Tag Archives: Netherlands

Computer chips derived in a Darwinian environment

Courtesy: University of Twente

Courtesy: University of Twente

If that ‘computer chip’ looks a brain to you, good, since that’s what the image is intended to illustrate assuming I’ve correctly understood the Sept. 21, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers of the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology and the CTIT Institute for ICT Research at the University of Twente in The Netherlands have demonstrated working electronic circuits that have been produced in a radically new way, using methods that resemble Darwinian evolution. The size of these circuits is comparable to the size of their conventional counterparts, but they are much closer to natural networks like the human brain. The findings promise a new generation of powerful, energy-efficient electronics, and have been published in the leading British journal Nature Nanotechnology (“Evolution of a Designless Nanoparticle Network into Reconfigurable Boolean Logic”).

A Sept. 21, 2015 University of Twente press release, which originated the news item, explains why and how they have decided to mimic nature to produce computer chips,

One of the greatest successes of the 20th century has been the development of digital computers. During the last decades these computers have become more and more powerful by integrating ever smaller components on silicon chips. However, it is becoming increasingly hard and extremely expensive to continue this miniaturisation. Current transistors consist of only a handful of atoms. It is a major challenge to produce chips in which the millions of transistors have the same characteristics, and thus to make the chips operate properly. Another drawback is that their energy consumption is reaching unacceptable levels. It is obvious that one has to look for alternative directions, and it is interesting to see what we can learn from nature. Natural evolution has led to powerful ‘computers’ like the human brain, which can solve complex problems in an energy-efficient way. Nature exploits complex networks that can execute many tasks in parallel.

Moving away from designed circuits

The approach of the researchers at the University of Twente is based on methods that resemble those found in Nature. They have used networks of gold nanoparticles for the execution of essential computational tasks. Contrary to conventional electronics, they have moved away from designed circuits. By using ‘designless’ systems, costly design mistakes are avoided. The computational power of their networks is enabled by applying artificial evolution. This evolution takes less than an hour, rather than millions of years. By applying electrical signals, one and the same network can be configured into 16 different logical gates. The evolutionary approach works around – or can even take advantage of – possible material defects that can be fatal in conventional electronics.

Powerful and energy-efficient

It is the first time that scientists have succeeded in this way in realizing robust electronics with dimensions that can compete with commercial technology. According to prof. Wilfred van der Wiel, the realized circuits currently still have limited computing power. “But with this research we have delivered proof of principle: demonstrated that our approach works in practice. By scaling up the system, real added value will be produced in the future. Take for example the efforts to recognize patterns, such as with face recognition. This is very difficult for a regular computer, while humans and possibly also our circuits can do this much better.”  Another important advantage may be that this type of circuitry uses much less energy, both in the production, and during use. The researchers anticipate a wide range of applications, for example in portable electronics and in the medical world.

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

Evolution of a designless nanoparticle network into reconfigurable Boolean logic by S. K. Bose, C. P. Lawrence, Z. Liu, K. S. Makarenko, R. M. J. van Damme, H. J. Broersma, & W. G. van der Wiel. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.207 Published online 21 September 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Final comment, this research, especially with the reference to facial recognition, reminds me of memristors and neuromorphic engineering. I have written many times on this topic and you should be able to find most of the material by using ‘memristor’ as your search term in the blog search engine. For the mildly curious, here are links to two recent memristor articles, Knowm (sounds like gnome?) A memristor company with a commercially available product in a Sept. 10, 2015 posting and Memristor, memristor, you are popular in a May 15, 2015 posting.

Structural memory of water and the picosecond timescale

Water is a unique liquid and researchers from Germany and the Netherlands can detail at least part of why that’s so according to a Sept. 18, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) in Mainz, Germany and FOM Institute AMOLF in the Netherlands have characterized the local structural dynamics of liquid water, i.e. how quickly water molecules change their binding state. Using innovative ultrafast vibrational spectroscopies, the researchers show why liquid water is so unique compared to other molecular liquids. …

With the help of a novel combination of ultrafast laser experiments, the scientists found that local structures persist in water for longer than a picosecond, a picosecond (ps) being one thousandth of one billionth of a second ((1012 s). This observation changes the general perception of water as a solvent.

A Sept. 18, 2015 Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details the research,

… “71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water. As most chemical and biological reactions on earth occur in water or at the air water interface in oceans or in clouds, the details of how water behaves at the molecular level are crucial. Our results show that water cannot be treated as a continuum, but that specific local structures exist and are likely very important” says Mischa Bonn, director at the MPI-P.

Water is a very special liquid with extremely fast dynamics. Water molecules wiggle and jiggle on sub-picosecond timescales, which make them undistinguishable on this timescale. While the existence of very short-lived local structures – e.g. two water molecules that are very close to one another, or are very far apart from each other – is known to occur, it was commonly believed that they lose the memory of their local structure within less than 0.1 picoseconds.

The proof for relatively long-lived local structures in liquid water was obtained by measuring the vibrations of the Oxygen-Hydrogen (O-H) bonds in water. For this purpose the team of scientists used ultrafast infrared spectroscopy, particularly focusing on water molecules that are weakly (or strongly) hydrogen-bonded to their neighboring water molecules. The scientists found that the vibrations live much longer (up to about 1 ps) for water molecules with a large separation, than for those that are very close (down to 0.2 ps). In other words, the weakly bound water molecules remain weakly bound for a remarkably long time.

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

Strong frequency dependence of vibrational relaxation in bulk and surface water reveals sub-picosecond structural heterogeneity by Sietse T. van der Post, Cho-Shuen Hsieh, Masanari Okuno, Yuki Nagata, Huib J. Bakker, Mischa Bonn & Johannes Hunger. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8384 doi:10.1038/ncomms9384 Published 18 September 2015

This is an open access paper,

Clothing which turns you into a billboard

This work from a Belgian-Dutch initiative has the potential to turn us into billboards. From a Sept. 2, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers from Holst Centre (set up by TNO and imec), imec and CMST, imec’s associated lab at Ghent University [Belgium], have demonstrated the world’s first stretchable and conformable thin-film transistor (TFT) driven LED display laminated into textiles. This paves the way to wearable displays in clothing providing users with feedback.

Here’s what it looks like,

A Sept. 2, 2015 Holst Centre press release, which originated the news item, provides more details,

“Wearable devices allow people to monitor their fitness and health so they can live full and active lives for longer. But to maximize the benefits wearables can offer, they need to be able to provide feedback on what users are doing as well as measuring it. By combining imec’s patented stretch technology with our expertise in active-matrix backplanes and integrating electronics into fabrics, we’ve taken a giant step towards that possibility,” says Edsger Smits, Senior research scientist at Holst Centre.

The conformable display is very thin and mechanically stretchable. A fine-grain version of the proven meander interconnect technology was developed by the CMST lab at Ghent University and Holst Centre to link standard (rigid) LEDs into a flexible and stretchable display. The LED displays are fabricated on a polyimide substrate and encapsulated in rubber, allowing the displays to be laminated in to textiles that can be washed. Importantly, the technology uses fabrication steps that are known to the manufacturing industry, enabling rapid industrialization.

Following an initial demonstration at the Society for Information Display’s Display Week in San Jose, USA earlier this year, Holst Centre has presented the next generation of the display at the International Meeting on Information Display (IMID) in Daegu, Korea, 18-21 August 2015. Smaller LEDs are now mounted on an amorphous indium-gallium-zinc oxide (a-IGZO) TFT backplane that employs a two-transistor and one capacitor (2T-1C) pixel engine to drive the LEDs. These second-generation displays offer higher pitch and increased, average brightness. The presentation will feature a 32×32 pixel demonstrator with a resolution of 13 pixels per inch (ppi) and average brightness above 200 candelas per square meter (cd/m2). Work is ongoing to further industrialize this technology.

There are some references for the work offered at the end of the press release but I believe they are citing their conference presentations,

9.4: Stretchable 45 × 80 RGB LED Display Using Meander Wiring Technology, Ohmae et al. SID 2015, June 2015

1.2: Rollable, Foldable and Stretchable Displays, Gelinck et al. IMID, Aug. 2015.

13.4 A conformable Active Matrix LED Display, Tripathi et al. IMID, Aug. 2015

For anyone interested in imec formerly the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre, there’s this Wikipedia entry, and in TNO (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Toegepast Natuurwetenschappelijk Onderzoek in Dutch), there’s this Wikipedia entry.

MOFs (metal-organic frameworks) to clean up nuclear waste?

There’s a possibility that metal-organic frameworks could be used to clean up nuclear waste according to an Aug. 5, 2015 news item on phys.org,

One of the most versatile and widely applicable classes of materials being studied today are the metal-organic frameworks. These materials, known as MOFs, are characterized by metal ions or metal-ion clusters that are linked together with organic molecules, forming ordered crystal structures that contain tiny cage-like pores with diameters of two nanometers or less.

MOFs can be thought of as highly specialized and customizable sieves. By designing them with pores of a certain size, shape, and chemical composition, researchers can tailor them for specific purposes. A few of the many, many possible applications for MOFs are storing hydrogen in fuel cells, capturing environmental contaminants, or temporarily housing catalytic agents for chemical reactions.

At [US Department of Energy] Brookhaven National Laboratory, physicist Sanjit Ghose and his collaborators have been studying MOFs designed for use in the separation of waste from nuclear reactors, which results from the reprocessing of nuclear fuel rods. He is targeting two waste products in particular: the noble gases xenon (Xe) and krypton (Kr).

An Aug. 4, 2015 Brookhaven National Laboratory news release, which originated the news item, describes not only the research and the reasons for it but also the institutional collaborations necessary to conduct the research,

There are compelling economic and environmental reasons to separate Xe and Kr from the nuclear waste stream. For one, because they have very different half-lives – about 36 days for Xe and nearly 11 years for Kr – pulling out the Xe greatly reduces the amount of waste that needs to be stored long-term before it is safe to handle. Additionally, the extracted Xe can be used for industrial applications, such as in commercial lighting and as an anesthetic. This research may also help scientists determine how to create MOFs that can remove other materials from the nuclear waste stream and expose the remaining unreacted nuclear fuel for further re-use. This could lead to much less overall waste that must be stored long-term and a more efficient system for producing nuclear energy, which is the source of about 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S.

Because Xe and Kr are noble gases, meaning their outer electron orbitals are filled and they don’t tend to bind to other atoms, they are difficult to manipulate. The current method for extracting them from the nuclear waste stream is cryogenic distillation, a process that is energy-intensive and expensive. The MOFs studied here use a very different approach: polarizing the gas atoms dynamically, just enough to draw them in using the van der Waals force. The mechanism works at room temperature, but also at hotter temperatures, which is key if the MOFs are to be used in a nuclear environment.

Recently, Ghose co-authored two papers that describe MOFs capable of adsorbing Xe and Kr, and excel at separating the Xe from the Kr. The papers are published in the May 22 online edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society and the April 16 online edition of the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.

“Only a handful of noble-gas-specific MOFs have been studied so far, and we felt there was certainly scope for improvement through the discovery of more selective materials,” said Ghose.

Both MOF studies were carried out by large multi-institution collaborations, using a combination of X-ray diffraction, theoretical modeling, and other methods. The X-ray work was performed at Brookhaven’s former National Synchrotron Light Source (permanently closed and replaced by its successor, NSLS-II) and the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), both DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

The JACS paper was co-authored by researchers from Brookhaven Lab, Stony Brook University (SBU), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and the University of Amsterdam. Authors on the JPCL paper include scientists from Brookhaven, SBU, PNNL, ANL, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Germany, and DM Strachan, LLC.

Here’s more about the first published paper in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters (JCPL) (from the news release)

A nickel-based MOF

The MOF studied in the JCPL paper consists of nickel (Ni) and the organic compound dioxido-benzene-dicarboxylate (DOBC), and is thus referred to as Ni-DOBDC. Ni-DOBDC can adsorb both Xe and Kr at room temperature but is highly selective toward Xe. In fact, it boasts what may be the highest Xe adsorption capacity of a MOF discovered to date.

The group studied Ni-DOBC using two main techniques: X-ray diffraction and first-principles density functional theory (DFT). The paper is the first published report to detail the adsorption mechanism by which the MOF takes in these noble gases at room temperature and pressure.

“Our results provide a fundamental understanding of the adsorption structure and the interactions between the MOF and the gas by combining direct structural analyses from experimental X-ray diffraction data and DFT calculations,” said Ghose.

The group was also able to discover the existence of a secondary site at the pore center in addition to the six-fold primary site. The seven-atom loading scheme was initially proposed by theorist Yan Li, an co-author of the JCPL paper and formerly on staff at Brookhaven (she is now an editor at Physical Review B), which was confirmed experimentally and theoretically. Data also indicate that Xe are adsorbed more strongly than Kr, due to its higher atomic polarizability. They also discovered a temperature-dependence of the adsorption that furthers this MOF’s selectivity for Xe over Kr. As the temperature was increased above room temperature, the Kr adsorption drops more drastically than for Xe. Over the entire temperature range tested, Xe adsorption always dominates that of Kr.

“The high separation capacity of Ni-DOBDC suggests that it has great potential for removing Xe from Kr in the off-gas streams in nuclear spent fuel reprocessing, as well as filtering Xe at low concentration from other gas mixtures,” said Ghose.

Ghose and Li are now preparing a manuscript that will discuss a more in-depth investigation into the possibility of packing in even more Xe atoms.

“Because of the confinement offered by each pore, we want to see if it’s possible to fit enough Xe in each chamber to form a solid,” said Li.

Ghose and Li hope to experimentally test this idea at NSLS-II in the future, at the facility’s X-ray Powder Diffraction (XPD) beamline, which Ghose has helped develop and build. Additional future studies of these and other MOFs will also take place at XPD. For example, they want to see what happens when other gases are present, such as nitrogen oxides, to mimic what happens in an actual nuclear reactor.

Then, there was the second paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS),

Another MOF, Another Promising Result

In the JACS paper, Ghose and researchers from Brookhaven, SBU, PNNL, and the University of Amsterdam describe a second MOF, dubbed Stony Brook MOF-2 (SBMOF-2). It also captures both Xe and Kr at room temperature and pressure, although is about ten times as effective at taking in Xe, with Xe taking up as much as 27 percent of its weight. SBMOF-2 had been theoretically predicted to be an efficient adsorbent for Xe and Kr, but until this research there had been no experimental results to back up the prediction.

“Our study is different than MOF research done by other groups,” said chemist John Parise, a coauthor of the JACS paper who holds a joint position with Brookhaven and SBU. “We did a lot of testing and investigated the capture mechanism very closely to get clues that would help us understand why the MOF worked, and how to tailor the structure to have even better properties.”

SBMOF-2 contains calcium (Ca) ions and an organic compound with the chemical formula C34H22O8. X-ray data show that its structure is unusual among microporous MOFs. It has fewer calcium sites than expected and an excess of oxygen over calcium. The calcium and oxgyen form CaO6, which takes the form of a three-dimensional octahedron. Notably, none of the six oxygen atoms bound to the calcium ion are shared with any other nearby calcium ions. The authors believe that SBMOF-2 is the first microporous MOF with these isolated CaO6 octahedra, which are connected by organic linker molecules.

The group discovered that the preference of SBMOF-2 for Xe over Kr is due to both the geometry and chemistry of its pores. All the pores have diamond-shaped cross sections, but they come in two sizes, designated type-1 and type-2. Both sizes are a better fit for the Xe molecule. The interiors of the pores have walls made of phenyl groups – ring-shaped C6H5 molecules – along with delocalized electron clouds and H atoms pointing into the pore. The type-2 pores also have hydroxyl anions (OH-) available. All of these features provide are potential sites for adsorbed Xe and Kr atoms.

In follow-up studies, Ghose and his colleagues will use these results to guide them as they determine what changes can be made to these MOFs to improve adsorption, as well as to determine what existing MOFs may yield similar or better performance.

Here are links to and citations for both papers,

Understanding the Adsorption Mechanism of Xe and Kr in a Metal–Organic Framework from X-ray Structural Analysis and First-Principles Calculations by Sanjit K. Ghose, Yan Li, Andrey Yakovenko, Eric Dooryhee, Lars Ehm, Lynne E. Ecker, Ann-Christin Dippel, Gregory J. Halder, Denis M. Strachan, and Praveen K. Thallapally. J. Phys. Chem. Lett., 2015, 6 (10), pp 1790–1794 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.5b00440 Publication Date (Web): April 16, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

Direct Observation of Xe and Kr Adsorption in a Xe-Selective Microporous Metal–Organic Framework by Xianyin Chen, Anna M. Plonka, Debasis Banerjee, Rajamani Krishna, Herbert T. Schaef, Sanjit Ghose, Praveen K. Thallapally, and John B. Parise. J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2015, 137 (22), pp 7007–7010 DOI: 10.1021/jacs.5b02556 Publication Date (Web): May 22, 2015
Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

Both papers are behind a paywall.

Superposition in biological processes

Applying the concept of superposition to photosynthesis and olfaction is not the first thought that would have occurred to me on stumbling across the European Union’s PAPETS project (Phonon-Assisted Processes for Energy Transfer and Sensing). Thankfully, a July 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk sets the record straight (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum physics is helping researchers to better understand photosynthesis and olfaction.

Can something be for instance in two different places at the same time? According to quantum physics, it can. More precisely, in line with the principle of ‘superposition’, a particle can be described as being in two different states simultaneously.

While it may sound like voodoo to the non-expert, superposition is based on solid science. Researchers in the PAPETS project are exploring this and other phenomena on the frontier between biology and quantum physics. Their goal is to determine the role of vibrational dynamics in photosynthesis and olfaction.

A July 7, 2015 research news article on the CORDIS website, which originated the news item, further explains (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum effects in a biological system, namely in a photosynthetic complex, were first observed by Greg Engel and collaborators in 2007, in the USA. These effects were reproduced in different laboratories at a temperature of around -193 degrees Celsius and subsequently at ambient temperature.

‘What’s surprising and exciting is that these quantum effects have been observed in biological complexes, which are large, wet and noisy systems,’ says PAPETS project coordinator, Dr. Yasser Omar, researcher at Instituto de Telecomunicações and professor at Universidade de Lisboa [Portugal]. ‘Superposition is fragile and we would expect it to be destroyed by the environment.’

Superposition contributes to more efficient energy transport. An exciton, a quantum quasi-particle carrying energy, can travel faster along the photosynthetic complex due to the fact that it can exist in two states simultaneously. When it comes to a bifurcation it need not choose left or right. It can proceed down both paths simultaneously.

‘It’s like a maze,’ says Dr. Omar. ‘Only one door leads to the exit but the exciton can probe both left and right at the same time. It’s more efficient.’

Dr. Omar and his colleagues believe that a confluence of factors help superposition to be effected and maintained, namely the dynamics of the vibrating environment, whose role is precisely what the PAPETS project aims to understand and exploit.

Theory and experimentation meet

The theories being explored by PAPETS are also tested in experiments to validate them and gain further insights. To study quantum transport in photosynthesis, for example, researchers shoot fast laser pulses into biological systems. They then observe interference along the transport network, a signature of wavelike phenomena.

‘It’s like dropping stones into a lake,’ explains Dr. Omar. ‘You can then see whether the waves that are generated grow bigger or cancel each other when they meet.’

Applications: more efficient solar cells and odour detection

While PAPETS is essentially an exploratory project, it is generating insights that could have practical applications. PAPETS’ researchers are getting a more fundamental understanding of how photosynthesis works and this could result in the design of much more efficient solar cells.

Olfaction, the capacity to recognise and distinguish different odours, is another promising area. Experiments focus on the behaviour of Drosophila flies. So far, researchers suspect that the tunnelling of electrons associated to the internal vibrations of a molecule may be a signature of odour. Dr. Omar likens this tunnelling to a ping-pong ball resting in a bowl that goes through the side of the bowl to appear outside it.

This work could have applications in the food, water, cosmetics or drugs industries. Better artificial odour sensing could be used to detect impurities or pollution, for example.

‘Unlike seeing, hearing or touching, the sense of smell is difficult to reproduce artificially with high efficacy,’ says Dr. Omar.

The PAPETS project, involving 7 partners, runs from September 2014 to August 2016 and has a budgeted EU contribution funding of EUR 1.8 million.

You can find out more about PAPETS here. In the meantime, I found the other partners in the project (in addition to Portugal), from the PAPETS Partners webpage (Note: Links have been removed),

– Controlled Quantum Dynamics Group, Universität Ulm (UULM), Germany. PI: Martin Plenio and Susana Huelga.
– Biophysics Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA), Netherlands. PI: Rienk van Grondelle and Roberta Croce.
– Department of Chemical Sciences, Università degli Studi di Padova (UNIPD), Italy. PI: Elisabetta Collini.
– Biomedical Sciences Research Centre “Alexander Fleming” (FLEMING), Athens, Greece. PI: Luca Turin and Efthimios M. Skoulakis.
– Biological Physics and Complex Systems Group, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Orléans, France. PI: Francesco Piazza.
– Quantum Physics of Biomolecular Processes, University College London (UCL), UK. PI: Alexandra Olaya-Castro.

Extending catalyst life for oil and gas

A July 6, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes the progress on determining exactly how catalysis is achieved when using zeolite (Note: A link has been removed),

Despite decades of industrial use, the exact chemical transformations occurring within zeolites, a common material used in the conversion of oil to gasoline, remain poorly understood. Now scientists have found a way to locate—with atomic precision—spots within the material where chemical reactions take place, and how these spots shut down.

Called active sites, the spots help rip apart and rearrange molecules as they pass through nanometer-sized channels, like an assembly line in a factory. A process called steaming causes these active sites to cluster, effectively shutting down the factory, the scientists reported in Nature Communications (“Determining the location and nearest neighbours of aluminium in zeolites with atom probe tomography”). This knowledge could help devise how to keep the factory running longer, so to speak, and improve catalysts that help produce fuel, biofuel and other chemicals.

A July 6, 2015 Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the collaboration and the research in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The team included scientists from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, petroleum refining technology company UOP LLC and Utrecht University. To make this discovery, they reconstructed the first 3-D atomic map of an industrially relevant zeolite material to track down its key element, aluminum.

When things get steamy, structure changes

Zeolites are minerals made up of aluminum, silicon and oxygen atoms arranged in a three-dimensional crystalline structure. Though they look like white powder to the naked eye, zeolites have a sponge-like network of molecule-size pores. Aluminum atoms along these pores act like workers on an assembly line-they create active sites that give zeolites their catalytic properties.

Industry uses about a dozen synthetic zeolites as catalysts to process petroleum and chemicals. One major conversion process, called fluid catalytic cracking, depends on zeolites to produce the majority of the world’s gasoline. [emphasis mine]

To awaken active sites within zeolites, industry pretreats the material with heat and water, a process called steaming. But too much steaming somehow switches the sites off. Changing the conditions of steaming could extend the catalyst’s life, thus producing fuel more efficiently.

Scientists have long suspected that steaming causes aluminum to move around within the material, thus changing its properties. But until now aluminum has evaded detailed analysis.

Strip away the atoms

Most studies of zeolite structure rely on electron microscopy, which can’t easily distinguish aluminum from silicon because of their similar masses. Worse, the instrument’s intense electron beam tends to damage the material, changing its inherent structure before it’s seen.

Instead, the team of scientists turned to a characterization technique that had never before been successfully applied to zeolites. Called atom probe tomography, it works by zapping a sample with a pulsing laser, providing just enough energy to knock off one atom at a time. Time-of-flight mass spectrometers analyze each atom-at a rate of about 1,000 atoms per second. Unlike an electron microscope, this technique can distinguish aluminum from silicon.

Though atom probe tomography has been around for 50 years, it was originally designed to look at conductive materials, such as metals. Less conductive zeolites presented a problem.

PNNL materials scientist Danny Perea and his colleagues overcame this hurdle by adapting a Local Electrode Atom Probe at EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science User Facility accessible to scientists around the world. Most attempts to image the material ended prematurely, when electromagnetic forces within the instrument vaporized the entire sample. The key to success was to find the right conditions to prepare a sample and then to coat it with a layer of metal to help provide conductivity and strength to withstand analysis.

After hours of blasting tens-of-millions of atoms, the scientists could reconstruct an atomic map of a sample about a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. These maps hold clues as to why the catalyst fails.

The news release reveals what the scientists were able to see for the first time,

The images confirmed what scientists have long suspected: Steaming causes aluminum atoms to cluster. Like workers crowded around one spot on the assembly line, this clustering effectively shuts down the catalytic factory.

The scientists even pinpointed the place where aluminum likes to cluster. Zeolite crystals often grow in overlapping sub-units, forming something like a 3-D Venn diagram. Scientists call the edge between two sub-units a grain boundary, and that’s where the aluminum clustered. The scientists suspect that open space along grain boundaries attracted the aluminum.

With the guidance of these atomic maps, industry could one day modify how it steams zeolites to produce a more efficient, longer lasting catalyst. The research team will next examine other industrially important zeolites at different stages of steaming to provide a more detailed map of this transformation.

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

Determining the location and nearest neighbours of aluminium in zeolites with atom probe tomography by Daniel E. Perea, Ilke Arslan, Jia Liu, Zoran Ristanović, Libor Kovarik, Bruce W. Arey, Johannes A. Lercher, Simon R. Bare, & Bert M. Weckhuysen.  Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7589 doi:10.1038/ncomms8589 Published 02 July 2015

This is an open access paper.

Hong Kong, MosquitNo, and Dengue fever

The most substantive piece I’ve written on dengue fever and a nanotechnology-enabled approach to the problem was a 2013 post explaining why the fever is of such concern, which also included information about a proposed therapeutic intervention by Nanoviricides. From the July 2, 2013 posting, here’s more about the magnitude of the problem,

… the WHO (World Health Organization) fact sheet no. 117,

The incidence of dengue has grown dramatically around the world in recent decades. Over 2.5 billion people – over 40% of the world’s population – are now at risk from dengue. WHO currently estimates there may be 50–100 million dengue infections worldwide every year.

Before 1970, only nine countries had experienced severe dengue epidemics. The disease is now endemic in more than 100 countries in Africa, the Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean, South-east Asia and the Western Pacific. The American, South-east Asia and the Western Pacific regions are the most seriously affected.

Cases across the Americas, South-east Asia and Western Pacific have exceeded 1.2 million cases in 2008 and over 2.3 million in 2010 (based on official data submitted by Member States). Recently the number of reported cases has continued to increase. In 2010, 1.6 million cases of dengue were reported in the Americas alone, of which 49 000 cases were severe dengue.

Not only is the number of cases increasing as the disease spreads to new areas, but explosive outbreaks are occurring. The threat of a possible outbreak of dengue fever now exists in Europe and local transmission of dengue was reported for the first time in France and Croatia in 2010 and imported cases were detected in three other European countries. A recent (2012) outbreak of dengue on Madeira islands of Portugal has resulted in over 1800 cases and imported cases were detected in five other countries in Europe apart from mainland Portugal.

An estimated 500 000 people with severe dengue require hospitalization each year, a large proportion of whom are children. About 2.5% of those affected die.

Fast forwarding to 2015, this latest information about dengue fever features a preventative approach being taken in Hong Kong according to a July 5, 2015 article by Timmy Sung  for the South China Morning Post,

Dutch insect repellent innovator Mosquitno targets Hong Kong as dengue fever cases rise

A Dutch company says it has invented an insect repellent using nanotechnology which can keep clothes and homes mosquito-free for up to three months.

Mosquitno has been invited by a government body to begin trading in Hong Kong as the number of cases reported in the city of the deadly mosquito-borne dengue fever rises.

The new repellent does not include the active ingredient used in many insect repellents, DEET, which has question marks surrounding its safety.

Figures from the Department of Health show the number of dengue fever cases reported rose 8 per cent last year, to 112. There were 34 cases in the first five months of this year, 36 per cent more than in the same period last year. Mosquitoes are most active in the summer months.

MosquitNo does use an ingredient, IR3535, which has caused concern (from Sung’s article),

The Consumer Council has previously warned that IR3535-based mosquito repellents can break down plastic materials and certain synthetic fibres, but Wijnen [Erwin Wijnen, director of the {Mosqutino’s} brand development and global travel retailing] said the ingredient combined with nanotechnology is safe and there was no possibility it would damage clothes.

I was not able to find out more about the company’s nanotechnology solution as applied to MosquitNo,

The NANO Series is a revolutionary, innovative technology designed by scientists especially for MosquitNo. This line utilizes this-breaking insect repellent technology in various products including wipes, textile spray, fabric softener and bracelets. This technology and our trendy applications are truly industry-changing and MosquitNo is at the leading edge!

The active component in all our awesome products within this range is IR3535.

That’s it for technical detail. At least, for now.

“This is the best microscope we could ever dream of”—Rice University (US) gets new microscope

I believe it’s Emilie Ringe who’s hosting this video about the new microscope at Rice University (Texas, US) and, as you will be able to tell, she’s thrilled.

A June 29, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now explains some of Ringe’s excitement,

Rice University, renowned for nanoscale science, has installed microscopes that will allow researchers to peer deeper than ever into the fabric of the universe.

The Titan Themis scanning/transmission electron microscope, one of the most powerful in the United States, will enable scientists from Rice as well as academic and industrial partners to view and analyze materials smaller than a nanometer — a billionth of a meter — with startling clarity.

The microscope has the ability to take images of materials at angstrom-scale (one-tenth of a nanometer) resolution, about the size of a single hydrogen atom.

Images will be captured with a variety of detectors, including X-ray, optical and multiple electron detectors and a 4K-resolution camera, equivalent to the number of pixels in the most modern high-resolution televisions. The microscope gives researchers the ability to create three-dimensional structural reconstructions and carry out electric field mapping of subnanoscale materials.

“Seeing single atoms is exciting, of course, and it’s beautiful,” said Emilie Ringe, a Rice assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry. “But scientists saw single atoms in the ’90s, and even before. Now, the real breakthrough is that we can identify the composition of those atoms, and do it easily and reliably.” Ringe’s research group will operate the Titan Themis and a companion microscope that will image larger samples.

A June 29, 2015 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about electron microscopes, incident electron beams, and the specifics of the second new piece of equipment being installed,

Electron microscopes use beams of electrons rather than rays of light to illuminate objects of interest. Because the wavelength of electrons is so much smaller than that of photons, the microscopes are able to capture images of much smaller things with greater detail than even the highest-resolution optical microscope.

“The beauty of these newer instruments is their analytical capabilities,” Ringe said. “Before, in order to see single atoms, we had to work a machine for an entire day and get it just right and then take a picture and hold our breath. These days, seeing atoms is routine.

“And now we can probe a particular atom’s chemical composition. Through various techniques, either via scattering intensity, X-rays emission or electron-beam absorption, we can figure out, say, that we’re looking at a palladium atom or a carbon atom. We couldn’t do that before.”

Ringe said when an electron beam ejects a bound electron from a target atom, it creates an empty site. “That can be filled by another electron within the atom, and the energy difference between this electron and the missing electron is emitted as an X-ray,” she said. “That X-ray is like a fingerprint, which we can read. Different types of atoms have different energies.”

She said the incident electron beam loses a bit of energy when it knocks an atom’s electron loose, and that energy loss can also be measured with a spectroscope to identify the atom. The X-ray and electron techniques are independent but complementary. “Typically, you use either/or, and it depends on what element you’re looking at,” Ringe said.

The second instrument, a Helios NanoLab 600 DualBeam microscope, will be used for three-dimensional imaging, analysis of larger samples and preparation of thin slices of samples for the more powerful Titan next door.

Both tools reside in the university’s Brockman Hall for Physics, which opened in 2011 and features sophisticated vibration-dampening capabilities. The microscopes require the best possible isolation from vibration, electric fields and acoustic noise to produce the best images, Ringe said.

“We have wanted a high-end microscopy facility at Rice because so many of us are working on nanomaterials,” said Pulickel Ajayan, a professor and founding chair of Rice’s Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering. “This has been an issue because in order to be competitive you have to have the best atomic-scale characterization techniques. This will put us in business in terms of imaging and understanding new materials.”

He said the facility will position Rice as one of the most competitive institutions to recruit students and faculty, attract grants and publish groundbreaking results.

“A visual image of something on an atomic level can give you so much more information than a few numbers can,” said Peter Rossky, a theoretical chemist and dean of Rice’s Wiess School of Natural Sciences. Comparing images of the same material taken by an older electron microscope and the Titan Themis was like “the difference between a black-and-white TV and high-definition color,” he said.

Ringe said Rice’s Titan is a fourth-generation model manufactured in the Netherlands. It’s the latest and most powerful model and the first to be installed in the United States.

“Taking a complex image — not just a picture but a spectrum image that has lots of energy information — in the older model would take about 35 minutes,” she said. “By that time, the electron beam has destroyed whatever you were trying to look at.

“With this generation, you have the data you need in about two minutes. You can generate a lot more data more quickly. It’s not just better; it’s enabling.”

Edwin Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, expects the new instruments to ignite the already strong research culture at the university. “This is going to influence the kind of people who will be attracted to apply to and then come to Rice,” said Thomas, a materials scientist. “I’m sure there will be people on campus who, once they find out the capabilities, are going to shift their compasses and take advantage of these machines. The whole point is to have an impact on science and society.”

Rice plans to host a two-day workshop in September to introduce the microscopes and their capabilities to the research community at the university and beyond. [emphasis mine] Beginning this summer, Ringe said, the electron microscopy center will be open to Rice students and faculty as well as researchers from other universities and industry.

Ringe looks forward to bringing researchers into the new microscopy lab — and to the research that will emerge.

“I hope everyone’s going to come out with a blockbuster paper with images from these instruments,” she said. “I would like every paper from Rice to have fantastic, crystal-clear, atomic-resolution images and the best possible characterization.”

To sum this up, there are two new pieces of equipment (Titan Themis scanning/transmission electron microscope and Helios NanoLab 600 DualBeam microscope) in Rice University’s 2011 facility, Brockman Hall for Physics. They are very excited about having the most powerful microscope in the US (the Titan) and hope to be holding a two-day workshop on these new microscopes for the research community at Rice and at other institutions.

Crowdfund nano spies for cancer

University of Groningen (Netherlands) researcher, Romana Schirhagl, is crowdfunding her development of a new technique (using nanodiamonds) for biomedical research which would allow observation of free radicals in cells. From a June 25, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Romana Schirhagl, a researcher at the University Medical Center Groningen, is hoping to garner public support for a new form of cancer research. Schirhagl wants to introduce miniscule diamonds into living cancer cells. Like spies, these nanodiamonds will be on a mission to reveal the secrets of the cell. Schirhagl applies a unique combination of knowledge and techniques from physics, chemistry and medicine in the research. This could form the basis of new and improved cancer drugs.

A June 16, 2015 University of Groningen press release, which originated the news item, provides background information for the research,

The research of Schirhagl and her research group in the department of Biomedical Engineering focuses on the behaviour of free radicals in a cell. These radicals have an important role in the body. They are sometimes extremely useful, as in the immune system, where they help fight bacteria and viruses, but sometimes very harmful, as when they actually harm healthy cells and can cause cancer. As the radicals only exist for a fraction of a second, it is difficult to tell them apart and study them.

New technique

Schirhagl wants to apply a new technique that currently is mainly used in fundamental physics but looks extremely promising for biomedical research. The technique is based on very small diamonds that can ‘sense’ the presence of magnetic fields from the radicals. The nanodiamonds are fluorescent and change in luminosity as a response to their environment. This makes it easier to determine which radicals occur when and how they work. This information should make it possible to improve cancer drugs – which themselves sometimes use free radicals – or even develop new ones.

Unexpectedly, the crowdfunding platform is the University of Groningen’s own. You can find out more about Nano spies here. To date the project has raised over 6,600 Euros towards a goal of 20,000 Euros.