approach to looking for connections and holes “works whether it’s an actual physical hole, or the data represents a logical argument and there’s a hole in the argument. This will find both kinds of holes.”

Using conventional computers, that approach is too demanding for all but the simplest situations. Topological analysis “represents a crucial way of getting at the significant features of the data, but it’s computationally very expensive,” Lloyd says. “This is where quantum mechanics kicks in.” The new quantum-based approach, he says, could exponentially speed up such calculations.

Lloyd offers an example to illustrate that potential speedup: If you have a dataset with 300 points, a conventional approach to analyzing all the topological features in that system would require “a computer the size of the universe,” he says. That is, it would take 2300 (two to the 300th power) processing units — approximately the number of all the particles in the universe. In other words, the problem is simply not solvable in that way.

“That’s where our algorithm kicks in,” he says. Solving the same problem with the new system, using a quantum computer, would require just 300 quantum bits — and a device this size may be achieved in the next few years, according to Lloyd.

“Our algorithm shows that you don’t need a big quantum computer to kick some serious topological butt,” he says.

There are many important kinds of huge datasets where the quantum-topological approach could be useful, Lloyd says, for example understanding interconnections in the brain. “By applying topological analysis to datasets gleaned by electroencephalography or functional MRI, you can reveal the complex connectivity and topology of the sequences of firing neurons that underlie our thought processes,” he says.

The same approach could be used for analyzing many other kinds of information. “You could apply it to the world’s economy, or to social networks, or almost any system that involves long-range transport of goods or information,” says Lloyd, who holds a joint appointment as a professor of physics. But the limits of classical computation have prevented such approaches from being applied before.

While this work is theoretical, “experimentalists have already contacted us about trying prototypes,” he says. “You could find the topology of simple structures on a very simple quantum computer. People are trying proof-of-concept experiments.”

Ignacio Cirac, a professor at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Munich, Germany, who was not involved in this research, calls it “a very original idea, and I think that it has a great potential.” He adds “I guess that it has to be further developed and adapted to particular problems. In any case, I think that this is top-quality research.”

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

Quantum algorithms for topological and geometric analysis of data by Seth Lloyd, Silvano Garnerone, & Paolo Zanardi. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10138 doi:10.1038/ncomms10138 Published 25 January 2016

This paper is open access.

ETA Jan. 25, 2016 1245 hours PST,

Shown here are the connections between different regions of the brain in a control subject (left) and a subject under the influence of the psychedelic compound psilocybin (right). This demonstrates a dramatic increase in connectivity, which explains some of the drug’s effects (such as “hearing” colors or “seeing” smells). Such an analysis, involving billions of brain cells, would be too complex for conventional techniques, but could be handled easily by the new quantum approach, the researchers say. Courtesy of the researchers

Shown here are the connections between different regions of the brain in a control subject (left) and a subject under the influence of the psychedelic compound psilocybin (right). This demonstrates a dramatic increase in connectivity, which explains some of the drug’s effects (such as “hearing” colors or “seeing” smells). Such an analysis, involving billions of brain cells, would be too complex for conventional techniques, but could be handled easily by the new quantum approach, the researchers say. Courtesy of the researchers

*’also on EurekAlert’ text and link added Jan. 26, 2016.