Tag Archives: University of Maryland

University of Maryland looks into transparent wood

Is transparent wood becoming the material du jour? Following on the heels of my April 1, 2016 post about transparent wood and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), there’s a May 6, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily about the material and a team at the University of Maryland,

Researchers at the University of Maryland have made a block of linden wood transparent, which they say will be useful in fancy building materials and in light-based electronics systems.

Materials scientist Liangbing Hu and his team at the University of Maryland, College Park, have removed the molecule in wood, lignin, that makes it rigid and dark in color. They left behind the colorless cellulose cell structures, filled them with epoxy, and came up with a version of the wood that is mostly see-thru.

I wonder if this is the type of material that might be used in structures like the proposed Center of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at Tel Aviv University building (my May 9, 2016 posting about a building design that features no doors or windows)?

Regardless, there’s more about this latest transparent wood in a May 5, 2016 Tufts University news release, which originated the news item,

Remember “xylem” and “phloem” from grade-school science class? These structures pass water and nutrients up and down the tree. Hu and his colleagues see these as vertically aligned channels in the wood, a naturally-grown structure that can be used to pass light along, after the wood has been treated.

The resulting three-inch block of wood had both high transparency—the quality of being see-thru—and high haze—the quality of scattering light. This would be useful, said Hu, in making devices comfortable to look at. It would also help solar cells trap light; light could easily enter through the transparent function, but the high haze would keep the light bouncing around near where it would be absorbed by the solar panel.

They compared how the materials performed and how light worked its way through the wood when they sliced it two ways: one with the grain of the wood, so that the channels passed through the longest dimension of the block. And they also tried slicing it against the grain, so that the channels passed through the shortest dimension of the block.

The short channel wood proved slightly stronger and a little less brittle. But though the natural component making the wood strong had been removed, the addition of the epoxy made the wood four to six times tougher than the untreated version.

Then they investigated how the different directions of the wood affected the way the light passed through it. When laid down on top of a grid, both kinds of wood showed the lines clearly. When lifted just a touch above the grid, the long-channel wood still showed the grid, just a little bit more blurry. But the short channel wood, when lifted those same few millimeters, made the grid completely invisible.

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

Highly Anisotropic, Highly Transparent Wood Composites by Mingwei Zhu, Jianwei Song, Tian Li, Amy Gong, Yanbin Wang, Jiaqi Dai, Yonggang Yao, Wei Luo, Doug Henderson, and Liangbing Hu. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201600427 Article first published online: 4 MAY 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

New ABCs of research: seminars and a book

David Bruggeman has featured a new book and mentioned its attendant seminars in an April 19, 2016 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: A link has been removed),

Ben Shneiderman, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland at College Park, recently published The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations.  It’s meant to be a guide for students and researchers about the various efforts to better integrate different kinds of research and design to improve research outputs and outcomes. …

David has an embedded a video of Schneiderman discussing the principles espoused in his book. There are some upcoming seminars including one on Thursday, April 21, 2016 (today) at New York University (NYU) at 12:30 pm at 44 West 4th St, Kaufman Management Center, Room 3-50. From the description on the NYU event page,

Solving the immense problems of the 21st century will require ambitious research teams that are skilled at producing practical solutions and foundational theories simultaneously – that is the ABC Principle: Applied & Basic Combined.  Then these research teams can deliver high-impact outcomes by applying the SED Principle: Blend Science, Engineering and Design Thinking, which encourages use of the methods from all three disciplines.  These guiding principles (ABC & SED) are meant to replace Vannevar Bush’s flawed linear model from 1945 that has misled researchers for 70+ years.  These new guiding principles will enable students, researchers, business leaders, and government policy makers to accelerate discovery and innovation.

Oxford University Press:  http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198758839.do

Book website:  http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/newabcs

There is another seminar on Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at 3:00 pm in the Pepco Room, #1105 Kim Engineering Building at the University of Maryland which is handy for anyone in the Washington, DC area.

‘Beleafing’ in magic; a new type of battery

A Jan. 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the ‘beleaf’,

Scientists have a new recipe for batteries: Bake a leaf, and add sodium. They used a carbonized oak leaf, pumped full of sodium, as a demonstration battery’s negative terminal, or anode, according to a paper published yesterday in the journal ACS Applied Materials Interfaces.

Scientists baked a leaf to demonstrate a battery. Credit: Image courtesy of Maryland NanoCenter

Scientists baked a leaf to demonstrate a battery.
Credit: Image courtesy of Maryland NanoCenter

A Jan. ??, 2016 Maryland NanoCenter (University of Maryland) news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about the nature (pun intended) of the research,

“Leaves are so abundant. All we had to do was pick one up off the ground here on campus,” said Hongbian Li, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland’s department of materials science and engineering and one of the main authors of the paper. Li is a member of the faculty at the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing, China.

Other studies have shown that melon skin, banana peels and peat moss can be used in this way, but a leaf needs less preparation.

The scientists are trying to make a battery using sodium where most rechargeable batteries sold today use lithium. Sodium would hold more charge, but can’t handle as many charge-and-discharge cycles as lithium can.

One of the roadblocks has been finding an anode material that is compatible with sodium, which is slightly larger than lithium. Some scientists have explored graphene, dotted with various materials to attract and retain the sodium, but these are time consuming and expensive to produce.  In this case, they simply heated the leaf for an hour at 1,000 degrees C (don’t try this at home) to burn off all but the underlying carbon structure.

The lower side of the maple [?] leaf is studded with pores for the leaf to absorb water. In this new design, the pores absorb the sodium electrolyte. At the top, the layers of carbon that made the leaf tough become sheets of nanostructured carbon to absorb the sodium that carries the charge.

“The natural shape of a leaf already matches a battery’s needs: a low surface area, which decreases defects; a lot of small structures packed closely together, which maximizes space; and internal structures of the right size and shape to be used with sodium electrolyte,” said Fei Shen, a visiting student in the department of materials science and engineering and the other main author of the paper.

“We have tried other natural materials, such as wood fiber, to make a battery,” said Liangbing Hu, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “A leaf is designed by nature to store energy for later use, and using leaves in this way could make large-scale storage environmentally friendly.”

The next step, Hu said, is “to investigate different types of leaves to find the best thickness, structure and flexibility” for electrical energy storage.  The researchers have no plans to commercialize at this time.

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

Carbonized-leaf Membrane with Anisotropic Surfaces for Sodium-ion Battery by Hongbian Li, Fei Shen, Wei Luo, Jiaqi Dai, Xiaogang Han, Yanan Chen, Yonggang Yao, Hongli Zhu, Kun Fu, Emily Hitz, and Liangbing Hu. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (3), pp 2204–2210 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b10875 Publication Date (Web): January 4, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

US National Institute of Standards and Technology and molecules made of light (lightsabres anyone?)

As I recall, lightsabres are a Star Wars invention. I gather we’re a long way from running around with lightsabres  but there is hope, if that should be your dream, according to a Sept. 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

… a team including theoretical physicists from JQI [Joint Quantum Institute] and NIST [US National Institute of Stnadards and Technology] has taken another step toward building objects out of photons, and the findings hint that weightless particles of light can be joined into a sort of “molecule” with its own peculiar force.

Here’s an artist’s conception of the light “molecule” provided by the researchers,

Researchers show that two photons, depicted in this artist’s conception as waves (left and right), can be locked together at a short distance. Under certain conditions, the photons can form a state resembling a two-atom molecule, represented as the blue dumbbell shape at center. Credit: E. Edwards/JQI

Researchers show that two photons, depicted in this artist’s conception as waves (left and right), can be locked together at a short distance. Under certain conditions, the photons can form a state resembling a two-atom molecule, represented as the blue dumbbell shape at center. Credit: E. Edwards/JQI

A Sept. 8, 2015 NIST news release (also available on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, provides more information about the research (Note: Links have been removed),

The findings build on previous research that several team members contributed to before joining NIST. In 2013, collaborators from Harvard, Caltech and MIT found a way to bind two photons together so that one would sit right atop the other, superimposed as they travel. Their experimental demonstration was considered a breakthrough, because no one had ever constructed anything by combining individual photons—inspiring some to imagine that real-life lightsabers were just around the corner.

Now, in a paper forthcoming in Physical Review Letters, the NIST and University of Maryland-based team (with other collaborators) has showed theoretically that by tweaking a few parameters of the binding process, photons could travel side by side, a specific distance from each other. The arrangement is akin to the way that two hydrogen atoms sit next to each other in a hydrogen molecule.

“It’s not a molecule per se, but you can imagine it as having a similar kind of structure,” says NIST’s Alexey Gorshkov. “We’re learning how to build complex states of light that, in turn, can be built into more complex objects. This is the first time anyone has shown how to bind two photons a finite distance apart.”

While the new findings appear to be a step in the right direction—if we can build a molecule of light, why not a sword?—Gorshkov says he is not optimistic that Jedi Knights will be lining up at NIST’s gift shop anytime soon. The main reason is that binding photons requires extreme conditions difficult to produce with a roomful of lab equipment, let alone fit into a sword’s handle. Still, there are plenty of other reasons to make molecular light—humbler than lightsabers, but useful nonetheless.

“Lots of modern technologies are based on light, from communication technology to high-definition imaging,” Gorshkov says. “Many of them would be greatly improved if we could engineer interactions between photons.”

For example, engineers need a way to precisely calibrate light sensors, and Gorshkov says the findings could make it far easier to create a “standard candle” that shines a precise number of photons at a detector. Perhaps more significant to industry, binding and entangling photons could allow computers to use photons as information processors, a job that electronic switches in your computer do today.

Not only would this provide a new basis for creating computer technology, but it also could result in substantial energy savings. Phone messages and other data that currently travel as light beams through fiber optic cables has to be converted into electrons for processing—an inefficient step that wastes a great deal of electricity. If both the transport and the processing of the data could be done with photons directly, it could reduce these energy losses.

Gorshkov says it will be important to test the new theory in practice for these and other potential benefits.

“It’s a cool new way to study photons,” he says. “They’re massless and fly at the speed of light. Slowing them down and binding them may show us other things we didn’t know about them before.”

Here are links and citations for the paper. First, there’s an early version on arXiv.org and, then, there’s the peer-reviewed version, which is not yet available,

Coulomb bound states of strongly interacting photons by M. F. Maghrebi, M. J. Gullans, P. Bienias, S. Choi, I. Martin, O. Firstenberg, M. D. Lukin, H. P. Büchler, A. V. Gorshkov.      arXiv:1505.03859 [quant-ph] (or arXiv:1505.03859v1 [quant-ph] for this version)

Coulomb bound states of strongly interacting photons by M. F. Maghrebi, M. J. Gullans, P. Bienias, S. Choi, I. Martin, O. Firstenberg, M. D. Lukin, H. P. Büchler, and A. V. Gorshkov.
Phys. Rev. Lett. forthcoming in September 2015.

The first version (arXiv) is open access and I’m not sure whether or not the Physical review Letters study will be behind a paywall or be available as an open access paper.

*EurekAlert link added 10:34 am PST on Sept. 11, 2015.

Northwestern University’s (US) International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) rakes in some cash

Within less than a month Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) has been granted awarded two grants by the US Department of Defense.

4D printing

The first grant, for 4D printing, was announced in a June 11, 2015 Northwestern news release by Megan Fellman (Note: A link has been removed),

Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) has received a five-year, $8.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s competitive Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program to develop a “4-dimensional printer” — the next generation of printing technology for the scientific world.

Once developed, the 4-D printer, operating on the nanoscale, will be used to construct new devices for research in chemistry, materials sciences and U.S. defense-related areas that could lead to new chemical and biological sensors, catalysts, microchip designs and materials designed to respond to specific materials or signals.

“This research promises to bring transformative advancement to the development of biosensors, adaptive optics, artificially engineered tissues and more by utilizing nanotechnology,” said IIN director and chemist Chad A. Mirkin, who is leading the multi-institution project. Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The award, issued by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, supports a team of experts from Northwestern, the University of Miami, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Maryland.

In science, “printing” encodes information at specific locations on a material’s surface, similar to how we print words on paper with ink. The 4-dimensional printer will consist of millions of tiny elastomeric “pens” that can be used individually and independently to create nanometer-size features composed of hard or soft materials.

The information encoded can be in the form of materials with a defined set of chemical and physical properties. The printing speed and resolution determine the amount and complexity of the information that can be encoded.

Progress in fields ranging from biology to chemical sensing to computing currently are limited by the lack of low-cost equipment that can perform high-resolution printing and 3-dimensional patterning on hard materials (e.g., metals and semiconductors) and soft materials (e.g., organic and biological materials) at nanometer resolution (approximately 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair).

“Ultimately, the 4-D printer will provide a foundation for a new generation of tools to develop novel architectures, wherein the hard materials that form the functional components of electronics can be merged with biological or soft materials,” said Milan Mrksich, a co-principal investigator on the grant.

Mrksich is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Cell and Molecular Biology, with appointments in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Weinberg and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

A July 10, 2015 article about the ‘4D printer’ grant  by Madeline Fox for the Daily Northwestern features a description of 4D printing from Milan Mrksich, a co-principal investigator on the grant,

Milan Mrksich, one of the project’s five senior participants, said that while most people are familiar with the three dimensions of length, width and depth, there are often misconceptions about the fourth property of a four-dimensional object. Mrksich used Legos as an analogy to describe 4D printing technology.

“If you take Lego blocks, you can basically build any structure you want by controlling which Lego is connected to which Lego and controlling all their dimensions in space,” Mrksich said. “Within an object made up of nanoparticles, we’re controlling the placement — as we use a printer to control the placement of every particle, our fourth dimension lets us choose which nanoparticle with which property would be at each position.”

Thank you Dr. Mrksich and Ms. Fox for that helpful analogy.

Designing advanced bioprogrammable nanomaterials

The second grant, announced in a July 6, 2015 Northwestern news release by Megan Fellman, is apparently the only one of its kind in the US (Note: A link has been removed),

Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) has been awarded a U.S. Air Force Center of Excellence grant to design advanced bioprogrammable nanomaterials for solutions to challenging problems in the areas of energy, the environment, security and defense, as well as for developing ways to monitor and mitigate human stress.

The five-year, $9.8 million grant establishes the Center of Excellence for Advanced Bioprogrammable Nanomaterials (C-ABN), the only one of its kind in the country. After the initial five years, the grant potentially could be renewed for an additional five years.

“Northwestern University was chosen to lead this Center of Excellence because of its investment in infrastructure development, including new facilities and instrumentation; its recruitment of high-caliber faculty members and students; and its track record in bio-nanotechnology and cognitive sciences,” said Timothy Bunning, chief scientist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.

Led by IIN director Chad A. Mirkin, C-ABN will support collaborative, discovery-based research projects aimed at developing bioprogrammable nanomaterials that will meet both military and civilian needs and facilitate the efficient transition of these new technologies from the laboratory to marketplace.

Bioprogrammable nanomaterials are structures that typically contain a biomolecular component, such as nucleic acids or proteins, which give the materials a variety of novel capabilities. [emphasis mine] Nanomaterials can be designed to assemble into large 3-D structures, to interface with biological structures inside cells or tissues, or to interface with existing macroscale devices, for example. These new bioprogrammable nanomaterials and the fundamental knowledge gained through their development will ultimately lead to the creation of wearable, portable and/or human-interactive devices with extraordinary capabilities that will significantly impact both civilian and Air Force needs.

In one research area, scientists will work to understand the molecular underpinnings of vulnerability and resilience to stress. They will use bioprogrammable nanomaterials to develop ultrasensitive sensors capable of detecting and quantifying biomarkers for human stress in biological fluids (e.g., saliva, perspiration or blood), providing means to easily monitor the soldier during times of extreme stress. Ultimately, these bioprogrammable materials may lead to methods to increase human cellular resilience to the effects of stress and/or to correct genetic mutations that decrease cellular resilience of susceptible individuals.

Other research projects, encompassing a wide variety of nanotechnology-enabled goals, include:

Developing hybrid wearable energy-storage devices;
Developing devices to identify chemical and biological targets in a field environment;
Developing flexible bio-electronic circuits;
Designing a new class of flat optics; and
Advancing understanding of design rules between 2-D and 3-D architectures.

The analysis of these nanostructures also will extend fundamental knowledge in the fields of materials science and engineering, human performance, chemistry, biology and physics.

The center will be housed under the IIN, providing researchers with access to IIN’s strong entrepreneurial community and its close ties with Northwestern’s renowned Kellogg School of Management.

This second news release provides an interesting contrast to a recent news release from Sweden’s Karolinska Intitute where the writer was careful to note that the enzymes and organic electronic ion pumps were not living as noted in my June 26, 2015 posting. It seems nucleic acids (as in RNA and DNA) can be mentioned without a proviso in the US. as there seems to be little worry about anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) and similar backlashes affecting biotechnology research.

I sing the body cyber: two projects funded by the US National Science Foundation

Points to anyone who recognized the reference to Walt Whitman’s poem, “I sing the body electric,” from his classic collection, Leaves of Grass (1867 edition; h/t Wikipedia entry). I wonder if the cyber physical systems (CPS) work being funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US will occasion poetry too.

More practically, a May 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, describes two cyber physical systems (CPS) research projects newly funded by the NSF,

Today [May 12, 2015] the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced two, five-year, center-scale awards totaling $8.75 million to advance the state-of-the-art in medical and cyber-physical systems (CPS).

One project will develop “Cyberheart”–a platform for virtual, patient-specific human heart models and associated device therapies that can be used to improve and accelerate medical-device development and testing. The other project will combine teams of microrobots with synthetic cells to perform functions that may one day lead to tissue and organ re-generation.

CPS are engineered systems that are built from, and depend upon, the seamless integration of computation and physical components. Often called the “Internet of Things,” CPS enable capabilities that go beyond the embedded systems of today.

“NSF has been a leader in supporting research in cyber-physical systems, which has provided a foundation for putting the ‘smart’ in health, transportation, energy and infrastructure systems,” said Jim Kurose, head of Computer & Information Science & Engineering at NSF. “We look forward to the results of these two new awards, which paint a new and compelling vision for what’s possible for smart health.”

Cyber-physical systems have the potential to benefit many sectors of our society, including healthcare. While advances in sensors and wearable devices have the capacity to improve aspects of medical care, from disease prevention to emergency response, and synthetic biology and robotics hold the promise of regenerating and maintaining the body in radical new ways, little is known about how advances in CPS can integrate these technologies to improve health outcomes.

These new NSF-funded projects will investigate two very different ways that CPS can be used in the biological and medical realms.

A May 12, 2015 NSF news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the two CPS projects,

Bio-CPS for engineering living cells

A team of leading computer scientists, roboticists and biologists from Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT have come together to develop a system that combines the capabilities of nano-scale robots with specially designed synthetic organisms. Together, they believe this hybrid “bio-CPS” will be capable of performing heretofore impossible functions, from microscopic assembly to cell sensing within the body.

“We bring together synthetic biology and micron-scale robotics to engineer the emergence of desired behaviors in populations of bacterial and mammalian cells,” said Calin Belta, a professor of mechanical engineering, systems engineering and bioinformatics at Boston University and principal investigator on the project. “This project will impact several application areas ranging from tissue engineering to drug development.”

The project builds on previous research by each team member in diverse disciplines and early proof-of-concept designs of bio-CPS. According to the team, the research is also driven by recent advances in the emerging field of synthetic biology, in particular the ability to rapidly incorporate new capabilities into simple cells. Researchers so far have not been able to control and coordinate the behavior of synthetic cells in isolation, but the introduction of microrobots that can be externally controlled may be transformative.

In this new project, the team will focus on bio-CPS with the ability to sense, transport and work together. As a demonstration of their idea, they will develop teams of synthetic cell/microrobot hybrids capable of constructing a complex, fabric-like surface.

Vijay Kumar (University of Pennsylvania), Ron Weiss (MIT), and Douglas Densmore (BU) are co-investigators of the project.

Medical-CPS and the ‘Cyberheart’

CPS such as wearable sensors and implantable devices are already being used to assess health, improve quality of life, provide cost-effective care and potentially speed up disease diagnosis and prevention. [emphasis mine]

Extending these efforts, researchers from seven leading universities and centers are working together to develop far more realistic cardiac and device models than currently exist. This so-called “Cyberheart” platform can be used to test and validate medical devices faster and at a far lower cost than existing methods. CyberHeart also can be used to design safe, patient-specific device therapies, thereby lowering the risk to the patient.

“Innovative ‘virtual’ design methodologies for implantable cardiac medical devices will speed device development and yield safer, more effective devices and device-based therapies, than is currently possible,” said Scott Smolka, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University and one of the principal investigators on the award.

The group’s approach combines patient-specific computational models of heart dynamics with advanced mathematical techniques for analyzing how these models interact with medical devices. The analytical techniques can be used to detect potential flaws in device behavior early on during the device-design phase, before animal and human trials begin. They also can be used in a clinical setting to optimize device settings on a patient-by-patient basis before devices are implanted.

“We believe that our coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach, which balances theoretical, experimental and practical concerns, will yield transformational results in medical-device design and foundations of cyber-physical system verification,” Smolka said.

The team will develop virtual device models which can be coupled together with virtual heart models to realize a full virtual development platform that can be subjected to computational analysis and simulation techniques. Moreover, they are working with experimentalists who will study the behavior of virtual and actual devices on animals’ hearts.

Co-investigators on the project include Edmund Clarke (Carnegie Mellon University), Elizabeth Cherry (Rochester Institute of Technology), W. Rance Cleaveland (University of Maryland), Flavio Fenton (Georgia Tech), Rahul Mangharam (University of Pennsylvania), Arnab Ray (Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering [Germany]) and James Glimm and Radu Grosu (Stony Brook University). Richard A. Gray of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is another key contributor.

It is fascinating to observe how terminology is shifting from pacemakers and deep brain stimulators as implants to “CPS such as wearable sensors and implantable devices … .” A new category has been created, CPS, which conjoins medical devices with other sensing devices such as wearable fitness monitors found in the consumer market. I imagine it’s an attempt to quell fears about injecting strange things into or adding strange things to your body—microrobots and nanorobots partially derived from synthetic biology research which are “… capable of performing heretofore impossible functions, from microscopic assembly to cell sensing within the body.” They’ve also sneaked in a reference to synthetic biology, an area of research where some concerns have been expressed, from my March 19, 2013 post about a poll and synthetic biology concerns,

In our latest survey, conducted in January 2013, three-fourths of respondents say they have heard little or nothing about synthetic biology, a level consistent with that measured in 2010. While initial impressions about the science are largely undefined, these feelings do not necessarily become more positive as respondents learn more. The public has mixed reactions to specific synthetic biology applications, and almost one-third of respondents favor a ban “on synthetic biology research until we better understand its implications and risks,” while 61 percent think the science should move forward.

I imagine that for scientists, 61% in favour of more research is not particularly comforting given how easily and quickly public opinion can shift.

Oh so cute! Baby nanotubes!

Scientists from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and from two US universities have successfully filmed the formation of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) according to a Dec. 2, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Single-walled carbon nanotubes are loaded with desirable properties. In particular, the ability to conduct electricity at high rates of speed makes them attractive for use as nanoscale transistors. But this and other properties are largely dependent on their structure, and their structure is determined when the nanotube is just beginning to form.

In a step toward understanding the factors that influence how nanotubes form, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the University of Maryland, and Texas A&M have succeeded in filming them when they are only a few atoms old. These nanotube “baby pictures” give crucial insight into how they germinate and grow, potentially opening the way for scientists to create them en masse with just the properties that they want.

A Dec. 1, 2014 NIST news release, which originated the news item, explains how scientists managed to make movies of SWCNTs as they formed,

To better understand how carbon nanotubes grow and how to grow the ones you want, you need to understand the very beginning of the growth process, called nucleation. To do that, you need to be able to image the nucleation process as it happens. However, this is not easy because it involves a small number of fast-moving atoms, meaning you have to take very high resolution pictures very quickly.

Because fast, high-resolution cameras are expensive, NIST scientists instead slowed the growth rate by lowering the pressure inside their instrument, an environmental scanning transmission electron microscope. Inside the microscope’s chamber, under high heat and low pressure, the team watched as carbon atoms generated from acetylene rained down onto 1.2-nanometer bits of cobalt carbide, where they attached, formed into graphene, encircled the nanoparticle, and began to grow into nanotubes.

“Our observations showed that the carbon atoms attached only to the pure metal facets of the cobalt carbide nanoparticle, and not those facets interlaced with carbon atoms,” says NIST chemist Renu Sharma, who led the research effort. “The burgeoning tube then grew above the cobalt-carbon facets until it found another pure metal surface to attach to, forming a closed cap. Carbon atoms continued to attach at the cobalt facets, pushing the previously formed graphene along toward the cap in a kind of carbon assembly line and lengthening the tube. This whole process took only a few seconds.”

According to Sharma, the carbon atoms seek out the most energetically favorable configurations as they form graphene on the cobalt carbide nanoparticle’s surface. While graphene has a mostly hexagonal, honeycomb-type structure, the geometry of the nanoparticle forces the carbon atoms to arrange themselves into pentagonal shapes within the otherwise honeycomb lattice. Crucially, these pentagonal irregularities in the graphene’s structure are what allows the graphene to curve and become a nanotube.

Because the nanoparticles’ facets also appear to play a deciding role in the nanotube’s diameter and chirality, or direction of twist, the group’s next step will be to measure the chirality of the nanotubes as they grow. The group also plans to use metal nanoparticles with different facets to study their adhesive properties to see how they affect the tubes’ chirality and diameter.

The researchers have made one of their movies available for viewing, but, despite my efforts, I cannot find a way to embed the silent movie. Happily, you can find the ‘baby carbon nanotube’ movie alongside NIST’s Dec. 1, 2014 NIST news release,

As for the research paper, here’s a link and a citation for it,

Nucleation of Graphene and Its Conversion to Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes by Matthieu Picher, Pin Ann Lin, Jose L. Gomez-Ballesteros, Perla B. Balbuena, and Renu Sharma. Nano Lett., 2014, 14 (11), pp 6104–6108 DOI: 10.1021/nl501977b Publication Date (Web): October 20, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Ethereal optical cables

It’s a gobsmacking idea but here’s what scientist Howard Milchberg wants to accomplish (from a July 22, 2014 University of Maryland (UMD) news release (also on EurekAlert) [written by Brian Doctrow]),

Imagine being able to instantaneously run an optical cable or fiber to any point on earth, or even into space. That’s what Howard Milchberg, professor of physics and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland, wants to do.

In a paper published today in the July 2014 issue of the journal Optica, Milchberg and his lab report using an “air waveguide” to enhance light signals collected from distant sources. These air waveguides could have many applications, including long-range laser communications, detecting pollution in the atmosphere, making high-resolution topographic maps and laser weapons.

Here’s an image illustrating the first step to achieving ‘ethereal cables’, an air waveguide,

Caption: This is an illustration of an air waveguide. The filaments leave 'holes' in the air (red rods) that reflect light. Light (arrows) passing between these holes stays focused and intense. Credit: Howard Milchberg

Caption: This is an illustration of an air waveguide. The filaments leave ‘holes’ in the air (red rods) that reflect light. Light (arrows) passing between these holes stays focused and intense.
Credit: Howard Milchberg

Here’s more about precursor research into creating air waveguides, from the news release,

Milchberg showed previously that these filaments heat up the air as they pass through, causing the air to expand and leaving behind a “hole” of low-density air in their wake. This hole has a lower refractive index than the air around it. While the filament itself is very short lived (less than one-trillionth of a second [less than a picosecond]), it takes a billion times longer for the hole to appear. It’s “like getting a slap to your face and then waiting, and then your face moves,” according to Milchberg, who also has an appointment in the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics at UMD.

On Feb. 26, 2014, Milchberg and his lab reported in the journal Physical Review X that if four filaments were fired in a square arrangement, the resulting holes formed the low-density wall needed for a waveguide. When a more powerful beam was fired between these holes, the second beam lost hardly any energy when tested over a range of about a meter. Importantly, the “pipe” produced by the filaments lasted for a few milliseconds, a million times longer than the laser pulse itself. For many laser applications, Milchberg says, “milliseconds [thousandths of a second] is infinity.”

The latest work brings Milchberg a step closer to using air waveguides as cables for lasers (from the news release),

Because light loses intensity with distance, the range over which such tasks can be done is limited. Even lasers, which produce highly directed beams, lose focus due to their natural spreading, or worse, due to interactions with gases in the air. Fiber-optic cables can trap light beams and guide them like a pipe, preventing loss of intensity or focus.

Typical fibers consist of a transparent glass core surrounded by a cladding material with a lower index of refraction. When light tries to leave the core, it gets reflected back inward. But solid optical fibers can only handle so much power, and they need physical support that may not be available where the cables need to go, such as the upper atmosphere. Now, Milchberg’s team has found a way to make air behave like an optical fiber, guiding light beams over long distances without loss of power.

Milchberg’s air waveguides consist of a “wall” of low-density air surrounding a core of higher density air. The wall has a lower refractive index than the core—just like an optical fiber. In the Optica paper, Milchberg, physics graduate students Eric Rosenthal and Nihal Jhajj, and associate research scientist Jared Wahlstrand, broke down the air with a laser to create a spark. An air waveguide conducted light from the spark to a detector about a meter away. The researchers collected a strong enough signal to analyze the chemical composition of the air that produced the spark.

The signal was 1.5 times stronger than a signal obtained without the waveguide. That may not seem like much, but over distances that are 100 times longer, where an unguided signal would be severely weakened, the signal enhancement could be much greater.

Milchberg creates his air waveguides using very short, very powerful laser pulses. A sufficiently powerful laser pulse in the air collapses into a narrow beam, called a filament. This happens because the laser light increases the refractive index of the air in the center of the beam, as if the pulse is carrying its own lens with it.

Because the waveguides are so long-lived, Milchberg believes that a single waveguide could be used to send out a laser and collect a signal. “It’s like you could just take a physical optical fiber and unreel it at the speed of light, put it next to this thing that you want to measure remotely, and then have the signal come all the way back to where you are,” says Milchberg.

First, though, he needs to show that these waveguides can be used over much longer distances—50 meters at least. If that works, it opens up a world of possibilities. Air waveguides could be used to conduct chemical analyses of places like the upper atmosphere or nuclear reactors, where it’s difficult to get instruments close to what’s being studied. The waveguides could also be used for LIDAR, a variation on radar that uses laser light instead of radio waves to make high-resolution topographic maps.

Here are links to and citations for both papers from Milchberg’s research team,

Demonstration of Long-Lived High-Power Optical Waveguides in Air by N. Jhajj, E. W. Rosenthal, R. Birnbaum, J. K. Wahlstrand, and H. M. Milchberg. Physical Review X: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevX.4.011027 Published Feb. 26, 2014

Collection of remote optical signals by air waveguides by E. W. Rosenthal, N. Jhajj, J. K. Wahlstrand, and H. M. Milchberg. Optica, Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 5-9 (July 2014) http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/OPTICA.1.000005

Both papers are open access.

Super-black nanotechnology, space exploration, and carbon nanotubes grown by atomic layer deposition (ALD)

Super-black in this context means that very little light is reflected by the carbon nanotubes that a team at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have produced. From a July 17, 2013 NASA news release (also here on EurekAlert),

A NASA engineer has achieved yet another milestone in his quest to advance an emerging super-black nanotechnology that promises to make spacecraft instruments more sensitive without enlarging their size.

A team led by John Hagopian, an optics engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has demonstrated that it can grow a uniform layer of carbon nanotubes through the use of another emerging technology called atomic layer deposition or ALD. The marriage of the two technologies now means that NASA can grow nanotubes on three-dimensional components, such as complex baffles and tubes commonly used in optical instruments.

“The significance of this is that we have new tools that can make NASA instruments more sensitive without making our telescopes bigger and bigger,” Hagopian said. “This demonstrates the power of nanoscale technology, which is particularly applicable to a new class of less-expensive tiny satellites called Cubesats that NASA is developing to reduce the cost of space missions.”

(It’s the first time I’ve seen atomic layer deposition (ALD) described as an emerging technology; I’ve always thought of it as well established.)  Here’s a 2010 NASA video, which  provides a good explanation of this team’s work,

With the basic problem being less data due to light reflection from the instruments used to make the observations in space, the researchers determined that ALD might provide carbon nanotubes suitable for super-black instrumentation for space exploration. From the NASA news release,

To determine the viability of using ALD to create the catalyst layer, while Dwivedi [NASA Goddard co-investigator Vivek Dwivedi, University of Maryland] was building his new ALD reactor, Hagopian engaged through the Science Exchange the services of the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication (MCN), Australia’s largest nanofabrication research center. The Science Exchange is an online community marketplace where scientific service providers can offer their services. The NASA team delivered a number of components, including an intricately shaped occulter used in a new NASA-developed instrument for observing planets around other stars.

Through this collaboration, the Australian team fine-tuned the recipe for laying down the catalyst layer — in other words, the precise instructions detailing the type of precursor gas, the reactor temperature and pressure needed to deposit a uniform foundation. “The iron films that we deposited initially were not as uniform as other coatings we have worked with, so we needed a methodical development process to achieve the outcomes that NASA needed for the next step,” said Lachlan Hyde, MCN’s expert in ALD.

The Australian team succeeded, Hagopian said. “We have successfully grown carbon nanotubes on the samples we provided to MCN and they demonstrate properties very similar to those we’ve grown using other techniques for applying the catalyst layer. This has really opened up the possibilities for us. Our goal of ultimately applying a carbon-nanotube coating to complex instrument parts is nearly realized.”

For anyone who’d like a little more information about the Science Exchange, I posted about this scientific markeplace both on Sept. 2, 2011 after it was launched in August of that year and later on Dec. 19, 2011 in a followup about a specific nano project.

Getting back to super-black nanotechnology, here’s what the NASA team produced, from the news release,

During the research, Hagopian tuned the nano-based super-black material, making it ideal for this application, absorbing on average more than 99 percent of the ultraviolet, visible, infrared and far-infrared light that strikes it — a never-before-achieved milestone that now promises to open new frontiers in scientific discovery. The material consists of a thin coating of multi-walled carbon nanotubes about 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair.

Once a laboratory novelty grown only on silicon, the NASA team now grows these forests of vertical carbon tubes on commonly used spacecraft materials, such as titanium, copper and stainless steel. Tiny gaps between the tubes collect and trap light, while the carbon absorbs the photons, preventing them from reflecting off surfaces. Because only a small fraction of light reflects off the coating, the human eye and sensitive detectors see the material as black.

Before growing this forest of nanotubes on instrument parts, however, materials scientists must first deposit a highly uniform foundation or catalyst layer of iron oxide that supports the nanotube growth. For ALD, technicians do this by placing a component or some other substrate material inside a reactor chamber and sequentially pulsing different types of gases to create an ultra-thin film whose layers are literally no thicker than a single atom. Once applied, scientists then are ready to actually grow the carbon nanotubes. They place the component in another oven and heat the part to about 1,832  F (750 C). While it heats, the component is bathed in carbon-containing feedstock gas.

Congratulations to the team, I gather they’ve been working on this light absorption project for quite a while.

Wooden batteries in Maryland (US)

There seems to be a gusher of interest in making wooden batteries. Last year, there was news from a joint Polish-Swedish research team (my Aug. 14, 2012 posting) who’d combined lignin with a conductive polymer (polypyrrole) to create a battery cathode. Today, June 19, 2013, Nanowerk featured a news item about a team at the University of Maryland (US) who are also using wood to make battery components (Note: A link has been removed),

A sliver of wood coated with tin could make a tiny, long-lasting, efficient and environmentally friendly battery (“Tin Anode for Sodium-Ion Batteries Using Natural Wood Fiber as a Mechanical Buffer and Electrolyte Reservoir”).

But don’t try it at home yet– the components in the battery tested by scientists at the University of Maryland are a thousand times thinner than a piece of paper. Using sodium instead of lithium, as many rechargeable batteries do, makes the battery environmentally benign. Sodium doesn’t store energy as efficiently as lithium, so you won’t see this battery in your cell phone — instead, its low cost and common materials would make it ideal to store huge amounts of energy at once – such as solar energy at a power plant.

The June 19, 2013 University of Maryland news release, which originated the news item, explains why this work with wood is so exciting (Note: Links have been removed),

Existing batteries are often created on stiff bases, which are too brittle to withstand the swelling and shrinking that happens as electrons are stored in and used up from the battery. Liangbing Hu, Teng Li and their team found that wood fibers are supple enough to let their sodium-ion battery last more than 400 charging cycles, which puts it among the longest lasting nanobatteries.

“The inspiration behind the idea comes from the trees,” said Hu, an assistant professor of materials science. “Wood fibers that make up a tree once held mineral-rich water, and so are ideal for storing liquid electrolytes, making them not only the base but an active part of the battery.”

Lead author Hongli Zhu and other team members noticed that after charging and discharging the battery hundreds of times, the wood ended up wrinkled but intact. Computer models showed that that the wrinkles effectively relax the stress in the battery during charging and recharging, so that the battery can survive many cycles.

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

Tin Anode for Sodium-Ion Batteries Using Natural Wood Fiber as a Mechanical Buffer and Electrolyte Reservoir by Hongli Zhu, Zheng Jia, Yuchen Chen, Nicholas Weadock, Jiayu Wan, Oeyvind Vaaland, Xiaogang Han, Teng Li, and Liangbing Hu. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nl400998t Publication Date (Web): May 29, 2013

Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.