Tag Archives: sensors

Commercializing nanotechnology: Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs and Argonne National Laboratories

Breakout Labs

I last wrote about entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs project in an Oct. 26, 2011 posting announcing its inception. An Oct. 6, 2015 Breakout Labs news release (received in my email) highlights a funding announcement for four startups of which at least three are nanotechnology-enabled,

Breakout Labs, a program of Peter Thiel’s philanthropic organization, the Thiel Foundation, announced today that four new companies advancing scientific discoveries in biomedical, chemical engineering, and nanotechnology have been selected for funding.

“We’re always hearing about bold new scientific research that promises to transform the world, but far too often the latest discoveries are left withering in a lab,” said Lindy Fishburne, Executive Director of Breakout Labs. “Our mission is to help a new type of scientist-entrepreneur navigate the startup ecosystem and build lasting companies that can make audacious scientific discoveries meaningful to everyday life. The four new companies joining the Breakout Labs portfolio – nanoGriptech, Maxterial, C2Sense, and CyteGen – embody that spirit and we’re excited to be working with them to help make their vision a reality.”

The future of adhesives: inspired by geckos

Inspired by the gecko’s ability to scuttle up walls and across ceilings due to their millions of micro/nano foot-hairs,nanoGriptech (http://nanogriptech.com/), based in Pittsburgh, Pa., is developing a new kind of microfiber adhesive material that is strong, lightweight, and reusable without requiring glues or producing harmful residues. Currently being tested by the U.S. military, NASA, and top global brands, nanoGriptech’s flagship product Setex™ is the first adhesive product of its kind that is not only strong and durable, but can also be manufactured at low cost, and at scale.

“We envision a future filled with no-leak biohazard enclosures, ergonomic and inexpensive car seats, extremely durable aerospace adhesives, comfortable prosthetic liners, high performance athletic wear, and widely available nanotechnology-enabled products manufactured less expensively — all thanks to the grippy little gecko,” said Roi Ben-Itzhak, CFO and VP of Business Development for nanoGriptech.

A sense of smell for the digital world

Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent goals to drastically reduce food waste, most consumers don’t realize the global problem created by 1.3 billion metric tons of food wasted each year — clogging landfills and releasing unsustainable levels of methane gas into the atmosphere. Using technology developed at MIT’s Swager lab, Cambridge, Ma.-based C2Sense(http://www.c2sense.com/) is developing inexpensive, lightweight hand-held sensors based on carbon nanotubes which can detect fruit ripeness and meat, fish and poultry freshness. Smaller than a half of a business card, these sensors can be developed at very low cost, require very little power to operate, and can be easily integrated into most agricultural supply chains, including food storage packaging, to ensure that food is picked, stored, shipped, and sold at optimal freshness.

“Our mission is to bring a sense of smell to the digital world. With our technology, that package of steaks in your refrigerator will tell you when it’s about to go bad, recommend some recipe options and help build out your shopping list,” said Jan Schnorr, Chief Technology Officer of C2Sense.

Amazing metals that completely repel water

MaxterialTM, Inc. develops amazing materials that resist a variety of detrimental environmental effects through technology that emulates similar strategies found in nature, such as the self-cleaning lotus leaf and antifouling properties of crabs. By modifying the surface shape or texture of a metal, through a method that is very affordable and easy to introduce into the existing manufacturing process, Maxterial introduces a microlayer of air pockets that reduce contact surface area. The underlying material can be chemically the same as ever, retaining inherent properties like thermal and electrical conductivity. But through Maxterial’s technology, the metallic surface also becomes inherently water repellant. This property introduces the superhydrophobic maxterial as a potential solution to a myriad of problems, such as corrosion, biofouling, and ice formation. Maxterial is currently focused on developing durable hygienic and eco-friendly anti-corrosion coatings for metallic surfaces.

“Our process has the potential to create metallic objects that retain their amazing properties for the lifetime of the object – this isn’t an aftermarket coating that can wear or chip off,” said Mehdi Kargar, Co-founder and CEO of Maxterial, Inc. “We are working towards a day when shipping equipment can withstand harsh arctic environments, offshore structures can resist corrosion, and electronics can be fully submersible and continue working as good as new.”

New approaches to combat aging

CyteGen (http://cytegen.com/) wants to dramatically increase the human healthspan, tackle neurodegenerative diseases, and reverse age-related decline. What makes this possible now is new discovery tools backed by the dream team of interdisciplinary experts the company has assembled. CyteGen’s approach is unusually collaborative, tapping into the resources and expertise of world-renowned researchers across eight major universities to focus different strengths and perspectives to achieve the company’s goals. By approaching aging from a holistic, systematic point of view, rather than focusing solely on discrete definitions of disease, they have developed a new way to think about aging, and to develop treatments that can help people live longer, healthier lives.

“There is an assumption that aging necessarily brings the kind of physical and mental decline that results in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases. Evidence indicates otherwise, which is what spurred us to launch CyteGen,” said George Ugras, Co-Founder and President of CyteGen.

To date, Breakout Labs has invested in more than two dozen companies at the forefront of science, helping radical technologies get beyond common hurdles faced by early stage companies, and advance research and development to market much more quickly. Portfolio companies have raised more than six times the amount of capital invested in the program by the Thiel Foundation, and represent six Series A valuations ranging from $10 million to $60 million as well as one acquisition.

You can see the original Oct. 6, 2015 Breakout Labs news release here or in this Oct. 7, 2015 news item on Azonano.

Argonne National Labs and Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS)

The US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory’s Oct. 6, 2015 press release by Greg Cunningham announced two initiatives meant to speed commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled products for the energy storage and other sectors,

Few technologies hold more potential to positively transform our society than energy storage and nanotechnology. Advances in energy storage research will revolutionize the way the world generates and stores energy, democratizing the delivery of electricity. Grid-level storage can help reduce carbon emissions through the increased adoption of renewable energy and use of electric vehicles while helping bring electricity to developing parts of the world. Nanotechnology has already transformed the electronics industry and is bringing a new set of powerful tools and materials to developers who are changing everything from the way energy is generated, stored and transported to how medicines are delivered and the way chemicals are produced through novel catalytic nanomaterials.

Recognizing the power of these technologies and seeking to accelerate their impact, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has created two new collaborative centers that provide an innovative pathway for business and industry to access Argonne’s unparalleled scientific resources to address the nation’s energy and national security needs. These centers will help speed discoveries to market to ensure U.S. industry maintains a lead in this global technology race.

“This is an exciting time for us, because we believe this new approach to interacting with business can be a real game changer in two areas of research that are of great importance to Argonne and the world,” said Argonne Director Peter B. Littlewood. “We recognize that delivering to market our breakthrough science in energy storage and nanotechnology can help ensure our work brings the maximum benefit to society.”

Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS) will provide central points of contact for companies — ranging from large industrial entities to smaller businesses and startups, as well as government agencies — to benefit from Argonne’s world-class expertise, scientific tools and facilities.

NDW and ACCESS represent a new way to collaborate at Argonne, providing a single point of contact for businesses to assemble tailored interdisciplinary teams to address their most challenging R&D questions. The centers will also provide a pathway to Argonne’s fundamental research that is poised for development into practical products. The chance to build on existing scientific discovery is a unique opportunity for businesses in the nano and energy storage fields.

The center directors, Andreas Roelofs of NDW and Jeff Chamberlain of ACCESS, have both created startups in their careers and understand the value that collaboration with a national laboratory can bring to a company trying to innovate in technologically challenging fields of science. While the new centers will work with all sizes of companies, a strong emphasis will be placed on helping small businesses and startups, which are drivers of job creation and receive a large portion of the risk capital in this country.

“For a startup like mine to have the ability to tap the resources of a place like Argonne would have been immensely helpful,” said Roelofs. “We”ve seen the power of that sort of access, and we want to make it available to the companies that need it to drive truly transformative technologies to market.”

Chamberlain said his experience as an energy storage researcher and entrepreneur led him to look for innovative approaches to leveraging the best aspects of private industry and public science. The national laboratory system has a long history of breakthrough science that has worked its way to market, but shortening that journey from basic research to product has become a growing point of emphasis for the national laboratories over the past couple of decades. The idea behind ACCESS and NDW is to make that collaboration even easier and more powerful.

“Where ACCESS and NDW will differ from the conventional approach is through creating an efficient way for a business to build a customized, multi-disciplinary team that can address anything from small technical questions to broad challenges that require massive resources,” Chamberlain said. “That might mean assembling a team with chemists, physicists, computer scientists, materials engineers, imaging experts, or mechanical and electrical engineers; the list goes on and on. It’s that ability to tap the full spectrum of cross-cutting expertise at Argonne that will really make the difference.”

Chamberlain is deeply familiar with the potential of energy storage as a transformational technology, having led the formation of Argonne’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). The center’s years-long quest to discover technologies beyond lithium-ion batteries has solidified the laboratory’s reputation as one of the key global players in battery research. ACCESS will tap Argonne’s full battery expertise, which extends well beyond JCESR and is dedicated to fulfilling the promise of energy storage.

Energy storage research has profound implications for energy security and national security. Chamberlain points out that approximately 1.3 billion people across the globe do not have access to electricity, with another billion having only sporadic access. Energy storage, coupled with renewable generation like solar, could solve that problem and eliminate the need to build out massive power grids. Batteries also have the potential to create a more secure, stable grid for countries with existing power systems and help fight global climate disruption through adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Argonne researchers are pursuing hundreds of projects in nanoscience, but some of the more notable include research into targeted drugs that affect only cancerous cells; magnetic nanofibers that can be used to create more powerful and efficient electric motors and generators; and highly efficient water filtration systems that can dramatically reduce the energy requirements for desalination or cleanup of oil spills. Other researchers are working with nanoparticles that create a super-lubricated state and other very-low friction coatings.

“When you think that 30 percent of a car engine’s power is sacrificed to frictional loss, you start to get an idea of the potential of these technologies,” Roelofs said. “But it’s not just about the ideas already at Argonne that can be brought to market, it’s also about the challenges for businesses that need Argonne-level resources. I”m convinced there are many startups out there working on transformational ideas that can greatly benefit from the help of a place Argonne to bring those ideas to fruition. That is what has me excited about ACCESS and NDW.”

For more information on ACCESS, see: access.anl.gov

For more information on NDW, see: nanoworks.anl.gov

You can read more about the announcement in an Oct. 6, 2015 article by Greg Watry for R&D magazine featuring an interview with Andreas Roelofs.

Indian scientists explore graphene ripples

A Sept. 19, 2015 Nanotechnology Now announces that Indian scientists have developed a theory about curved or rippled graphene,

The single-carbon-atom-thick material, graphene, featuring ripples is not easy to understand. Instead of creating such ripples physically, physicists investigating this kind of unusually shaped material rely on a quantum simulator. It is made up of an artificial lattice of light – called ultra-cold optical lattice – akin to eggs held in the cavities of an egg tray. This approach allowed a team of theoretical physicists from India to shed some light – literally and figuratively – on the properties of rippled graphene. These findings have just been published in EPJ B by Tridev Mishra and colleagues from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, in Pilani, India. Ultimately, this work could find applications in novel graphene-based sensors.

A Sept. 18, 2015 Springer press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Optical lattices are perfect simulators. They are like mini-laboratories suitable for studying the response of a material after it has been subjected to controllable parameters inducing a deformation. What makes this particular study novel is that the team has managed to control the creation of a curved space or ripples in graphene by relying on an optical lattice simulator. The authors have thus developed a theory describing how a sequence of pulses, whose amplitude can be modulated, changes an optical lattice – specifically, the background geometry of its constituent particles. Previous modelling attempts only described static curved graphene.

Mishra and colleagues have established equations of the energy for particles caught in an optical lattice. This, in turn, simulates the energy of the electrons in a graphene sheet with a curvature. They then use a map to translate the physical characteristics of the approximation used in the curved space picture of graphene to the more realistic optical lattice picture. They thus obtain an understanding of the dynamics of the evolution from the ‘egg in a tray’ structure of the optical lattice in terms of the properties of ‘an omelette style’ continuum of energy found in graphene.

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

Floquet analysis of pulsed Dirac systems: a way to simulate rippled graphene by Tridev Mishra, Tapomoy Guha Sarkar, and Jayendra N. Bandyopadhyaya. Eur. Phys. J. B (2015) 88: 231 http://dx.doi.org/10.1140/epjb/e2015-60356-2 Published online: 16 September 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotubes sense spoiled food


Courtesy: MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

I love this .gif; it says a lot without a word. However for details, you need words and here’s what an April 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk has to say about the research illustrated by the .gif,

MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] chemists have devised an inexpensive, portable sensor that can detect gases emitted by rotting meat, allowing consumers to determine whether the meat in their grocery store or refrigerator is safe to eat.

The sensor, which consists of chemically modified carbon nanotubes, could be deployed in “smart packaging” that would offer much more accurate safety information than the expiration date on the package, says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT.

An April 14, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more from Dr. Swager,

It could also cut down on food waste, he adds. “People are constantly throwing things out that probably aren’t bad,” says Swager, who is the senior author of a paper describing the new sensor this week in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

This latest study is builds on previous work at Swager’s lab (Note: Links have been removed),

The sensor is similar to other carbon nanotube devices that Swager’s lab has developed in recent years, including one that detects the ripeness of fruit. All of these devices work on the same principle: Carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified so that their ability to carry an electric current changes in the presence of a particular gas.

In this case, the researchers modified the carbon nanotubes with metal-containing compounds called metalloporphyrins, which contain a central metal atom bound to several nitrogen-containing rings. Hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood, is a metalloporphyrin with iron as the central atom.

For this sensor, the researchers used a metalloporphyrin with cobalt at its center. Metalloporphyrins are very good at binding to nitrogen-containing compounds called amines. Of particular interest to the researchers were the so-called biogenic amines, such as putrescine and cadaverine, which are produced by decaying meat.

When the cobalt-containing porphyrin binds to any of these amines, it increases the electrical resistance of the carbon nanotube, which can be easily measured.

“We use these porphyrins to fabricate a very simple device where we apply a potential across the device and then monitor the current. When the device encounters amines, which are markers of decaying meat, the current of the device will become lower,” Liu says.

In this study, the researchers tested the sensor on four types of meat: pork, chicken, cod, and salmon. They found that when refrigerated, all four types stayed fresh over four days. Left unrefrigerated, the samples all decayed, but at varying rates.

There are other sensors that can detect the signs of decaying meat, but they are usually large and expensive instruments that require expertise to operate. “The advantage we have is these are the cheapest, smallest, easiest-to-manufacture sensors,” Swager says.

“There are several potential advantages in having an inexpensive sensor for measuring, in real time, the freshness of meat and fish products, including preventing foodborne illness, increasing overall customer satisfaction, and reducing food waste at grocery stores and in consumers’ homes,” says Roberto Forloni, a senior science fellow at Sealed Air, a major supplier of food packaging, who was not part of the research team.

The new device also requires very little power and could be incorporated into a wireless platform Swager’s lab recently developed that allows a regular smartphone to read output from carbon nanotube sensors such as this one.

The funding sources are interesting, as I am appreciating with increasing frequency these days (from the news release),

The researchers have filed for a patent on the technology and hope to license it for commercial development. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

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

Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube/Metalloporphyrin Composites for the Chemiresistive Detection of Amines and Meat Spoilage by Sophie F. Liu, Alexander R. Petty, Dr. Graham T. Sazama, and Timothy M. Swager. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201501434 Article first published online: 13 APR 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

There are other posts here about the quest to create food sensors including this Sept. 26, 2013 piece which features a critique (by another blogger) about trying to create food sensors that may be more expensive than the item they are protecting, a problem Swager claims to have overcome in an April 17, 2015 article by Ben Schiller for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Swager has set up a company to commercialize the technology and he expects to do the first demonstrations to interested clients this summer. The first applications are likely to be for food workers working with meat and fish, but there’s no reason why consumers shouldn’t get their own devices in due time.

There are efforts to create visual clues for food status. But Swager says his method is better because it doesn’t rely on perception: it produces hard data that can be logged and tracked. And it also has potential to be very cheap.

“The resistance method is a game-changer because it’s two to three orders of magnitude cheaper than other technology. It’s hard to imagine doing this cheaper,” he says.

Combining optical technology with nanocomposite films at Oregon State University (OSU)

There is a lot of pressure in the US to commercialize nanotechnology-enabled products—a perfectly understandable stance after investing over $22B since 2000. Engineers at Oregon State University (OSU) are hoping to attract industry partners to improve and commercialize their gas sensors (from an April 2, 2015 OSU news release also on EurekAlert),

Engineers have combined innovative optical technology with nanocomposite thin-films to create a new type of sensor that is inexpensive, fast, highly sensitive and able to detect and analyze a wide range of gases.

The technology might find applications in everything from environmental monitoring to airport security or testing blood alcohol levels. The sensor is particularly suited to detecting carbon dioxide, and may be useful in industrial applications or systems designed to store carbon dioxide underground, as one approach to greenhouse gas reduction.

Oregon State University has filed for a patent on the invention, developed in collaboration with scientists at the National Energy Technology Lab or the U.S. Department of Energy, and with support from that agency. The findings were just reported in the Journal of Materials Chemistry C.

University researchers are now seeking industrial collaborators to further perfect and help commercialize the system.

“Optical sensing is very effective in sensing and identifying trace-level gases, but often uses large laboratory devices that are terribly expensive and can’t be transported into the field,” said Alan Wang, a photonics expert and an assistant professor in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“By contrast, we use optical approaches that can be small, portable and inexpensive,” Wang said. “This system used plasmonic nanocrystals that act somewhat like a tiny lens, to concentrate a light wave and increase sensitivity.”

This approach is combined with a metal-organic framework of thin films, which can rapidly adsorb gases within material pores, and be recycled by simple vacuum processes. After the thin film captures the gas molecules near the surface, the plasmonic materials act at a near-infrared range, help magnify the signal and precisely analyze the presence and amounts of different gases.

“By working at the near-infrared range and using these plasmonic nanocrystals, there’s an order of magnitude increase in sensitivity,” said Chih-hung Chang, an OSU professor of chemical engineering. “This type of sensor should be able to quickly tell exactly what gases are present and in what amount.”

That speed, precision, portability and low cost, the researchers said, should allow instruments that can be used in the field for many purposes. The food industry, for industry, uses carbon dioxide in storage of fruits and vegetables, and the gas has to be kept at certain levels.

Gas detection can be valuable in finding explosives, and new technologies such as this might find application in airport or border security. Various gases need to be monitored in environmental research, and there may be other uses in health care, optimal function of automobile engines, and prevention of natural gas leakage.

The paper can be found here,

Plasmonics-enhanced metal–organic framework nanoporous films for highly sensitive near-infrared absorption by Ki-Joong Kim, Xinyuan Chong, Peter B. Kreider, Guoheng Ma,  Paul R. Ohodnicki, John P. Baltrus, Alan X. Wang, and Chih-Hung Chang. J. Mater. Chem. C, 2015,3, 2763-2767 DOI: 10.1039/C4TC02846E First published online 09 Feb 2015

It is behind a paywall.

Swelling sensors and detecting gases at the nanoscale

A June 17, 2014 news item on Nanowerk features a new approach to sensing gases from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),

Using microscopic polymer light resonators that expand in the presence of specific gases, researchers at MIT’s Quantum Photonics Laboratory have developed new optical sensors with predicted detection levels in the parts-per-billion range. Optical sensors are ideal for detecting trace gas concentrations due to their high signal-to-noise ratio, compact, lightweight nature, and immunity to electromagnetic interference.

Although other optical gas sensors had been developed before, the MIT team conceived an extremely sensitive, compact way to detect vanishingly small amounts of target molecules.

A June 17, 2014 American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release by John Arnst, which originated the news item, describes the new technique in some detail,

The researchers fabricated wavelength-scale photonic crystal cavities from PMMA, an inexpensive and flexible polymer that swells when it comes into contact with a target gas. The polymer is infused with fluorescent dye, which emits selectively at the resonant wavelength of the cavity through a process called the Purcell effect. At this resonance, a specific color of light reflects back and forth a few thousand times before eventually leaking out. A spectral filter detects this small color shift, which can occur at even sub-nanometer level swelling of the cavity, and in turn reveals the gas concentration.

“These polymers are often used as coatings on other materials, so they’re abundant and safe to handle. Because of their deformation in response to biochemical substances, cavity sensors made entirely of this polymer lead to a sensor with faster response and much higher sensitivity,” said Hannah Clevenson. Clevenson is a PhD student in the electrical engineering and computer science department at MIT, who led the experimental effort in the lab of principal investigator Dirk Englund.

PMMA can be treated to interact specifically with a wide range of different target chemicals, making the MIT team’s sensor design highly versatile. There’s a wide range of potential applications for the sensor, said Clevenson, “from industrial sensing in large chemical plants for safety applications, to environmental sensing out in the field, to homeland security applications for detecting toxic gases, to medical settings, where the polymer could be treated for specific antibodies.”

The thin PMMA polymer films, which are 400 nanometers thick, are patterned with structures that are 8-10 micrometers long by 600 nanometers wide and suspended in the air. In one experiment, the films were embedded on tissue paper, which allowed 80 percent of the sensors to be suspended over the air gaps in the paper. Surrounding the PMMA film with air is important, Clevenson said, both because it allows the device to swell when exposed to the target gas, and because the optical properties of air allow the device to be designed to trap light travelling in the polymer film.

The team found that these sensors are easily reusable since the polymer shrinks back to its original length once the targeted gas has been removed.

The current experimental sensitivity of the devices is 10 parts per million, but the team predicts that with further refinement, they could detect gases with part-per-billion concentration levels.

The researchers have provided an image illustrating the sensor’s response to a target gas,

High-sensitivity detection of dilute gases is demonstrated by monitoring the resonance of a suspended polymer nanocavity. The inset shows the target gas molecules (darker) interacting with the polymer material (lighter). This interaction causes the nanocavity to swell, resulting in a shift of its resonance. CREDIT: H. Clevenson/MIT

High-sensitivity detection of dilute gases is demonstrated by monitoring the resonance of a suspended polymer nanocavity. The inset shows the target gas molecules (darker) interacting with the polymer material (lighter). This interaction causes the nanocavity to swell, resulting in a shift of its resonance.
CREDIT: H. Clevenson/MIT

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

High sensitivity gas sensor based on high-Q suspended polymer photonic crystal nanocavity by  Hannah Clevenson, Pierre Desjardins, Xuetao Gan, and Dirk Englund. Appl. Phys. Lett. 104, 241108 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4879735

This is an open access paper.

Graphene-based sensor mimics pain (mu-opioid) receptor

I once had a job where I had to perform literature searches and read papers on pain research as it related to morphine tolerance. Not a pleasant task, it has left me eager to encourage and write about alternatives to animal testing, a key component of pain research. So, with a ‘song in my heart’, I feature this research from the University of Pennsylvania written up in a May 12, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Almost every biological process involves sensing the presence of a certain chemical. Finely tuned over millions of years of evolution, the body’s different receptors are shaped to accept certain target chemicals. When they bind, the receptors tell their host cells to produce nerve impulses, regulate metabolism, defend the body against invaders or myriad other actions depending on the cell, receptor and chemical type.

Now, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have led an effort to create an artificial chemical sensor based on one of the human body’s most important receptors, one that is critical in the action of painkillers and anesthetics. In these devices, the receptors’ activation produces an electrical response rather than a biochemical one, allowing that response to be read out by a computer.

By attaching a modified version of this mu-opioid receptor to strips of graphene, they have shown a way to mass produce devices that could be useful in drug development and a variety of diagnostic tests. And because the mu-opioid receptor belongs to the most common class of such chemical sensors, the findings suggest that the same technique could be applied to detect a wide range of biologically relevant chemicals.

A May 6, 2014 University of Pennsylvania news release, which originated the news item, describes the main teams involved in this research along with why and how they worked together (Note: Links have been removed),

The study, published in the journal Nano Letters, was led by A.T. Charlie Johnson, director of Penn’s Nano/Bio Interface Center and professor of physics in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences; Renyu Liu, assistant professor of anesthesiology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine; and Mitchell Lerner, then a graduate student in Johnson’s lab. It was made possible through a collaboration with Jeffery Saven, professor of chemistry in Penn Arts & Sciences. The Penn team also worked with researchers from the Seoul National University in South Korea.

Their study combines recent advances from several disciplines.

Johnson’s group has extensive experience attaching biological components to nanomaterials for use in chemical detectors. Previous studies have involved wrapping carbon nanotubes with single-stranded DNA to detect odors related to cancer and attaching antibodies to nanotubes to detect the presence of the bacteria associated with Lyme disease.

After Saven and Liu addressed these problems with the redesigned receptor, they saw that it might be useful to Johnson, who had previously published a study on attaching a similar receptor protein to carbon nanotubes. In that case, the protein was difficult to grow genetically, and Johnson and his colleagues also needed to include additional biological structures from the receptors’ natural membranes in order to keep them stable.

In contrast, the computationally redesigned protein could be readily grown and attached directly to graphene, opening up the possibility of mass producing biosensor devices that utilize these receptors.

“Due to the challenges associated with isolating these receptors from their membrane environment without losing functionality,” Liu said, “the traditional methods of studying them involved indirectly investigating the interactions between opioid and the receptor via radioactive or fluorescent labeled ligands, for example. This multi-disciplinary effort overcame those difficulties, enabling us to investigate these interactions directly in a cell free system without the need to label any ligands.”

With Saven and Liu providing a version of the receptor that could stably bind to sheets of graphene, Johnson’s team refined their process of manufacturing those sheets and connecting them to the circuitry necessary to make functional devices.

The news release provides more technical details about the graphene sensor,

“We start by growing a piece of graphene that is about six inches wide by 12 inches long,” Johnson said. “That’s a pretty big piece of graphene, but we don’t work with the whole thing at once. Mitchell Lerner, the lead author of the study, came up with a very clever idea to cut down on chemical contamination. We start with a piece that is about an inch square, then separate them into ribbons that are about 50 microns across.

“The nice thing about these ribbons is that we can put them right on top of the rest of the circuitry, and then go on to attach the receptors. This really reduces the potential for contamination, which is important because contamination greatly degrades the electrical properties we measure.”

Because the mechanism by which the device reports on the presence of the target molecule relies only on the receptor’s proximity to the nanostructure when it binds to the target, Johnson’s team could employ the same chemical technique for attaching the antibodies and other receptors used in earlier studies.

Once attached to the ribbons, the opioid receptors would produce changes in the surrounding graphene’s electrical properties whenever they bound to their target. Those changes would then produce electrical signals that would be transmitted to a computer via neighboring electrodes.

The high reliability of the manufacturing process — only one of the 193 devices on the chip failed — enables applications in both clinical diagnostics and further research. [emphasis mine]

“We can measure each device individually and average the results, which greatly reduces the noise,” said Johnson. “Or you could imagine attaching 10 different kinds of receptors to 20 devices each, all on the same chip, if you wanted to test for multiple chemicals at once.”

In the researchers’ experiment, they tested their devices’ ability to detect the concentration of a single type of molecule. They used naltrexone, a drug used in alcohol and opioid addiction treatment, because it binds to and blocks the natural opioid receptors that produce the narcotic effects patients seek.

“It’s not clear whether the receptors on the devices are as selective as they are in the biological context,” Saven said, “as the ones on your cells can tell the difference between an agonist, like morphine, and an antagonist, like naltrexone, which binds to the receptor but does nothing. By working with the receptor-functionalized graphene devices, however, not only can we make better diagnostic tools, but we can also potentially get a better understanding of how the bimolecular system actually works in the body.”

“Many novel opioids have been developed over the centuries,” Liu said. “However, none of them has achieved potent analgesic effects without notorious side effects, including devastating addiction and respiratory depression. This novel tool could potentially aid the development of new opioids that minimize these side effects.”

Wherever these devices find applications, they are a testament to the potential usefulness of the Nobel-prize winning material they are based on.

“Graphene gives us an advantage,” Johnson said, “in that its uniformity allows us to make 192 devices on a one-inch chip, all at the same time. There are still a number of things we need to work out, but this is definitely a pathway to making these devices in large quantities.”

There is no mention of animal research but it seems likely to me that this work could lead to a decreased use of animals in pain research.

This project must have been quite something as it involved collaboration across many institutions (from the news release),

Also contributing to the study were Gang Hee Han, Sung Ju Hong and Alexander Crook of Penn Arts & Sciences’ Department of Physics and Astronomy; Felipe Matsunaga and Jin Xi of the Department of Anesthesiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, José Manuel Pérez-Aguilar of Penn Arts & Sciences’ Department of Chemistry; and Yung Woo Park of Seoul National University. Mitchell Lerner is now at SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific, Felipe Matsunaga at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, José Manuel Pérez-Aguilar at Cornell University and Sung Ju Hong at Seoul National University.

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

Scalable Production of Highly Sensitive Nanosensors Based on Graphene Functionalized with a Designed G Protein-Coupled Receptor by Mitchell B. Lerner, Felipe Matsunaga, Gang Hee Han, Sung Ju Hong, Jin Xi, Alexander Crook, Jose Manuel Perez-Aguilar, Yung Woo Park, Jeffery G. Saven, Renyu Liu, and A. T. Charlie Johnson.Nano Lett., Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/nl5006349 Publication Date (Web): April 17, 2014
Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Monitoring air pollution at home, at work, and in the car—the nano way

Meagan Clark, in an April 18, 2014  article for International Business Times, writes about a project in the EU (European Union) where researchers are working to develop nanotechnology-enabled sensors for air quality at home, at work, and in the car,

Poor indoor and outdoor air quality is linked to one in eight deaths worldwide or 7 million, making it the world’s most dangerous environmental health risk, according to a March [2014?] report by the World Health Organization.

That is the reasoning behind the European Union’s decision to fund a new nanotechnology project [IAQSENSE] that would allow people to gauge air quality real-time at home, work and in cars with low cost, mini sensor systems, the EU’s community research and development information service announced Friday [April 18, 2014].

“The control of indoor air quality and the related comfort it provides should have a huge societal impact on health, presence at work and economic-related factors,” Claude Iroulart, coordinator of IAQSENSE, said in a statement. …

The IAQSENSE homepage provides more details about itself,

The indoor air quality (IAQ) influences the health and well-being of people. For the last 20 years, there has been a growing concern regarding pollutants in closed environments and the difficulty in identifying these pollutants and their critical levels, without heavy, expensive equipment.

IAQSense aims to develop new nanotechnology based sensor systems that will precisely monitor the composition of the air in terms of both chemical and bio contaminants. This system will be miniaturized, low cost and adapted to mass production.

A major challenge consists of a gaz [sic] sensor system which must be at the same time low cost and highly sensitive and selective.  IAQSense relies on three patented technologies, of which one is based on surface ion mobility dynamics separating each gas component. Working like a spectrometer it allows high sensitivity fast multi-gas detection in a way never seen before.

IAQSense Project will characterize, monitor and improve indoor air quality in an innovative way.

The consortium is composed of 4 SMEs [small to medium enterprises[, 3 industrial companies and 3 research institutes. The project will last 3 years (01.09.2013 – 31.08.2016) and will deliver a complete sensor system.

The IAQSense research project has received funding from the European Community´s 7th Framework Programme under grant agreement n° 6043125.

As someone who has suffered from breathing problems from time to time, I wish them the best with this project .

‘Ship in a bottle’ concept helps to create an artificial nose

I love the description of this latest artificial nose, ,as being based on a ‘ship in a bottle’ concept, from an Oct. 10, 2013 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Rice University scientists took a lesson from craftsmen of old to assemble microscopic compounds that warn of the presence of dangerous fumes from solvents.

The researchers combined a common mineral, zeolite, with a metallic compound based on rhenium to make an “artificial nose” that can sniff out solvent gases. They found that in the presence of the compound, each gas had a photoluminescent “fingerprint” with a specific intensity, lifetime and color.

The challenge for Martí and his team was to get their large metallic particles through the much smaller pores of a zeolite cage. The answer: Do it old-school. In their process, small chemical components enter the cage, find each other and self-assemble into rhenium complexes. Then they’re stuck — like a ship in a bottle.

The news release goes on to relate how the researchers created their ‘ship in a bottle’ or zeolite cage,

“We sequentially load the individual parts of the complex into the zeolite,” Martí said. “The parts are smaller than the pores, but when they self-assemble inside the zeolite, they’re trapped.” Once washed to eliminate complexes that form outside the zeolites, the compound is ready for use.

The relatively simple technique, which was initially developed and studied by two Rice alumni while they were undergraduate students in Martí’s lab, could provide a scalable, inexpensive platform to monitor toxic vapors from industrial solvents.

Solvents are liquid chemicals, often petroleum-based, that are widely used to dissolve solid materials. They are found in paints, thinners, aerosol sprays, dyes, marking pens, adhesives and many other products.

They also evaporate quickly. Solvent vapors, which are hazardous to inhale and can be highly flammable, are often denser than air and gather at floor level, where they can build to dangerous amounts unless detected.

Martí said platinum, gold, palladium and copper salts are often used to detect vapors, because they change color in the presence of solvents. The rhenium-based supramolecular complex was known to fluoresce in the presence of some solvents, but dealing with vapors is a different story.

“If the complexes are in a solid state, they are too close to each other and gases can’t interact with them,” he said. “So we started thinking of ways to create space between them.”

Enter zeolites. “These zeolites are cages with big cavities and small pores,” Martí said. “The pores are big enough — at about 7.4 angstroms — for most gas-phase molecules to enter. The question was how to trap the bigger rhenium complexes inside.”

Other groups have trapped ruthenium complexes in zeolites, but these complexes were not ideal to detect solvents. Then-undergraduates Ty Hanna and, later, Zack Panos developed the method to put rhenium complexes inside zeolites. The results were outstanding, Martí said.

Like canaries in a coalmine, the caged complexes strongly signal the presence of a vapor by the color and intensity of their photoluminescent glow in ultraviolet light.

Martí said nobody had studied the third key property — the amount of time the complex remains in an excited state. That ranges from less than 1,000 nanoseconds for water and ammonia to “a quite long” 4,000-plus nanoseconds for pyridine. It’s different for every type of vapor, he said.

“We concluded that every individual vapor has a set of photophysical properties that is unique for that solvent,” he said. “Each one has a unique fingerprint.”

With the ability to detect three distinct characteristics for each vapor, a team led by graduate student Avishek Saha built a three-dimensional plot to map the fingerprints of 17 types of solvents. They found categories of solvents — nonpolar, alcohols, protics (which include water) and aprotics — tended to gather in their own areas.

“That’s another interesting thing,” Martí said. “Different solvent groups occupy different areas in the map. So even if a solvent hasn’t been studied, our material will help people recognize the category it falls into.”

He said the group plans to test more solvents and suggested the material may also be useful for detecting the presence of other volatile species like explosives.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research article,

Three-Dimensional Solvent-Vapor Map Generated by Supramolecular Metal-Complex Entrapment by Avishek Saha, Zack Panos, Ty Hanna, Kewei Huang, Mayra Hernández-Rivera, and Prof. Angel A. Martí.
Angewandte Chemie International Edition Article first published online: 2 OCT 2013 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201305762

Copyright © 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinhei

The article is behind a paywall.

The reference to a ‘ship in a bottle’ brought me back to my childhood. Our parents had a ‘ship in a bottle’ but neither my sister nor I were allowed to touch it. In fact, it was brought out for viewing purposes only on special occasions. I no longer remember what made it so precious but I do recall how magical it seemed. Luckily the internet has made satisfying one’s curiosity easy; I found a picture and instructions on how to make ‘a ship in a bottle’,

Credit: Goaly (?) [downloaded from http://www.instructables.com/id/Building-A-Ship-In-A-Bottle/]

Credit: Goaly (?) [downloaded from http://www.instructables.com/id/Building-A-Ship-In-A-Bottle/]

You can find instructions by Goaly for Building a Ship in a Bottle here.

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

Carbon nanotubes one way: gas The other way: flexible sensors*

A Sept. 24, 2013 Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert) promises that flexible sensors are on the horizon,

Carbon nanotube-based gas sensors created at TUM offer a unique combination of characteristics that can’t be matched by any of the alternative technologies. They rapidly detect and continuously respond to extremely small changes in the concentrations of gases including ammonia, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. They operate at room temperature and consume very little power. Furthermore, as the TUM researchers report in their latest papers, such devices can be fabricated on flexible backing materials through large-area, low-cost processes.

Thus it becomes realistic to envision plastic food wrap that incorporates flexible, disposable gas sensors, providing a more meaningful indicator of food freshness than the sell-by date. Measuring carbon dioxide, for example, can help predict the shelf life of meat. “Smart packaging” – assuming consumers find it acceptable and the devices’ non-toxic nature can be demonstrated – could enhance food safety and might also vastly reduce the amount of food that is wasted. Used in a different setting, the same sort of gas sensor could make it less expensive and more practical to monitor indoor air quality in real time.

Dexter Johnson in a Sept. 26, 2013 posting on Nanoclast (an IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] blog) warns (Note: Links have been removed),

While this sounds great, the obstacle preventing this from becoming a reality has always been cost. Thin-film sensory packaging may make sense for a high-cost item, but for an inexpensive grocery store product, it’s hard to justify an additional cost that may be as much as the product itself. I made this point nearly a decade ago in report I authored titled, “The Future of Nanotechnology in Printing and Packaging”.

This doesn’t even take into account the often biased opinion people have about nanotechnology in relation to food.

Dexter recommends the researchers focus their commercialization efforts on robotic skins and other high ticket applications.

In reading the description of how the researchers created these flexible sensors, Dexter’s concerns are brought int high relief,

The most basic building block for this technology is a single cylindrical molecule, a rolled-up sheet of carbon atoms that are linked in a honeycomb pattern. This so-called carbon nanotube could be likened to an unimaginably long garden hose: a hollow tube just a nanometer or so in diameter but perhaps millions of times as long as it is wide. Individual carbon nanotubes exhibit amazing and useful properties, but in this case the researchers are more interested in what can be done with them en masse.

Laid down in thin films, randomly oriented carbon nanotubes form conductive networks that can serve as electrodes; patterned and layered films can function as sensors or transistors. “In fact,” Prof. Lugli [Prof. Paolo Lugli, director of TUM’s Nanoelectronics Institute] explains, “the electrical resistivity of such films can be modulated by either an applied voltage (to provide a transistor action) or by the adsorption of gas molecules, which in turn is a signature of the gas concentration for sensor applications.” And as a basis for gas sensors in particular, carbon nanotubes combine advantages (and avoid shortcomings) of more established materials, such as polymer-based organic electronics and solid-state metal-oxide semiconductors. What has been lacking until now is a reliable, reproducible, low-cost fabrication method.

Spray deposition, supplemented if necessary by transfer printing, meets that need. An aqueous solution of carbon nanotubes looks like a bottle of black ink and can be handled in similar ways. Thus devices can be sprayed – from a computer-controlled robotic nozzle – onto virtually any kind of substrate, including large-area sheets of flexible plastic. There is no need for expensive clean-room facilities.

“To us it was important to develop an easily scalable technology platform for manufacturing large-area printed and flexible electronics based on organic semiconductors and nanomaterials,” Abdellah says. “To that end, spray deposition forms the core of our processing technology.”

Remaining technical challenges arise largely from application-specific requirements, such as the need for gas sensors to be selective as well as sensitive.

Here are citations for and links to three of the researchers’ papers,

Fabrication of carbon nanotube thin films on flexible substrates by spray deposition and transfer printing. Ahmed Abdelhalim, Alaa Abdellah, Giuseppe Scarpa, Paolo Lugli. Carbon, Vol. 61, September 2013, 72-79. DOI: 10.1016/j.carbon.2013.04.069

Flexible carbon nanotube-based gas sensors fabricated by large-scale spray deposition.
Alaa Abdellah, Zubair Ahmad, Philipp Köhler, Florin Loghin, Alexander Weise, Giuseppe Scarpa, Paolo Lugli. IEEE Sensors Journal, Vol. 13 Issue 10, October 2013, 4014-4021. DOI: 10.1109/JSEN.2013.2265775

Scalable spray deposition process for high performance carbon nanotube gas sensors. Alaa Abdellah, Ahmed Abdelhalim, Markus Horn, Giuseppe Scarpa, and Paolo Lugli. IEEE Transactions on Nanotechnology 12, 174-181, 2013. DOI: 10.1109/TNANO.2013.2238248

All three papers are behind paywalls.

In one of those coincidences that take place from time to time, I wrote about an upcoming event taking place in the Guardian’s London offices, a panel discussion on nanotechnology and food,in a Sept.  26, 2013 posting.

* In the interest of some clarity the head was changed on March 13, 2015.

Detecting date rape drugs before you drink

A July 3, 2013 article by Gail Weinreb for Globes.co features an Israeli company’s (Drink Science) nanotechnology-enabled date rape sensor,

Date rape drugs are anesthetics used by the pharmaceutical industry. Users of the drug obtain them illegally, but do not develop them at home, so there is little variability between the different versions, and they can be detected by a single test. However, a test for detecting date rape drugs does not solve the problem of the rape of a victim who has ingested the drug or other drugs such as Ecstasy (or rape that does involve the use of drugs at all), but only the specific use of anesthetics.

The chemical part of the test uses a solvent, which when it comes in contract with a date rape drug, precipitates making the beverage turbid. The product is designed like a drinks mix or cosmetics (such as eyeliner). A woman drops the product into the glass and waits for a reaction. In cases of a dark nightclub, for example, where it is impossible to see whether the drink has become turbid or remained clear, the test includes another trick – it has an LED light. The light diminishes in turbidity. “We found 100% accuracy in the drinks we tested,” Avidor [CEO Dr. Yoav Avidor] said. “The product works on many kinds of drinks.”

According to Weinrreb’s article, Avidor expects the product to be on the market in nine months.

Unfortunately, there’s not much information about the company or the product on its website although you can find news coverage dating from August 2011 about the product. The company does offer this description of itself and the product on its Facebook page,

Drink Sciences is a start-up that’s developing a straw/stirrer that detects date rape drugs in drinks. We are focused on helping prevent Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault, a crime with growing incidence rates in the US and globally.

I wish them good luck with launching their product into the marketplace when, presumably, they’ll have a name for it.