Tag Archives: NIST

Announcing the ‘memtransistor’

Yet another advance toward ‘brainlike’ computing (how many times have I written this or a variation thereof in the last 10 years? See: Dexter Johnson’s take on the situation at the end of this post): Northwestern University announced their latest memristor research in a February 21, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Computer algorithms might be performing brain-like functions, such as facial recognition and language translation, but the computers themselves have yet to operate like brains.

“Computers have separate processing and memory storage units, whereas the brain uses neurons to perform both functions,” said Northwestern University’s Mark C. Hersam. “Neural networks can achieve complicated computation with significantly lower energy consumption compared to a digital computer.”

A February 21, 2018 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about the latest work from this team,

In recent years, researchers have searched for ways to make computers more neuromorphic, or brain-like, in order to perform increasingly complicated tasks with high efficiency. Now Hersam, a Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, and his team are bringing the world closer to realizing this goal.

The research team has developed a novel device called a “memtransistor,” which operates much like a neuron by performing both memory and information processing. With combined characteristics of a memristor and transistor, the memtransistor also encompasses multiple terminals that operate more similarly to a neural network.

Supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation, the research was published online today, February 22 [2018], in Nature. Vinod K. Sangwan and Hong-Sub Lee, postdoctoral fellows advised by Hersam, served as the paper’s co-first authors.

The memtransistor builds upon work published in 2015, in which Hersam, Sangwan, and their collaborators used single-layer molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) to create a three-terminal, gate-tunable memristor for fast, reliable digital memory storage. Memristor, which is short for “memory resistors,” are resistors in a current that “remember” the voltage previously applied to them. Typical memristors are two-terminal electronic devices, which can only control one voltage channel. By transforming it into a three-terminal device, Hersam paved the way for memristors to be used in more complex electronic circuits and systems, such as neuromorphic computing.

To develop the memtransistor, Hersam’s team again used atomically thin MoS2 with well-defined grain boundaries, which influence the flow of current. Similar to the way fibers are arranged in wood, atoms are arranged into ordered domains – called “grains” – within a material. When a large voltage is applied, the grain boundaries facilitate atomic motion, causing a change in resistance.

“Because molybdenum disulfide is atomically thin, it is easily influenced by applied electric fields,” Hersam explained. “This property allows us to make a transistor. The memristor characteristics come from the fact that the defects in the material are relatively mobile, especially in the presence of grain boundaries.”

But unlike his previous memristor, which used individual, small flakes of MoS2, Hersam’s memtransistor makes use of a continuous film of polycrystalline MoS2 that comprises a large number of smaller flakes. This enabled the research team to scale up the device from one flake to many devices across an entire wafer.

“When length of the device is larger than the individual grain size, you are guaranteed to have grain boundaries in every device across the wafer,” Hersam said. “Thus, we see reproducible, gate-tunable memristive responses across large arrays of devices.”

After fabricating memtransistors uniformly across an entire wafer, Hersam’s team added additional electrical contacts. Typical transistors and Hersam’s previously developed memristor each have three terminals. In their new paper, however, the team realized a seven-terminal device, in which one terminal controls the current among the other six terminals.

“This is even more similar to neurons in the brain,” Hersam said, “because in the brain, we don’t usually have one neuron connected to only one other neuron. Instead, one neuron is connected to multiple other neurons to form a network. Our device structure allows multiple contacts, which is similar to the multiple synapses in neurons.”

Next, Hersam and his team are working to make the memtransistor faster and smaller. Hersam also plans to continue scaling up the device for manufacturing purposes.

“We believe that the memtransistor can be a foundational circuit element for new forms of neuromorphic computing,” he said. “However, making dozens of devices, as we have done in our paper, is different than making a billion, which is done with conventional transistor technology today. Thus far, we do not see any fundamental barriers that will prevent further scale up of our approach.”

The researchers have made this illustration available,

Caption: This is the memtransistor symbol overlaid on an artistic rendering of a hypothetical circuit layout in the shape of a brain. Credit; Hersam Research Group

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

Multi-terminal memtransistors from polycrystalline monolayer molybdenum disulfide by Vinod K. Sangwan, Hong-Sub Lee, Hadallia Bergeron, Itamar Balla, Megan E. Beck, Kan-Sheng Chen, & Mark C. Hersam. Nature volume 554, pages 500–504 (22 February 2018 doi:10.1038/nature25747 Published online: 21 February 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

The team’s earlier work referenced in the news release was featured here in an April 10, 2015 posting.

Dexter Johnson

From a Feb. 23, 2018 posting by Dexter Johnson on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

While this all seems promising, one of the big shortcomings in neuromorphic computing has been that it doesn’t mimic the brain in a very important way. In the brain, for every neuron there are a thousand synapses—the electrical signal sent between the neurons of the brain. This poses a problem because a transistor only has a single terminal, hardly an accommodating architecture for multiplying signals.

Now researchers at Northwestern University, led by Mark Hersam, have developed a new device that combines memristors—two-terminal non-volatile memory devices based on resistance switching—with transistors to create what Hersam and his colleagues have dubbed a “memtransistor” that performs both memory storage and information processing.

This most recent research builds on work that Hersam and his team conducted back in 2015 in which the researchers developed a three-terminal, gate-tunable memristor that operated like a kind of synapse.

While this work was recognized as mimicking the low-power computing of the human brain, critics didn’t really believe that it was acting like a neuron since it could only transmit a signal from one artificial neuron to another. This was far short of a human brain that is capable of making tens of thousands of such connections.

“Traditional memristors are two-terminal devices, whereas our memtransistors combine the non-volatility of a two-terminal memristor with the gate-tunability of a three-terminal transistor,” said Hersam to IEEE Spectrum. “Our device design accommodates additional terminals, which mimic the multiple synapses in neurons.”

Hersam believes that these unique attributes of these multi-terminal memtransistors are likely to present a range of new opportunities for non-volatile memory and neuromorphic computing.

If you have the time and the interest, Dexter’s post provides more context,

Less is more—a superconducting synapse

It seems the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is more deeply invested into developing artificial brains than I had realized (See: April 17, 2018 posting). A January 26, 2018 NIST news release on EurekAlert describes the organization’s latest foray into the field,

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have built a superconducting switch that “learns” like a biological system and could connect processors and store memories in future computers operating like the human brain.

The NIST switch, described in Science Advances, is called a synapse, like its biological counterpart, and it supplies a missing piece for so-called neuromorphic computers. Envisioned as a new type of artificial intelligence, such computers could boost perception and decision-making for applications such as self-driving cars and cancer diagnosis.

A synapse is a connection or switch between two brain cells. NIST’s artificial synapse–a squat metallic cylinder 10 micrometers in diameter–is like the real thing because it can process incoming electrical spikes to customize spiking output signals. This processing is based on a flexible internal design that can be tuned by experience or its environment. The more firing between cells or processors, the stronger the connection. Both the real and artificial synapses can thus maintain old circuits and create new ones. Even better than the real thing, the NIST synapse can fire much faster than the human brain–1 billion times per second, compared to a brain cell’s 50 times per second–using just a whiff of energy, about one ten-thousandth as much as a human synapse. In technical terms, the spiking energy is less than 1 attojoule, lower than the background energy at room temperature and on a par with the chemical energy bonding two atoms in a molecule.

“The NIST synapse has lower energy needs than the human synapse, and we don’t know of any other artificial synapse that uses less energy,” NIST physicist Mike Schneider said.

The new synapse would be used in neuromorphic computers made of superconducting components, which can transmit electricity without resistance, and therefore, would be more efficient than other designs based on semiconductors or software. Data would be transmitted, processed and stored in units of magnetic flux. Superconducting devices mimicking brain cells and transmission lines have been developed, but until now, efficient synapses–a crucial piece–have been missing.

The brain is especially powerful for tasks like context recognition because it processes data both in sequence and simultaneously and stores memories in synapses all over the system. A conventional computer processes data only in sequence and stores memory in a separate unit.

The NIST synapse is a Josephson junction, long used in NIST voltage standards. These junctions are a sandwich of superconducting materials with an insulator as a filling. When an electrical current through the junction exceeds a level called the critical current, voltage spikes are produced. The synapse uses standard niobium electrodes but has a unique filling made of nanoscale clusters of manganese in a silicon matrix.

The nanoclusters–about 20,000 per square micrometer–act like tiny bar magnets with “spins” that can be oriented either randomly or in a coordinated manner.

“These are customized Josephson junctions,” Schneider said. “We can control the number of nanoclusters pointing in the same direction, which affects the superconducting properties of the junction.”

The synapse rests in a superconducting state, except when it’s activated by incoming current and starts producing voltage spikes. Researchers apply current pulses in a magnetic field to boost the magnetic ordering, that is, the number of nanoclusters pointing in the same direction. This magnetic effect progressively reduces the critical current level, making it easier to create a normal conductor and produce voltage spikes.

The critical current is the lowest when all the nanoclusters are aligned. The process is also reversible: Pulses are applied without a magnetic field to reduce the magnetic ordering and raise the critical current. This design, in which different inputs alter the spin alignment and resulting output signals, is similar to how the brain operates.

Synapse behavior can also be tuned by changing how the device is made and its operating temperature. By making the nanoclusters smaller, researchers can reduce the pulse energy needed to raise or lower the magnetic order of the device. Raising the operating temperature slightly from minus 271.15 degrees C (minus 456.07 degrees F) to minus 269.15 degrees C (minus 452.47 degrees F), for example, results in more and higher voltage spikes.

Crucially, the synapses can be stacked in three dimensions (3-D) to make large systems that could be used for computing. NIST researchers created a circuit model to simulate how such a system would operate.

The NIST synapse’s combination of small size, superfast spiking signals, low energy needs and 3-D stacking capability could provide the means for a far more complex neuromorphic system than has been demonstrated with other technologies, according to the paper.

NIST has prepared an animation illustrating the research,

Caption: This is an animation of how NIST’s artificial synapse works. Credit: Sean Kelley/NIST

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

Ultralow power artificial synapses using nanotextured magnetic Josephson junctions by Michael L. Schneider, Christine A. Donnelly, Stephen E. Russek, Burm Baek, Matthew R. Pufall, Peter F. Hopkins, Paul D. Dresselhaus, Samuel P. Benz, and William H. Rippard. Science Advances 26 Jan 2018: Vol. 4, no. 1, e1701329 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701329

This paper is open access.

Samuel K. Moore in a January 26, 2018 posting on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) describes the research and adds a few technical explanations such as this about the Josephson junction,

In a magnetic Josephson junction, that “weak link” is magnetic. The higher the magnetic field, the lower the critical current needed to produce voltage spikes. In the device Schneider and his colleagues designed, the magnetic field is caused by 20,000 or so nanometer-scale clusters of manganese embedded in silicon. …

Moore also provides some additional links including this one to his November 29, 2017 posting where he describes four new approaches to computing including quantum computing and neuromorphic (brain-like) computing.

Thanks for the memory: the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and memristors

In January 2018 it seemed like I was tripping across a lot of memristor stories . This came from a January 19, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

In the race to build a computer that mimics the massive computational power of the human brain, researchers are increasingly turning to memristors, which can vary their electrical resistance based on the memory of past activity. Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have now unveiled the long-mysterious inner workings of these semiconductor elements, which can act like the short-term memory of nerve cells.

A January 18, 2018 NIST news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, fills in the details,

Just as the ability of one nerve cell to signal another depends on how often the cells have communicated in the recent past, the resistance of a memristor depends on the amount of current that recently flowed through it. Moreover, a memristor retains that memory even when electrical power is switched off.

But despite the keen interest in memristors, scientists have lacked a detailed understanding of how these devices work and have yet to develop a standard toolset to study them.

Now, NIST scientists have identified such a toolset and used it to more deeply probe how memristors operate. Their findings could lead to more efficient operation of the devices and suggest ways to minimize the leakage of current.

Brian Hoskins of NIST and the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with NIST scientists Nikolai Zhitenev, Andrei Kolmakov, Jabez McClelland and their colleagues from the University of Maryland’s NanoCenter (link is external) in College Park and the Institute for Research and Development in Microtechnologies in Bucharest, reported the findings (link is external) in a recent Nature Communications.

To explore the electrical function of memristors, the team aimed a tightly focused beam of electrons at different locations on a titanium dioxide memristor. The beam knocked free some of the device’s electrons, which formed ultrasharp images of those locations. The beam also induced four distinct currents to flow within the device. The team determined that the currents are associated with the multiple interfaces between materials in the memristor, which consists of two metal (conducting) layers separated by an insulator.

“We know exactly where each of the currents are coming from because we are controlling the location of the beam that is inducing those currents,” said Hoskins.

In imaging the device, the team found several dark spots—regions of enhanced conductivity—which indicated places where current might leak out of the memristor during its normal operation. These leakage pathways resided outside the memristor’s core—where it switches between the low and high resistance levels that are useful in an electronic device. The finding suggests that reducing the size of a memristor could minimize or even eliminate some of the unwanted current pathways. Although researchers had suspected that might be the case, they had lacked experimental guidance about just how much to reduce the size of the device.

Because the leakage pathways are tiny, involving distances of only 100 to 300 nanometers, “you’re probably not going to start seeing some really big improvements until you reduce dimensions of the memristor on that scale,” Hoskins said.

To their surprise, the team also found that the current that correlated with the memristor’s switch in resistance didn’t come from the active switching material at all, but the metal layer above it. The most important lesson of the memristor study, Hoskins noted, “is that you can’t just worry about the resistive switch, the switching spot itself, you have to worry about everything around it.” The team’s study, he added, “is a way of generating much stronger intuition about what might be a good way to engineer memristors.”

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

Stateful characterization of resistive switching TiO2 with electron beam induced currents by Brian D. Hoskins, Gina C. Adam, Evgheni Strelcov, Nikolai Zhitenev, Andrei Kolmakov, Dmitri B. Strukov, & Jabez J. McClelland. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1972 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02116-9 Published online: 07 December 2017

This is an open access paper.

It might be my imagination but it seemed like a lot of papers from 2017 were being publicized in early 2018.

Finally, I borrowed much of my headline from the NIST’s headline for its news release, specifically, “Thanks for the memory,” which is a rather old song,

Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in “The Big Broadcast of 1938.”

Watching rust turn into iron

a) Colorized SEM images of iron oxide nanoblades used in the experiment. b) Colorized cross-section of SEM image of the nanoblades. c) Colorized SEM image of nanoblades after 1 hour of reduction reaction at 500 °C in molecular hydrogen, showing the sawtooth shape along the edges (square). d) Colorized SEM image showing the formation of holes after 2 hours of reduction. The scale bar is 1 micrometer. Credit: W. Zhu et al./ACS Nano and K. Irvine/NIST

Here’s more about being able to watch iron transition from one state to the next according to an April 5, 2017 news item on phys.org

Using a state-of-the-art microscopy technique, experimenters at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and their colleagues have witnessed a slow-motion, atomic-scale transformation of rust—iron oxide—back to pure iron metal, in all of its chemical steps.

An April 4, 2017 NIST news release describes the role iron plays in modern lifestyles and the purpose of this research,

Among the most abundant minerals on Earth, iron oxides play a leading role in magnetic data storage, cosmetics, the pigmentation of paints and drug delivery. These materials also serve as catalysts for several types of chemical reactions, including the production of ammonia for fertilizer.

To fine-tune the properties of these minerals for each application, scientists work with nanometer-scale particles of the oxides. But to do so, researchers need a detailed, atomic-level understanding of reduction, a key chemical reaction that iron oxides undergo. That knowledge, however, is often lacking because reduction—a process that is effectively the opposite of rusting—proceeds too rapidly for many types of probes to explore at such a fine level.

In a new effort to study the microscopic details of metal oxide reduction, researchers used a specially adapted transmission electron microscope (TEM) at NIST’s NanoLab facility to document the step-by-step transformation of nanocrystals of the iron oxide hematite (Fe2O3) to the iron oxide magnetite (Fe3O4), and finally to iron metal.

“Even though people have studied iron oxide for many years, there have been no dynamic studies at the atomic scale,” said Wenhui Zhu of the State University of New York at Binghamton, who worked on her doctorate in the NanoLab in 2015 and 2016. “We are seeing what’s actually happening during the entire reduction process instead of studying just the initial steps.”

That’s critical, added NIST’s Renu Sharma, “if you want to control the composition or properties of iron oxides and understand the relationships between them.”

By lowering the temperature of the reaction and decreasing the pressure of the hydrogen gas that acted as the reducing agent, the scientists slowed down the reduction process so that it could be captured with an environmental TEM—a specially configured TEM that can study both solids and gas. The instrument enables researchers to perform atomic-resolution imaging of a sample under real-life conditions—in this case the gaseous environment necessary for iron oxides to undergo reduction–rather than under the vacuum needed in ordinary TEMs.

“This is the most powerful tool I’ve used in my research and one of the very few in the United States,” said Zhu. She, Sharma and their colleagues describe their findings in a recent issue of ACS Nano.

The team examined the reduction process in a bicrystal of iron oxide, consisting of two identical iron oxide crystals rotated at 21.8 degrees with respect to each other. The bicrystal structure also served to slow down the reduction process, making it easier to follow with the environmental TEM.

In studying the reduction reaction, the researchers identified a previously unknown intermediate state in the transformation from magnetite to hematite. In the middle stage, the iron oxide retained its original chemical structure, Fe2O3, but changed the crystallographic arrangement of its atoms from rhombohedral (a diagonally stretched cube) to cubic.

This intermediate state featured a defect in which oxygen atoms fail to populate some of the sites in the crystal that they normally would. This so-called oxygen vacancy defect is not uncommon and is known to strongly influence the electrical and catalytic properties of oxides. But the researchers were surprised to find that the defects occurred in an ordered pattern, which had never been found before in the reduction of Fe2O3 to Fe3O4, Sharma said.

The significance of the intermediate state remains under study, but it may be important for controlling the reduction rate and other properties of the reduction process, she adds. “The more we understand, the better we can manipulate the microstructure of these oxides,” said Zhu. By manipulating the microstructure, researchers may be able to enhance the catalytic activity of iron oxides.

Even though a link has already been provided for the paper, I will give it again along with a citation,

In Situ Atomic-Scale Probing of the Reduction Dynamics of Two-Dimensional Fe2O3 Nanostructures by Wenhui Zhu, Jonathan P. Winterstein, Wei-Chang David Yang, Lu Yuan, Renu Sharma, and Guangwen Zhou. ACS Nano, 2017, 11 (1), pp 656–664 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b06950 Publication Date (Web): December 13, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Transparent silver

This March 21, 2017 news item on Nanowerk is the first I’ve heard of transparent silver; it’s usually transparent aluminum (Note: A link has been removed),

The thinnest, smoothest layer of silver that can survive air exposure has been laid down at the University of Michigan, and it could change the way touchscreens and flat or flexible displays are made (Advanced Materials, “High-performance Doped Silver Films: Overcoming Fundamental Material Limits for Nanophotonic Applications”).

It could also help improve computing power, affecting both the transfer of information within a silicon chip and the patterning of the chip itself through metamaterial superlenses.

A March 21, 2017 University of Michigan  news release, which originated the news item, provides details about the research and features a mention about aluminum,

By combining the silver with a little bit of aluminum, the U-M researchers found that it was possible to produce exceptionally thin, smooth layers of silver that are resistant to tarnishing. They applied an anti-reflective coating to make one thin metal layer up to 92.4 percent transparent.

The team showed that the silver coating could guide light about 10 times as far as other metal waveguides—a property that could make it useful for faster computing. And they layered the silver films into a metamaterial hyperlens that could be used to create dense patterns with feature sizes a fraction of what is possible with ordinary ultraviolet methods, on silicon chips, for instance.

Screens of all stripes need transparent electrodes to control which pixels are lit up, but touchscreens are particularly dependent on them. A modern touch screen is made of a transparent conductive layer covered with a nonconductive layer. It senses electrical changes where a conductive object—such as a finger—is pressed against the screen.

“The transparent conductor market has been dominated to this day by one single material,” said L. Jay Guo, professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

This material, indium tin oxide, is projected to become expensive as demand for touch screens continues to grow; there are relatively few known sources of indium, Guo said.

“Before, it was very cheap. Now, the price is rising sharply,” he said.

The ultrathin film could make silver a worthy successor.

Usually, it’s impossible to make a continuous layer of silver less than 15 nanometers thick, or roughly 100 silver atoms. Silver has a tendency to cluster together in small islands rather than extend into an even coating, Guo said.

By adding about 6 percent aluminum, the researchers coaxed the metal into a film of less than half that thickness—seven nanometers. What’s more, when they exposed it to air, it didn’t immediately tarnish as pure silver films do. After several months, the film maintained its conductive properties and transparency. And it was firmly stuck on, whereas pure silver comes off glass with Scotch tape.

In addition to their potential to serve as transparent conductors for touch screens, the thin silver films offer two more tricks, both having to do with silver’s unparalleled ability to transport visible and infrared light waves along its surface. The light waves shrink and travel as so-called surface plasmon polaritons, showing up as oscillations in the concentration of electrons on the silver’s surface.

Those oscillations encode the frequency of the light, preserving it so that it can emerge on the other side. While optical fibers can’t scale down to the size of copper wires on today’s computer chips, plasmonic waveguides could allow information to travel in optical rather than electronic form for faster data transfer. As a waveguide, the smooth silver film could transport the surface plasmons over a centimeter—enough to get by inside a computer chip.

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

High-Performance Doped Silver Films: Overcoming Fundamental Material Limits for Nanophotonic Applications by Cheng Zhang, Nathaniel Kinsey, Long Chen, Chengang Ji, Mingjie Xu, Marcello Ferrera, Xiaoqing Pan, Vladimir M. Shalaev, Alexandra Boltasseva, and Jay Guo. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201605177 Version of Record online: 20 MAR 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Formation of a time (temporal) crystal

It’s a crystal arranged in time according to a March 8, 2017 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

Salt, snowflakes and diamonds are all crystals, meaning their atoms are arranged in 3-D patterns that repeat. Today scientists are reporting in the journal Nature on the creation of a phase of matter, dubbed a time crystal, in which atoms move in a pattern that repeats in time rather than in space.

The atoms in a time crystal never settle down into what’s known as thermal equilibrium, a state in which they all have the same amount of heat. It’s one of the first examples of a broad new class of matter, called nonequilibrium phases, that have been predicted but until now have remained out of reach. Like explorers stepping onto an uncharted continent, physicists are eager to explore this exotic new realm.

“This opens the door to a whole new world of nonequilibrium phases,” says Andrew Potter, an assistant professor of physics at The University of Texas at Austin. “We’ve taken these theoretical ideas that we’ve been poking around for the last couple of years and actually built it in the laboratory. Hopefully, this is just the first example of these, with many more to come.”

Some of these nonequilibrium phases of matter may prove useful for storing or transferring information in quantum computers.

Potter is part of the team led by researchers at the University of Maryland who successfully created the first time crystal from ions, or electrically charged atoms, of the element ytterbium. By applying just the right electrical field, the researchers levitated 10 of these ions above a surface like a magician’s assistant. Next, they whacked the atoms with a laser pulse, causing them to flip head over heels. Then they hit them again and again in a regular rhythm. That set up a pattern of flips that repeated in time.

Crucially, Potter noted, the pattern of atom flips repeated only half as fast as the laser pulses. This would be like pounding on a bunch of piano keys twice a second and notes coming out only once a second. This weird quantum behavior was a signature that he and his colleagues predicted, and helped confirm that the result was indeed a time crystal.

The team also consists of researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University, in addition to the University of Maryland and UT Austin.

Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was teaching a class about crystals in 2012 when he wondered whether a phase of matter could be created such that its atoms move in a pattern that repeats in time, rather than just in space.

Potter and his colleague Norman Yao at UC Berkeley created a recipe for building such a time crystal and developed ways to confirm that, once you had built such a crystal, it was in fact the real deal. That theoretical work was announced publically last August and then published in January in the journal Physical Review Letters.

A team led by Chris Monroe of the University of Maryland in College Park built a time crystal, and Potter and Yao helped confirm that it indeed had the properties they predicted. The team announced that breakthrough—constructing a working time crystal—last September and is publishing the full, peer-reviewed description today in Nature.

A team led by Mikhail Lukin at Harvard University created a second time crystal a month after the first team, in that case, from a diamond.

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

Observation of a discrete time crystal by J. Zhang, P. W. Hess, A. Kyprianidis, P. Becker, A. Lee, J. Smith, G. Pagano, I.-D. Potirniche, A. C. Potter, A. Vishwanath, N. Y. Yao, & C. Monroe. Nature 543, 217–220 (09 March 2017) doi:10.1038/nature21413 Published online 08 March 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Using sugar for a better way to clean nanoparticles from organisms

Researchers at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have found that a laboratory technique used for over 60 years is the best way to date to clean nanoparticles from organisms. From a Jan. 26, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Sometimes old-school methods provide the best ways of studying cutting-edge tech and its effects on the modern world.

Giving a 65-year-old laboratory technique a new role, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have performed the cleanest separation to date of synthetic nanoparticles from a living organism. The new NIST method is expected to significantly improve experiments looking at the potential environmental and health impacts of these manufactured entities. It will allow scientists to more accurately count how many nanoparticles have actually been ingested by organisms exposed to them.

A Jan. 26, 2017 NIST news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more detail,

The common roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans has been used in recent years as a living model for laboratory studies of how biological and chemical compounds may affect multicellular organisms. These compounds include engineered nanoparticles (ENPs), bits of material between 1 and 100 nanometers (billionths of a meter, or about 1/10,000 the diameter of a red blood cell). Previous research has often focused on quantifying the amount and size of engineered nanoparticles ingested by C. elegans. Measuring the nanoparticles that actually make it into an organism is considered a more relevant indicator of potential toxicity than just the amount of ENPs to which the worms are exposed.

Traditional methods for counting ingested ENPs have produced questionable results. Currently, researchers expose C. elegans to metal ENPs such as silver or gold in solution, then rinse the excess particles away with water followed by centrifugation and freeze-drying. A portion of the “cleaned” sample produced is then typically examined by a technique that determines the amount of metal present, known as inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). It often yields ENP counts in the tens of thousands per worm; however, those numbers always seem too high to NIST researchers working with C. elegans.

“Since ICP-MS will detect all of the nanoparticles associated with the worms, both those ingested and those that remain attached externally, we suspect that the latter is what makes the ‘ENPs’ per-worm counts so high,” said NIST analytical chemist Monique Johnson (link sends e-mail), the lead author on the ACS Nano paper. “Since we only wanted to quantify the ingested ENPs, a more robust and reliable separation method was needed.”

Luckily, the solution to the problem was already in the lab.

Cross section of the roundworm C. elegans

Scanning electron micrograph showing a cross section of the roundworm C. elegans with two ingested engineered nanoparticles (red dots just right of center). Images such as this provided NIST researchers with visual confirmation that nanoparticle consumption actually occurred. Credit: K. Scott/NIST

In the course of culturing C. elegans for ENP-exposure experiments, Johnson and her colleagues had used sucrose density gradient centrifugation, a decades-old and established system for cleanly separating cellular components, to isolate the worms from debris and bacteria. “We wondered if the same process would allow us to perform an organism-from-ENP separation as well, so I designed a study to find out,” Johnson said.

In their experiment, the NIST researchers first exposed separate samples of C. elegans to low and high concentrations of two sizes of gold nanospheres, 30 and 60 nanometers in diameter. The researchers put each of the samples into a centrifuge and removed the supernatant (liquid portion), leaving the worms and ENPs in the remaining pellets. These were centrifuged twice in a salt solution (rather than just water as in previous separation methods), and then centrifuged again, but this time, through a uniquely designed sucrose density gradient.

“From top to bottom, our gradient consisted of a salt solution layer to trap excess ENPs and three increasingly dense layers of sucrose [20, 40 and 50 percent] to isolate the C. elegans,” Johnson explained. “We followed up the gradient with three water rinses and with centrifugations to ensure that only worms with ingested ENPs, and not the sucrose separation medium with any excess ENPs, would make it into the final pellet.”

Analyzing the range of masses in the ultrapurified samples indicated gold levels more in line with what the researchers expected would be found as ingested ENPs. Experimental validation of the NIST separation method’s success came when the worms were examined in detail under a scanning electron microscope (SEM).

“For me, the eureka moment was when I first saw gold ENPs in the cross section images taken from the C. elegans samples that had been processed through the sucrose density gradient,” Johnson said. “I had been dreaming about finding ENPs in the worm’s digestive tract and now they were really there!”

The high-resolution SEM images also provided visual evidence that only ingested ENPs were counted. “No ENPs were attached to the cuticle, the exoskeleton of C. elegans, in any of the sucrose density gradient samples,” Johnson said. “When we examined worms from our control experiments [processed using the traditional no-gradient, water-rinse-only separation method], there were a number of nanospheres found attached to the cuticle.

Now that it has been successfully demonstrated, the NIST researchers plan to refine and further validate their system for evaluating the uptake of ENPs by C. elegans. “Hopefully, our method will become a useful and valuable tool for reducing the measurement variability and sampling bias that can plague environmental nanotoxicology studies,” Johnson said.

They’ve tested this technique on gold nanoparticles, which begs the question, What kinds of nanoparticles can this technique be used for? Metal nanoparticles only or all nanoparticles?

I’m sure the researchers have already asked these questions and started researching the answers. While the rest of us wait, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper about this promising new technique,

Separation, Sizing, and Quantitation of Engineered Nanoparticles in an Organism Model Using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry and Image Analysis by Monique E. Johnson, Shannon K. Hanna, Antonio R. Montoro Bustos, Christopher M. Sims, Lindsay C. C. Elliott, Akshay Lingayat, Adrian C. Johnston, Babak Nikoobakht, John T. Elliott, R. David Holbrook, Keana C. K. Scott, Karen E. Murphy, Elijah J. Petersen, Lee L. Yu, and Bryant C. Nelson. ACS Nano, 2017, 11 (1), pp 526–540 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b06582 Publication Date (Web): December 16, 2016

Copyright This article not subject to U.S. Copyright. Published 2016 by the American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Hopes for nanocellulose in the fields of medicine and green manufacturing

Initially this seemed like an essay extolling the possibilities for nanocellulose but it is also a research announcement. From a Nov. 7, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

What if you could take one of the most abundant natural materials on earth and harness its strength to lighten the heaviest of objects, to replace synthetic materials, or use it in scaffolding to grow bone, in a fast-growing area of science in oral health care?

This all might be possible with cellulose nanocrystals, the molecular matter of all plant life. As industrial filler material, they can be blended with plastics and other synthetics. They are as strong as steel, tough as glass, lightweight, and green.

“Plastics are currently reinforced with fillers made of steel, carbon, Kevlar, or glass. There is an increasing demand in manufacturing for sustainable materials that are lightweight and strong to replace these fillers,” said Douglas M. Fox, associate professor of chemistry at American University.
“Cellulose nanocrystals are an environmentally friendly filler. If there comes a time that they’re used widely in manufacturing, cellulose nanocrystals will lessen the weight of materials, which will reduce energy.”

A Nov. 7, 2016 American University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, continues into the research,

Fox has submitted a patent for his work with cellulose nanocrystals, which involves a simple, scalable method to improve their performance. Published results of his method can be found in the chemistry journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces. Fox’s method could be used as a biomaterial and for applications in transportation, infrastructure and wind turbines.

The power of cellulose

Cellulose gives stems, leaves and other organic material in the natural world their strength. That strength already has been harnessed for use in many commercial materials. At the nano-level, cellulose fibers can be broken down into tiny crystals, particles smaller than ten millionths of a meter. Deriving cellulose from natural sources such as wood, tunicate (ocean-dwelling sea cucumbers) and certain kinds of bacteria, researchers prepare crystals of different sizes and strengths.

For all of the industry potential, hurdles abound. As nanocellulose disperses within plastic, scientists must find the sweet spot: the right amount of nanoparticle-matrix interaction that yields the strongest, lightest property. Fox overcame four main barriers by altering the surface chemistry of nanocrystals with a simple process of ion exchange. Ion exchange reduces water absorption (cellulose composites lose their strength if they absorb water); increases the temperature at which the nanocrystals decompose (needed to blend with plastics); reduces clumping; and improves re-dispersal after the crystals dry.

Cell growth

Cellulose nanocrystals as a biomaterial is yet another commercial prospect. In dental regenerative medicine, restoring sufficient bone volume is needed to support a patient’s teeth or dental implants. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST], through an agreement with the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health, are looking for an improved clinical approach that would regrow a patient’s bone. When researchers experimented with Fox’s modified nanocrystals, they were able to disperse the nanocrystals in scaffolds for dental regenerative medicine purposes.

“When we cultivated cells on the cellulose nanocrystal-based scaffolds, preliminary results showed remarkable potential of the scaffolds for both their mechanical properties and the biological response. This suggests that scaffolds with appropriate cellulose nanocrystal concentrations are a promising approach for bone regeneration,” said Martin Chiang, team leader for NIST’s Biomaterials for Oral Health Project.

Another collaboration Fox has is with Georgia Institute of Technology and Owens Corning, a company specializing in fiberglass insulation and composites, to research the benefits to replace glass-reinforced plastic used in airplanes, cars and wind turbines. He also is working with Vireo Advisors and NIST to characterize the health and safety of cellulose nanocrystals and nanofibers.

“As we continue to show these nanomaterials are safe, and make it easier to disperse them into a variety of materials, we get closer to utilizing nature’s chemically resistant, strong, and most abundant polymer in everyday products,” Fox said.

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

Simultaneously Tailoring Surface Energies and Thermal Stabilities of Cellulose Nanocrystals Using Ion Exchange: Effects on Polymer Composite Properties for Transportation, Infrastructure, and Renewable Energy Applications by Douglas M. Fox, Rebeca S. Rodriguez, Mackenzie N. Devilbiss, Jeremiah Woodcock, Chelsea S. Davis, Robert Sinko, Sinan Keten, and Jeffrey W. Gilman. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (40), pp 27270–27281 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b06083 Publication Date (Web): September 14, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Mimicking rain and sun to test plastic for nanoparticle release

One of Canada’s nanotechnology experts once informed a House of Commons Committee on Health that nanoparticles encased in plastic (he was talking about cell phones) weren’t likely to harm you except in two circumstances (when workers were using them in the manufacturing process and when the product was being disposed of). Apparently, under some circumstances, that isn’t true any more. From a Sept. 30, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

If the 1967 film “The Graduate” were remade today, Mr. McGuire’s famous advice to young Benjamin Braddock would probably be updated to “Plastics … with nanoparticles.” These days, the mechanical, electrical and durability properties of polymers—the class of materials that includes plastics—are often enhanced by adding miniature particles (smaller than 100 nanometers or billionths of a meter) made of elements such as silicon or silver. But could those nanoparticles be released into the environment after the polymers are exposed to years of sun and water—and if so, what might be the health and ecological consequences?

A Sept. 30, 2016 US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) news release, which originated the news item, describes how the research was conducted and its results (Note: Links have been removed),

In a recently published paper (link is external), researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) describe how they subjected a commercial nanoparticle-infused coating to NIST-developed methods for accelerating the effects of weathering from ultraviolet (UV) radiation and simulated washings of rainwater. Their results indicate that humidity and exposure time are contributing factors for nanoparticle release, findings that may be useful in designing future studies to determine potential impacts.

In their recent experiment, the researchers exposed multiple samples of a commercially available polyurethane coating containing silicon dioxide nanoparticles to intense UV radiation for 100 days inside the NIST SPHERE (Simulated Photodegradation via High-Energy Radiant Exposure), a hollow, 2-meter (7-foot) diameter black aluminum chamber lined with highly UV reflective material that bears a casual resemblance to the Death Star in the film “Star Wars.” For this study, one day in the SPHERE was equivalent to 10 to 15 days outdoors. All samples were weathered at a constant temperature of 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) with one group done in extremely dry conditions (approximately 0 percent humidity) and the other in humid conditions (75 percent humidity).

To determine if any nanoparticles were released from the polymer coating during UV exposure, the researchers used a technique they created and dubbed “NIST simulated rain.” Filtered water was converted into tiny droplets, sprayed under pressure onto the individual samples, and then the runoff—with any loose nanoparticles—was collected in a bottle. This procedure was conducted at the beginning of the UV exposure, at every two weeks during the weathering run and at the end. All of the runoff fluids were then analyzed by NIST chemists for the presence of silicon and in what amounts. Additionally, the weathered coatings were examined with atomic force microscopy (AFM) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to reveal surface changes resulting from UV exposure.

Both sets of coating samples—those weathered in very low humidity and the others in very humid conditions—degraded but released only small amounts of nanoparticles. The researchers found that more silicon was recovered from the samples weathered in humid conditions and that nanoparticle release increased as the UV exposure time increased. Microscopic examination showed that deformations in the coating surface became more numerous with longer exposure time, and that nanoparticles left behind after the coating degraded often bound together in clusters.

“These data, and the data from future experiments of this type, are valuable for developing computer models to predict the long-term release of nanoparticles from commercial coatings used outdoors, and in turn, help manufacturers, regulatory officials and others assess any health and environmental impacts from them,” said NIST research chemist Deborah Jacobs, lead author on the study published in the Journal of Coatings Technology and Research (link is external).

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

Surface degradation and nanoparticle release of a commercial nanosilica/polyurethane coating under UV exposure by Deborah S. Jacobs, Sin-Ru Huang, Yu-Lun Cheng, Savelas A. Rabb, Justin M. Gorham, Peter J. Krommenhoek, Lee L. Yu, Tinh Nguyen, Lipiin Sung. J Coat Technol Res (2016) 13: 735. doi:10.1007/s11998-016-9796-2 First published online 13 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone interested in the details about the House of Commons nano story I told at the start of this post, here’s the June 23, 2010 posting where I summarized the hearing on nanotechnology. If you scroll down about 50% of the way, you’ll find Dr. Nils Petersen’s (then director of Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology) comments about nanoparticles being encased. The topic had been nanosunscreens and he was describing the conditions under which he believed nanoparticles could be dangerous.

Creating multiferroic material at room temperature

A Sept. 23, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes some research from Cornell University (US),

Multiferroics — materials that exhibit both magnetic and electric order — are of interest for next-generation computing but difficult to create because the conditions conducive to each of those states are usually mutually exclusive. And in most multiferroics found to date, their respective properties emerge only at extremely low temperatures.

Two years ago, researchers in the labs of Darrell Schlom, the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Industrial Chemistry in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Dan Ralph, the F.R. Newman Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, in collaboration with professor Ramamoorthy Ramesh at UC Berkeley, published a paper announcing a breakthrough in multiferroics involving the only known material in which magnetism can be controlled by applying an electric field at room temperature: the multiferroic bismuth ferrite.

Schlom’s group has partnered with David Muller and Craig Fennie, professors of applied and engineering physics, to take that research a step further: The researchers have combined two non-multiferroic materials, using the best attributes of both to create a new room-temperature multiferroic.

Their paper, “Atomically engineered ferroic layers yield a room-temperature magnetoelectric multiferroic,” was published — along with a companion News & Views piece — Sept. 22 [2016] in Nature. …

A Sept. 22, 2016 Cornell University news release by Tom Fleischman, which originated the news item, details more about the work (Note: A link has been removed),

The group engineered thin films of hexagonal lutetium iron oxide (LuFeO3), a material known to be a robust ferroelectric but not strongly magnetic. The LuFeO3 consists of alternating single monolayers of lutetium oxide and iron oxide, and differs from a strong ferrimagnetic oxide (LuFe2O4), which consists of alternating monolayers of lutetium oxide with double monolayers of iron oxide.

The researchers found, however, that they could combine these two materials at the atomic-scale to create a new compound that was not only multiferroic but had better properties that either of the individual constituents. In particular, they found they need to add just one extra monolayer of iron oxide to every 10 atomic repeats of the LuFeO3 to dramatically change the properties of the system.

That precision engineering was done via molecular-beam epitaxy (MBE), a specialty of the Schlom lab. A technique Schlom likens to “atomic spray painting,” MBE let the researchers design and assemble the two different materials in layers, a single atom at a time.

The combination of the two materials produced a strongly ferrimagnetic layer near room temperature. They then tested the new material at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) Advanced Light Source in collaboration with co-author Ramesh to show that the ferrimagnetic atoms followed the alignment of their ferroelectric neighbors when switched by an electric field.

“It was when our collaborators at LBNL demonstrated electrical control of magnetism in the material that we made that things got super exciting,” Schlom said. “Room-temperature multiferroics are exceedingly rare and only multiferroics that enable electrical control of magnetism are relevant to applications.”

In electronics devices, the advantages of multiferroics include their reversible polarization in response to low-power electric fields – as opposed to heat-generating and power-sapping electrical currents – and their ability to hold their polarized state without the need for continuous power. High-performance memory chips make use of ferroelectric or ferromagnetic materials.

“Our work shows that an entirely different mechanism is active in this new material,” Schlom said, “giving us hope for even better – higher-temperature and stronger – multiferroics for the future.”

Collaborators hailed from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the University of Michigan and Penn State University.

Here is a link and a citation to the paper and to a companion piece,

Atomically engineered ferroic layers yield a room-temperature magnetoelectric multiferroic by Julia A. Mundy, Charles M. Brooks, Megan E. Holtz, Jarrett A. Moyer, Hena Das, Alejandro F. Rébola, John T. Heron, James D. Clarkson, Steven M. Disseler, Zhiqi Liu, Alan Farhan, Rainer Held, Robert Hovden, Elliot Padgett, Qingyun Mao, Hanjong Paik, Rajiv Misra, Lena F. Kourkoutis, Elke Arenholz, Andreas Scholl, Julie A. Borchers, William D. Ratcliff, Ramamoorthy Ramesh, Craig J. Fennie, Peter Schiffer et al. Nature 537, 523–527 (22 September 2016) doi:10.1038/nature19343 Published online 21 September 2016

Condensed-matter physics: Multitasking materials from atomic templates by Manfred Fiebig. Nature 537, 499–500  (22 September 2016) doi:10.1038/537499a Published online 21 September 2016

Both the paper and its companion piece are behind a paywall.