Tag Archives: Poland

Transition metal dichalcogenides (molybdenum disulfide and tungsten diselenide) rock the graphene boat

Anyone who’s read stories about scientific discovery knows that the early stages are characterized by a number of possibilities so the current race to unseat graphene as the wonder material of the nanoworld is a ‘business as usual’ sign although I imagine it can be confusing for investors and others hoping to make their fortunes. As for the contenders to the ‘wonder nanomaterial throne’, they are transition metal dichalcogenides: molybdenum disulfide and tungsten diselenide both of which have garnered some recent attention.

A March 12, 2014 news item on Nanwerk features research on molybdenum disulfide from Poland,

Will one-atom-thick layers of molybdenum disulfide, a compound that occurs naturally in rocks, prove to be better than graphene for electronic applications? There are many signs that might prove to be the case. But physicists from the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw have shown that the nature of the phenomena occurring in layered materials are still ill-understood and require further research.

….

Researchers at the University of Warsaw, Faculty of Physics (FUW) have shown that the phenomena occurring in the crystal network of molybdenum disulfide sheets are of a slightly different nature than previously thought. A report describing the discovery, achieved in collaboration with Laboratoire National des Champs Magnétiques Intenses in Grenoble, has recently been published in Applied Physics Letters.

“It will not become possible to construct complex electronic systems consisting of individual atomic sheets until we have a sufficiently good understanding of the physics involved in the phenomena occurring within the crystal network of those materials. Our research shows, however, that research still has a long way to go in this field”, says Prof. Adam Babinski at the UW Faculty of Physics.

A March 12, 2014 Dept. of Physics University of Warsaw (FUW) news release, which originated the news item, describes the researchers’ ideas about graphene and alternative materials such as molybdenum disulfide,

“It will not become possible to construct complex electronic systems consisting of individual atomic sheets until we have a sufficiently good understanding of the physics involved in the phenomena occurring within the crystal network of those materials. Our research shows, however, that research still has a long way to go in this field”, says Prof. Adam Babiński at the UW Faculty of Physics.

The simplest method of creating graphene is called exfoliation: a piece of scotch tape is first stuck to a piece of graphite, then peeled off. Among the particles that remain stuck to the tape, one can find microscopic layers of graphene. This is because graphite consists of many graphene sheets adjacent to one another. The carbon atoms within each layer are very strongly bound to one another (by covalent bonds, to which graphene owes its legendary resilience), but the individual layers are held together by significantly weaker bonds (van de Walls [van der Waals] bonds). Ordinary scotch tape is strong enough to break the latter and to tear individual graphene sheets away from the graphite crystal.

A few years ago it was noticed that just as graphene can be obtained from graphite, sheets a single atom thick can similarly be obtained from many other crystals. This has been successfully done, for instance, with transition metals chalcogenides (sulfides, selenides, and tellurides). Layers of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), in particular, have proven to be a very interesting material. This compound exists in nature as molybdenite, a crystal material found in rocks around the world, frequently taking the characteristic form of silver-colored hexagonal plates. For years molybdenite has been used in the manufacturing of lubricants and metal alloys. Like in the case of graphite, the properties of single-atom sheets of MoS2 long went unnoticed.

From the standpoint of applications in electronics, molybdenum disulfide sheets exhibit a significant advantage over graphene: they have an energy gap, an energy range within which no electron states can exist. By applying electric field, the material can be switched between a state that conducts electricity and one that behaves like an insulator. By current calculations, a switched-off molybdenum disulfide transistor would consume even as little as several hundred thousand times less energy than a silicon transistor. Graphene, on the other hand, has no energy gap and transistors made of graphene cannot be fully switched off.

The news release goes on to describe how the researchers refined their understanding of molybdenum disulfide and its properties,

Valuable information about a crystal’s structure and phenomena occurring within it can be obtained by analyzing how light gets scattered within the material. Photons of a given energy are usually absorbed by the atoms and molecules of the material, then reemitted at the same energy. In the spectrum of the scattered light one can then see a distinctive peak, corresponding to that energy. It turns out, however, that one out of many millions of photons is able to use some of its energy otherwise, for instance to alter the vibration or circulation of a molecule. The reverse situation also sometimes occurs: a photon may take away some of the energy of a molecule, and so its own energy slightly increases. In this situation, known as Raman scattering, two smaller peaks are observed to either side of the main peak.

The scientists at the UW Faculty of Physics analyzed the Raman spectra of molybdenum disulfide carrying on low-temperature microscopic measurements. The higher sensitivity of the equipment and detailed analysis methods enabled the team to propose a more precise model of the phenomena occurring in the crystal network of molybdenum disulfide.

“In the case of single-layer materials, the shape of the Raman lines has previously been explained in terms of phenomena involving certain characteristic vibrations of the crystal network. We have shown for molybdenum disulfide sheets that the effects ascribed to those vibrations must actually, at least in part, be due to other network vibrations not previously taken into account”, explains Katarzyna Gołasa, a doctorate student at the UW Faculty of Physics.

The presence of the new type of vibration in single-sheet materials has an impact on how electrons behave. As a consequence, these materials must have somewhat different electronic properties than previously anticipated.

Here’s what the rocks look like,

Molybdenum disulfide occurs in nature as molybdenite, crystalline material that frequently takes the characteristic form of silver-colored hexagonal plates. (Source: FUW)

Molybdenum disulfide occurs in nature as molybdenite, crystalline material that frequently takes the characteristic form of silver-colored hexagonal plates. (Source: FUW)

I am not able to find the published research at this time (March 13, 2014).

The tungsten diselenide story is specifically application-centric. Dexter Johnson in a March 11, 2014 post on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) describes the differing perspectives and potential applications suggested by the three teams that cooperated to produce papers united by a joint theme ,

The three research groups focused on optoelectronics applications of tungsten diselenide, but each with a slightly different emphasis.

The University of Washington scientists highlighted applications of the material for a light emitting diode (LED). The Vienna University of Technology group focused on the material’s photovoltaic applications. And, finally, the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] group looked at all of the optoelectronic applications for the material that would result from the way it can be switched from being a p-type to a n-type semiconductor.

Here are some details of the research from each of the institutions’ news releases.

A March 10, 2014 University of Washington (state) news release highlights their LED work,

University of Washington [UW] scientists have built the thinnest-known LED that can be used as a source of light energy in electronics. The LED is based off of two-dimensional, flexible semiconductors, making it possible to stack or use in much smaller and more diverse applications than current technology allows.

“We are able to make the thinnest-possible LEDs, only three atoms thick yet mechanically strong. Such thin and foldable LEDs are critical for future portable and integrated electronic devices,” said Xiaodong Xu, a UW assistant professor in materials science and engineering and in physics.

The UW’s LED is made from flat sheets of the molecular semiconductor known as tungsten diselenide, a member of a group of two-dimensional materials that have been recently identified as the thinnest-known semiconductors. Researchers use regular adhesive tape to extract a single sheet of this material from thick, layered pieces in a method inspired by the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to the University of Manchester for isolating one-atom-thick flakes of carbon, called graphene, from a piece of graphite.

In addition to light-emitting applications, this technology could open doors for using light as interconnects to run nano-scale computer chips instead of standard devices that operate off the movement of electrons, or electricity. The latter process creates a lot of heat and wastes power, whereas sending light through a chip to achieve the same purpose would be highly efficient.

“A promising solution is to replace the electrical interconnect with optical ones, which will maintain the high bandwidth but consume less energy,” Xu said. “Our work makes it possible to make highly integrated and energy-efficient devices in areas such as lighting, optical communication and nano lasers.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for this team’s paper,

Electrically tunable excitonic light-emitting diodes based on monolayer WSe2 p–n junctions by Jason S. Ross, Philip Klement, Aaron M. Jones, Nirmal J. Ghimire, Jiaqiang Yan, D. G. Mandrus, Takashi Taniguchi, Kenji Watanabe, Kenji Kitamura, Wang Yao, David H. Cobden, & Xiaodong Xu. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.26 Published online 09 March 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

A March 9, 2014 University of Vienna news release highlights their work on tungsten diselinide and its possible application in solar cells,

… With graphene as a light detector, optical signals can be transformed into electric pulses on extremely short timescales.

For one very similar application, however, graphene is not well suited for building solar cells. “The electronic states in graphene are not very practical for creating photovoltaics”, says Thomas Mueller. Therefore, he and his team started to look for other materials, which, similarly to graphene, can arranged in ultrathin layers, but have even better electronic properties.

The material of choice was tungsten diselenide: It consists of one layer of tungsten atoms, which are connected by selenium atoms above and below the tungsten plane. The material absorbs light, much like graphene, but in tungsten diselenide, this light can be used to create electrical power.

The layer is so thin that 95% of the light just passes through – but a tenth of the remaining five percent, which are absorbed by the material, are converted into electrical power. Therefore, the internal efficiency is quite high. A larger portion of the incident light can be used if several of the ultrathin layers are stacked on top of each other – but sometimes the high transparency can be a useful side effect. “We are envisioning solar cell layers on glass facades, which let part of the light into the building while at the same time creating electricity”, says Thomas Mueller.

Today, standard solar cells are mostly made of silicon, they are rather bulky and inflexible. Organic materials are also used for opto-electronic applications, but they age rather quickly. “A big advantage of two-dimensional structures of single atomic layers is their crystallinity. Crystal structures lend stability”, says Thomas Mueller.

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

Solar-energy conversion and light emission in an atomic monolayer p–n diode by Andreas Pospischil, Marco M. Furchi, & Thomas Mueller. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.14 Published online 09 March 2014

This paper is behind a paywll.

Finally, a March 10, 2014 MIT news release details their work about material able to switch from p-type (p = positive) to a n-type (n = negative) semiconductors,

The material they used, called tungsten diselenide (WSe2), is part of a class of single-molecule-thick materials under investigation for possible use in new optoelectronic devices — ones that can manipulate the interactions of light and electricity. In these experiments, the MIT researchers were able to use the material to produce diodes, the basic building block of modern electronics.

Typically, diodes (which allow electrons to flow in only one direction) are made by “doping,” which is a process of injecting other atoms into the crystal structure of a host material. By using different materials for this irreversible process, it is possible to make either of the two basic kinds of semiconducting materials, p-type or n-type.

But with the new material, either p-type or n-type functions can be obtained just by bringing the vanishingly thin film into very close proximity with an adjacent metal electrode, and tuning the voltage in this electrode from positive to negative. That means the material can easily and instantly be switched from one type to the other, which is rarely the case with conventional semiconductors.

In their experiments, the MIT team produced a device with a sheet of WSe2 material that was electrically doped half n-type and half p-type, creating a working diode that has properties “very close to the ideal,” Jarillo-Herrero says.

By making diodes, it is possible to produce all three basic optoelectronic devices — photodetectors, photovoltaic cells, and LEDs; the MIT team has demonstrated all three, Jarillo-Herrero says. While these are proof-of-concept devices, and not designed for scaling up, the successful demonstration could point the way toward a wide range of potential uses, he says.

“It’s known how to make very large-area materials” of this type, Churchill says. While further work will be required, he says, “there’s no reason you wouldn’t be able to do it on an industrial scale.”

In principle, Jarillo-Herrero says, because this material can be engineered to produce different values of a key property called bandgap, it should be possible to make LEDs that produce any color — something that is difficult to do with conventional materials. And because the material is so thin, transparent, and lightweight, devices such as solar cells or displays could potentially be built into building or vehicle windows, or even incorporated into clothing, he says.

While selenium is not as abundant as silicon or other promising materials for electronics, the thinness of these sheets is a big advantage, Churchill points out: “It’s thousands or tens of thousands of times thinner” than conventional diode materials, “so you’d use thousands of times less material” to make devices of a given size.

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

Optoelectronic devices based on electrically tunable p–n diodes in a monolayer dichalcogenide by Britton W. H. Baugher, Hugh O. H. Churchill, Yafang Yang, & Pablo Jarillo-Herrero. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.25 Published online 09 March 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

These are very exciting, if not to say, electrifying times. (Couldn’t resist the wordplay.)

Carbon dioxide as a source for new nanomaterials

Polish researchers have made a startling suggestion (from a Jan. 23, 2014 news item on Nanowerk),

In common perception, carbon dioxide is just a greenhouse gas, one of the major environmental problems of mankind. For Warsaw chemists CO2 became, however, something else: a key element of reactions allowing for creation of nanomaterials with unprecedented properties.

In reaction with carbon dioxide, appropriately designed chemicals allowed researchers from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) in Warsaw and the Faculty of Chemistry, Warsaw University of Technology, (WUT) for production of unprecedented nanomaterials.

Here’s an image the researchers use to illustrate their work,

Yellow tennis balls, spatially integrated in an adamant-like structure, symbolise crystal lattice of the microporous material resulting from self-assembly of nanoclusters. Orange balls imitate gas molecules that can adsorb in this material. The presentation is performed by Katarzyna Sołtys, a doctoral student from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. (Source: IPC PAS, Grzegorz Krzyżewski).

Yellow tennis balls, spatially integrated in an adamant-like structure, symbolise crystal lattice of the microporous material resulting from self-assembly of nanoclusters. Orange balls imitate gas molecules that can adsorb in this material. The presentation is performed by Katarzyna Sołtys, a doctoral student from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. (Source: IPC PAS, Grzegorz Krzyżewski).

The Jan. 23, 2014 IPC news release, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural component of Earth’s atmosphere. It is the most abundant carbon-based building block, and is involved in the synthesis of glucose, an energy carrier and building unit of paramount importance for living organisms.

“Carbon dioxide has been for years used in industrial synthesis of polymers. On the other hand, there has been very few research papers reporting fabrication of inorganic functional materials using CO2”, says Kamil Sokołowski, a doctoral student in IPC PAS.

Prof. Lewiński’s [Janusz Lewiński (IPC PAS, WUT)] group has shown that appropriately designed precursor compounds in reaction with carbon dioxide lead to fabrication of a microporous material (with pore diameters below 2 nm) resulting from self-assembly of luminescent nanoclusters. Novel microporous material, composed of building blocks with zinc carbonate core encapsulated in appropriately designed organic shell (hydroxyquinoline ligands), is highly luminescent, with photoluminescence quantum yield significantly higher than those of classical fluorescent compounds used in state-of-the-art OLEDs.

“Using carbon dioxide as a building block we were able to construct a highly porous and really highly luminescent material. Can it be used for construction of luminescent diodes or sensing devices? The discovery is new, the research work on the novel material is in progress, but we are deeply convinced that the answer is: yes”, says Sokołowski.

Already now it can be said that the novel material enjoys considerable interest. Polish and international patent applications were filed for the invention and the implementation work in cooperation with a joint venture company is in progress.

The design of precursors was inspired by nature, in particular by the binding of carbon dioxide in enzymatic systems of carbonic anhydrase, an enzyme responsible for fast metabolism of CO2 in human body. Effective enzyme activity is based on its active centre, where a hydroxyzinc (ZnOH) type reaction system is located.

“A hydroxyzinc reaction system occurs also in molecules of alkylzinc compounds, designed by us and used for fixation of carbon dioxide”, explains Sokołowski and continues: “These compounds are of particular interest for us, because in addition to hydroxyl group they contain also a reactive metal-carbon bond. It means that both the first and the second reaction system can participate in consecutive chemical transformations of such precursors”.

The research related to the chemistry of alkylhydroxyzinc compounds has an over 150 years of history and its roots are directly connected to the birth of organometallic chemistry. It was, however, only in 2011 and 2012 when Prof. Lewiński’s group has presented the first examples of stable alkylhydroxyzinc compounds obtained as a result of rationally designed synthesis.

The strategy for materials synthesis using carbon dioxide and appropriate alkylhydroxyzinc precursors, discovered by the researchers from Warsaw, seems to be a versatile tool for production of various functional materials. Depending on the composition of the reagents and the process conditions, a mesoporous material (with pore diameter from 2 to 50 nm) composed of zinc carbonate nanoparticles or multinuclear zinc nanocapsules for prospective applications in supramolecular chemistry can be obtained in addition to the material described above.

Further research of Prof. Lewiński’s group has shown that the mesoporous materials based on ZnCO3-nanoparticles can be transformed into zinc oxide (ZnO) aerogels. Mesoporous materials made of ZnO nanoparticles with extended surface can be used as catalytic fillings, allowing for and accelerating reactions of various gaseous reagents. Other potential applications are related to semiconducting properties of zinc oxide. That’s why the novel materials can be used in future in photovoltaic cells or as a major component of semiconductor sensing devices.

Good luck to the researchers as they find ways to turn a greenhouse gas into something useful.

Shining a light on Poland’s nanotechnology effort

Last week I managed to mention Mongolia’s nanotechnology center (my Nov. 29, 2013 posting) and now I get to feature Poland here thanks to a Nov. 29, 2013 news item (also from last week) on Nanowerk,

Strengthening the nanotechnology capabilities of a key institute in Poland will enable the country to upgrade research on biomaterials and alternative energy. It will also help further integrate the country in the European Research Area (ERA).
Nanotechnology has been instrumental in creating many new materials and devices that offer numerous applications from biomaterials to alternative energy, representing an important driver of competitiveness within the ERA. The EU-funded project

‘Nanotechnology, biomaterials and alternative energy source for ERA [European Research Area] integration’ (NOBLESSE) is supporting Poland in strengthening its research capabilities in this pivotal field.

To achieve its aims, NOBLESSE is procuring new equipment for the academy, in addition to strengthening links with other institutes, promoting twinning activities and enhancing knowledge transfer. …

Already, the project team has installed an advanced scanning electron microscope, created a new laboratory in the IPC PAS, the Mazovia Center for Surface Analysis (which is one of the most advanced in Europe), and built an open-access Electronic Laboratory Equipment Database (ELAD) that documents research equipment available in specialised laboratories across Poland.

There is more about the NOBLESSE project from this webpage: http://ec.europa.eu/research/infocentre/article_en.cfm?id=/research/star/index_en.cfm?p=ss-noblesse&calledby=infocentre&item=Energy&artid=28137&caller=SuccessStories (article published Nov. 15, 2012),

The use and control of nano-structured materials is of great importance for the development of new environmentally friendly materials, more efficient energy sources and biosensors for medical analysis. The European Noblesse project is boosting a Polish academy’s capabilities to research these developments.

… Such is the scope for the development and application of nanotechnology that nano-structured materials are in high demand. To meet this demand, nano-science institutes need to rise to the challenges that modern society presents.

This is one of the driving forces behind the Noblesse project which aims to establish the Institute of Physical Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC-PAS) as an integrated partner and respected participant in the European nano-science community.

Through a combination of newly purchased, state-of-the-art equipment – financed by EU FP7 funding – and a programme of recruitment and training, Noblesse promises to position IPC-PAS as a leading research centre in Europe and beyond.

Significant progress

The project has already made great strides towards bringing new nanotechnology applications to the market place and in promoting the career development of a team of young, dedicated researchers in the field.

“In the first year of the project, we filed 49 patent applications, 25 of them abroad – most of which are nanotechnology patents,” says Professor Robert Holyst, the project coordinator. “I am not aware of any institute in Poland filing more patent applications than us at the moment.

“We have also established two spin-off companies, thanks to the valuable influence of our advisory board members from industry,” he adds. Tomasz Tuora, who is on the advisory board of the Noblesse project, is the main investor in Scope Fluidics Ltd and Curiosity Diagnostics Ltd, Prof. Holyst explains. “While the Noblesse grant did not promise to set up spin-off companies in the Institute, we did promise to collaborate and develop ties with industry,” he says.

According to Prof. Holyst, the two companies plan to make products for the medical sector and have each employed between 10 and 20 scientists to develop new nanotechnology applications.

The creation of spin-off companies from IPC-PAS is unlikely to end there if an application for a €1.3 million-grant from the NCBIR, the Polish funding agency for applied research, is successful. “We are currently applying for this grant to develop and later commercialise the SERS (surface enhanced resonance spectroscopy) platform for molecular diagnostics,” Prof. Holyst explains. “If we are successful in our application, we’ll establish a new spin-off company for this purpose.”

,The 2013 news item on Nanowerk does not mention the commercialization project referred to in the 2012 article. Good luck to the NOBLESSE team and I look forward to hearing more about the nanotechnology effort in Poland.

Batteries that breathe

Researchers at the Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Physical Chemistry have constructed a biobattery that breathes. The device could be used in medication applications as the researchers note in the Mar. 7, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

People are increasingly taking advantage of devices supporting various functions of our bodies. Today they include cardiac pacemakers or hearing aids; tomorrow it will be contact lenses with automatically changing focal length or computer-controlled displays generating images directly in the eye. None of these devices will work if not coupled to an efficient and long-lasting power supply source. The best solution seems to be miniaturised biofuel cells consuming substances naturally occurring in human body or in its direct surrounding.

Researchers from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) in Warsaw developed an efficient electrode for the use in construction of biofuel cells or zinc-oxygen biobatteries. After installation in a cell, the new biocathode generates a voltage, during many hours, that is higher than that obtained in existing power sources of similar design. The most interesting is that the device is air-breathing: it works at full efficiency when it can take oxygen directly from the air.

Here’s some of the reasoning which underlies this project’s approach to the challenge of creating better batteries for implantable medical devices (from the news release),

Common batteries and rechargeable batteries are unsuitable to power implants inside the human body as they use strong bases or acids. These agents can on no account get into the body. The battery housing must be therefore absolutely tight. But in line with reducing the battery size, it must be better isolated. In extreme cases, the weight of the housing of a common, miniaturised battery would be even a few dozen times greater than the weight of the battery’s active components that generate electricity. And here biofuel cells offer an essential advantage: they do not require housing. To get electricity, it is enough to insert the electrodes into the body.

“One of the most popular experiments in electrochemistry is to make a battery by sticking appropriately selected electrodes into a potato. We are doing something similar, the difference is that we are focusing on biofuel cells and the improvement of the cathode. And, of course, to have the whole project working, we’d rather replace the potato with… a human being”, says Dr Martin Jönsson-Niedziółka (IPC PAS).

Here’s what the researchers decided to do,

In the experiments, Dr Jönsson-Niedziółka’s group uses zinc-oxygen batteries. The principle of their operation is not new. The batteries constructed in this way had been popular before the time of alkaline power sources came. “At present, many laboratories work on glucose-oxygen biofuel cells. In the best case they generate a voltage of 0.6-0.7 V. A zinc-oxygen biobattery with our cathode is able to generate 1.75 V for many hours.”, says Adrianna Złoczewska, a PhD student at the IPC PAS, whose research has been supported under the International PhD Projects Programme of the Foundation for Polish Science.

The main component of the biocathode developed at the IPC PAS is an enzyme surrounded by carbon nanotubes and encapsulated in a porous structure – a silicate matrix deposited on an oxygen permeable membrane. “Our group had been working for many years on techniques that were necessary to construct the cathode using enzymes, carbon nanotubes and silicate matrices”, stresses Prof. Marcin Opałło (IPC PAS).

An electrode so constructed is installed in a wall of a small container. To have the biofuel cell working, it is enough to pour an electrolyte (here: a solution containing hydrogen ions) and insert the zinc electrode in the electrolyte. The pores in the silicate matrix enable oxygen supply from the air and H+ ions from the solution to active centres of the enzyme, where oxygen reduction takes place. Carbon nanotubes facilitate transport of electrons from the surface of the semipermeable membrane.

A cell with the new biocathode is able to supply power with a voltage of 1.6 V, for a minimum one and a half of a week. The cell efficiency decreases with time, likely because of gradual deactivation of the enzyme on the biocathode. “Here not everything is dependent on us, but on the progress in biotechnology. The lifetime of a biofuel cells with our biocathode could be significantly prolonged, if the enzyme regeneration processes are successfully developed”, says Dr Jönsson-Niedziółka.

In the experiments carried out so far, a stack of four batteries connected in series successfully powered a lamp composed of two LEDs. Before, however, the biofuel cells based on the design developed at the IPC PAS get popularised, the researchers must solve the problem of relatively low electric power that is common to all types of biofuel cells.

I have mentioned similar projects in two previous postings, long ago. The first project was a vampire battery (a battery for implantable medical devices that powers itself with blood) mentioned in an April 3, 2009 posting. The second project was to power batteries from harvested mechanical energy from heart beats, breathing, vocal cord vibrations, and more and that was mentioned in a July 12, 2010 posting.

“It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment” and nano protection against nerve agents

Michael Berger’s Nov. 7, 2012 Nanowerk Spotlight article about nanoporous adsorbents and protection against toxic nerve agents features Dr. Piotr Kowalczyk, a Senior Research Fellow at the Nanochemistry Research Institute at Curtin University of Technology in Australia, quoting English theoretical physicist, Paul Dirac,

“Some of my colleagues asked me if I believe in our theoretical results” says Kowalczyk. “The great physicist Paul Dirac used to say: ‘This result is too beautiful to be false; it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment’.”

“And I truly believe that our theoretical results have to be correct – within the assumed model of nanopores – because they are so simple and beautiful” he concludes.

Kowalczyk is discussing some of  his latest work on protection against toxic nerve agents (Note: I have removed a link),

In a paper published in the October 31, 2012 online edition of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (“Screening of Carbonaceous Nanoporous Materials for Capture of Nerve Agents”), an international team led by Kowalczyk and Alexander V Neimark, a professor at Rutgers University, together with scientists from the Physicochemistry of Carbon Materials Research Group at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland, is shedding new light on the selection of an optimal nanomaterial for capturing highly volatile nerve agents.

Berger’s article gives some context for this research,

Protection against nerve agents – such as tabun, sarin, soman, VX, and others – is a major terrorism concern of security experts. Nerve agents, which attack the nervous system of the human body, are clear and colorless or slightly colored liquids and may have no odor or a faint, sweetish smell. They evaporate at various rates and are denser than air. Current methods to detect nerve agents include surface acoustic wave sensors; conducting polymer arrays; vector machines; and the most simple: color change paper sensors. Most of these systems have have certain limitations including low sensitivity and slow response times.

You can find more detail about nanopores and toxic nerve agents in Berger’s article.

Batteries made of wood and the mechanical properties of plants

According to Ariel Schwartz in an Aug. 14, 2012 (?) article for Fast Company’s Co.Exist website, batteries made from wood waste may be in our future (Note: I have removed a link),

Researchers from Poznan University of Technology in Poland and Linköping University in Sweden have figured out how to combine lignin with polypyrrole (a conductive polymer) to create a battery cathode that could one day be used in energy storage. The lignin acts as an insulator, while the polypyrrole holds an electric charge.

The discovery is a potential boon for the renewable energy world. As the researchers explain in the journal Science, “Widespread application of electrical power storage may require more abundant materials than those available in inorganics (which often require rare metals), and at a lower cost. Materials for charge storage are desired from easily accessible and renewable sources. Combining cellulose materials and conjugated polymers for charge storage has … attracted attention.”

For anyone (like me) who’s heard the word lignin but doesn’t know the precise meaning, here’s a definition from a Wikipedia essay (Note: I have removed links and footnotes),

Lignin or lignen is a complex chemical compound most commonly derived from wood, and an integral part of the secondary cell walls of plants and some algae. The term was introduced in 1819 by de Candolle and is derived from the Latin word lignum, meaning wood. It is one of the most abundant organic polymers on Earth, exceeded only by cellulose, employing 30% of non-fossil organic carbon, and constituting from a quarter to a third of the dry mass of wood.

This next item also mentions lignin but in reference to mechanical properties that engineers are observing in plant cells.  From the Aug. 14, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

From an engineer’s perspective, plants such as palm trees, bamboo, maples and even potatoes are examples of precise engineering on a microscopic scale. Like wooden beams reinforcing a house, cell walls make up the structural supports of all plants. Depending on how the cell walls are arranged, and what they are made of, a plant can be as flimsy as a reed, or as sturdy as an oak.

An MIT researcher has compiled data on the microstructures of a number of different plants, from apples and potatoes to willow and spruce trees, and has found that plants exhibit an enormous range of mechanical properties, depending on the arrangement of a cell wall’s four main building blocks: cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and pectin.

The news item was originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Jennifer Chu’s Aug. 14, 2012 news release,

Lorna Gibson, the [researcher] at MIT, says understanding plants’ microscopic organization may help engineers design new, bio-inspired materials.

“If you look at engineering materials, we have lots of different types, thousands of materials that have more or less the same range of properties as plants,” Gibson says. “But here the plants are, doing it arranging just four basic constituents. So maybe there’s something you can learn about the design of engineered materials.”

A paper detailing Gibson’s findings has been published this month [freely accessible] in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

To Gibson, a cell wall’s components bear a close resemblance to certain manmade materials. For example, cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin can be as stiff and strong as manufactured polymers. A plant’s cellular arrangement can also have engineering parallels: cells in woods, for instance, are aligned, similar to engineering honeycombs, while polyhedral cell configurations, such as those found in apples, resemble some industrial foams.

To explore plants’ natural mechanics, Gibson focused on three main plant materials: woods, such as cedar and oak; parenchyma cells, which are found in fruits and root vegetables; and arborescent palm stems, such as coconut trees. She compiled data from her own and other groups’ experiments and analyzed two main mechanical properties in each plant: stiffness and strength.

Among all plants, Gibson observed wide variety in both properties. Fruits and vegetables such as apples and potatoes were the least stiff, while the densest palms were 100,000 times stiffer. Likewise, apples and potatoes fell on the lower end of the strength scale, while palms were 1,000 times stronger.

“There are plants with properties over that whole range,” Gibson says. “So it’s not like potatoes are down here, and wood is over there, and there’s nothing in between. There are plants with properties spanning that whole huge range. And it’s interesting how the plants do that.”

Since I’m always interested in trees, from Chu’s news release,

In trees such as maples and oaks, cells grow and multiply in the cambium layer, just below the bark, increasing the diameter of the trees. The cell walls in wood are composed of a primary layer with cellulose fibers randomly spread throughout it. Three secondary layers lie underneath, each with varying compositions of lignin and cellulose that wind helically through each layer.

Taken together, the cell walls occupy a large portion of a cell, providing structural support. The cells in woods are organized in a honeycomb pattern — a geometric arrangement that gives wood its stiffness and strength.

Parenchyma cells, found in fruits and root vegetables, are much less stiff and strong than wood. The cell walls of apples, potatoes and carrots are much thinner than in wood cells, and made up of only one layer. Cellulose fibers run randomly throughout this layer, reinforcing a matrix of hemicellulose and pectin. Parenchyma cells have no lignin; combined with their thin walls and the random arrangement of their cellulose fibers, Gibson says, this may explain their cell walls’ low stiffness. The cells in each plant are densely packed together, similar to industrial foams used in mattresses and packaging.

Unlike woody trees that grow in diameter over time, the stems of arborescent palms such as coconut trees maintain similar diameters throughout their lifetimes. Instead, as the stem grows taller, palms support this extra weight by increasing the thickness of their cell walls. A cell wall’s thickness depends on where it is along a given palm stem: Cell walls are thicker at the base and periphery of stems, where bending stresses are greatest.

There’s even a nanotechnology slant to this story, from Chu’s news release,

Gibson sees plant mechanics as a valuable resource for engineers designing new materials. For instance, she says, researchers have developed a wide array of materials, from soft elastomers to stiff, strong alloys. Carbon nanotubes have been used to reinforce composite materials, and engineers have made honeycomb-patterned materials with cells as small as a few millimeters wide. But researchers have been unable to fabricate cellular composite materials with the level of control that plants have perfected.

“Plants are multifunctional,” Gibson says. “They have to satisfy a number of requirements: mechanical ones, but also growth, surface area for sunlight and transport of fluids. The microstructures plants have developed satisfy all these requirements. With the development of nanotechnology, I think there is potential to develop multifunctional engineering materials inspired by plant microstructures.”

Given the problems with the forestry sector, these developments (wooden batteries and engineering materials inspired by plant cell walls) should excite some interest.