Tag Archives: Switzerland

Putting the speed on spin, spintronics that is

This is for physics fans, if you plan on looking at the published paper. Otherwise, the July 20, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily is more accessible to the rest of us,

In a tremendous boost for spintronic technologies, EPFL scientists have shown that electrons can jump through spins much faster than previously thought.

Electrons spin around atoms, but also spin around themselves, and can cross over from one spin state to another. A property which can be exploited for next-generation hard drives. However, “spin cross-over” has been considered too slow to be efficient. Using ultrafast measurements, EPFL scientists have now shown for the first time that electrons can cross spins at least 100,000 times faster than previously thought. Aside for its enormous implications for fundamental physics, the finding can also propel the field of spintronics forward. …

A July 20, 2015 EPFL press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides context for the research,

The rules of spin

Although difficult to describe in everyday terms, electron spin can be loosely compared to the rotation of a planet or a spinning top around its axis. Electrons can spin in different manners referred to as “spin states” and designated by the numbers 0, 1/2, 1, 3/2, 2 etc. During chemical reactions, electrons can cross from one spin state to another, e.g. from 0 to 1 or 1/2 to 3/2.

Spin cross-over is already used in many technologies, e.g. optical light-emitting devices (OLED), energy conversion systems, and cancer phototherapy. Most prominently, spin cross-over is the basis of the fledgling field of spintronics. The problem is that spin cross-over has been thought to be too slow to be efficient enough in circuits.

Spin cross-over is extremely fast

The lab of Majed Chergui at EPFL has now demonstrated that spin cross-over is considerably faster than previously thought. Using the highest time-resolution technology in the world, the lab was able to “see” electrons crossing through four spin states within 50 quadrillionths of a second — or 50 femtoseconds.

“Time resolution has always been a limitation,” says Chergui. “Over the years, labs have used techniques that could only measure spin changes to a billionth to a millionth of a second. So they thought that spin cross-over happened in this timeframe.”

Chergui’s lab focused on materials that show much promise in spintronics applications. In these materials, electrons jump through four spin-states: from 0 to 1 to 2. In 2009, Chergui’s lab pushed the boundaries of time resolution to show that this 0-2 “jump” can happen within 150 femtoseconds — suggesting that it was a direct event. Despite this, the community still maintained that such spin cross-overs go through intermediate steps.

But Chergui had his doubts. Working with his postdoc Gerald Auböck, they used the lab’s world-recognized expertise in ultrafast spectroscopy to “crank up” the time resolution. Briefly, a laser shines on the material sample under investigation, causing its electrons to move. Another laser measures their spin changes over time in the ultraviolet light range.

The finding essentially demolishes the notion of intermediate steps between spin jumps, as it does not allow enough time for them: only 50 quadrillionths of a second to go from the “0” to the “2” spin state. This is the first study to ever push time resolution to this limit in the ultraviolet domain. “This probably means that it’s even faster,” says Chergui. “But, more importantly, that it is a direct process.”

From observation to explanation

With profound implications for both technology and fundamental physics and chemistry, the study is an observation without an explanation. Chergui believes that the key is electrons shuttling back-and-forth between the iron atom at the center of the material’s molecules and its surrounding elements. “When the laser light shines on the atom, it changes the electron’s spin angle, affecting the entire spin dynamics in the molecule.”

It is now up to theoreticians to develop a new model for ultrafast spin changes. On the experimental side of things, Chergui’s lab is now focusing on actually observing electrons shuttling inside the molecules. This will require even more sophisticated approaches, such as core-level spectroscopy. Nonetheless, the study challenges ideas about spin cross-over, and might offer long-awaited solutions to the limitations of spintronics.

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

Sub-50-fs photoinduced spin crossover in [Fe(bpy)3]2+ by Gerald Auböck & Majed Chergui. Nature Chemistry (2015) doi:10.1038/nchem.2305 Published online 20 July 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanotechnology research protocols for Environment, Health and Safety Studies in US and a nanomedicine characterization laboratory in the European Union

I have two items relating to nanotechnology and the development of protocols. The first item concerns the launch of a new web portal by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.

US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

From a July 1, 2015 news item on Azonano,

As engineered nanomaterials increasingly find their way into commercial products, researchers who study the potential environmental or health impacts of those materials face a growing challenge to accurately measure and characterize them. These challenges affect measurements of basic chemical and physical properties as well as toxicology assessments.

To help nano-EHS (Environment, Health and Safety)researchers navigate the often complex measurement issues, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has launched a new website devoted to NIST-developed (or co-developed) and validated laboratory protocols for nano-EHS studies.

A July 1, 2015 NIST news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, offers more details about the information available through the web portal,

In common lab parlance, a “protocol” is a specific step-by-step procedure used to carry out a measurement or related activity, including all the chemicals and equipment required. Any peer-reviewed journal article reporting an experimental result has a “methods” section where the authors document their measurement protocol, but those descriptions are necessarily brief and condensed, and may lack validation of any sort. By comparison, on NIST’s new Protocols for Nano-EHS website the protocols are extraordinarily detailed. For ease of citation, they’re published individually–each with its own unique digital object identifier (DOI).

The protocols detail not only what you should do, but why and what could go wrong. The specificity is important, according to program director Debra Kaiser, because of the inherent difficulty of making reliable measurements of such small materials. “Often, if you do something seemingly trivial–use a different size pipette, for example–you get a different result. Our goal is to help people get data they can reproduce, data they can trust.”

A typical caution, for example, notes that if you’re using an instrument that measures the size of nanoparticles in a solution by how they scatter light, it’s important also to measure the transmission spectrum of the particles if they’re colored, because if they happen to absorb light strongly at the same frequency as your instrument, the result may be biased.

“These measurements are difficult because of the small size involved,” explains Kaiser. “Very few new instruments have been developed for this. People are adapting existing instruments and methods for the job, but often those instruments are being operated close to their limits and the methods were developed for chemicals or bulk materials and not for nanomaterials.”

“For example, NIST offers a reference material for measuring the size of gold nanoparticles in solution, and we report six different sizes depending on the instrument you use. We do it that way because different instruments sense different aspects of a nanoparticle’s dimensions. An electron microscope is telling you something different than a dynamic light scattering instrument, and the researcher needs to understand that.”

The nano-EHS protocols offered by the NIST site, Kaiser says, could form the basis for consensus-based, formal test methods such as those published by ASTM and ISO.

NIST’s nano-EHS protocol site currently lists 12 different protocols in three categories: sample preparation, physico-chemical measurements and toxicological measurements. More protocols will be added as they are validated and documented. Suggestions for additional protocols are welcome at nanoprotocols@nist.gov.

The next item concerns European nanomedicine.

CEA-LETI and Europe’s first nanomedicine characterization laboratory

A July 1, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes the partnership which has led to launch of the new laboratory,

CEA-Leti today announced the launch of the European Nano-Characterisation Laboratory (EU-NCL) funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programm[1]e. Its main objective is to reach a level of international excellence in nanomedicine characterisation for medical indications like cancer, diabetes, inflammatory diseases or infections, and make it accessible to all organisations developing candidate nanomedicines prior to their submission to regulatory agencies to get the approval for clinical trials and, later, marketing authorization.

“As reported in the ETPN White Paper[2], there is a lack of infrastructure to support nanotechnology-based innovation in healthcare,” said Patrick Boisseau, head of business development in nanomedicine at CEA-Leti and chairman of the European Technology Platform Nanomedicine (ETPN). “Nanocharacterisation is the first bottleneck encountered by companies developing nanotherapeutics. The EU-NCL project is of most importance for the nanomedicine community, as it will contribute to the competiveness of nanomedicine products and tools and facilitate regulation in Europe.”

EU-NCL is partnered with the sole international reference facility, the Nanotechnology Characterization Lab of the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. (US-NCL)[3], to get faster international harmonization of analytical protocols.

“We are excited to be part of this cooperative arrangement between Europe and the U.S.,” said Scott E. McNeil, director of U.S. NCL. “We hope this collaboration will help standardize regulatory requirements for clinical evaluation and marketing of nanomedicines internationally. This venture holds great promise for using nanotechnologies to overcome cancer and other major diseases around the world.”

A July 2, 2015 EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) news release on EurekAlert provides more detail about the laboratory and the partnerships,

The «European Nanomedicine Characterization Laboratory» (EU-NCL), which was launched on 1 June 2015, has a clear-cut goal: to help bring more nanomedicine candidates into the clinic and on the market, for the benefit of patients and the European pharmaceutical industry. To achieve this, EU-NCL is partnered with the sole international reference facility, the «Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory» (US-NCL) of the US-National Cancer Institute, to get faster international harmonization of analytical protocols. EU-NCL is also closely connected to national medicine agencies and the European Medicines Agency to continuously adapt its analytical services to requests of regulators. EU-NCL is designed, organized and operated according to the highest EU regulatory and quality standards. «We are excited to be part of this cooperative project between Europe and the U.S.,» says Scott E. McNeil, director of US-NCL. «We hope this collaboration will help standardize regulatory requirements for clinical evaluation and marketing of nanomedicines internationally. This venture holds great promise for using nanotechnologies to overcome cancer and other major diseases around the world.»

Nine partners from eight countries

EU-NCL, which is funded by the EU for a four-year period with nearly 5 million Euros, brings together nine partners from eight countries: CEA-Tech in Leti and Liten, France, the coordinator of the project; the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in Ispra, Italy; European Research Services GmbH in Münster Germany; Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc. in Frederick, USA; Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland; SINTEF in Oslo, Norway; the University of Liverpool in the UK; Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in St. Gallen, Switzerland; Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität (WWU) and Gesellschaft für Bioanalytik, both in Münster, Germany. Together, the partnering institutions will provide a trans-disciplinary testing infrastructure covering a comprehensive set of preclinical characterization assays (physical, chemical, in vitro and in vivo biological testing), which will allow researchers to fully comprehend the biodistribution, metabolism, pharmacokinetics, safety profiles and immunological effects of their medicinal nano-products. The project will also foster the use and deployment of standard operating procedures (SOPs), benchmark materials and quality management for the preclinical characterization of medicinal nano-products. Yet another objective is to promote intersectoral and interdisciplinary communication among key drivers of innovation, especially between developers and regulatory agencies.

The goal: to bring safe and efficient nano-therapeutics faster to the patient

Within EU-NCL, six analytical facilities will offer transnational access to their existing analytical services for public and private developers, and will also develop new or improved analytical assays to keep EU-NCL at the cutting edge of nanomedicine characterization. A complementary set of networking activities will enable EU-NCL to deliver to European academic or industrial scientists the high-quality analytical services they require for accelerating the industrial development of their candidate nanomedicines. The Empa team of Peter Wick at the «Particles-Biology Interactions» lab will be in charge of the quality management of all analytical methods, a key task to guarantee the best possible reproducibility and comparability of the data between the various analytical labs within the consortium. «EU-NCL supports our research activities in developing innovative and safe nanomaterials for healthcare within an international network, which will actively shape future standards in nanomedicine and strengthen Empa as an enabler to facilitate the transfer of novel nanomedicines from bench to bedside», says Wick.

You can find more information about the laboratory on the Horizon 2020 (a European Union science funding programme) project page for the EU-NCL laboratory. For anyone curious about CEA-Leti, it’s a double-layered organization. CEA is France’s Commission on Atomic Energy and Alternative Energy (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives); you can go here to their French language site (there is an English language clickable option on the page). Leti is one of the CEA’s institutes and is known as either Leti or CEA-Leti. I have no idea what Leti stands for. Here’s the Leti website (this is the English language version).

Saharan silver ants: the nano of it all (science and technology)

Researchers at Columbia University (US) are on quite a publishing binge lately. The latest is a biomimicry story where researchers (from Columbia amongst other universities and including Brookhaven National Laboratory, which has issued its own news release) have taken a very close look at Saharan silver ants to determine how they stay cool in one of the hottest climates in the world. From a June 18, 2015 Columbia University news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

Nanfang Yu, assistant professor of applied physics at Columbia Engineering, and colleagues from the University of Zürich and the University of Washington, have discovered two key strategies that enable Saharan silver ants to stay cool in one of the hottest terrestrial environments on Earth. Yu’s team is the first to demonstrate that the ants use a coat of uniquely shaped hairs to control electromagnetic waves over an extremely broad range from the solar spectrum (visible and near-infrared) to the thermal radiation spectrum (mid-infrared), and that different physical mechanisms are used in different spectral bands to realize the same biological function of reducing body temperature. Their research, “Saharan silver ants keep cool by combining enhanced optical reflection and radiative heat dissipation,” is published June 18 [2015] in Science magazine.

The Columbia University news release expands on the theme,

“This is a telling example of how evolution has triggered the adaptation of physical attributes to accomplish a physiological task and ensure survival, in this case to prevent Saharan silver ants from getting overheated,” Yu says. “While there have been many studies of the physical optics of living systems in the ultraviolet and visible range of the spectrum, our understanding of the role of infrared light in their lives is much less advanced. Our study shows that light invisible to the human eye does not necessarily mean that it does not play a crucial role for living organisms.”

The project was initially triggered by wondering whether the ants’ conspicuous silvery coats were important in keeping them cool in blistering heat. Yu’s team found that the answer to this question was much broader once they realized the important role of infrared light. Their discovery that there is a biological solution to a thermoregulatory problem could lead to the development of novel flat optical components that exhibit optimal cooling properties.

“Such biologically inspired cooling surfaces will have high reflectivity in the solar spectrum and high radiative efficiency in the thermal radiation spectrum,” Yu explains. “So this may generate useful applications such as a cooling surface for vehicles, buildings, instruments, and even clothing.”

Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) forage in the Saharan Desert in the full midday sun when surface temperatures reach up to 70°C (158°F), and they must keep their body temperature below their critical thermal maximum of 53.6°C (128.48°F) most of the time. In their wide-ranging foraging journeys, the ants search for corpses of insects and other arthropods that have succumbed to the thermally harsh desert conditions, which they are able to endure more successfully. Being most active during the hottest moment of the day also allows these ants to avoid predatory desert lizards. Researchers have long wondered how these tiny insects (about 10 mm, or 3/8” long) can survive under such thermally extreme and stressful conditions.

Using electron microscopy and ion beam milling, Yu’s group discovered that the ants are covered on the top and sides of their bodies with a coating of uniquely shaped hairs with triangular cross-sections that keep them cool in two ways. These hairs are highly reflective under the visible and near-infrared light, i.e., in the region of maximal solar radiation (the ants run at a speed of up to 0.7 meters per second and look like droplets of mercury on the desert surface). The hairs are also highly emissive in the mid-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, where they serve as an antireflection layer that enhances the ants’ ability to offload excess heat via thermal radiation, which is emitted from the hot body of the ants to the cold sky. This passive cooling effect works under the full sun whenever the insects are exposed to the clear sky.

“To appreciate the effect of thermal radiation, think of the chilly feeling when you get out of bed in the morning,” says Yu. “Half of the energy loss at that moment is due to thermal radiation since your skin temperature is temporarily much higher than that of the surrounding environment.”

The researchers found that the enhanced reflectivity in the solar spectrum and enhanced thermal radiative efficiency have comparable contributions to reducing the body temperature of silver ants by 5 to 10 degrees compared to if the ants were without the hair cover. “The fact that these silver ants can manipulate electromagnetic waves over such a broad range of spectrum shows us just how complex the function of these seemingly simple biological organs of an insect can be,” observes Norman Nan Shi, lead author of the study and PhD student who works with Yu at Columbia Engineering.

Yu and Shi collaborated on the project with Rüdiger Wehner, professor at the Brain Research Institute, University of Zürich, Switzerland, and Gary Bernard, electrical engineering professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, who are renowned experts in the study of insect physiology and ecology. The Columbia Engineering team designed and conducted all experimental work, including optical and infrared microscopy and spectroscopy experiments, thermodynamic experiments, and computer simulation and modeling. They are currently working on adapting the engineering lessons learned from the study of Saharan silver ants to create flat optical components, or “metasurfaces,” that consist of a planar array of nanophotonic elements and provide designer optical and thermal radiative properties.

Yu and his team plan next to extend their research to other animals and organisms living in extreme environments, trying to learn the strategies these creatures have developed to cope with harsh environmental conditions.

“Animals have evolved diverse strategies to perceive and utilize electromagnetic waves: deep sea fish have eyes that enable them to maneuver and prey in dark waters, butterflies create colors from nanostructures in their wings, honey bees can see and respond to ultraviolet signals, and fireflies use flash communication systems,” Yu adds. “Organs evolved for perceiving or controlling electromagnetic waves often surpass analogous man-made devices in both sophistication and efficiency. Understanding and harnessing natural design concepts deepens our knowledge of complex biological systems and inspires ideas for creating novel technologies.”

Next, there’s the perspective provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory in a June 18, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: It is very similar to the Columbia University news release but it takes a turn towards the technical challenges as you’ll see if you keep reading),

The paper, published by Columbia Engineering researchers and collaborators—including researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory—describes how the nanoscale structure of the hairs helps increase the reflectivity of the ant’s body in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths, allowing the insects to deflect solar radiation their bodies would otherwise absorb. The hairs also enhance emissivity in the mid-infrared spectrum, allowing heat to dissipate efficiently from the hot body of the ants to the cool, clear sky.

A June 18, 2015 BNL news release by Alasdair Wilkins, which originated the Nanowerk news item, describes the collaboration between the researchers and the special adjustments made to the equipment in service of this project (Note: A link has been removed),

In a typical experiment involving biological material such as nanoscale hairs, it would usually be sufficient to use an electron microscope to create an image of the surface of the specimen. This research, however, required Yu’s group to look inside the ant hairs and produce a cross-section of the structure’s interior. The relatively weak beam of electrons from a standard electron microscope would not be able to penetrate the surface of the sample.

The CFN’s dual beam system solves the problem by combining the imaging of an electron microscope with a much more powerful beam of gallium ions.  With 31 protons and 38 neutrons, each gallium ion is about 125,000 times more massive than an electron, and massive enough to create dents in the nanoscale structure – like throwing a stone against a wall. The researchers used these powerful beams to drill precise cuts into the hairs, revealing the crucial information hidden beneath the surface. Indeed, this particular application, in which the system was used to investigate a biological problem, was new for the team at CFN.

“Conventionally, this tool is used to produce cross-sections of microelectronic circuits,” said Camino. “The focused ion beam is like an etching tool. You can think of it like a milling tool in a machine shop, but at the nanoscale. It can remove material at specific places because you can see these locations with the SEM. So locally you remove material and you look at the under layers, because the cuts give you access to the cross section of whatever you want to look at.”

The ant hair research challenged the CFN team to come up with novel solutions to investigate the internal structures without damaging the more delicate biological samples.

“These hairs are very soft compared to, say, semiconductors or crystalline materials. And there’s a lot of local heat that can damage biological samples. So the parameters have to be carefully tuned not to do much damage to it,” he said. “We had to adapt our technique to find the right conditions.”

Another challenge lay in dealing with the so-called charging effect. When the dual beam system is trained on a non-conducting material, electrons can build up at the point where the beams hit the specimen, distorting the resulting image. The team at CFN was able to solve this problem by placing thin layers of gold over the biological material, making the sample just conductive enough to avoid the charging effect.

Revealing Reflectivity

While Camino’s team focused on helping Yu’s group investigate the structure of the ant hairs, Matthew Sfeir’s work with high-brightness Fourier transform optical spectroscopy helped to reveal how the reflectivity of the hairs helped Saharan silver ants regulate temperature. Sfeir’s spectrometer revealed precisely how much those biological structures reflect light across multiple wavelengths, including both visible and near-infrared light.

“It’s a multiplexed measurement,” Sfeir said, explaining his team’s spectrometer. “Instead of tuning through this wavelength and this wavelength, that wavelength, you do them all in one swoop to get all the spectral information in one shot. It gives you very fast measurements and very good resolution spectrally. Then we optimize it for very small samples. It’s a rather unique capability of CFN.”

Sfeir’s spectroscopy work draws on knowledge gained from his work at another key Brookhaven facility: the original National Synchrotron Light Source, where he did much of his postdoc work. His experience was particularly useful in analyzing the reflectivity of the biological structures across many different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“This technique was developed from my experience working with the infrared synchrotron beamlines,” said Sfeir. “Synchrotron beamlines are optimized for exactly this kind of thing. I thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could develop a similar measurement for the type of solar devices we make at CFN?’ So we built a bench-top version to use here.”

Fascinating, non? At last, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Keeping cool: Enhanced optical reflection and heat dissipation in silver ants by Norman Nan Shi, Cheng-Chia Tsai, Fernando Camino, Gary D. Bernard, Nanfang Yu, and Rüdiger Wehner. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.aab3564 Published online June 18, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Tanzanian research into nanotechnology-enabled water filters

Inexpensive 99.9999…% filtration of metals, bacteria, and viruses from water is an accomplishment worthy of a prize as the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering noted by awarding its first ever International Innovation Prize of £25,000 ($38,348 [USD?]) to Askwar Hilonga, a Tanzanian academic and entrepreneur. A June 11, 2015 article by Sibusiso Tshabalala for Quartz.com describes the water situation in Tanzania and Hilonga’s accomplishment (Note: Links have been removed),

Despite Tanzania’s proximity to three major lakes almost half of it’s population cannot access potable water.

Groundwater is often the alternative, but the supply is not always clean. Mining waste (pdf, pg 410) and toxic drainage systems easily leak into fresh groundwater, leaving the water contaminated.

Enter Askwar Hilonga: a 38-year old chemical engineer PhD and entrepreneur. With 33 academic journal articles on nanotechnology to his name, Hilonga aims to solve Tanzania’s water contamination problems by using nanotechnology to customize water filters.

There are other filters available (according to Tshabalala’s article) but Hilonga’s has a unique characteristic in addition to being highly efficient and inexpensive,

Purifying water using nanotechnology is hardly a new thing. In 2010, researchers at the Yi Cui Lab at Stanford University developed a synthetic “nanoscanvenger” made out of two silver layers that enable nanoparticles to disinfect water from contaminating bacteria.

What makes Hilonga’s water filter different from the Stanford-developed “nanoscavenger”, or the popular LifeStraw developed by the Swiss-based health innovation company Vestergaard 10 years ago?

“It is customized. The filter can be tailored for specific individual, household and communal use,” says Hilonga.

A June 2, 2015 news item about the award on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) online describes how the filter works,

The sand-based water filter that cleans contaminated drinking water using nanotechnology has already been trademarked.

“I put water through sand to trap debris and bacteria,” Mr Hilonga told the BBC’s Newsday programme about the filter.

“But sand cannot remove contaminants like fluoride and other heavy metals so I put them through nano materials to remove chemical contaminants.”

Hilonga describes the filter in a little more detail in his May 30, 2014 video submitted for for the UK Royal Academy of Engineering’s prize (Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation)

Finalists for the prize (there were four) received a six month mentorship which included help to develop the technology further and with business plans. Hilonga has already enabled 23 entrepreneurs to develop nanofilter businesses, according to the Tshabalala article,

Through the Gongali Model Company, a university spin-off company which he co-founded, Hilonga has already enabled 23 entrepreneurs in Karatu to set up their businesses with the filters, and local schools to provide their learners with clean drinking water.

With this prize money, Hilonga will be able to lower the price of his filter ($130 [USD?) according to the BBC news item.

Congratulations to Dr. Hilonga and his team! For anyone curious about the Gongali Model Company, you can go here.

An efficient method for signal transmission from nanocomponents

A May 23, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes research into perfecting the use of nanocomponents in electronic circuits,

Physicists have developed an innovative method that could enable the efficient use of nanocomponents in electronic circuits. To achieve this, they have developed a layout in which a nanocomponent is connected to two electrical conductors, which uncouple the electrical signal in a highly efficient manner. The scientists at the Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel have published their results in the scientific journal Nature Communications together with their colleagues from ETH Zurich.

A May 22, 2015 University of Basel press release (also on EurkeAlert) describes why there is interest in smaller components and some of the challenges once electrodes can be measured in atoms,

Electronic components are becoming smaller and smaller. Components measuring just a few nanometers – the size of around ten atoms – are already being produced in research laboratories. Thanks to miniaturization, numerous electronic components can be placed in restricted spaces, which will boost the performance of electronics even further in the future.

Teams of scientists around the world are investigating how to produce such nanocomponents with the aid of carbon nanotubes. These tubes have unique properties – they offer excellent heat conduction, can withstand strong currents, and are suitable for use as conductors or semiconductors. However, signal transmission between a carbon nanotube and a significantly larger electrical conductor remains problematic as large portions of the electrical signal are lost due to the reflection of part of the signal.

Antireflex increases efficiency

A similar problem occurs with light sources inside a glass object. A large amount of light is reflected by the walls, which means that only a small proportion reaches the outside. This can be countered by using an antireflex coating on the walls.

The press release goes on to describe new technique for addressing the issue,

Led by Professor Christian Schönenberger, scientists in Basel are now taking a similar approach to nanoelectronics. They have developed an antireflex device for electrical signals to reduce the reflection that occurs during transmission from nanocomponents to larger circuits. To do so, they created a special formation of electrical conductors of a certain length, which are coupled with a carbon nanotube. The researchers were therefore able to efficiently uncouple a high-frequency signal from the nanocomponent.

Differences in impedance cause the problem

Coupling nanostructures with significantly larger conductors proved difficult because they have very different impedances. The greater the difference in impedance between two conducting structures, the greater the loss during transmission. The difference between nanocomponents and macroscopic conductors is so great that no signal will be transmitted unless countermeasures are taken. The antireflex device minimizes this effect and adjusts the impedances, leading to efficient coupling. This brings the scientists significantly closer to their goal of using nanocomponents to transmit signals in electronic parts.

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

Clean carbon nanotubes coupled to superconducting impedance-matching circuits by V. Ranjan, G. Puebla-Hellmann, M. Jung, T. Hasler, A. Nunnenkamp, M. Muoth, C. Hierold, A. Wallraff, & C. Schönenberger. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7165 doi:10.1038/ncomms8165 Published 15 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

A ‘sweat’mometer—sensing your health through your sweat

At this point, it’s more fitness monitor than diagnostic tool, so, you’ll still need to submit blood, stool, and urine samples when the doctor requests it but the device does offer some tantalizing possibilities according to a May 15, 2015 news item on phys.org,

Made from state-of-the-art silicon transistors, an ultra-low power sensor enables real-time scanning of the contents of liquids such as perspiration. Compatible with advanced electronics, this technology boasts exceptional accuracy – enough to manufacture mobile sensors that monitor health.

Imagine that it is possible, through a tiny adhesive electronic stamp attached to the arm, to know in real time one’s level of hydration, stress or fatigue while jogging. A new sensor developed at the Nanoelectronic Devices Laboratory (Nanolab) at EPFL [École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland] is the first step toward this application. “The ionic equilibrium in a person’s sweat could provide significant information on the state of his health,” says Adrian Ionescu, director of Nanolab. “Our technology detects the presence of elementary charged particles in ultra-small concentrations such as ions and protons, which reflects not only the pH balance of sweat but also more complex hydration of fatigues states. By an adapted functionalization I can also track different kinds of proteins.”

A May 15, 2015 EPFL press release by Laure-Anne Pessina, which originated the news item, includes a good technical explanation of the device for non-experts in the field,

Published in the journal ACS Nano, the device is based on transistors that are comparable to those used by the company Intel in advanced microprocessors. On the state-of-the-art “FinFET” transistor, researchers fixed a microfluidic channel through which the fluid to be analyzed flows. When the molecules pass, their electrical charge disturbs the sensor, which makes it possible to deduce the fluid’s composition.

The new device doesn’t host only sensors, but also transistors and circuits enabling the amplification of the signals – a significant innovation. The feat relies on a layered design that isolates the electronic part from the liquid substance. “Usually it is necessary to use separately a sensor for detection and a circuit for computing and signal amplification,” says Sara Rigante, lead author of the publication. “In our chip, sensors and circuits are in the same device – making it a ‘Sensing integrated circuit’. This proximity ensures that the signal is not disturbed or altered. We can thereby obtain extremely stable and accurate measurements.”

But that’s not all. Due to the size of the transistors – 20 nanometers, which is one hundred to one thousand times smaller than the thickness of a hair – it is possible to place a whole network of sensors on one chip, with each sensor locating a different particle. “We could also detect calcium, sodium or potassium in sweat,” the researcher elaborates.

As to what makes the device special (from the press release),

The technology developed at EPFL stands out from its competitors because it is extremely stable, compatible with existing electronics (CMOS), ultra-low power and easy to reproduce in large arrays of sensors. “In the field of biosensors, research around nanotechnology is intense, particularly regarding silicon nanowires and nanotubes. But these technologies are frequently unstable and therefore unusable for now in industrial applications,” says Ionescu. “In the case of our sensor, we started from extremely powerful, advanced technology and adapted it for sensing need in a liquid-gate FinFET configurations. The precision of the electronics is such that it is easy to clone our device in millions with identical characteristics.”

In addition, the technology is not energy intensive. “We could feed 10,000 sensors with a single solar cell,” Professor Ionescu asserts.

Of course, there does seem to be one shortcoming (from the press release),

Thus far, the tests have been carried out by circulating the liquid with a tiny pump. Researchers are currently working on a means of sucking the sweat into the microfluidic tube via wicking. This would rid the small analyzing “band-aid” of the need for an attached pump.

While they work on eliminating the pump part of the device, here’s  a link to and a citation for the paper,

Sensing with Advanced Computing Technology: Fin Field-Effect Transistors with High-k Gate Stack on Bulk Silicon by Sara Rigante, Paolo Scarbolo, Mathias Wipf, Ralph L. Stoop, Kristine Bedner, Elizabeth Buitrago, Antonios Bazigos, Didier Bouvet, Michel Calame, Christian Schönenberger, and Adrian M. Ionescu. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn5064216 Publication Date (Web): March 27, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for the ‘sweat’mometer in the headline, I was combining sweat with thermometer.

Measuring a singular spin of a biological molecule

I gather there are some Swiss scientists excited about obtaining experimental proof for room temperature detection of a  biological molecule’s spin. From a May 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Physicists of the University of Basel and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute were able to show for the first time that the nuclear spins of single molecules can be detected with the help of magnetic particles at room temperature.

In Nature Nanotechnology (“High-efficiency resonant amplification of weak magnetic fields for single spin magnetometry at room temperature”), the researchers describe a novel experimental setup with which the tiny magnetic fields of the nuclear spins of single biomolecules – undetectable so far – could be registered for the first time. The proposed concept would improve medical diagnostics as well as analyses of biological and chemical samples in a decisive step forward.

A May 11, 2015 University of Basel press release, which originated the news item, explains why the researchers are excited about a ‘room temperature’ approach to measuring a nuclear spin,

The measurement of nuclear spins is routine by now in medical diagnostics (MRI). However, the currently existing devices need billions of atoms for the analysis and thus are not useful for many small-scale applications. Over many decades, scientists worldwide have thus engaged in an intense search for alternative methods, which would improve the sensitivity of the measurement techniques.

With the help of various types of sensors (SQUID- and Hall-sensors) and with magnetic resonance force microscopes, it has become possible to detect spins of single electrons and achieve structural resolution at the nanoscale. However, the detection of single nuclear spins of complex biological samples – the holy grail in the field – has not been possible so far.

Diamond crystals with tiny defects

The researchers from Basel now investigate the application of sensors made out of diamonds that host tiny defects in their crystal structure. In the crystal lattice of the diamond a Carbon atom is replaced by a Nitrogen atom, with a vacant site next to it. These so-called Nitrogen-Vacancy (NV) centers generate spins, which are ideally suited for detection of magnetic fields. At room temperature, researchers have shown experimentally in many labs before that with such NV centers resolution of single molecules is possible. However, this requires atomistically close distances between sensor and sample, which is not possible for biological material.

A tiny ferromagnetic particle, placed between sample and NV center, can solve this problem. Indeed, if the nuclear spin of the sample is driven at a specific resonance frequency, the resonance of the ferromagnetic particle changes. With the help of an NV center that is in close proximity of the magnetic particle, the scientists can then detect this modified resonance.

Measuring technology breakthrough?

The theoretical analysis and experimental techniques of the researchers in the teams of Prof. Daniel Loss and Prof. Patrick Maletinsky have shown that the use of such ferromagnetic particles can lead to a ten-thousand-fold amplification of the magnetic field of nuclear spins. „I am confident that our concept will soon be implemented in real systems and will lead to a breakthrough in metrology“ [science of measurement], comments Daniel Loss the recent publication, where the first author Dr. Luka Trifunovic, postdoc in the Loss team, made essential contributions and which was performed in collaboration with colleagues from the JARA Institute for Quantum Information (Aachen, Deutschland) and the Harvard University (Cambridge, USA).

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

High-efficiency resonant amplification of weak magnetic fields for single spin magnetometry at room temperature by  Luka Trifunovic, Fabio L. Pedrocchi, Silas Hoffman, Patrick Maletinsky, Amir Yacoby, & Daniel Loss. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.74 Published online 11 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

The shorter, the better for cellulose nanofibres

Cellulose nanomaterials can be derived from any number of plants. In Canada, we tend to think of our trees first but there are other sources such as cotton, bananas, hemp, carrots, and more.

In anticipation that cellulose nanofibres will become increasingly important constituents of various products and having noticed a resemblance to carbon nanotubes, scientists in Switzerland have investigated the possible toxicity issues according to a May 7, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Plant-based cellulose nanofibres do not pose a short-term health risk, especially short fibres, shows a study conducted in the context of National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64). But lung cells are less efficient in eliminating longer fibres.

Similar to carbon nanotubes that are used in cycling helmets and tennis rackets, cellulose nanofibres are extremely light while being extremely tear-resistant. But their production is significantly cheaper because they can be manufactured from plant waste of cotton or banana plants. “It is only a matter of time before they prevail on the market,” says Christoph Weder of the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg [Switzerland].

A May 7, 2015 Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

In the context of the National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64), he collaborated with the team of Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser to examine whether these plant-based nanofibres are harmful to the lungs when inhaled. The investigation does not rely on animal testing; instead the group of Rothen-Rutishauser developped a complex 3D lung cell system to simulate the surface of the lungs by using various human cell cultures in the test tube.

The shorter, the better

Their results (*) show that cellulose nanofibres are not harmful: the analysed lung cells showed no signs of acute stress or inflammation. But there were clear differences between short and long fibres: the lung cell system efficiently eliminated short fibres while longer fibres stayed on the cell surface.

“The testing only lasted two days because we cannot grow the cell cultures for longer,” explains Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser. For this reason, she adds, they cannot say if the longer fibre may have a negative impact on the lungs in the long term. Tests involving carbon nanotubes have shown that lung cells lose their equilibrium when they are faced with long tubes because they try to incorporate them into the cell to no avail. “This frustrated phagocytosis can trigger an inflammatory reaction,” says Rothen-Rutishauser. To avoid potential harm, she recommends that companies developing products with nanofibres use fibres that are short and pliable instead of long and rigid.

National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64)

The National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64) hopes to be able to bridge the gaps in our current knowledge on nanomaterials. Opportunities and risks for human health and the environment in relation to the manufacture, use and disposal of synthetic nanomaterials need to be better understood. The projects started their research work in December 2010.

I have a link to and a citation for the paper (Note: They use the term cellulose nanocrystals in the paper’s title),

Fate of Cellulose Nanocrystal Aerosols Deposited on the Lung Cell Surface In Vitro by Carola Endes, Silvana Mueller, Calum Kinnear, Dimitri Vanhecke, E. Johan Foster, Alke Petri-Fink, Christoph Weder, Martin J. D. Clift, and Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser. Biomacromolecules, 2015, 16 (4), pp 1267–1275 DOI: 10.1021/acs.biomac.5b00055 Publication Date (Web): March 19, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

While tracking down the 2015 paper, I found this from 2011,

Investigating the Interaction of Cellulose Nanofibers Derived from Cotton with a Sophisticated 3D Human Lung Cell Coculture by Martin J. D. Clift, E. Johan Foster, Dimitri Vanhecke, Daniel Studer, Peter Wick, Peter Gehr, Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser, and Christoph Weder. Biomacromolecules, 2011, 12 (10), pp 3666–3673 DOI: 10.1021/bm200865j Publication Date (Web): August 16, 2011

Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

Both papers are behind a paywall.

Wound healing is nature’s way of zipping up your skin

Scientists have been able to observe the healing process at the molecular scale—in fruit flies. From an April 21, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists from the Goethe University (GU) Frankfurt, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Heidelberg and the University of Zurich explain skin fusion at a molecular level and pinpoint the specific molecules that do the job in their latest publication in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

An April 21, 2015 Goethe University Frankfurt press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes similarities between humans and fruit flies allowing scientists to infer the wound healing process for human skin,

In order to prevent death by bleeding or infection, every wound (skin opening) must close at some point. The events leading to skin closure had been unclear for many years. Mikhail Eltsov (GU) and colleagues used fruit fly embryos as a model system to understand this process. Similarly to humans, fruit fly embryos at some point in their development have a large opening in the skin on their back that must fuse. This process is called zipping, because two sides of the skin are fastened in a way that resembles a zipper that joins two sides of a jacket.

The scientists have used a top-of-the-range electron microscope to study exactly how this zipping of the skin works. “Our electron microscope allows us to distinguish the molecular components in the cell that act like small machines to fuse the skin. When we look at it from a distance, it appears as if skin cells simply fuse to each other, but if we zoom in, it becomes clear that membranes, molecular machines, and other cellular components are involved”, explains Eltsov.

“In order to visualize this orchestra of healing, a very high-resolution picture of the process is needed. For this purpose we have recorded an enormous amount of data that surpasses all previous studies of this kind”, says Mikhail Eltsov.

As a first step, as the scientists discovered, cells find their opposing partner by “sniffing” each other out. As a next step, they develop adherens junctions which act like a molecular Velcro. This way they become strongly attached to their opposing partner cell. The biggest revelation of this study was that small tubes in the cell, called microtubules, attach to this molecular Velcro and then deploy a self-catastrophe, which results in the skin being pulled towards the opening, as if one pulls a blanket over.

Damian Brunner who led the team at the University of Zurich has performed many genetic manipulations to identify the correct components. The scientists were astonished to find that microtubules involved in cell-division are the primary scaffold used for zipping, indicating a mechanism conserved during evolution.

“What was also amazing was the tremendous plasticity of the membranes in this process which managed to close the skin opening in a very short space of time. When five to ten cells have found their respective neighbors, the skin already appears normal”, says Achilleas Frangakis from the Goethe University Frankfurt, who led the study.

The scientists hope that their results will open new avenues into the understanding of epithelial plasticity and wound healing. They are also investigating the detailed structural organization of the adherens junctions, work for which they were awarded a starting grant from European Research Council (ERC).

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

Quantitative analysis of cytoskeletal reorganization during epithelial tissue sealing by large-volume electron tomography by Mikhail Eltsov, Nadia Dubé, Zhou Yu, Laurynas Pasakarnis, Uta Haselmann-Weiss, Damian Brunner, & Achilleas S. Frangakis. Nature Cell Biology (2015) doi:10.1038/ncb3159 Published online 20 April 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available via ReadCube Access.

The researchers have provided an image illustrating ‘wound zipping’.

Caption: This is a perspective view of the zipping area with 17 skin cells. Credit: GU

Caption: This is a perspective view of the zipping area with 17 skin cells.
Credit: GU

Nanobionic plant materials

This is a bioinspired story with a bit of a twist. From a March 30, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Humans have been inspired by nature since the beginning of time. We mimic nature to develop new technologies, with examples ranging from machinery to pharmaceuticals to new materials. Planes are modelled on birds and many drugs have their origins in plants. Researchers at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering [ETH Zurich; Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] have taken it a step further: in order to develop an extremely sensitive temperature sensor they took a close look at temperature-sensitive plants. However, they did not mimic the properties of the plants; instead, they developed a hybrid material that contains, in addition to synthetic components, the plant cells themselves (“Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+”). [emphasis mine] “We let nature do the job for us,” explains Chiara Daraio, Professor of Mechanics and Materials.

The scientists were able to develop by far the most sensitive temperature sensor: an electronic module that changes its conductivity as a function of temperature. “No other sensor can respond to such small temperature fluctuations with such large changes in conductivity. Our sensor reacts with a responsivity at least 100 times higher compared to the best existing sensors,” says Raffaele Di Giacomo, a post-doc in Daraio’s group.

The scientists have provided an illustration of their concept using a tobacco leaf as the backdrop,

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

A March 31, 2015 ETH Zurich press release, which despite the release date originated the news item, describes the concept in more detail,

It has been known for decades that plants have the extraordinary ability to register extremely fine temperature differences and respond to them through changes in the conductivity of their cells. In doing so, plants are better than any man-made sensor so far.

Di Giacomo experimented with tobacco cells in a cell culture. “We asked ourselves how we might transfer these cells into a lifeless, dry material in such a way that their temperature-sensitive properties are preserved,” he recounts. The scientists achieved their objective by growing the cells in a medium containing tiny tubes of carbon. These electrically conductive carbon nanotubes formed a network between the tobacco cells and were also able to penetrate the cell walls. When Di Giacomo dried the nanotube-cultivated cells, he discovered a woody, firm material that he calls ‘cyberwood’. In contrast to wood, this material is electrically conductive thanks to the nanotubes, and interestingly the conductivity is temperature-dependent and extremely sensitive, just like in living tobacco cells.

The scientists considered  the new material’s (cyberwood) properties and possible future applications (from the news release),

As demonstrated by experiments, the cyberwood sensor can identify warm bodies even at distance; for example, a hand approaching the sensor from a distance of a few dozen centimetres. The sensor’s conductivity depends directly on the hand’s distance from the sensor.

According to the scientists, cyberwood could be used in a wide range of applications; for instance, in the development of a ‘touchless touchscreen’ that reacts to gestures, with the gestures recorded by multiple sensors. Equally conceivable might be heat-sensitive cameras or night-vision devices.

The Swiss researchers along with a collaborator at the University of Salerno (Italy) did further research into the origins of the material’s behaviour (from the news release),

The ETH scientists, together with a collaborator at the University of Salerno, Italy, not only subjected their new material’s properties to a detailed examination, they also analysed the origins of their extraordinary behaviour. They discovered that pectins and charged atoms (ions) play a key role in the temperature sensitivity of both living plant cells and the dry cyberwood. Pectins are sugar molecules found in plant cell walls that can be cross-linked, depending on temperature, to form a gel. Calcium and magnesium ions are both present in this gel. “As the temperature rises, the links of the pectin break apart, the gel becomes softer, and the ions can move about more freely,” explains Di Giacomo. As a result, the material conducts electricity better when temperature increases.

The news release goes on to mention a patent and future plans,

The scientists submitted a patent application for their sensor. In ongoing work, they are now further developing it such that it functions without plant cells, essentially with only pectin and ions. Their goal is to create a flexible, transparent and even biocompatible sensor with the same ultrahigh temperature sensitivity. Such a sensor could be moulded into arbitrary shapes and produced at extremely low cost. This will open the door to new applications for thermal sensors in biomedical devices, consumer products and low cost thermal cameras.

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

Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+ by Raffaele Di Giacomo, Chiara Daraio, and Bruno Maresca. Published online before print March 30, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421020112 PNAS March 30, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.