Tag Archives: Netherlands

FibeRio and VF Corporation want their nanofiber technology to lead in apparel and footwear markets

An April 8, 2015 news item on Azonano describes a new business partnership,

FibeRio Technology Corporation, the total nanofiber solutions company, today announced a strategic partnership with VF Corporation, a global leader in branded lifestyle apparel, footwear and accessories, to develop and commercialize next-generation, performance apparel fabrics leveraging FibeRio’s proprietary nanotechnology.

The partnership centers on FibeRio’s Forcespinning® technology platform and its ability to produce unique nanofiber material in high volumes. VF intends to incorporate FibeRio’s capabilities and expertise across its three Global Innovation Centers which focus on advancements in performance apparel, footwear and jeanswear.

An April 8, 2015 FibeRio news release provides more details, including these about the respective companies which help to contextualize the deal,

About FibeRio Technology Corporation
FibeRio is the efficiency and performance layer expert offering composite media improvement services including nanofiber membrane development, pilot production for limited launches and performance layer supply. The Fiber Engine series delivers on the industry’s need for high output, versatile, yet economic nanofiber production solutions. For more information visit www.fiberiotech.com

About VF Corporation
VF Corporation (NYSE: VFC) is a global leader in the design, manufacture, marketing and distribution of branded lifestyle apparel, footwear and accessories. The company’s highly diversified portfolio of 30 powerful brands spans numerous geographies, product categories, consumer demographics and sales channels, giving VF a unique industry position and the ability to create sustainable, long-term growth for our customers and shareholders. The company’s largest brands are The North Face®, Vans®, Timberland®, Wrangler®, Lee® and Nautica®. For more information, visit www.vfc.com.

There are the usual “we’re thrilled and about to do exciting things” quotes along with a dearth of details explaining how nanofibers are going to lead to higher performance,

“VF’s Global Innovation Center strategy is centered on the pursuit of disruptive design and materials that will meaningfully redefine the future of apparel and footwear for our consumers,” said Dan Cherian, Vice President, VF Global Innovation Centers. “Our partnership with FibeRio is a great step toward the co-development of proprietary, high-performance nanofiber materials that will help push the boundaries of performance and explore the creation of new apparel and footwear market categories.”

FibeRio CEO Ellery Buchanan stated, “We are excited to partner with VF Corporation on our Forcespinning-based advanced nanofiber textiles. VF’s long history of brand strength and operational excellence along with our leading commercial scale nanofiber production expertise creates an excellent opportunity to proactively shape the competitive landscape.”

Nanofibers’ higher surface area and smaller pore size improves the characteristics of fibrous material. This enables performance levels in any given application to be materially improved using significantly less material in the end product, which also allows for lighter weight and lower cost. [emphasis mine] FibeRio’s Forcespinning technology is the only technology platform capable of both commercial scale melt and solution spinning nanofibers. This provides a more sustainable method of production because melt spinning does not require solvents. [emphasis mine] Additionally, Forcespinning can be used to solution spin with vastly smaller amounts of solvents than traditional nanofiber production processes such as electrospinning.

Using less material could be considered a good thing, assuming it doesn’t mean that consumers need to purchase the item more frequently. The sustainability aspects such as no solvents or lesser amounts of solvent sound good unless increased demand means that a lesser amount becomes a greater amount.

I look forward to learning more as this partnership develops. One final note, I wonder if these folks are competitive with Teijin-Aramid (a Japanese-Dutch company in the Teijin Group), a company which does a lot of work with nanofibers last mentioned here in a Sept. 24, 2014 posting (scroll down about 60% of the way),

Still talking about textile fibres but on a completely different track, I received a news release this morning (Sept. 25, 2014) from Teijin Aramid about carbon nanotubes and fibres,

Researchers of Teijin Aramid, based in the Netherlands, and Rice University in the USA are awarded with the honorary ‘Paul Schlack Man-Made Fibers Prize’ for corporate-academic partnerships in fiber research. Their new super fibers are now driving innovation in aerospace, healthcare, automotive, and (smart) clothing.

I also found an April 12, 2012 post about Teijin Fibers (another Teijin Group company) and their work with nanofibers and golf gloves and athletic socks.

SAPPI to locate cellulose nanofibril facility in the Netherlands

SAPPI (formerly South African Pulp and Paper Industries) has announced it will build a nanocellulose facility in the Netherlands. From a March 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Sappi Limited, a leading global producer of dissolving wood pulp and graphics, speciality and packaging papers, is pleased to announce that it will build a pilot-scale plant for low-cost Cellulose NanoFibrils (nanocellulose) production at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Sittard-Geleen in the Netherlands. The pilot plant is expected to be operational within nine months.

A March 11, 2015 SAPPI media release (also on PR Newswire), which originated the news item, provides more detail about SAPPI’s nanocellulose business plans and the proposed pilot plant,

Commenting on the decision, Andrea Rossi, Group Head Technology, Sappi Limited, explained that the pilot plant will help with Sappi’s move into new adjacent business fields based on renewable raw materials. Sappi’s strategy includes seeking growth opportunities by producing innovative performance materials from renewable resources. The raw material for the pilot plant would be supplied from any of Sappi’s Saiccor, Ngodwana and Cloquet dissolving wood pulp plants. The pilot plant is the precursor for Sappi to consider the construction of a commercial CNF plant.

He goes on to say “the pilot plant will test the manufacturing of dry re-dispersible Cellulose NanoFibrils (CNF) using the proprietary technology developed by Sappi and Edinburgh Napier University. The location of the pilot plant at Brightlands Chemelot Campus provides Sappi with easy access to multiple partners with whom Sappi will seek to co-develop products that will incorporate CNF across a large variety of product applications to optimise performance and to create unique characteristics for these products.

The CNF produced by Sappi will have unique morphology, specifically modified for either hydrophobic or hydrophilic applications. Products produced using Sappi’s CNF will be optimally suitable for conversion in lighter and stronger fibre-reinforced composites and plastics, in food and pharmaceutical applications, and in rheology modifiers as well as in barrier and other paper and coating applications.

Speaking on behalf of Brightlands Chemelot Campus, the CEO Bert Kip said “We’re proud that a globally leading company like Sappi has chosen our campus for their new facility. The initiative perfectly fits with our focus area on bio-based materials and our new pilot plant infrastructure.”

In December 2014, Sappi and Edinburgh Napier University announced the results of their 3 year project to find a low cost energy-saving process that would allow Sappi to produce the nanocellulose on a commercially viable basis – and importantly without producing large volumes of chemical waste water associated with existing techniques. At the time, Professor Rob English, who led the research with his Edinburgh Napier colleague, Dr. Rhodri Williams, said “What is significant about our process is the use of unique chemistry, which has allowed us to very easily break down the wood pulp fibers into nanocellulose. There is no expensive chemistry required and, most significantly, the chemicals used can be easily recycled and reused without generating large quantities of waste water.

Math Jennekens, R&D Director at Sappi Europe who is the project coordinator and will oversee the pilot plant, said “We are very excited to be able to move from a bench top environment into real-world production. Our targeted run-rate will be 8 tons per annum. We will produce a dry powder that can be easily redispersed in water. The nanocellulose is unmodified which makes it easier to combine with other materials. The product will be used to build partnerships to test the application of our nanocellulose across the widest range of uses.”

He went on to thank the Government of the Province of Limburg in the Netherlands for their significant support and financial contribution towards the establishment of the pilot plant.

This business with a pilot production plant reminds me of CelluForce which has a cellulose nanocrystal (CNC) or, as it’s also known, nanocellulose crystal (NCC) production plant located in Windsor, Québec. They too announced a production plant which opened to fanfare in January 2012. in my Oct. 3, 2013 post (scroll down about 60% of the way) I noted that production had stopped in August 2013 due to a growing stockpile. As of March 11, 2015, I was not able to find any updates about the stockpile on the CelluForce website. The most recent CelluForce information I’ve been able to find is in a Feb. 19, 2015 posting (scroll down about 40% of the way).

Europe’s search for raw materials and hopes for nanotechnology-enabled solutions

A Feb. 27, 2015 news item on Nanowerk highlights the concerns over the availability of raw materials and European efforts to address those concerns,

Critical raw materials’ are crucial to many European industries but they are vulnerable to scarcity and supply disruption. As such, it is vital that Europe develops strategies for meeting the demand for raw materials. One such strategy is finding methods or substances that can replace the raw materials that we currently use. With this in mind, four EU projects working on substitution in catalysis, electronics and photonics presented their work at the Third Innovation Network Workshop on substitution of Critical Raw Materials hosted by the CRM_INNONET project in Brussels earlier this month [February 2015].

A Feb. 26, 2015 CORDIS press release, which originated the news item, goes on to describe four European Union projects working on nanotechnology-enabled solutions,

NOVACAM

NOVACAM, a coordinated Japan-EU project, aims to develop catalysts using non-critical elements designed to unlock the potential of biomass into a viable energy and chemical feedstock source.

The project is using a ‘catalyst by design’ approach for the development of next generation catalysts (nanoscale inorganic catalysts), as NOVACAM project coordinator Prof. Emiel Hensen from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands explained. Launched in September 2013, the project is developing catalysts which incorporate non-critical metals to catalyse the conversion of lignocellulose into industrial chemical feedstocks and bio-fuels. The first part of the project has been to develop the principle chemistry while the second part is to demonstrate proof of process. Prof. Hensen predicts that perhaps only two of three concepts will survive to this phase.

The project has already made significant progress in glucose and ethanol conversion, according to Prof. Hensen, and has produced some important scientific publications. The consortium is working with and industrial advisory board comprising Shell in the EU and Nippon Shokubai in Japan.

FREECATS

The FREECATS project, presented by project coordinator Prof. Magnus Rønning from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has been working over the past three years to develop new metal-free catalysts. These would be either in the form of bulk nanomaterials or in hierarchically organised structures – both of which would be capable of replacing traditional noble metal-based catalysts in catalytic transformations of strategic importance.

Prof. Magnus Rønning explained that the application of the new materials could eliminate the need for the use for platinum group metals (PGM) and rare earth metals – in both cases Europe is very reliant on other countries for these materials. Over the course of its research, FREECATS targeted three areas in particular – fuel cells, the production of light olefins and water and wastewater purification.

By working to replace the platinum in fuel cells, the project is supporting the EU’s aim of replacing the internal combustion engine by 2050. However, as Prof. Rønning noted, while platinum has been optimized for use over several decades, the materials FREECATS are using are new and thus come with their new challenges which the project is addressing.

HARFIR

Prof. Atsufumi Hirohata of the University of York in the United Kingdom, project coordinator of HARFIR, described how the project aims to discover an antiferromagnetic alloy that does not contain the rare metal Iridium. Iridium is becoming more and more widely used in numerous spin electronic storage devices, including read heads in hard disk drives. The world supply depends on Platinum ore that comes mainly from South Africa. The situation is much worse than for other rare earth elements as the price has been shooting up over recent years, according to Prof. Hirohata.

The HARFIR team, divided between Europe and Japan, aims to replace Iridium alloys with Heusler alloys. The EU team, led by Prof. Hirohata, has been working on the preparation of polycrystalline and epitaxial thin films of Heusler Alloys, with the material design led by theoretical calculations. The Japanese team, led by Prof. Koki Takanashi at Tohoku University, is meanwhile working on the preparation of epitaxial thin films, measurements of fundamental properties and structural/magnetic characterisation by neutron and synchrotron x-ray beams.

One of the biggest challenges has been that Heusler alloys have a relatively complicated atomic structure. In terms of HARFIR’s work, if any atomic disordering at the edge of nanopillar devices, the magnetic properties that are needed are lost. The team is exploring solutions to this challenge.

IRENA

Prof. of Esko Kauppinen Aalto University in Finland closed off the first session of the morning with his presentation of the IRENA project. Launched in September 2013, the project will run until mid 2017 working towards the aim of developing high performance materials, specifically metallic and semiconducting single-walled carbon nanotube (SWCNT) thin films to completely eliminate the use of the critical metals in electron devices. The ultimate aim is to replace Indium in transparent conducting films, and Indium and Gallium as a semiconductor in thin film field effect transistors (TFTs).

The IRENA team is developing an alternative that is flexible, transparent and stretchable so that it can meet the demands of the electronics of the future – including the possibility to print electronics.

IRENA involves three partners from Europe and three from Japan. The team has expertise in nanotube synthesis, thin film manufacturing and flexible device manufacturing, modelling of nanotube growth and thin film charge transport processes, and the project has benefitted from exchanges of team members between institutions. One of the key achievements so far is that the project has succeeded in using a nanotube thin film for the first time as the both the electrode and hole blocking layer in an organic solar cell.

You’ll note that Japan is a partner in all of these projects. In all probability, these initiatives have something to do with rare earths which are used in much of today’s electronics technology and Japan is sorely lacking in those materials. China, by comparison, has dominated the rare earths export industry and here’s an excerpt from my Nov. 1, 2013 posting where I outline the situation (which I suspect hasn’t changed much since),

As for the short supply mentioned in the first line of the news item, the world’s largest exporter of rare earth elements at 90% of the market, China, recently announced a cap according to a Sept. 6, 2013 article by David Stanway for Reuters. The Chinese government appears to be curtailing exports as part of an ongoing, multi-year strategy. Here’s how Cientifica‘s (an emerging technologies consultancy, etc.) white paper (Simply No Substitute?) about critical materials published in 2012 (?), described the situation,

Despite their name, REE are not that rare in the Earth’s crust. What has happened in the past decade is that REE exports from China undercut prices elsewhere, leading to the closure of mines such as the Mountain Pass REE mine in California. Once China had acquired a dominant market position, prices began to rise. But this situation will likely ease. The US will probably begin REE production from the Mountain Pass mine later in 2012, and mines in other countries are expected to start operation soon as well.

Nevertheless, owing to their broad range of uses REE will continue to exert pressures on their supply – especially for countries without notable REE deposits. This highlights two aspects of importance for strategic materials: actual rarity and strategic supply issues such as these seen for REE. Although strategic and diplomatic supply issues may have easier solutions, their consideration for manufacturing industries will almost be the same – a shortage of crucial supply lines.

Furthermore, as the example of REE shows, the identification of long-term supply problems can often be difficult, and not every government has the same strategic foresight that the Chinese demonstrated. And as new technologies emerge, new elements may see an unexpected, sudden demand in supply. (pp. 16-17)

Meanwhile, in response to China’s decision to cap its 2013 REE exports, the Russian government announced a $1B investment to 2018 in rare earth production,, according to a Sept. 10, 2013 article by Polina Devitt for Reuters.

I’m not sure you’ll be able to access Tim Harper’s white paper as he is now an independent, serial entrepreneur. I most recently mentioned him in relation to his articles (on Azonano) about the nanotechnology scene in a Feb. 12, 2015 posting where you’ll also find contact details for him.

Opals, Diana Ross, and nanophotonic hybridization

It was a bit of a stretch to include Diana Ross in a Jan. 12, 2015 news item on Nanowerk about nanophotonic research at the University of Twente’s MESA+ Institute for Nano­technology  but I’m glad they did,

Ever since the early 1900s work of Niels Bohr and Hendrik Lorentz, it is known that atoms display characteristic resonant behavior to light. The hallmark of a resonance is its characteristic peak-trough behavior of the refractive index with optical frequency. Scientists from the Dutch MESA+ Institute for Nano­technology at the University of Twente have recently infiltrated cesium atoms in a self-assembled opal to create a hybrid nanophotonic system. By tuning the opal’s forbidden gap relative to the atomic resonance, dra­matic changes are observed in reflectivity. In the most extreme case, the atomic reflection spectrum is turned upside down[1] compared to the traditional case. Since dispersion is crucial in the control of optical signal pulses, the new results offer opportunities for optical information manipulation. As atoms are exquisite storage de­vices for light quanta, the results open vistas on quantum information processing, as well as on new nanoplasmonics.

A Jan. 12, 2015 MESA+ Institute for Nano­technology at the University of Twente press release, which originated the news item, provides an illustrative diagram and a wealth of technical detail about the research,

Courtesy of the University of Twente

Courtesy of the University of Twente

While the speed of light c is proverbial, it can readily be modified by sending light through a medium with a certain refractive index n. In the medium, the speed will be decreased by the index to c/n. In any material, the refractive index depends on the frequency of the light. Usually the refractive index increases with frequency, called normal dispersion as it prevails at most frequencies in most materials such as a glass of water, a telecom fiber, or an atomic vapor. Close to the resonance frequency of the material, the index strongly decreases, called anomalous dispersion.

Dispersion is essential to control how optical bits of information – encoded as short pulses – is manipulated optical circuits. In modern optics at the nanoscale, called nanophotonics, dispersion is controlled with classes of complex nanostruc­tures that cause novel behavior to emerge. An example is a photonic crystal fiber, which does not consist of only glass like a traditional fiber, but of an intricate arrange­ment of holes and glass nanostructures.

The Twente team led by Harding devised a hybrid system consisting of an atomic vapor infiltrated in an opal photonic crystal. Photonic crystals have attracted considerable attention for their ability to radically control propagation and emission of light. These nanostructures are well-known for their ability to control the emission and propagation of light. The opals have a periodic variation of the refractive index (see Figure 1) that ensures that a certain color of light is forbidden to exist inside the opal. The light cannot enter the opal as it is reflected, which is called a gap (see Figure 1). In an analogy to semiconductors, such an effect is called a “photonic band gap”. Photonic gaps are at the basis of tiny on-chip light sources and lasers, efficient solar cells, invisibility cloaks, and devices to process optical information.

The Twente team changed the index of refraction of the voids in a photonic crystal by substituting the air by a vapor of atoms with a strong resonance, as shown in Figure 1. The contrast of the refractive index between the vapor and the opal’s silica nano­spheres was effectively used as a probe. The density of the cesium vapor was greatly varied by changing the temperature in the cell up to 420 K. At the same time, the photonic gap of the opal shifted relative to the atomic resonance due to a slow chemical reaction between the opal’s backbone material (silica) and the cesium.

On resonance, light excites an atom to a higher state and subsequently the atom reemits the light. Hence, an atom behaves like a little cavity that stores light. Simultaneously the index of refraction changes strongly for colors near resonance. For slightly longer wavelengths the index of refraction is high, on resonance it is close to one, and slightly shorter wavelengths it can even decrease below one. This effect of the cesium atoms is clearly visible in the reflectivity spectra, shown in Figure 2 [not included here], as a sharp increase and decrease of the reflectivity near the atomic resonance. Intriguingly, the characteristic peak-and-trough behavior of atoms (seen at 370 K) was turned upside down at the highest temperature (420 K), where the ce­sium reso­nance was on the red side of the opal’s stopgap.

In nanophotonics, many efforts are currently being devoted to create arrays of nanoresonators in photonic crystals, for exquisite optical signal control on a chip. Unfortunately, however, there is a major challenge in engineering high-quality pho­tonic resonators: they are all different due to inevitable fabrication variations. Hence, it is difficult to tune every resonator in sync. “Our atoms in the opal may be consid­ered as the equivalent of an carefully engineered array of nano-resonators” explains Willem Vos, “Nature takes care that all resonators are all exactly the same. Our hy­brid system solves the variability problem and could perhaps be used to make pho­tonic memories, sensors or switches that are naturally tuned.” And leading Spanish theorist Javier Garcia de Abajo (ICFO) enthuses: “This is a fine and exciting piece of work, initiating the study of atomic resonances with photonic modes in a genuinely new fashion, and suggesting many exciting possibilities, for example through the extension of this study towards combinations with metal nanoplasmonics.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper published in Physical Review B,

Nanophotonic hybridization of narrow atomic cesium resonances and photonic stop gaps of opaline nanostructures by Philip J. Harding, Pepijn W. H. Pinkse, Allard P. Mosk, and Willem L. Vos. Phys. Rev. B 91, 045123 – Published 20 January 2015 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevB.91.045123

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an earlier iteration of the paper available on the open access arXiv.org website operated by Cornell University,

Nanophotonic hybridization of narrow atomic cesium resonances and photonic stop gaps of opaline nanostructures by Philip J. Harding, Pepijn W.H. Pinkse, Allard P. Mosk, Willem L. Vos. (Submitted on 11 Sep 2014) arXiv:1409.3417

As I understand it, the arXiv.org website is intended to open up access to research and to offer an informal peer review process.

Finally, for anyone who’s nostalgic or perhaps has never heard Diana Ross sing ‘Upside Down’,

Could there be a quantum internet?

We’ve always had limited success with predicting future technologies by examining current technologies. For example, the Internet and World Wide Web as we experience them today would have been unthinkable for most people in the 1950s when computers inhabited entire buildings and satellites were a brand new technology designed for space exploration not bouncing communication signals around the planet. That said, this new work on a ‘quantum internet’ from Eindhoven University of Technology is quite intriguing (from a Dec. 15, 2014 news item on Nanowerk),

In the same way as we now connect computers in networks through optical signals, it could also be possible to connect future quantum computers in a ‘quantum internet’. The optical signals would then consist of individual light particles or photons. One prerequisite for a working quantum internet is control of the shape of these photons. Researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and the FOM foundation  [Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter] have now succeeded for the first time in getting this control within the required short time.

A Dec. 15, 2014 Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) press release, which originated the news item, describes one of the problems with a ‘quantum internet’ and the researchers’ solution,

Quantum computers could in principle communicate with each other by exchanging individual photons to create a ‘quantum internet’. The shape of the photons, in other words how their energy is distributed over time, is vital for successful transmission of information. This shape must be symmetric in time, while photons that are emitted by atoms normally have an asymmetric shape. Therefore, this process requires external control in order to create a quantum internet.

Optical cavity

Researchers at TU/e and FOM have succeeded in getting the required degree of control by embedding a quantum dot – a piece of semiconductor material that can transmit photons – into a ‘photonic crystal’, thereby creating an optical cavity. Then the researchers applied a very short electrical pulse to the cavity, which influences how the quantum dot interacts with it, and how the photon is emitted. By varying the strength of this pulse, they were able to control the shape of the transmitted photons.

Within a billionth of a second

The Eindhoven researchers are the first to achieve this, thanks to the use of electrical pulses shorter than nanosecond, a billionth of a second. This is vital for use in quantum communication, as research leader Andrea Fiore of TU/e explains: “The emission of a photon only lasts for one nanosecond, so if you want to change anything you have to do it within that time. It’s like the shutter of a high-speed camera, which has to be very short if you want to capture something that changes very fast in an image. By controlling the speed at which you send a photon, you can in principle achieve very efficient exchange of photons, which is important for the future quantum internet.”

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

Dynamically controlling the emission of single excitons in photonic crystal cavities by Francesco Pagliano, YongJin Cho, Tian Xia, Frank van Otten, Robert Johne, & Andrea Fiore. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 5786 doi:10.1038/ncomms6786 Published 15 December 2014

This is an open access paper.

ETA Dec. 16, 2014 at 1230 hours PDT: There is a copy of the Dec. 15, 2014 news release on EurekAlert.

Graphene not so impermeable after all

I saw the news last week but it took reading Dexter Johnson’s Dec. 2, 2014 post for me to achieve a greater understanding of why graphene’s proton permeability is such a big deal and of the tensions underlying graphene research in the UK.

Let’s start with the news, from a Nov. 26, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Published in the journal Nature (“Proton transport through one-atom-thick crystals”), the discovery could revolutionise fuel cells and other hydrogen-based technologies as they require a barrier that only allow protons – hydrogen atoms stripped off their electrons – to pass through.

In addition, graphene membranes could be used to sieve hydrogen gas out of the atmosphere, where it is present in minute quantities, creating the possibility of electric generators powered by air.

A Nov. 26, 2014 University of Manchester news release, which originated the news item, describes the research in greater detail,

One-atom thick material graphene, first isolated and explored in 2004 by a team at The University of Manchester, is renowned for its barrier properties, which has a number of uses in applications such as corrosion-proof coatings and impermeable packaging.

For example, it would take the lifetime of the universe for hydrogen, the smallest of all atoms, to pierce a graphene monolayer.

Now a group led by Sir Andre Geim tested whether protons are also repelled by graphene. They fully expected that protons would be blocked, as existing theory predicted as little proton permeation as for hydrogen.

Despite the pessimistic prognosis, the researchers found that protons pass through the ultra-thin crystals surprisingly easily, especially at elevated temperatures and if the films were covered with catalytic nanoparticles such as platinum.

The discovery makes monolayers of graphene, and its sister material boron nitride, attractive for possible uses as proton-conducting membranes, which are at the heart of modern fuel cell technology. Fuel cells use oxygen and hydrogen as a fuel and convert the input chemical energy directly into electricity. Without membranes that allow an exclusive flow of protons but prevent other species to pass through, this technology would not exist.

Despite being well-established, fuel-cell technology requires further improvements to make it more widely used. One of the major problems is a fuel crossover through the existing proton membranes, which reduces their efficiency and durability.

The University of Manchester research suggests that the use of graphene or monolayer boron nitride can allow the existing membranes to become thinner and more efficient, with less fuel crossover and poisoning. This can boost competitiveness of fuel cells.

The Manchester group also demonstrated that their one-atom-thick membranes can be used to extract hydrogen from a humid atmosphere. They hypothesise that such harvesting can be combined together with fuel cells to create a mobile electric generator that is fuelled simply by hydrogen present in air.

Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a PhD student and corresponding author of this paper, said: “When you know how it should work, it is a very simple setup. You put a hydrogen-containing gas on one side, apply small electric current and collect pure hydrogen on the other side. This hydrogen can then be burned in a fuel cell.

“We worked with small membranes, and the achieved flow of hydrogen is of course tiny so far. But this is the initial stage of discovery, and the paper is to make experts aware of the existing prospects. To build up and test hydrogen harvesters will require much further effort.”

Dr Sheng Hu, a postdoctoral researcher and the first author in this work, added: “It looks extremely simple and equally promising. Because graphene can be produced these days in square metre sheets, we hope that it will find its way to commercial fuel cells sooner rather than later”.

The work is an international collaboration involving groups from China and the Netherlands who supported theoretical aspects of this research. Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo is funded by a PhD studentship programme between the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico and The University of Manchester.

Here’s more about the research and its implications from Dexter Johnson’s Dec. 2, 2014 post on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers) website (Note: Links have been removed),

This latest development alters the understanding of one of the key properties of graphene: that it is impermeable to all gases and liquids. Even an atom as small as hydrogen would need billions of years for it to pass through the dense electronic cloud of graphene.  In fact, it is this impermeability that has made it attractive for use in gas separation membranes.

But as Geim and his colleagues discovered, in research that was published in the journal Nature, monolayers of graphene and boron nitride are highly permeable to thermal protons under ambient conditions. So hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons could pass right through the one-atom-thick materials.

The surprising discovery that protons could breach these materials means that that they could be used in proton-conducting membranes (also known as proton exchange membranes), which are central to the functioning of fuel cells. Fuel cells operate through chemical reactions involving hydrogen fuel and oxygen, with the result being electrical energy. The membranes used in the fuel cells are impermeable to oxygen and hydrogen but allow for the passage of protons.

Dexter goes into more detail about hydrogen fuel cells and why this discovery is so exciting. He also provides some insight into the UK’s graphene community (Note: A link has been removed),

While some have been frustrated that Geim has focused his attention on fundamental research rather than becoming more active in the commercialization of graphene, he may have just cracked open graphene’s greatest application possibility to date.

I recommend reading Dexter’s post if you want to learn more about fuel cell technology and the impact this discovery may have.

Richard Van Noorden’s Nov. 27, 2014 article for Nature provides another perspective on this work,

Fuel-cell experts say that the work is proof of principle, but are cautious about its immediate application. Factors such as to how grow a sufficiently clean, large graphene sheet, and its cost and lifetime, would have to be taken into account. “It may or may not be a better membrane for a fuel cell,” says Andrew Herring, a chemical engineer at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

Van Noorden also writes about another graphene discovery from last week, which won’t be featured here. Where graphene is concerned I have to draw a line or else this entire blog would be focused on that material alone.

Getting back back to permeability, graphene, and protons, here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Proton transport through one-atom-thick crystals by S. Hu, M. Lozada-Hidalgo, F. C. Wang, A. Mishchenko, F. Schedin, R. R. Nair, E. W. Hill, D. W. Boukhvalov, M. I. Katsnelson, R. A. W. Dryfe, I. V. Grigorieva, H. A. Wu, & A. K. Geim. Nature (2014 doi:10.1038/nature14015 Published online 26 November 2014

This article is behind a paywall.

Viewing a photosynthesis subsystem in a near-natural state

[downloaded from http://www.desy.de/infos__services/presse/pressemeldungen/@@news-view?id=9383]

Molecular structure of photosystem II, which arranges itself in rows. Credit: Martin Bommer/HU Berlin [downloaded from http://www.desy.de/infos__services/presse/pressemeldungen/@@news-view?id=9383]

Apparently, this image represents a near-natural state for a photosynthesis subsystem called, Photosynthesis II. Here’s more from a Nov. 4, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Photosynthesis is one of the most important processes in nature. The complex method with which all green plants harvest sunlight and thereby produce the oxygen in our air is, however, still not fully understood. Researchers using DESY’s X-ray light source PETRA III have examined a photosynthesis subsystem in a near-natural state. According to the scientists led by Privatdozentin Dr. Athina Zouni from the Humboldt University (HU) Berlin, the X-ray experiments on what is known as photosystem II reveal, for example, yet unknown structures. Their results are published in the scientific journal Structure (“Native-like Photosystem II Superstructure at 2.44 Å Resolution through Detergent Extraction from the Protein Crystal”). The technology utilised could also be of interest for analysing other biomolecules.

A Nov. 4, 2014 DESY (Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron) press release, which originated the news item, describes some of the issues with studying ‘photosynthetic machinery’,

Photosystem II forms part of the photosynthetic machinery where water, with the help of sunlight, is split into hydrogen and oxygen. As one of the membrane proteins, it sits in the cell membrane. Membrane proteins are a large and vital group of biomolecules that are, for example, important in addressing a variety of medical issues. In order to decode the protein structure and reveal details on how biomolecules function, researchers use the very bright and short-wave X-rays of PETRA III and other similar facilities. Small crystals, however, must initially be grown from these biomolecules.

“The structure of single molecules cannot be directly seen even with the brightest X-rays,” explains co-author and DESY researcher Dr. Anja Burkhardt of Measuring Station P11, where the experiments were carried out. “In a crystal, however, a multitude of these molecules are arranged in a highly symmetrical fashion. Thus the signal, resulting from X-ray diffraction of these molecules, is amplified. The molecular structure can then be calculated from the diffraction images.”

In addition to these difficulties the scientists were also grappling with this problem (from the press release),

Biomolecules – and especially membrane proteins – cannot easily be compelled into crystal form as it is contrary to their natural state. Preparing suitable samples is therefore a crucial step in the whole analysis process. For instance, photosystem II must be first separated from the membrane, where it is bound to numerous small fat molecules (lipids). Researchers use special detergents for this purpose, such as those also principally found in soap. The catch: instead of lipids, the biomolecules are now surrounded by detergents, which may make the crystals spongy under certain conditions, thus exacerbating the analysis.

“What we want is to come as close as possible to nature,” stresses Zouni. The closer the proteins in the crystal are to their natural state, the better the results.

The press release describes how the team solved the problem,

“The trick was to use a detergent that strongly differs from the lipids in composition and structure,” explains the researcher.

Before examining the biomolecular crystals using X-rays, a portion of the water is extracted and replaced by an anti-freeze. The crystals are usually frozen for the experiments because the high-energy X-ray doesn’t damage them so quickly in the frozen state. During this process, the researchers would like to avoid ice formation.

“The dehydration process removed not only the water in our samples, but also completely removed the detergent, something we didn’t expect,” says Zouni.“Our samples are closer to the natural state than what has been reported before.”

Consequently, the investigation’s spatial resolution increased from about 0.6 nanometres (a millionth of a millimetre) to 0.244 nanometres. This is not, in fact, the highest resolution ever achieved in a photosystem II study, but the analysis shows that the photosystem II proteins are arranged within the crystals as pairs of rows, something that also occurs in the natural environment.

This latest development builds on previous research according to the press release,

Electron microscope investigations by Professor Egbert Boekema’s group at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands had already shown the photosystems’ crystal like arrangement in the natural membrane — a kind of tiny solar cell. Electron microscopy could better recognize connections using direct observation of the native membrane while X-ray crystallography could reveal the smallest details.

The press release ends with how the latest work could have an impact on further research,

“We placed the structural data over the electron microscope images – they matched precisely,” says Zouni. The investigation also revealed structures that were invisible before. “We can see exactly where the bonds to the lipids are located,” the scientist explains. The more the researchers discover about photosystem II, the better they understand exactly how it functions.

The procedure of using a new detergent, however, is not only interesting in terms of photosystem II. “The method can potentially be applied to many membrane proteins,” stresses Zouni. In the future, many biomolecules could maybe examined in a more natural state than ever before.

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

Native-like Photosystem II Superstructure at 2.44 Å Resolution through Detergent Extraction from the Protein Crystal by Julia Hellmich, Martin Bommer, Anja Burkhardt, Mohamed Ibrahim, Jan Kern, Alke Meents, Frank Müh, Holger Dobbek, and Athina Zouni. Structure Volume 22, Issue 11, p1607–1615, 4 November 2014  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.str.2014.09.007

This paper is open access.

ETA Nov. 6, 2014: On the off chance the links to the Nanowerk news item or DESY press release do not yield results, you may be able to find the DESY Nov. 5, 2014 news release here on EurekAlert.

Replacing copper wire in motors?

Finnish researchers at Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) believe it may be possible to replace copper wire used in motors with spun carbon nanotubes. From an Oct. 15, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) introduces the first electrical motor applying carbon nanotube yarn. The material replaces copper wires in windings. The motor is a step towards lightweight, efficient electric drives. Its output power is 40 W and rotation speed 15000 rpm.

Aiming at upgrading the performance and energy efficiency of electrical machines, higher-conductivity wires are searched for windings. Here, the new technology may revolutionize the industry. The best carbon nanotubes (CNTs) demonstrate conductivities far beyond the best metals; CNT windings may have double the conductivity of copper windings.

”If we keep the design parameters unchanged only replacing copper with carbon nanotube yarns, the Joule losses in windings can be reduced to half of present machine losses. By lighter and more ecological CNT yarn, we can reduce machine dimensions and CO2 emissions in manufacturing and operation. Machines could also be run in higher temperatures,” says Professor Pyrhönen [Juha Pyrhönen], leading the prototype design at LUT.

An Oct. ??, 2014 (?) LUT press release, which originated the news item, further describes the work,

Traditionally, the windings in electrical machines are made of copper, which has the second best conductivity of metals at room temperature. Despite the high conductivity of copper, a large proportion of the electrical machine losses occur in the copper windings. For this reason, the Joule losses are often referred to as copper losses. The carbon nanotube yarn does not have a definite upper limit for conductivity (e.g. values of 100 MS/m have already been measured).

According to Pyrhönen, the electrical machines are so ubiquitous in everyday life that we often forget about their presence. In a single-family house alone there can be tens of electrical machines in various household appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, hair dryers, and ventilators.

“In the industry, the number of electrical motors is enormous: there can be up to tens of thousands of motors in a single process industry unit. All these use copper in the windings. Consequently, finding a more efficient material to replace the copper conductors would lead to major changes in the industry,” tells Professor Pyrhönen.

There are big plans for this work according to the press release,

The prototype motor uses carbon nanotube yarns spun and converted into an isolated tape by a Japanese-Dutch company Teijin Aramid, which has developed the spinning technology in collaboration with Rice University, the USA. The industrial applications of the new material are still in their infancy; scaling up the production capacity together with improving the yarn performance will facilitate major steps in the future, believes Business Development Manager Dr. Marcin Otto from Teijin Aramid, agreeing with Professor Pyrhönen.

“There is a significant improvement potential in the electrical machines, but we are now facing the limits of material physics set by traditional winding materials. Superconductivity appears not to develop to such a level that it could, in general, be applied to electrical machines. Carbonic materials, however, seem to have a pole position: We expect that in the future, the conductivity of carbon nanotube yarns could be even three times the practical conductivity of copper in electrical machines. In addition, carbon is abundant while copper needs to be mined or recycled by heavy industrial processes.”

The researchers have produced this video about their research,

There’s a reference to some work done at Rice University (Texas, US) with Teijin Armid (Japanese-Dutch company) and Technion Institute (Israel) with spinning carbon nanotubes into threads that look like black cotton (you’ll see the threads in the video). It’s this work that has made the latest research in Finland possible. I have more about the the Rice/Teijin Armid/Technion CNT project in my Jan. 11, 2013 posting, Prima donna of nanomaterials (carbon nanotubes) tamed by scientists at Rice University (Texas, US), Teijin Armid (Dutch/Japanese company), and Technion Institute (based in Israel).

Keeping your chef’s jackets clean and a prize for Teijin Aramid/Rice University

Australian start-up company, Fabricor Workwear launched a Kickstarter campaign on Sept. 18, 2014 to raise funds for a stain-proof and water-repellent chef’s jacket according to a Sept. 25, 2014 news item on Azonano,

An Australian startup is using a patented nanotechnology to create ‘hydrophobic’ chef jackets and aprons. Fabricor says this means uniforms that stay clean for longer, and saving time and money.

The company was started because cofounder and MasterChef mentor Adrian Li, was frustrated with keeping his chef jackets and aprons clean.

“As a chef I find it really difficult to keep my chef jacket white, and we like our jackets white,” Li said. …

The nanotechnology application works by modifying the fabric at a molecular level by permanently attaching hydrophobic ‘whiskers’ to individual fibres which elevate liquids, causing them to bead up and roll off.

The Fabricor: Stain-proof workwear for the hospitality industry Kickstarter campaign has this to say on its homepage (Note: Links have been removed),

Hi Kickstarters,

Thanks for taking the time check out our campaign.

Traditional chef jackets date back to the mid 19th century and since then haven’t changed much.

We’re tired of poor quality hospitality workwear that doesn’t last and hate spending our spare time and money washing or replacing our uniforms.

So we designed a range of stain-resistant Chef Jackets and Aprons using the world’s leading patented hydrophobic nanotechnology that repels water, dirt and oil.

Most stains either run off by themselves or can easily be rinsed off with a little water. This means they don’t need to be washed as often saving you time and money.

We’re really proud of what we’ve created and we hope you you’ll support us.

Adrian Li

Head Chef at Saigon Sally
Mentor on MasterChef Australia – Asian Street Food Challenge
Cofounder at Fabricor Workwear

At this point (Sept. 24, 2014), the campaign has raised approximately $2700US towards a $5000US goal and there are 22 days left to the campaign.

I did find more information at the Fabricor Workwear website in this Sept. 13, 2014 press release,

The fabric’s patented technology can extend the life of the apparel is because the apparel doesn’t have to be washed as often and can be washed in cooler temperatures, the company stated.

Fabricor’s products are not made with spray-application like many on the market which can destroy fabrics and contain carcinogenic chemical. Its hydrophobic properties are embedded into the weave during the production of the fabric.

Li said chefs spend too much money on chef jackets that are poorly designed and don’t last. The long-lasting fabric in Fabricor’s chef’s apparel retains its natural softness and breathability.

It seems to me that the claim about fewer washes can be made for all superhydrophobic textiles. As for carcinogenic chemicals in other superhydrophobic textiles, it’s the first I’ve heard of it, which may or may not be significant. I.e., I look at a lot of material but don’t focus on superhydrophobic textiles here and do not seek out research on risks specific to these textiles.

Teijin Aramid/Rice University

Still talking about textile fibres but on a completely different track, I received a news release this morning (Sept. 25, 2014) from Teijin Aramid about carbon nanotubes and fibres,

Researchers of Teijin Aramid, based in the Netherlands, and Rice University in the USA are awarded with the honorary ‘Paul Schlack Man-Made Fibers Prize’ for corporate-academic partnerships in fiber research. Their new super fibers are now driving innovation in aerospace, healthcare, automotive, and (smart) clothing.

The honorary Paul Schlack prize was granted by the European Man-made Fibers Association to Dr. Marcin Otto, Business Development Manager at Teijin Aramid and Prof. Dr. Matteo Pasquali from Rice University Texas, for the development of a new generation super fibers using carbon nanotubes (CNT). The new super fibers combine high thermal and electrical conductivity, as seen in metals, with the flexibility, robust handling and strength of textile fibers.

“The introduction of carbon nanotube fibers marked the beginning of a series of innovations in various industries”, says Marcin Otto, Business Development Manager at Teijin Aramid. “For example, CNT fibers can be lifesaving for heart patients: one string of CNT fiber in the cardiac muscle suffices to transmit vital electrical pulses to the heart. Or by replacing copper in data cables and light power cables by CNT fibers it’s possible to make satellites, aircraft and high end cars lighter and more robust at the same time.”

Since 1971, the Paul Schlack foundation annually grants one monetary prize to an individual young researcher for outstanding research in the field of fiber research, and an honorary prize to the leader(s) of excellent academic and corporate research partnerships to promote research at universities and research institutes.

For several years, leading researchers at Rice University and Teijin Aramid worked together on the development of CNT production. Teijin Aramid and Rice University published their research findings on carbon nanotubes fibers in the leading scientific journal, Science, beginning of 2013.

Teijin Aramid and some of its carbon nanotube projects have been mentioned here before, notably, in a Jan. 11, 2013 posting and in a Feb. 17, 2014.

Good luck on the Kickstarter campaign and congratulations on the award!

Hummingbirds and ‘nano’ spy cameras

Hummingbird-inspired spy cameras have come a long way since the research featured in this Aug. 12, 2011 posting which includes a video of a robot camera designed to look like a hummingbird and mimic some of its extraordinary flying abilities. These days (2014) the emphasis appears to be on mimicking the abilities to a finer degree if Margaret Munro’s July 29, 2014 article for Canada.com is to be believed,

Tiny, high-end military drones are catching up with one of nature’s great engineering masterpieces.

A side-by-side comparison has found a “remarkably similar” aerodynamic performance between hummingbirds and the Black Hornet, the most sophisticated nano spycam yet.

“(The) Average Joe hummingbird” is about on par with the tiny helicopter that is so small it can fit in a pocket, says engineering professor David Lentink, at Stanford University. He led a team from Canada [University of British Columbia], the U.S. and the Netherlands [Wageningen University and Eindhoven University of Technology] that compared the birds and the machine for a study released Tuesday [July 29, 2014].

For a visual comparison with the latest nano spycam (Black Hornet), here’s the ‘hummingbird’ featured in the 2011 posting,

The  Nano Hummingbird, a drone from AeroVironment designed for the US Pentagon, would fit into any or all of those categories.

And, here’s this 2013 image of a Black Hornet Nano Helicopter inspired by hummingbirds,

Black Hornet Nano Helicopter UAVView licenseview terms Richard Watt - Photo http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/fotoweb/fwbin/download.dll/45153802.jpgCourtesy: Wikipedia

Black Hornet Nano Helicopter UAVView licenseview terms
Richard Watt – Photo http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/fotoweb/fwbin/download.dll/45153802.jpg Courtesy: Wikipedia

A July 30, 2014 Stanford University news release by Bjorn Carey provides more details about this latest research into hummingbirds and their flying ways,

More than 42 million years of natural selection have turned hummingbirds into some of the world’s most energetically efficient flyers, particularly when it comes to hovering in place.

Humans, however, are gaining ground quickly. A new study led by David Lentink, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, reveals that the spinning blades of micro-helicopters are about as efficient at hovering as the average hummingbird.

The experiment involved spinning hummingbird wings – sourced from a pre-existing museum collection – of 12 different species on an apparatus designed to test the aerodynamics of helicopter blades. The researchers used cameras to visualize airflow around the wings, and sensitive load cells to measure the drag and the lift force they exerted, at different speeds and angles.

Lentink and his colleagues then replicated the experiment using the blades from a ProxDynamics Black Hornet autonomous microhelicopter. The Black Hornet is the most sophisticated microcopter available – the United Kingdom’s army uses it in Afghanistan – and is itself about the size of a hummingbird.

Even spinning like a helicopter, rather than flapping, the hummingbird wings excelled: If hummingbirds were able to spin their wings to hover, it would cost them roughly half as much energy as flapping. The microcopter’s wings kept pace with the middle-of-the-pack hummingbird wings, but the topflight wings – those of Anna’s hummingbird, a species common throughout the West Coast – were still about 27 percent more efficient than engineered blades.

Hummingbirds acing the test didn’t particularly surprise Lentink – previous studies had indicated hummingbirds were incredibly efficient – but he was impressed with the helicopter.

“The technology is at the level of an average Joe hummingbird,” Lentink said. “A helicopter is really the most efficient hovering device that we can build. The best hummingbirds are still better, but I think it’s amazing that we’re getting closer. It’s not easy to match their performance, but if we build better wings with better shapes, we might approximate hummingbirds.”

Based on the measurements of Anna’s hummingbirds, Lentink said there is potential to improve microcopter rotor power by up to 27 percent.

The high-fidelity experiment also provided an opportunity to refine previous rough estimates of muscle power. Lentink’s team learned that hummingbirds’ muscles produce a surprising 130 watts of energy per kilogram; the average for other birds, and across most vertebrates, is roughly 100 watts/kg.

Although the current study revealed several details of how a hummingbird hovers in one place, the birds still hold many secrets. For instance, Lentink said, we don’t know how hummingbirds maintain their flight in a strong gust, how they navigate through branches and other clutter, or how they change direction so quickly during aerial “dogfights.”

He also thinks great strides could be made by studying wing aspect ratios, the ratio of wing length to wing width. The aspect ratios of all the hummingbirds’ wings remarkably converged around 3.9. The aspect ratios of most wings used in aviation measure much higher; the Black Hornet’s aspect ratio was 4.7.

“I want to understand if aspect ratio is special, and whether the amount of variation has an effect on performance,” Lentink said. Understanding and replicating these abilities and characteristics could be a boon for robotics and will be the focus of future experiments.

“Those are the things we don’t know right now, and they could be incredibly useful. But I don’t mind it, actually,” Lentink said. “I think it’s nice that there are still a few things about hummingbirds that we don’t know.”

Agreed, it’s nice to know there are still a few mysteries left. You can watch the ‘mysterious’ hummingbird in this video courtesy of the Rivers Ingersoll Lentink Lab at Stanford University,

High speed video of Anna’s hummingbird at Stanford Arizona Cactus Garden.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper, H/T to Nancy Owano’s article on phys.org for alerting me to this story.

Hummingbird wing efficacy depends on aspect ratio and compares with helicopter rotors by Jan W. Kruyt, Elsa M. Quicazán-Rubio, GertJan F. van Heijst, Douglas L. Altshuler, and David Lentink.  J. R. Soc. Interface 6 October 2014 vol. 11 no. 99 20140585 doi: 10.1098/​rsif.2014.0585 Published [online] 30 July 2014

This is an open access paper.

Despite Munro’s reference to the Black Hornet as a ‘nano’ spycam, the ‘microhelicopter’ description in the news release places the device at the microscale (/1,000,000,000). Still, I don’t understand what makes it microscale since it’s visible to the naked eye. In any case, it is small.