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Symbiosis (science education initiative) in British Columbia (Canada)

Is it STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or is it STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics)?

It’s STEAM as least as far as Dr. Scott Sampson is concerned. In his July 6, 2018 Creative Mornings Vancouver talk in Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) he mentioned a major science education/outreach initiative taking place in the province of British Columbia (BC) but intended for all of Canada, Symbiosis There was some momentary confusion as Sampson’s slide deck identified it as a STEM initiative. Sampson verbally added the ‘A’ for arts and henceforth described it as a STEAM initiative. (Part of the difficulty is that many institutions have used the term STEM and only recently come to the realization they might want to add ‘art’ leading to confusion in Canada and the US, if nowhere else, as old materials require updating. Actually, I vote for adding the humanities too so that we can have SHTEAM.)

You’ll notice, should you visit the Symbiosis website, that the STEM/STEAM confusion extends further than Sampson’s slide deck.

Sampson,  “a dinosaur paleontologist, science communicator, and passionate advocate for reimagining cities as places where people and nature thrive, serves (since 2016) as president and CEO of Science World British Columbia” or as they’re known on their website:  Science World at TELUS World of Science. Unwieldy, eh?

The STEM/STEAM announcement

None of us in the Creative Mornings crowd had heard of Symbiosis or Scott Sampson for that matter (apparently, he’s a huge star among the preschool set due to his work on the PBS [US Public Broadcasting Service] children’s show ‘Dinosaur Train’). Regardless, it was good to hear  of this effort although my efforts to learn more about it have been a bit frustrated.

First, here’s what I found: a May 25, 2017 Science World media release (PDF) about Symbiosis,

Science World Introduces Symbiosis
A First-of Its-Kind [sic] Learning Ecosystem forCanada

We live in a time of unprecedented change. High-tech innovations are rapidly transforming 21st century societies and the Canadian marketplace is increasingly dominated by novel, knowledge-based jobs requiring high levels of literacy in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Failing to prepare the next generation to be STEM literate threatens the health of our youth, the economy and the places we live. STEM literacy needs to be integrated into the broader context of what it means to be a 21st century citizen. Also important is inclusion of an extra letter, “A,” for art and design, resulting in STEAM. The idea behind Symbiosis is to make STEAM learning accessible across Canada.

Every major Canadian city hosts dozens to hundreds of organizations that engage children and youth in STEAM learning. Yet, for the most part, these organizations operate in isolation. The result is that a huge proportion of Canadian youth, particularly in First Nations and other underserved communities, are not receiving quality STEAM learning opportunities.

In order to address this pressing need, Science World British Columbia (scienceworld.ca) is spearheading the creation of Symbiosis, a deeply collaborative STEAM learning ecosystem. Driven by a diverse network of cross-sector partners, Symbiosis will become a vibrant model for scaling the kinds of learning and careers needed in a knowledge-based economy.

Today [May 25, 2017], Science World is proud to announce that Symbiosis has been selected by STEM Learning Ecosystems, a US-based organization, to formally join a growing movement. In just two years, the STEM Learning Ecosystems  initiative has become a thriving network of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals, joined in regional partnerships with the objective of collaborating in new and creative ways to increase equity, quality, and STEM learning outcomes for all youth. Symbiosis will be the first member of this initiative outside the United States.

Symbiosis was selected to become part of the STEM Learning Ecosystem initiative because of a demonstrated [emphasis mine] commitment to cross-sector collaborations in schools and beyond the classroom. As STEM Ecosystems evolve, students will be able to connect what they’ve learned, in and out of school, with real-world, community-based opportunities.

I wonder how Symbiosis demonstrated their commitment. Their website doesn’t seem to have existed prior to 2018 and there’s no information there about any prior activities.

A very Canadian sigh

I checked the STEM Learning Ecosystems website for its Press Room and found a couple of illuminating press releases. Here’s how the addition of Symbiosis was described in the May 25, 2017 press release,

The 17 incoming ecosystem communities were selected because they demonstrate a commitment to cross-sector collaborations in schools and beyond the classroom—in afterschool and summer programs, at home, with local business and industry partners, and in science centers, libraries and other places both virtual and physical. As STEM Ecosystems evolve, students will be able to connect what is learned in and out of school with real-world opportunities.

“It makes complete sense to collaborate with like-minded regions and organizations,” said Matthew Felan of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance STEM Initiative, one of the founding Ecosystems. “STEM Ecosystems provides technical assistance and infrastructure support so that we are able to tailor quality STEM learning opportunities to the specific needs of our region in Michigan while leveraging the experience of similar alliances across the nation.”

The following ecosystem communities were selected to become part of this [US} national STEM Learning Ecosystem:

  • Arizona: Flagstaff STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • California: Region 5 STEAM in Expanded Learning Ecosystem (San Benito, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey Counties)
  • Louisiana: Baton Rouge STEM Learning Network
  • Massachusetts: Cape Cod Regional STEM Network
  • Michigan: Michigan STEM Partnership / Southeast Michigan STEM Alliance
  • Missouri: Louis Regional STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • New Jersey: Delran STEM Ecosystem Alliance (Burlington County)
  • New Jersey: Newark STEAM Coalition
  • New York: WNY STEM (Western New York State)
  • New York: North Country STEM Network (seven counties of Northern New York State)
  • Ohio: Upper Ohio Valley STEM Cooperative
  • Ohio: STEM Works East Central Ohio
  • Oklahoma: Mayes County STEM Alliance
  • Pennsylvania: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • Washington: The Washington STEM Network
  • Wisconsin: Greater Green Bay STEM Network
  • Canada: Symbiosis, British Columbia, Canada

Yes, somehow a Canadian initiative becomes another US regional community in their national ecosystem.

Then, they made everything better a year later in a May 29, 2018 press release,

New STEM Learning Ecosystems in the United States are:

  • California: East Bay STEM Network
  • Georgia: Atlanta STEAM Learning Ecosystem
  • Hawaii: Hawai’iloa ecosySTEM Cabinet
  • Illinois: South Suburban STEAM Network
  • Kentucky: Southeastern Kentucky STEM Ecosystem
  • Massachusetts: MetroWest STEM Education Network
  • New York: Greater Southern Tier STEM Learning Network
  • North Carolina: STEM SENC (Southeastern North Carolina)
  • North Dakota: North Dakota STEM Ecosystem
  • Texas: SA/Bexar STEM/STEAM Ecosystem

The growing global Community of Practice has added: [emphasis mine]

  • Kenya: Kenya National STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • México: Alianza Para Promover la Educación en STEM (APP STEM)

Are Americans still having fantasies about ‘manifest destiny’? For those unfamiliar with the ‘doctrine’,

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America.  …

They seem to have given up on Mexico but the dream of acquiring Canadian territory rears its head from time to time. Specifically, it happens when Quebec holds a referendum (the last one was in 1995) on whether or not it wishes to remain part of the Canadian confederation. After the last referendum, I’d hoped that was the end of ‘manifest destiny’ but it seems these 21st Century-oriented STEM Learning Ecosystems people have yet to give up a 19th century fantasy. (sigh)

What is Symbiosis?

For anyone interested in the definition of the word, from Wordnik,



from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. Biology A close, prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member.
  • n. A relationship of mutual benefit or dependence.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. A relationship of mutual benefit.
  • n. A close, prolonged association between two or more organisms of different species, regardless of benefit to the members.
  • n. The state of people living together in community.

As for this BC-based organization, Symbiosis, which they hope will influence Canadian STEAM efforts and learning as a whole, I don’t have much. From the Symbiosis About Us webpage,

A learning ecosystem is an interconnected web of learning opportunities that encompasses formal education to community settings such as out-of-school care, summer programs, science centres and museums, and experiences at home.

​In May 2017, Symbiosis was selected by STEM Learning Ecosystems, a US-based organization, to formally join a growing movement. As the first member of this initiative outside the United States, Symbiosis has demonstrated a commitment to cross-sector collaborations in schools and beyond the classroom. As Symbiosis evolves, students will be able to connect what they’ve learned, in and out of school, with real-world, community-based opportunities.

We live in a time of unprecedented change. High-tech innovations are rapidly transforming 21st century societies and the Canadian marketplace is increasingly dominated by novel, knowledge-based jobs requiring high levels of literacy in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Failing to prepare the next generation to be STEM literate threatens the health of our youth, the economy, and the places we live. STEM literacy needs to be integrated into the broader context of what it means to be a 21st century citizen. Also important is inclusion of an extra letter, “A,” for art and design, resulting in STEAM.

In order to address this pressing need, Science World British Columbia is spearheading the creation of Symbiosis, a deeply collaborative STEAM learning ecosystem. Driven by a diverse network of cross-sector partners, Symbiosis will become a vibrant model for scaling the kinds of learning and careers needed in a knowledge-based economy.


  • Acknowledges the holistic connections among arts, science and nature
  • ​Is inclusive and equitable
  • Is learner-centered​
  • Fosters curiosity and life-long learning ​​
  • Is relevant—should reflect the community
  • Honours diverse perspectives, including Indigenous worldviews
  • Is partnerships, collaboration, and mentorship
  • ​Is a sustainable, thriving community, with resilience and flexibility
  • Is research-based, data-driven
  • Shares stories of success—stories of people/role models using STEAM and critical thinking to make a difference
  • Provides a  variety of access points that are available to all learners

I was looking for more concrete information such as:

  • what is your budget?
  • which organizations are partners?
  • where do you get your funding?
  • what have you done so far?

I did get an answer to my last question by going to the Symbiosis news webpage where I found these,

We’re hiring!

 7/3/2018 [Their deadline is July 13, 2018]

STAN conference


Symbiosis on CKPG


Design Studio #2 in March


BC Science Outreach Workshop


Make of that what you will. Also, there is a 2018 copyright notice (at the bottom of the webpages) but no copyright owner is listed.

There is some Symbiosis information

A magazine known as BC Business (!) offers some details in a May 11, 2018 opinion piece, Note: Links have been removed,

… Increasingly, the Canadian marketplace is dominated by novel, knowledge-based jobs requiring high levels of literacy in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Here in B.C., the tech sector now employs over 100,000 people, about 5 percent of the province’s total workforce. As the knowledge economy grows, these numbers will rise dramatically.

Yet technology-driven businesses are already struggling to fill many roles that require literacy in STEM. …

Today, STEM education in North America and elsewhere is struggling. One study found that 60 percent of students who enter high school interested in STEM fields change their minds by graduation. Lacking mentoring, students, especially girls, tend to lose interest in STEM. [emphasis mine]Today, only 22 percent of Canadian STEM jobs are held by women. Failing to prepare the next generation to be STEM-literate threatens the prospects of our youth, our economy and the places we live.

More and more, education is no longer confined to classrooms. … To kickstart this future, a “STEM learning ecosystem” movement has emerged in the United States, grounded in deeply collaborative, cross-sector networks of learning opportunities.

Symbiosis will concentrate on a trio of impacts:

1) Dramatically increasing the number of qualified STEM mentors in B.C.—from teachers and scientists to technologists and entrepreneurs;

2) Connecting this diversity of mentors with children and youth through networked opportunities, from classroom visits and on-site shadowing to volunteering and internships; and

3) Creating a digital hub that interweaves communities, hosts a library of resources and extends learning through virtual offerings. [emphases mine]

Science World British Columbia is spearheading Symbiosis, and organizations from many sectors have expressed strong interest in collaborating—among them K-12 education, higher education, industry, government and non-profits. Several of these organizations are founding members of the BC Science Charter, which formed in 2013.

Symbiosis will launch in fall of 2018 with two pilot communities: East Vancouver and Prince George. …

As for why students tend to lose interest in STEM, there’s a rather interesting longitudinal study taking place in the UK which attempts to answer at least some of that question. I first wrote about the ASPIRES study in a January 31, 2012 posting: Science attitude kicks in by 10 years old. This was based on preliminary data and it seemed to be confirmed by an unrelated US study of high school students also mentioned in that posting (scroll down about 40% of the way).

In short, both studies suggested that children are quite to open to science but when it comes time to think about careers, they tend to ‘aspire’ to what they see amongst family and friends. I don’t see that kind of thinking reflected in any of the information I’ve been able to find about Symbiosis and it was not present in Sampson’s, Creative Mornings talk.

However, I noted during Sampson’s talk that he mentioned his father, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and how he had based his career expectations on his father’s career. (Sampson is from Vancouver originally.) Sampson, like his father, was at one point a professor of ‘science’ at a university.

Perhaps one day someone from Symbiosis will look into the ASPIRE studies or even read my blog 🙂

You can find the latest about what is now called the ASPIRES 2 study here. (I will try to post my own update to the ASPIRES projects in the near future).

Best hopes

I am happy to see Symbiosis arrive on the scene and I wish all the best for the initiative. I am less concerned than the BC Business folks about supplying employers with the kind of employees they want to hire and hopeful that Symbiosis will attract not just the students, educators, mentors, and scientists to whom they are appealing but will cast a wider net to include philosophers, car mechanics, hairdressers, poets, visual artists, farmers, chefs, and others in a ‘pursuit of wonder’.

Aside: I was introduced to the phrase ‘pursuit of wonder’ by a friend who sent me a link to José Teodoro’s May 29, 2018 interview with Canadian filmmaker, Peter Mettler for the Brick. Mettler discusses his film about the Northern Lights and the technical challenges he met along the way.

DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) ‘Atoms to Product’ program launched

It took over a year after announcing the ‘Atoms to Product’ program in 2014 for DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to select 10 proponents for three projects. Before moving onto the latest announcement, here’s a description of the ‘Atoms to Product’ program from its Aug. 27, 2014 announcement on Nanowerk,

Many common materials exhibit different and potentially useful characteristics when fabricated at extremely small scales—that is, at dimensions near the size of atoms, or a few ten-billionths of a meter. These “atomic scale” or “nanoscale” properties include quantized electrical characteristics, glueless adhesion, rapid temperature changes, and tunable light absorption and scattering that, if available in human-scale products and systems, could offer potentially revolutionary defense and commercial capabilities. Two as-yet insurmountable technical challenges, however, stand in the way: Lack of knowledge of how to retain nanoscale properties in materials at larger scales, and lack of assembly capabilities for items between nanoscale and 100 microns—slightly wider than a human hair.

DARPA has created the Atoms to Product (A2P) program to help overcome these challenges. The program seeks to develop enhanced technologies for assembling atomic-scale pieces. It also seeks to integrate these components into materials and systems from nanoscale up to product scale in ways that preserve and exploit distinctive nanoscale properties.

DARPA’s Atoms to Product (A2P) program seeks to develop enhanced technologies for assembling nanoscale items, and integrating these components into materials and systems from nanoscale up to product scale in ways that preserve and exploit distinctive nanoscale properties.

A Dec. 29, 2015 news item on Nanowerk features the latest about the project,

DARPA recently selected 10 performers to tackle this challenge: Zyvex Labs, Richardson, Texas; SRI, Menlo Park, California; Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts; University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana; HRL Laboratories, Malibu, California; PARC, Palo Alto, California; Embody, Norfolk, Virginia; Voxtel, Beaverton, Oregon; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Draper Laboratory, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A Dec. 29, 2015 DARPA news release, which originated the news item, offers more information and an image illustrating the type of advances already made by one of the successful proponents,

DARPA recently launched its Atoms to Product (A2P) program, with the goal of developing technologies and processes to assemble nanometer-scale pieces—whose dimensions are near the size of atoms—into systems, components, or materials that are at least millimeter-scale in size. At the heart of that goal was a frustrating reality: Many common materials, when fabricated at nanometer-scale, exhibit unique and attractive “atomic-scale” behaviors including quantized current-voltage behavior, dramatically lower melting points and significantly higher specific heats—but they tend to lose these potentially beneficial traits when they are manufactured at larger “product-scale” dimensions, typically on the order of a few centimeters, for integration into devices and systems.

“The ability to assemble atomic-scale pieces into practical components and products is the key to unlocking the full potential of micromachines,” said John Main, DARPA program manager. “The DARPA Atoms to Product Program aims to bring the benefits of microelectronic-style miniaturization to systems and products that combine mechanical, electrical, and chemical processes.”

The program calls for closing the assembly gap in two steps: From atoms to microns and from microns to millimeters. Performers are tasked with addressing one or both of these steps and have been assigned to one of three working groups, each with a distinct focus area.


Image caption: Microscopic tools such as this nanoscale “atom writer” can be used to fabricate minuscule light-manipulating structures on surfaces. DARPA has selected 10 performers for its Atoms to Product (A2P) program whose goal is to develop technologies and processes to assemble nanometer-scale pieces—whose dimensions are near the size of atoms—into systems, components, or materials that are at least millimeter-scale in size. (Image credit: Boston University)

Here’s more about the projects and the performers (proponents) from the A2P performers page on the DARPA website,

Nanometer to Millimeter in a Single System – Embody, Draper and Voxtel

Current methods to treat ligament injuries in warfighters [also known as, soldiers]—which account for a significant portion of reported injuries—often fail to restore pre-injury performance, due to surgical complexities and an inadequate supply of donor tissue. Embody is developing reinforced collagen nanofibers that mimic natural ligaments and replicate the biological and biomechanical properties of native tissue. Embody aims to create a new standard of care and restore pre-injury performance for warfighters and sports injury patients at a 50% reduction compared to current costs.

Radio Frequency (RF) systems (e.g., cell phones, GPS) have performance limits due to alternating current loss. In lower frequency power systems this is addressed by braiding the wires, but this is not currently possibly in cell phones due to an inability to manufacture sufficiently small braided wires. Draper is developing submicron wires that can be braided using DNA self-assembly methods. If successful, portable RF systems will be more power efficient and able to send 10 times more information in a given channel.

For seamless control of structures, physics and surface chemistry—from the atomic-level to the meter-level—Voxtel Inc. and partner Oregon State University are developing an efficient, high-rate, fluid-based manufacturing process designed to imitate nature’s ability to manufacture complex multimaterial products across scales. Historically, challenges relating to the cost of atomic-level control, production speed, and printing capability have been effectively insurmountable. This team’s new process will combine synthesis and delivery of materials into a massively parallel inkjet operation that draws from nature to achieve a DNA-like mediated assembly. The goal is to assemble complex, 3-D multimaterial mixed organic and inorganic products quickly and cost-effectively—directly from atoms.

Optical Metamaterial Assembly – Boston University, University of Notre Dame, HRL and PARC.

Nanoscale devices have demonstrated nearly unlimited power and functionality, but there hasn’t been a general- purpose, high-volume, low-cost method for building them. Boston University is developing an atomic calligraphy technique that can spray paint atoms with nanometer precision to build tunable optical metamaterials for the photonic battlefield. If successful, this capability could enhance the survivability of a wide range of military platforms, providing advanced camouflage and other optical illusions in the visual range much as stealth technology has enabled in the radar range.

The University of Notre Dame is developing massively parallel nanomanufacturing strategies to overcome the requirement today that most optical metamaterials must be fabricated in “one-off” operations. The Notre Dame project aims to design and build optical metamaterials that can be reconfigured to rapidly provide on-demand, customized optical capabilities. The aim is to use holographic traps to produce optical “tiles” that can be assembled into a myriad of functional forms and further customized by single-atom electrochemistry. Integrating these materials on surfaces and within devices could provide both warfighters and platforms with transformational survivability.

HRL Laboratories is working on a fast, scalable and material-agnostic process for improving infrared (IR) reflectivity of materials. Current IR-reflective materials have limited use, because reflectivity is highly dependent on the specific angle at which light hits the material. HRL is developing a technique for allowing tailorable infrared reflectivity across a variety of materials. If successful, the process will enable manufacturable materials with up to 98% IR reflectivity at all incident angles.

PARC is working on building the first digital MicroAssembly Printer, where the “inks” are micrometer-size particles and the “image” outputs are centimeter-scale and larger assemblies. The goal is to print smart materials with the throughput and cost of laser printers, but with the precision and functionality of nanotechnology. If successful, the printer would enable the short-run production of large, engineered, customized microstructures, such as metamaterials with unique responses for secure communications, surveillance and electronic warfare.

Flexible, General Purpose Assembly – Zyvex, SRI, and Harvard.

Zyvex aims to create nano-functional micron-scale devices using customizable and scalable manufacturing that is top-down and atomically precise. These high-performance electronic, optical, and nano-mechanical components would be assembled by SRI micro-robots into fully-functional devices and sub-systems such as ultra-sensitive sensors for threat detection, quantum communication devices, and atomic clocks the size of a grain of sand.

SRI’s Levitated Microfactories will seek to combine the precision of MEMS [micro-electromechanical systems] flexures with the versatility and range of pick-and-place robots and the scalability of swarms [an idea Michael Crichton used in his 2002 novel Prey to induce horror] to assemble and electrically connect micron and millimeter components to build stronger materials, faster electronics, and better sensors.

Many high-impact, minimally invasive surgical techniques are currently performed only by elite surgeons due to the lack of tactile feedback at such small scales relative to what is experienced during conventional surgical procedures. Harvard is developing a new manufacturing paradigm for millimeter-scale surgical tools using low-cost 2D layer-by-layer processes and assembly by folding, resulting in arbitrarily complex meso-scale 3D devices. The goal is for these novel tools to restore the necessary tactile feedback and thereby nurture a new degree of dexterity to perform otherwise demanding micro- and minimally invasive surgeries, and thus expand the availability of life-saving procedures.


‘Sidebar’ is my way of indicating these comments have little to do with the matter at hand but could be interesting factoids for you.

First, Zyvex Labs was last mentioned here in a Sept. 10, 2014 posting titled: OCSiAL will not be acquiring Zyvex. Notice that this  announcement was made shortly after DARPA’s A2P program was announced and that OCSiAL is one of RUSNANO’s (a Russian funding agency focused on nanotechnology) portfolio companies (see my Oct. 23, 2015 posting for more).

HRL Laboratories, mentioned here in an April 19, 2012 posting mostly concerned with memristors (nanoscale devices that mimic neural or synaptic plasticity), has its roots in Howard Hughes’s research laboratories as noted in the posting. In 2012, HRL was involved in another DARPA project, SyNAPSE.

Finally and minimally, PARC also known as, Xerox PARC, was made famous by Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak when they set up their own company (Apple) basing their products on innovations that PARC had rejected. There are other versions of the story and one by Malcolm Gladwell for the New Yorker May 16, 2011 issue which presents a more complicated and, at times, contradictory version of that particular ‘origins’ story.

Rice University collaborates with Shandong University on a Joint Center for Carbon Nanomaterials

They’re not billing this as a joint US-China project but with Rice University being in Texas, US and Shandong University being in Shandong (province) in China, I think it’s reasonable to describe it that way. Here’s more about the project from a Feb. 4, 2015 news item on Azonano,

Scientists from Rice University and Shandong University, China, celebrated the opening of the Joint Center for Carbon Nanomaterials, a collaborative facility to study nanotechnology, on Feb. 1 [2015].

Rice faculty members Pulickel Ajayan and Jun Lou, the chair and associate chair, respectively, of the university’s Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering, took part in the ceremony along with Rice alumnus Lijie Ci, director of the new center and a professor of materials science and engineering at Shandong. The center’s dedication was part of the first International Workshop on Engineering and Applications of Nanocarbon, held Jan. 31-Feb. 2 [2015].

Determining where this new center is located proved to be a challenge. From a Feb. 2, 2015 Rice University news release, which originated the news item,

“We at Rice University are excited and honored to collaborate with Shandong University on this important endeavor,” Rice President David Leebron said in a message recorded for the ceremony. [emphasis mine] “The center represents and combines two very important initiatives for Rice: research excellence and applications in nanosciences and long-term partnerships with the best institutions worldwide.”

“A lot of people are working on carbon nanoscience on both campuses, and we expect they will be interested in taking part,” Ajayan said. “Nanotubes and graphene are essentially the building blocks for the center, but Lijie wants to build ecologically relevant, applied research that can be commercialized. That’s the long-term goal. All of the experience we have had in the area will be beneficial.”

Ajayan expects students from both universities will travel. “People from Rice will be engaged in some of the activities of this joint center, including advising students there. And we hope Shandong students will have the opportunity to come to Rice for a short time,” he said. “The center also contributes to Rice’s goal to build closer connections with China.” [emphases mine]

Ajayan and Ci came to Rice together in 2007 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Ajayan was a faculty member and Ci was a postdoctoral researcher. At Rice, they introduced the darkest material ever measured at the time of its invention in 2008, an accomplishment that landed them in the Guinness Book of World Records.

They also collaborated on the first two-dimensional material to incorporate graphene and hexagonal boron nitride in a seamless lattice. Such 2-D materials have since become the focus of worldwide research for their potential as electronic components. And Ci, Lou and Ajayan worked together to study the nanoscale friction properties of carbon nanotubes.

I’m inferring from the portions I’ve highlighted that this center is located at Shandong University.

Cute, adorable roundworms help measure nanoparticle toxicity

Caption: Low-cost experiments to test the toxicity of nanomaterials focused on populations of roundworms. Rice University scientists were able to test 20 nanomaterials in a short time, and see their method as a way to determine which nanomaterials should undergo more extensive testing. Credit: Zhong Lab/Rice University

Caption: Low-cost experiments to test the toxicity of nanomaterials focused on populations of roundworms. Rice University scientists were able to test 20 nanomaterials in a short time, and see their method as a way to determine which nanomaterials should undergo more extensive testing.
Credit: Zhong Lab/Rice University

Until now, ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’ are not words I would have associated with worms of any kind or with Rice University, for that matter. It’s amazing what a single image can do, eh?

A Feb. 3, 2015 news item on Azonano describes how roundworms have been used in research investigating the toxicity of various kinds of nanoparticles,

The lowly roundworm is the star of an ambitious Rice University project to measure the toxicity of nanoparticles.

The low-cost, high-throughput study by Rice scientists Weiwei Zhong and Qilin Li measures the effects of many types of nanoparticles not only on individual organisms but also on entire populations.

A Feb. 2, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details about the research,

The Rice researchers tested 20 types of nanoparticles and determined that five, including the carbon-60 molecules (“buckyballs”) discovered at Rice in 1985, showed little to no toxicity.

Others were moderately or highly toxic to Caenorhabditis elegans, several generations of which the researchers observed to see the particles’ effects on their health.

The results were published by the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Sciences and Technology. They are also available on the researchers’ open-source website.

“Nanoparticles are basically new materials, and we don’t know much about what they will do to human health and the health of the ecosystem,” said Li, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. “There have been a lot of publications showing certain nanomaterials are more toxic than others. So before we make more products that incorporate these nanomaterials, it’s important that we understand we’re not putting anything toxic into the environment or into consumer products.

“The question is, How much cost can we bear?” she said. “It’s a long and expensive process to do a thorough toxicological study of any chemical, not just nanomaterials.” She said that due to the large variety of nanomaterials being produced at high speed and at such a large scale, there is “an urgent need for high-throughput screening techniques to prioritize which to study more extensively.”

Rice’s pilot study proves it is possible to gather a lot of toxicity data at low cost, said Zhong, an assistant professor of biosciences, who has performed extensive studies on C. elegans, particularly on their gene networks. Materials alone for each assay, including the worms and the bacteria they consumed and the culture media, cost about 50 cents, she said.

The researchers used four assays to see how worms react to nanoparticles: fitness, movement, growth and lifespan. The most sensitive assay of toxicity was fitness. In this test, the researchers mixed the nanoparticles in solutions with the bacteria that worms consume. Measuring how much bacteria they ate over time served as a measure of the worms’ “fitness.”

“If the worms’ health is affected by the nanoparticles, they reproduce less and eat less,” Zhong said. “In the fitness assay, we monitor the worms for a week. That is long enough for us to monitor toxicity effects accumulated through three generations of worms.” C. elegans has a life cycle of about three days, and since each can produce many offspring, a population that started at 50 would number more than 10,000 after a week. Such a large number of tested animals also enabled the fitness assay to be highly sensitive.

The researchers’ “QuantWorm” system allowed fast monitoring of worm fitness, movement, growth and lifespan. In fact, monitoring the worms was probably the least time-intensive part of the project. Each nanomaterial required specific preparation to make sure it was soluble and could be delivered to the worms along with the bacteria. The chemical properties of each nanomaterial also needed to be characterized in detail.

The researchers studied a representative sampling of three classes of nanoparticles: metal, metal oxides and carbon-based. “We did not do polymeric nanoparticles because the type of polymers you can possibly have is endless,” Li explained.

They examined the toxicity of each nanoparticle at four concentrations. Their results showed C-60 fullerenes, fullerol (a fullerene derivative), titanium dioxide, titanium dioxide-decorated nanotubes and cerium dioxide were the least damaging to worm populations.

Their “fitness” assay confirmed dose-dependent toxicity for carbon black, single- and multiwalled carbon nanotubes, graphene, graphene oxide, gold nanoparticles and fumed silicon dioxide.

They also determined the degree to which surface chemistry affected the toxicity of some particles. While amine-functionalized multiwalled nanotubes proved highly toxic, hydroxylated nanotubes had the least toxicity, with significant differences in fitness, body length and lifespan.

A complete and interactive toxicity chart for all of the tested materials is available online.

Zhong said the method could prove its worth as a rapid way for drug or other companies to narrow the range of nanoparticles they wish to put through more expensive, dedicated toxicology testing.

“Next, we hope to add environmental variables to the assays, for example, to mimic ultraviolet exposure or river water conditions in the solution to see how they affect toxicity,” she said. “We also want to study the biological mechanism by which some particles are toxic to worms.”

Here’s a citation for the paper and links to the paper and to the researchers’ website,

A multi-endpoint, high-throughput study of nanomaterial toxicity in Caenorhabditis elegans by Sang-Kyu Jung, Xiaolei Qu, Boanerges Aleman-Meza, Tianxiao Wang, Celeste Riepe, Zheng Liu, Qilin Li, and Weiwei Zhong. Environ. Sci. Technol., Just Accepted Manuscript DOI: 10.1021/es5056462 Publication Date (Web): January 22, 2015
Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

Nanomaterial effects on C. elegans

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This heat map indicates whether a measurement for the nanomaterial-exposed worms is higher (yellow), or lower (blue) than the control worms. Black indicates no effects from nanomaterial exposure.

Clicking on colored blocks to see detailed experimental data.

The published paper is open access but you need an American Chemical Society site registration to access it. The researchers’ site is open access.

Quantum dots cycling through the food chain

Rice University (Texas, US) researchers have published a study which follows quantum dot nanoparticles as they enter the water supply and are taken up by plant roots and leaves and eaten by caterpillars. From a Dec. 16, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

In one of the most comprehensive laboratory studies of its kind, Rice University scientists traced the uptake and accumulation of quantum dot nanoparticles from water to plant roots, plant leaves and leaf-eating caterpillars.

The study, one of the first to examine how nanoparticles move through human-relevant food chains, found that nanoparticle accumulation in both plants and animals varied significantly depending upon the type of surface coating applied to the particles. The research is available online in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology.

A Dec. 16, 2014 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides insight into some of the issues being addressed with this research (Note: Links have been removed),

“With industrial use of nanoparticles on the rise, there are increasing questions about how they move through the environment and whether they may accumulate in high levels in plants and animals that people eat,” said study co-author Janet Braam, professor and chair of the Department of BioSciences at Rice.

Braam and colleagues studied the uptake of fluorescent quantum dots by Arabidopsis thaliana, an oft-studied plant species that is a relative of mustard, broccoli and kale. In particular, the team looked at how various surface coatings affected how quantum dots moved from roots to leaves as well as how the particles accumulated in leaves. The team also studied how quantum dots behaved when caterpillars called cabbage loopers (Trichoplusia ni) fed upon plant leaves containing quantum dots.

“The impact of nanoparticle uptake on plants themselves and on the herbivores that feed upon them is an open question,” said study first author Yeonjong Koo, a postdoctoral research associate in Braam’s lab. “Very little work has been done in this area, especially in terrestrial plants, which are the cornerstone of human food webs.”

Some toxins, like mercury and DDT, tend to accumulate in higher concentrations as they move up the food chain from plants to animals. It is unknown whether nanoparticles may also be subject to this process, known as biomagnification.

While there are hundreds of types of nanoparticles in use, Koo chose to study quantum dots, submicroscopic bits of semiconductors that glow brightly under ultraviolet light. The fluorescent particles — which contained cadmium, selenium, zinc and sulfur — could easily be measured and imaged in the tests. In addition, the team treated the surface of the quantum dots with three different polymer coatings — one positively charged, one negatively charged and one neutral.

“In industrial applications, nanoparticles are often coated with a polymer to increase solubility, improve stability, enhance properties and for other reasons,” said study co-author Pedro Alvarez, professor and chair of Rice’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We expect surface coatings to play a significant role in whether and how nanomaterials may accumulate in food webs.”

Previous lab studies had suggested that the neutral coatings might cause the nanoparticles to aggregate and form clumps that were so large that they would not readily move from a plant’s roots to its leaves. The experiments bore this out. Of the three particle types, only those with charged coatings moved readily through the plants, and only the negatively charged particles avoided clumping altogether. The study also found that the type of coating impacted the plants’ ability to biodegrade, or break down, the quantum dots.

Koo and colleagues found caterpillars that fed on plants containing quantum dots gained less weight and grew more slowly than caterpillars that fed on untainted leaves. By examining the caterpillar’s excrement, the scientists were also able to estimate whether cadmium, selenium and intact quantum dots might be accumulating in the animals. Again, the coating played an important role.

“Our tests were not specifically designed to measure bioaccumulation in caterpillars, but the data we collected suggest that particles with positively charged coatings may accumulate in cells and pose a risk of bioaccumulation,” Koo said. “Based on our findings, more tests should be conducted to determine the extent of this risk under a broader set of ecological conditions.”

The researchers have a couple of images illustrating their work,

The buildup of fluorescent quantum dots in the leaves of Arabidopsis plants is apparent in this photograph of the plants under ultraviolet light. Credit: Y. Koo/Rice University

The buildup of fluorescent quantum dots in the leaves of Arabidopsis plants is apparent in this photograph of the plants under ultraviolet light. Credit: Y. Koo/Rice University

And, there’s a caterpillar,

Cabbage looper

Cabbage looper

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

Fluorescence Reports Intact Quantum Dot Uptake into Roots and Translocation to Leaves of Arabidopsis thaliana and Subsequent Ingestion by Insect Herbivores by Yeonjong Koo, Jing Wang, Qingbo Zhang, Huiguang Zhu, E. Wassim Chehab, Vicki L. Colvin, Pedro J. J. Alvarez, and Janet Braam. Environ. Sci. Technol., Just Accepted Manuscript DOI: 10.1021/es5050562 Publication Date (Web): December 1, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access but you must be registered on the website.

One final thought about the research, it did take place in a laboratory environment and there doesn’t seem to have been any soil involved so the uptake can not be directly compared (as I understand matters) to the uptake characteristics where plant cultivation requires soil. This seems to have been a study involving hydroponic framing practices.

Replacing copper wire in motors?

Finnish researchers at Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) believe it may be possible to replace copper wire used in motors with spun carbon nanotubes. From an Oct. 15, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) introduces the first electrical motor applying carbon nanotube yarn. The material replaces copper wires in windings. The motor is a step towards lightweight, efficient electric drives. Its output power is 40 W and rotation speed 15000 rpm.

Aiming at upgrading the performance and energy efficiency of electrical machines, higher-conductivity wires are searched for windings. Here, the new technology may revolutionize the industry. The best carbon nanotubes (CNTs) demonstrate conductivities far beyond the best metals; CNT windings may have double the conductivity of copper windings.

”If we keep the design parameters unchanged only replacing copper with carbon nanotube yarns, the Joule losses in windings can be reduced to half of present machine losses. By lighter and more ecological CNT yarn, we can reduce machine dimensions and CO2 emissions in manufacturing and operation. Machines could also be run in higher temperatures,” says Professor Pyrhönen [Juha Pyrhönen], leading the prototype design at LUT.

An Oct. ??, 2014 (?) LUT press release, which originated the news item, further describes the work,

Traditionally, the windings in electrical machines are made of copper, which has the second best conductivity of metals at room temperature. Despite the high conductivity of copper, a large proportion of the electrical machine losses occur in the copper windings. For this reason, the Joule losses are often referred to as copper losses. The carbon nanotube yarn does not have a definite upper limit for conductivity (e.g. values of 100 MS/m have already been measured).

According to Pyrhönen, the electrical machines are so ubiquitous in everyday life that we often forget about their presence. In a single-family house alone there can be tens of electrical machines in various household appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, hair dryers, and ventilators.

“In the industry, the number of electrical motors is enormous: there can be up to tens of thousands of motors in a single process industry unit. All these use copper in the windings. Consequently, finding a more efficient material to replace the copper conductors would lead to major changes in the industry,” tells Professor Pyrhönen.

There are big plans for this work according to the press release,

The prototype motor uses carbon nanotube yarns spun and converted into an isolated tape by a Japanese-Dutch company Teijin Aramid, which has developed the spinning technology in collaboration with Rice University, the USA. The industrial applications of the new material are still in their infancy; scaling up the production capacity together with improving the yarn performance will facilitate major steps in the future, believes Business Development Manager Dr. Marcin Otto from Teijin Aramid, agreeing with Professor Pyrhönen.

“There is a significant improvement potential in the electrical machines, but we are now facing the limits of material physics set by traditional winding materials. Superconductivity appears not to develop to such a level that it could, in general, be applied to electrical machines. Carbonic materials, however, seem to have a pole position: We expect that in the future, the conductivity of carbon nanotube yarns could be even three times the practical conductivity of copper in electrical machines. In addition, carbon is abundant while copper needs to be mined or recycled by heavy industrial processes.”

The researchers have produced this video about their research,

There’s a reference to some work done at Rice University (Texas, US) with Teijin Armid (Japanese-Dutch company) and Technion Institute (Israel) with spinning carbon nanotubes into threads that look like black cotton (you’ll see the threads in the video). It’s this work that has made the latest research in Finland possible. I have more about the the Rice/Teijin Armid/Technion CNT project in my Jan. 11, 2013 posting, Prima donna of nanomaterials (carbon nanotubes) tamed by scientists at Rice University (Texas, US), Teijin Armid (Dutch/Japanese company), and Technion Institute (based in Israel).

De-icing film for radar domes adapted for use on glass

Interesting to see that graphene is in use for de-icing. From a Sept. 16, 2014 news item  on ScienceDaily,

Rice University scientists who created a deicing film for radar domes have now refined the technology to work as a transparent coating for glass.

The new work by Rice chemist James Tour and his colleagues could keep glass surfaces from windshields to skyscrapers free of ice and fog while retaining their transparency to radio frequencies (RF).

A Sept. 16, 2014 Rice University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the technology and its new application in more detail,

The material is made of graphene nanoribbons, atom-thick strips of carbon created by splitting nanotubes, a process also invented by the Tour lab. Whether sprayed, painted or spin-coated, the ribbons are transparent and conduct both heat and electricity.

Last year the Rice group created films of overlapping nanoribbons and polyurethane paint to melt ice on sensitive military radar domes, which need to be kept clear of ice to keep them at peak performance. The material would replace a bulky and energy-hungry metal oxide framework.

The graphene-infused paint worked well, Tour said, but where it was thickest, it would break down when exposed to high-powered radio signals. “At extremely high RF, the thicker portions were absorbing the signal,” he said. “That caused degradation of the film. Those spots got so hot that they burned up.”

The answer was to make the films more consistent. The new films are between 50 and 200 nanometers thick – a human hair is about 50,000 nanometers thick – and retain their ability to heat when a voltage is applied. The researchers were also able to preserve their transparency. The films are still useful for deicing applications but can be used to coat glass and plastic as well as radar domes and antennas.

In the previous process, the nanoribbons were mixed with polyurethane, but testing showed the graphene nanoribbons themselves formed an active network when applied directly to a surface. They were subsequently coated with a thin layer of polyurethane for protection. Samples were spread onto glass slides that were then iced. When voltage was applied to either side of the slide, the ice melted within minutes even when kept in a minus-20-degree Celsius environment, the researchers reported.

“One can now think of using these films in automobile glass as an invisible deicer, and even in skyscrapers,” Tour said. “Glass skyscrapers could be kept free of fog and ice, but also be transparent to radio frequencies. It’s really frustrating these days to find yourself in a building where your cellphone doesn’t work. This could help alleviate that problem.”

Tour noted future generations of long-range Wi-Fi may also benefit. “It’s going to be important, as Wi-Fi becomes more ubiquitous, especially in cities. Signals can’t get through anything that’s metallic in nature, but these layers are so thin they won’t have any trouble penetrating.”

He said nanoribbon films also open a path toward embedding electronic circuits in glass that are both optically and RF transparent.

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

Functionalized Graphene Nanoribbon Films as a Radiofrequency and Optically Transparent Material by Abdul-Rahman O. Raji, Sydney Salters, Errol L. G. Samuel, Yu Zhu, Vladimir Volman, and James M. Tour. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/am503478w Publication Date (Web): September 4, 2014
Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

De-icing is a matter of some interest in the airlines industry as I noted in my Nov. 19, 2012 posting about de-icing airplane wings.

Alberta’s summer of 2014 nano funding and the US nano community’s talks with the House of Representatives

I have two items concerning nanotechnology and funding. The first item features Michelle Rempel, Canada’s Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification (WD) who made two funding announcements this summer (2014) affecting the Canadian nanotechnology sector and, more specifically, the province of Alberta.

A June 20, 2014 WD Canada news release announced a $1.1M award to the University of Alberta,

Today, the Honourable Michelle Rempel, Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, announced $1.1 million to help advance leading-edge atomic computing technologies.

Federal funds will support the University of Alberta with the purchase of an ultra-high resolution scanning tunneling microscope, which will enable researchers and scientists in western Canada and abroad to analyze electron dynamics and nanostructures at an atomic level. The first of its kind in North America, the microscope has the potential to significantly transform the semiconductor industry, as research findings aid in the prototype development and technology commercialization of new ultra low-power and low-temperature computing devices and industrial applications.

This initiative is expected to further strengthen Canada’s competitive position throughout the electronics value chain, such as microelectronics, information and communications technology, and the aerospace and defence sectors. The project will also equip graduate students with a solid foundation of knowledge and hands-on experience to become highly qualified, skilled individuals in today’s workforce.

One month later, a July 21, 2014 WD news release (hosted on the Alberta Centre for Advanced Micro and Nano Products [ACAMP]) announces this award,

Today, the Honourable Michelle Rempel, Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, announced an investment of $3.3 million toward the purchase and installation of specialized advanced manufacturing and product development equipment at the Alberta Centre for Advanced Micro Nano Technology Products (ACAMP), as well as training on the use of this new equipment for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

This support, combined with an investment of $800,000 from Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, will enable ACAMP to expand their services and provide businesses with affordable access to prototype manufacturing that is currently unavailable in western Canada. By helping SMEs accelerate the development and commercialization of innovative products, this project will help strengthen the global competitiveness of western Canadian technology companies.

Approximately 80 Alberta SMEs will benefit from this initiative, which is expected to result in the development of new product prototypes, the creation of new jobs in the field, as well as connections between SMEs and multi-national companies. This equipment will also assist ACAMP’s outreach activities across the western Canadian provinces.

I’m not entirely clear as to whether or not the June 2014 $1.1M award is considered part of the $3.3M award or if these are two different announcements. I am still waiting for answers to a June 20, 2014 query sent to Emily Goucher, Director of Communications to the Hon. Michelle Rempel,

Hi Emily!

Thank you for both the news release and the information about the embargo … happily not an issue at this point …

I noticed Robert Wolkow’s name in the release (I last posted about his work in a March 3, 2011 piece about his and his team’s entry into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s smallest electron microscope tip (http://www.frogheart.ca/?tag=robert-wolkow) [Note: Wolkow was included in a list of quotees not included here in this July 29, 2014 posting]

I am assuming that the new microscope at the University of Alberta is specific to a different type of work than the one at UVic, which has a subatomic microscope (http://www.frogheart.ca/?p=10426)

Do I understand correctly that an STM is being purchased or is this an announcement of the funds and their intended use with no details about the STM available yet? After reading the news release closely, it looks to me like they do have a specific STM in mind but perhaps they don’t feel ready to make a purchase announcement yet?

If there is information about the STM that will be purchased I would deeply appreciate receiving it.

Thank you for your time.

As I wait, there’s more news from  the US as members of that country’s nanotechnology community testify at a second hearing before the House of Representatives. The first (a May 20, 2014 ‘National Nanotechnology Initiative’ hearing held before the Science, Space, and Technology
Subcommittee on Research and Technology) was mentioned in an May 23, 2014 posting  where I speculated about the community’s response to a smaller budget allocation (down to $1.5B in 2015 from $1.7B in 2014).

This second hearing is being held before the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade and features an appearance by James Tour from Rice University according to a July 28, 2014 news item on Azonano,

At the hearing, titled “Nanotechnology: Understanding How Small Solutions Drive Big Innovation,” Tour will discuss and provide written testimony on the future of nanotechnology and its impact on U.S. manufacturing and jobs. Tour is one of the most cited chemists in the country, and his Tour Group is a leader in patenting and bringing to market nanotechnology-based methods and materials.

Who: James Tour, Rice’s T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry and professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of computer science.

What: Exploring breakthrough nanotechnology opportunities.

When: 10:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday, July 29.

Where: Room 2322, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C.

The hearing will explore the current state of nanotechnology and the direction it is headed so that members can gain a better understanding of the policy changes that may be necessary to keep up with advancements. Ultimately, the subcommittee hopes to better understand what issues will confront regulators and how to assess the challenges and opportunities of nanotechnology.

You can find a notice for this July 2014 hearing and a list of witnesses along with their statements here. As for what a second hearing might mean within the context of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative, I cannot say with any certainty. But, this is the first time in six years of writing this blog where there have been two hearings post-budget but as a passive collector of this kind of information this may be a reflection of my information collection strategies rather than a response to a smaller budget allocation. Still, it’s interesting.

Carbyne stretches from theory to reality and reveals its conundrum-type self

Rice University (Texas, US) scientists have taken a rather difficult material, carbyne, and twisted it to reveal new properties according to a July 21, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Applying just the right amount of tension to a chain of carbon atoms can turn it from a metallic conductor to an insulator, according to Rice University scientists.

Stretching the material known as carbyne — a hard-to-make, one-dimensional chain of carbon atoms — by just 3 percent can begin to change its properties in ways that engineers might find useful for mechanically activated nanoscale electronics and optics.

A July 21, 2014 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes carbyne and some of the difficulties the scientists addressed in their research on the material,

Until recently, carbyne has existed mostly in theory, though experimentalists have made some headway in creating small samples of the finicky material. The carbon chain would theoretically be the strongest material ever, if only someone could make it reliably.

The first-principle calculations by Yakobson and his co-authors, Rice postdoctoral researcher Vasilii Artyukhov and graduate student Mingjie Liu, show that stretching carbon chains activates the transition from conductor to insulator by widening the material’s band gap. Band gaps, which free electrons must overcome to complete a circuit, give materials the semiconducting properties that make modern electronics possible.

In their previous work on carbyne, the researchers believed they saw hints of the transition, but they had to dig deeper to find that stretching would effectively turn the material into a switch.

Each carbon atom has four electrons available to form covalent bonds. In their relaxed state, the atoms in a carbyne chain would be more or less evenly spaced, with two bonds between them. But the atoms are never static, due to natural quantum uncertainty, which Yakobson said keeps them from slipping into a less-stable Peierls distortion.

“Peierls said one-dimensional metals are unstable and must become semiconductors or insulators,” Yakobson said. “But it’s not that simple, because there are two driving factors.”

One, the Peierls distortion, “wants to open the gap that makes it a semiconductor.” The other, called zero-point vibration (ZPV), “wants to maintain uniformity and the metal state.”

Yakobson explained that ZPV is a manifestation of quantum uncertainty, which says atoms are always in motion. “It’s more a blur than a vibration,” he said. “We can say carbyne represents the uncertainty principle in action, because when it’s relaxed, the bonds are constantly confused between 2-2 and 1-3, to the point where they average out and the chain remains metallic.”

But stretching the chain shifts the balance toward alternating long and short (1-3) bonds. That progressively opens a band gap beginning at about 3 percent tension, according to the computations. The Rice team created a phase diagram to illustrate the relationship of the band gap to strain and temperature.

How carbyne is attached to electrodes also matters, Artyukhov said. “Different bond connectivity patterns can affect the metallic/dielectric state balance and shift the transition point, potentially to where it may not be accessible anymore,” he said. “So one has to be extremely careful about making the contacts.”

“Carbyne’s structure is a conundrum,” he said. “Until this paper, everybody was convinced it was single-triple, with a long bond then a short bond, caused by Peierls instability.” He said the realization that quantum vibrations may quench Peierls, together with the team’s earlier finding that tension can increase the band gap and make carbyne more insulating, prompted the new study.

“Other researchers considered the role of ZPV in Peierls-active systems, even carbyne itself, before we did,” Artyukhov said. “However, in all previous studies only two possible answers were being considered: either ‘carbyne is semiconducting’ or ‘carbyne is metallic,’ and the conclusion, whichever one, was viewed as sort of a timeless mathematical truth, a static ‘ultimate verdict.’ What we realized here is that you can use tension to dynamically go from one regime to the other, which makes it useful on a completely different level.”

Yakobson noted the findings should encourage more research into the formation of stable carbyne chains and may apply equally to other one-dimensional chains subject to Peierls distortions, including conducting polymers and charge/spin density-wave materials.

According to the news release the research was funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Office of Naval Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, and the Robert Welch Foundation. (I can’t recall another instance of the air force and the navy funding the same research.) In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Mechanically Induced Metal–Insulator Transition in Carbyne by Vasilii I. Artyukhov, Mingjie Liu, and Boris I. Yakobson. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nl5017317 Publication Date (Web): July 3, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

The researchers have provided an image to illustrate their work,

[downloaded from http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl5017317]

[downloaded from http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl5017317]

I’m not sure what the bird is doing in the image but it caught my fancy. There is another less whimsical illustration (you can see it in the  July 21, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily) and I believe the same caption can be used for the one I’ve chosen from the journal’s abstract page, “Carbyne chains of carbon atoms can be either metallic or semiconducting, according to first-principle calculations by scientists at Rice University. Stretching the chain dimerizes the atoms, opening a band gap between the pairs. Credit: Vasilii Artyukhov/Rice University.”

I last wrote about carbyne in an Oct. 9, 2013 posting where I noted that the material was unlikely to dethrone graphene as it didn’t appear to have properties useful in electronic applications. It seems the scientists have proved otherwise, at least in the laboratory.

Better RRAM memory devices in the short term

Given my recent spate of posts about computing and the future of the chip (list to follow at the end of this post), this Rice University [Texas, US] research suggests that some improvements to current memory devices might be coming to the market in the near future. From a July 12, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Rice University’s breakthrough silicon oxide technology for high-density, next-generation computer memory is one step closer to mass production, thanks to a refinement that will allow manufacturers to fabricate devices at room temperature with conventional production methods.

A July 10, 2014 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Tour and colleagues began work on their breakthrough RRAM technology more than five years ago. The basic concept behind resistive memory devices is the insertion of a dielectric material — one that won’t normally conduct electricity — between two wires. When a sufficiently high voltage is applied across the wires, a narrow conduction path can be formed through the dielectric material.

The presence or absence of these conduction pathways can be used to represent the binary 1s and 0s of digital data. Research with a number of dielectric materials over the past decade has shown that such conduction pathways can be formed, broken and reformed thousands of times, which means RRAM can be used as the basis of rewritable random-access memory.

RRAM is under development worldwide and expected to supplant flash memory technology in the marketplace within a few years because it is faster than flash and can pack far more information into less space. For example, manufacturers have announced plans for RRAM prototype chips that will be capable of storing about one terabyte of data on a device the size of a postage stamp — more than 50 times the data density of current flash memory technology.

The key ingredient of Rice’s RRAM is its dielectric component, silicon oxide. Silicon is the most abundant element on Earth and the basic ingredient in conventional microchips. Microelectronics fabrication technologies based on silicon are widespread and easily understood, but until the 2010 discovery of conductive filament pathways in silicon oxide in Tour’s lab, the material wasn’t considered an option for RRAM.

Since then, Tour’s team has raced to further develop its RRAM and even used it for exotic new devices like transparent flexible memory chips. At the same time, the researchers also conducted countless tests to compare the performance of silicon oxide memories with competing dielectric RRAM technologies.

“Our technology is the only one that satisfies every market requirement, both from a production and a performance standpoint, for nonvolatile memory,” Tour said. “It can be manufactured at room temperature, has an extremely low forming voltage, high on-off ratio, low power consumption, nine-bit capacity per cell, exceptional switching speeds and excellent cycling endurance.”

In the latest study, a team headed by lead author and Rice postdoctoral researcher Gunuk Wang showed that using a porous version of silicon oxide could dramatically improve Rice’s RRAM in several ways. First, the porous material reduced the forming voltage — the power needed to form conduction pathways — to less than two volts, a 13-fold improvement over the team’s previous best and a number that stacks up against competing RRAM technologies. In addition, the porous silicon oxide also allowed Tour’s team to eliminate the need for a “device edge structure.”

“That means we can take a sheet of porous silicon oxide and just drop down electrodes without having to fabricate edges,” Tour said. “When we made our initial announcement about silicon oxide in 2010, one of the first questions I got from industry was whether we could do this without fabricating edges. At the time we could not, but the change to porous silicon oxide finally allows us to do that.”

Wang said, “We also demonstrated that the porous silicon oxide material increased the endurance cycles more than 100 times as compared with previous nonporous silicon oxide memories. Finally, the porous silicon oxide material has a capacity of up to nine bits per cell that is highest number among oxide-based memories, and the multiple capacity is unaffected by high temperatures.”

Tour said the latest developments with porous silicon oxide — reduced forming voltage, elimination of need for edge fabrication, excellent endurance cycling and multi-bit capacity — are extremely appealing to memory companies.

“This is a major accomplishment, and we’ve already been approached by companies interested in licensing this new technology,” he said.

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

Nanoporous Silicon Oxide Memory by Gunuk Wang, Yang Yang, Jae-Hwang Lee, Vera Abramova, Huilong Fei, Gedeng Ruan, Edwin L. Thomas, and James M. Tour. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nl501803s Publication Date (Web): July 3, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for my recent spate of posts on computers and chips, there’s a July 11, 2014 posting about IBM, a 7nm chip, and much more; a July 9, 2014 posting about Intel and its 14nm low-power chip processing and plans for a 10nm chip; and, finally, a June 26, 2014 posting about HP Labs and its plans for memristive-based computing and their project dubbed ‘The Machine’.