Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

Sand and nanotechnology

There’s some good news coming out of the University of California, Riverside regarding sand and lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, which I will temper with some additional information later in this posting.

First, the good news is that researchers have a new non-toxic, low cost way to produce a component in lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries according to a July 8, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering have created a lithium ion battery that outperforms the current industry standard by three times. The key material: sand. Yes, sand.

“This is the holy grail — a low cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly way to produce high performance lithium ion battery anodes,” said Zachary Favors, a graduate student working with Cengiz and Mihri Ozkan, both engineering professors at UC Riverside.

The idea came to Favors six months ago. He was relaxing on the beach after surfing in San Clemente, Calif. when he picked up some sand, took a close look at it and saw it was made up primarily of quartz, or silicon dioxide.

His research is centered on building better lithium ion batteries, primarily for personal electronics and electric vehicles. He is focused on the anode, or negative side of the battery. Graphite is the current standard material for the anode, but as electronics have become more powerful graphite’s ability to be improved has been virtually tapped out.

A July 8, 2014 University of California at Riverside news release by Sean Nealon, which originated the news item, describes some of the problems with silicon as a replacement for graphite and how the researchers approached those problems,

Researchers are now focused on using silicon at the nanoscale, or billionths of a meter, level as a replacement for graphite. The problem with nanoscale silicon is that it degrades quickly and is hard to produce in large quantities.

Favors set out to solve both these problems. He researched sand to find a spot in the United States where it is found with a high percentage of quartz. That took him to the Cedar Creek Reservoir, east of Dallas, where he grew up.

Sand in hand, he came back to the lab at UC Riverside and milled it down to the nanometer scale, followed by a series of purification steps changing its color from brown to bright white, similar in color and texture to powdered sugar.

After that, he ground salt and magnesium, both very common elements found dissolved in sea water into the purified quartz. The resulting powder was then heated. With the salt acting as a heat absorber, the magnesium worked to remove the oxygen from the quartz, resulting in pure silicon.

The Ozkan team was pleased with how the process went. And they also encountered an added positive surprise. The pure nano-silicon formed in a very porous 3-D silicon sponge like consistency. That porosity has proved to be the key to improving the performance of the batteries built with the nano-silicon.

Now, the Ozkan team is trying to produce larger quantities of the nano-silicon beach sand and is planning to move from coin-size batteries to pouch-size batteries that are used in cell phones.

The research is supported by Temiz Energy Technologies. The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization has filed patents for inventions reported in the research paper.

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

Scalable Synthesis of Nano-Silicon from Beach Sand for Long Cycle Life Li-ion Batteries by Zachary Favors, Wei Wang, Hamed Hosseini Bay, Zafer Mutlu, Kazi Ahmed, Chueh Liu, Mihrimah Ozkan, & Cengiz S. Ozkan. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 5623 doi:10.1038/srep05623 Published 08 July 2014

While this is good news, it does pose a conundrum of sorts. It seems that supplies of sand are currently under siege. A documentary, Sand Wars (2013) lays out the issues (from the Sand Wars website’s Synopsis page),

Most of us think of it as a complimentary ingredient of any beach vacation. Yet those seemingly insignificant grains of silica surround our daily lives. Every house, skyscraper and glass building, every bridge, airport and sidewalk in our modern society depends on sand. We use it to manufacture optical fiber, cell phone components and computer chips. We find it in our toothpaste, powdered foods and even in our glass of wine (both the glass and the wine, as a fining agent)!

Is sand an infinite resource? Can the existing supply satisfy a gigantic demand fueled by construction booms?  What are the consequences of intensive beach sand mining for the environment and the neighboring populations?

Based on encounters with sand smugglers, barefoot millionaires, corrupt politicians, unscrupulous real estate developers and environmentalists, this investigation takes us around the globe to unveil a new gold rush and a disturbing fact: the “SAND WARS” have begun.

Dr. Muditha D Senarath Yapa of John Keells Research at John Keells Holdings comments on the situation in Sri Lanka in his June 22, 2014 article (Nanotechnology – Depleting the most precious minerals for a few dollars) for The Nation,

Many have written for many years about the mineral sands of Pulmoddai. It is a national tragedy that for more than 50 years, we have been depleting the most precious minerals of our land for a few dollars. There are articles that appeared in various newspapers on how the mineral sands industry has boomed over the years. I hope the readers understand that it only means that we are depleting our resources faster than ever. According to the Lanka Mineral Sands Limited website, 90,000 tonnes of ilmenite, 9,000 tonnes of rutile, 5,500 tonnes of zircon, 100 tonnes of monazite and 4,000 tonnes of high titanium ilmenite are produced annually and shipped away to other countries.

… It is time for Sri Lanka to look at our own resources with this new light and capture the future nano materials market to create value added materials.

It’s interesting that he starts with the depletion of the sands as a national tragedy and ends with a plea to shift from a resource-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy. (This plea resonates strongly here in Canada where we too are a resource-based economy.)

Sidebar: John Keells Holdings is a most unusual company, from the About Us page,

In terms of market capitalisation, John Keells Holdings PLC is one of the largest listed conglomerate on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Other measures tell a similar tale; our group companies manage the largest number of hotel rooms in Sri Lanka, own the country’s largest privately-owned transportation business and hold leading positions in Sri Lanka’s key industries: tea, food and beverage manufacture and distribution, logistics, real estate, banking and information technology. Our investment in Sri Lanka is so deep and widely diversified that our stock price is sometimes used by international financial analysts as a benchmark of the country’s economy.

Yapa heads the companies research effort, which recently celebrated a synthetic biology agreement (from a May 2014 John Keells news release by Nuwan),

John Keells Research Signs an Historic Agreement with the Human Genetics Unit, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo to establish Sri Lanka’s first Synthetic Biology Research Programme.

Getting back to sand, these three pieces, ‘sand is good for li-ion batteries’, ‘sand is a diminishing resource’, and ‘let’s stop being a source of sand for other countries’ lay bare some difficult questions about our collective future on this planet.

FrogHeart at the 2012 S.NET conference, part 2: Canada, nano, and the mango

I was delighted to learn more about the nanotechnology collaboration between Canada, India, and Sri Lanka (mentioned in my India, Sri Lanka, and Canada team up for nanotechnology-enabled food packaging posting of June 21, 2012) at the S.Net 2012 conference.

Rumana Bukht and Sally Randles from the University of Manchester’s Business School titled their presentation, Intervention of the State on Responsible Development of Nanotechnology in Canada.

Before discussing the presentation, here’s a summary of the project from my June 21, 2012 posting,

From the June 20, 2012 University of Guelph news release,

University of Guelph scientists led by Prof. Jayasankar Subramanian will work with South Asian colleagues to develop innovative packaging using state-of-the-art nanotechnology to reduce post-harvest losses in mangoes, a vital fruit crop in South Asia.

The $2.3 million project, announced today by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), will improve livelihoods for nearly one-third of the populations of India and Sri Lanka, mostly small-scale farmers.

The Guelph scientists will work with researchers from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in India and Sri Lanka’s Industrial Technology Institute.

“Invented in part at U of G, this new packaging system should reduce post-harvest losses in fruits in India and Sri Lanka, where optimal storage conditions are not readily available.”

Mangoes are the second largest fruit crop in India and third in Sri Lanka. Farmers lose 35 to 40 per cent of their crops ─ worth $800 million a year ─ because of poor storage.

The researchers will combine patented technologies to develop special fruit cartons, dividers and wraps lined with nanoparticles from coconut husks and banana plants. Using these farm waste products will help provide income for small-scale entrepreneurs, particularly women.

During her talk, Rumana mentioned hexanal as an important ingredient in this new packaging. While my notes don’t provide much information about this ingredient, I did find this great April 26, 2012 article by Arun P Mathew for the Times of India, which provides more technical detail,

K S Subramanian, head of the department of Nano Science and Technology, who is involved in the project said that the University of Guelph, Canada discovered that hexanal, a chemical extracted from plants could successfully enhance the shelf-life and quality of fruits and vegetables. A researcher at TNAU [Tamil Nadu Agricultural University] has come [up] with a nano-film, he said.

“A combination of these two technologies could help develop a nano film with hexanal, which will improve the longevity of these fruits. Through this technology, around 30 percent of the losses could be avoided. This will improve the export of fruits and vegetables and increase the sales of fruits making farming more economically viable,” he said. Subramanian said that they would first be applied on mangoes and later on other fruits, based on its success.

He said that this will be an eco-friendly product. “Hexanal has been approved by United States based, FDA ( Food and Drug Administration). …

Rumana noted there will be safety testing of this hexanal-based nano-film and the testing will take place in India (not Canada) because India has better safety equipment and personnel with the appropriate skill sets. Canada will contribute the safety protocols. If the mango project is successful, researchers are considering plums and peaches for future projects.

I did want to get more  information about this collaboration and about the Canadian nano scene. As I have noted many times, getting information is difficult and I gather Rumana experienced some of the same difficulties. At least, I’m inferring difficulty from the fact that she refused, due to confidentiality agreements, to tell me which Canadian government officials she’d spoken with although she did identify departments (Health Canada and Industry Canada). Given all the secrecy you’d think something nefarious was happening instead of an attempt to minimize food wastage.

Next: OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and public engagement at S.NET 2012

India, Sri Lanka, and Canada team up for nanotechnology-enabled food packaging

Canada’s University of Guelph keeps coming up on my radar these days. The latest news concerns a nanotechnology-enabled food packaging technology. From the June 20, 2012 University of Guelph news release,

University of Guelph scientists led by Prof. Jayasankar Subramanian will work with South Asian colleagues to develop innovative packaging using state-of-the-art nanotechnology to reduce post-harvest losses in mangoes, a vital fruit crop in South Asia.

The $2.3 million project, announced today by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), will improve livelihoods for nearly one-third of the populations of India and Sri Lanka, mostly small-scale farmers.

The Guelph scientists will work with researchers from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in India and Sri Lanka’s Industrial Technology Institute.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with leading scientists and institutes in Asia to raise the income of poor farmers and make food more nutritious and secure,” said Subramanian, a professor in Guelph’s Department of Plant Agriculture.

“Invented in part at U of G, this new packaging system should reduce post-harvest losses in fruits in India and Sri Lanka, where optimal storage conditions are not readily available.”

Mangoes are the second largest fruit crop in India and third in Sri Lanka. Farmers lose 35 to 40 per cent of their crops ─ worth $800 million a year ─ because of poor storage.

The researchers will combine patented technologies to develop special fruit cartons, dividers and wraps lined with nanoparticles from coconut husks and banana plants. Using these farm waste products will help provide income for small-scale entrepreneurs, particularly women.

I hope to hear more about this project as it progresses and hopefully next time, there’ll be a few more technical details. The mention of coconut husks and banana plants makes me wonder if they are talking about nanocellulose in some form or other.

For anyone who’s interested in the international aid aspects (from the news release),

The project is among six new initiatives funded by IDRC and CIDA under the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF). The five-year, $62-million project links researchers in Canada and developing countries to address hunger and food insecurity in the developing world.

I last wrote about Sri Lanka and its nanotechnology efforts in my June 4, 2012 posting and I have mentioned India’s nanotechnology efforts several times but perhaps the most relevant, as per this item was in my April 4, 2012 posting.

ETA Oct. 31,2012: Minor grammatical changes were made in the final sentence. ‘Time’ was changed to ‘times’ and I removed the words ‘recent mention’ as they made no sense in the sentence.

Serendipity and coaxial nanocables

I like the sound of the word coaxial especially when it’s used in conjunction with cable, as in coaxial cable. Adding the world serendipity to the mix, as they did at Rice University, made the June 7, 2012 news item by Jade Boyd on the Nanowerk website irresistible [Note: I have removed a link.],

Thanks to a little serendipity, researchers at Rice University have created a tiny coaxial cable that is about a thousand times smaller than a human hair and has higher capacitance than previously reported microcapacitors.

The nanocable, which is described this week in Nature Communications (“Anomalous high capacitance in a coaxial single nanowire capacitor” [behind paywall]), was produced with techniques pioneered in the nascent graphene research field and could be used to build next-generation energy-storage systems. It could also find use in wiring up components of lab-on-a-chip processors, but its discovery is owed partly to chance.

“We didn’t expect to create this when we started,” said study co-author Jun Lou, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Rice. “At the outset, we were just curious to see what would happen electrically and mechanically if we took small copper wires known as interconnects and covered them with a thin layer of carbon.”

Boyd’s June 7, 2012 news item can also be read in its entirety at the Rice University website [Note: I have removed some links.],

The tiny coaxial cable is remarkably similar in makeup to the ones that carry cable television signals into millions of homes and offices. The heart of the cable is a solid copper wire that is surrounded by a thin sheath of insulating copper oxide. A third layer, another conductor, surrounds that. In the case of TV cables, the third layer is copper again, but in the nanocable it is a thin layer of carbon measuring just a few atoms thick. The coax nanocable is about 100 nanometers, or 100 billionths of a meter, wide.

While the coaxial cable is a mainstay of broadband telecommunications, the three-layer, metal-insulator-metal structure can also be used to build energy-storage devices called capacitors. Unlike batteries, which rely on chemical reactions to both store and supply electricity, capacitors use electrical fields. A capacitor contains two electrical conductors, one negative and the other positive, that are separated by thin layer of insulation. Separating the oppositely charged conductors creates an electrical potential, and that potential increases as the separated charges increase and as the distance between them – occupied by the insulating layer — decreases. The proportion between the charge density and the separating distance is known as capacitance, and it’s the standard measure of efficiency of a capacitor.

The study reports that the capacitance of the nanocable is at least 10 times greater than what would be predicted with classical electrostatics.

“The increase is most likely due to quantum effects that arise because of the small size of the cable,” said study co-author Pulickel Ajayan, Rice’s Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.

When the project began 18 months ago, Rice postdoctoral researcher Zheng Liu, the lead co-author of the study, intended to make pure copper wires covered with carbon. The techniques for making the wires, which are just a few nanometers wide, are well-established because the wires are often used as “interconnects” in state-of-the-art electronics. Liu used a technique known as chemical vapor deposition (CVD) to cover the wires with a thin coating of carbon. The CVD technique is also used to grow sheets of single-atom-thick carbon called graphene on films of copper.

“When people make graphene, they usually want to study the graphene and they aren’t very interested in the copper,” Lou said. “It’s just used a platform for making the graphene.”

When Liu ran some electronic tests on his first few samples, the results were far from what he expected.

“We eventually found that a thin layer of copper oxide — which is served as a dielectric layer — was forming between the copper and the carbon,” said Liu.

Here’s an image illustrating this process,

The three-layer coaxial nanocable contains a solid copper wire surrounded by a layer of copper oxide that is encased a layer of carbon just a few atoms thick. (Courtesy: Rice University)

The researchers don’t seem to have any particular applications in mind for their nancoaxial cable although they seem hopeful about a few possibilities (from the June 7, 2012 news item on the Rice University website,

The capacitance of the new nanocable is up to 143 microfarads per centimeter squared, better than the best previous results from microcapacitors.

Lou said it may be possible to build a large-scale energy-storage device by arranging millions of the tiny nanocables side by side in large arrays.

“The nanoscale cable might also be used as a transmission line for radio frequency signals at the nanoscale,” Liu said. “This could be useful as a fundamental building block in micro- and nano-sized electromechanical systems like lab-on-a-chip devices.”

Who knows where serendipity will take this discovery?

As for why that word made the item irresistible to me, many years ago I was at a dinner party and one of the guests (a vivid storyteller and born in Sri Lanka) explained the origin of the word, serendipity. Sadly I don’t remember the details of her story, so here’s a less rich version of the story from the Encyclopedia Britannia website,

Serendib, also spelled Serendip, Arabic Sarandīb, name for the island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The name, Arabic in origin, was recorded in use at least as early as ad 361 and for a time gained considerable currency in the West. It is best known to speakers of English through the word serendipity, invented in the 18th century by the English man of letters Horace Walpole on the inspiration of a Persian fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes often made discoveries by chance.

Sri Lanka’s nano

Carol Aloysius’ May 27, 2012 article for Sri Lanka’s The Nation newspaper highlights both the country’s nanotechnology’s efforts and one of its leading nanoscientists, Prof Veranja Karunaratne,

Five years ago, a unique initiative was launched through the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC). The Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) which is a public-private partnership aimed at providing platform research solutions based on nanotechnology to the Sri Lankan industries has not only attracted global recognition, it has earned the man responsible for driving it to its current global status a coveted award from the French government.

“The vision of NNI is to facilitate development and make Sri Lanka an industrial power in order to enable the country to emerge from poverty by infusing nanotechnology based innovations through research and development utilizing local raw materials, resources and talent. In order to fast-tract the NNI, the Government proposed the setting up of SLINTEC, the first ever Government funded start-up research company,” says Prof Veranja Karunaratne.

A fortnight ago, on May 11, Prof Karunaratne who is a Senior Professor in the Department of Chemistry, University of Peradeniya, and for the last few years, Science Team Leader, Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC), was conferred the distinction of Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques, in recognition of his personal involvement in the promotion of French language and culture in Sri Lanka.

Aloysius’ article goes on to discuss some of Sri Lanka’s NNI initiatives and Karunaratne’s hopes for the country’s future,

SLINTEC which started research in August 2009, thus far, has applied for five patents at the United States Patent Office to cover the innovations for its joint venture partners, he notes. “Two of the patents pertained to the slow release nanofertilizer formulations which release nitrogen to the soil in slow, sustained manner. These two patents attracted the attention of Nagarjuna Fertilizer and Chemicals Limited (NFCL) a global leader in the manufacture of fertilizer, and in a landmark scientific development, SLINTEC entered into a strategic collaboration with NFCL of Hyderabad, India, to develop the next generation of nanotechnology based plant fertilizer solutions.

In the area of value addition to Sri Lankan natural resources, SLINTEC entered into an agreement with Laughs Gas (Pvt) Ltd. to build a pilot plant to convert Ilmenite to Titanium Dioxide and nano-Titanium Dioxide. This agreement paves the way to the commercial production of Titanium Dioxide from the high purity Ilmentite ore whose value addition had remained elusive during the past decades while Sri Lanka exported sand to foreign countries.

The whole rationale behind this concept, is for SLINTEC to take the nation from, being   commodity sellers to a Smart Nation – a nation that generates and sells technology, he explains. [emphasis mine] He is convinced that this will happen in the near future, where Sri Lanka will be on par with other developed nations.

I think more than one Canadian can empathize with the desire to move your nation awary from being a commodity seller.