Tag Archives: University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Liquid circuitry, shape-shifting fluids and more

I’d have to see it to believe it but researchers at the US Dept. of Energy (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have developed a new kind of ‘bijel’ which would allow for some pretty nifty robotics. From a Sept. 25, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new two-dimensional film, made of polymers and nanoparticles and developed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), can direct two different non-mixing liquids into a variety of exotic architectures. This finding could lead to soft robotics, liquid circuitry, shape-shifting fluids, and a host of new materials that use soft, rather than solid, substances.

The study, reported today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, presents the newest entry in a class of substances known as bicontinuous jammed emulsion gels, or bijels, which hold promise as a malleable liquid that can support catalytic reactions, electrical conductivity, and energy conversion.

A Sept. 25, 2017 LBNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Bijels are typically made of immiscible, or non-mixing, liquids. People who shake their bottle of vinaigrette before pouring the dressing on their salad are familiar with such liquids. As soon as the shaking stops, the liquids start to separate again, with the lower density liquid – often oil – rising to the top.

Trapping, or jamming, particles where these immiscible liquids meet can prevent the liquids from completely separating, stabilizing the substance into a bijel. What makes bijels remarkable is that, rather than just making the spherical droplets that we normally see when we try to mix oil and water, the particles at the interface shape the liquids into complex networks of interconnected fluid channels.

Bijels are notoriously difficult to make, however, involving exact temperatures at precisely timed stages. In addition, the liquid channels are normally more than 5 micrometers across, making them too large to be useful in energy conversion and catalysis.

“Bijels have long been of interest as next-generation materials for energy applications and chemical synthesis,” said study lead author Caili Huang. “The problem has been making enough of them, and with features of the right size. In this work, we crack that problem.”

Huang started the work as a graduate student with Thomas Russell, the study’s principal investigator, at Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, and he continued the project as a postdoctoral researcher at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Creating a new bijel recipe

The method described in this new study simplifies the bijel process by first using specially coated particles about 10-20 nanometers in diameter. The smaller-sized particles line the liquid interfaces much more quickly than the ones used in traditional bijels, making the smaller channels that are highly valued for applications.

Illustration shows key stages of bijel formation. Clockwise from top left, two non-mixing liquids are shown. Ligands (shown in yellow) with amine groups are dispersed throughout the oil or solvent, and nanoparticles coated with carboxylic acids (shown as blue dots) are scattered in the water. With vigorous shaking, the nanoparticles and ligands form a “supersoap” that gets trapped at the interface of the two liquids. The bottom panel is a magnified view of the jammed nanoparticle supersoap. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL)

“We’ve basically taken liquids like oil and water and given them a structure, and it’s a structure that can be changed,” said Russell, a visiting faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab. “If the nanoparticles are responsive to electrical, magnetic, or mechanical stimuli, the bijels can become reconfigurable and re-shaped on demand by an external field.”

The researchers were able to prepare new bijels from a variety of common organic, water-insoluble solvents, such as toluene, that had ligands dissolved in it, and deionized water, which contained the nanoparticles. To ensure thorough mixing of the liquids, they subjected the emulsion to a vortex spinning at 3,200 revolutions per minute.

“This extreme shaking creates a whole bunch of new places where these particles and polymers can meet each other,” said study co-author Joe Forth, a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division. “You’re synthesizing a lot of this material, which is in effect a thin, 2-D coating of the liquid surfaces in the system.”

The liquids remained a bijel even after one week, a sign of the system’s stability.

Russell, who is also a professor of polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, added that these shape-shifting characteristics would be valuable in microreactors, microfluidic devices, and soft actuators.

Nanoparticle supersoap

Nanoparticles had not been seriously considered in bijels before because their small size made them hard to trap in the liquid interface. To resolve that problem, the researchers coated nano-sized particles with carboxylic acids and put them in water. They then took polymers with an added amine group – a derivative of ammonia – and dissolved them in the toluene.

At left is a vial of bijel stabilized with nanoparticle surfactants. On the right is the same vial after a week of inversion, showing that the nanoparticle kept the liquids from moving. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL)

This configuration took advantage of the amine group’s affinity to water, a characteristic that is comparable to surfactants, like soap. Their nanoparticle “supersoap” was designed so that the nanoparticles join ligands, forming an octopus-like shape with a polar head and nonpolar legs that get jammed at the interface, the researchers said.

“Bijels are really a new material, and also excitingly weird in that they are kinetically arrested in these unusual configurations,” said study co-author Brett Helms, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. “The discovery that you can make these bijels with simple ingredients is a surprise. We all have access to oils and water and nanocrystals, allowing broad tunability in bijel properties. This platform also allows us to experiment with new ways to control their shape and function since they are both responsive and reconfigurable.”

The nanoparticles were made of silica, but the researchers noted that in previous studies they used graphene and carbon nanotubes to form nanoparticle surfactants.

“The key is that the nanoparticles can be made of many materials,” said Russell.  “The most important thing is what’s on the surface.”

This is an animation of the bijel

3-D rendering of the nanoparticle bijel taken by confocal microscope. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL [Oak Ridge National Laboratory] and Joe Forth/Berkeley Lab)

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

Bicontinuous structured liquids with sub-micrometre domains using nanoparticle surfactants by Caili Huang, Joe Forth, Weiyu Wang, Kunlun Hong, Gregory S. Smith, Brett A. Helms & Thomas P. Russell. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.182 25 September 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

A new memristor circuit

Apparently engineers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have developed a new kind of memristor. A Sept. 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

Engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are leading a research team that is developing a new type of nanodevice for computer microprocessors that can mimic the functioning of a biological synapse—the place where a signal passes from one nerve cell to another in the body. The work is featured in the advance online publication of Nature Materials (“Memristors with diffusive dynamics as synaptic emulators for neuromorphic computing”).

Such neuromorphic computing in which microprocessors are configured more like human brains is one of the most promising transformative computing technologies currently under study.

While it doesn’t sound different from any other memristor, that’s misleading. Do read on. A Sept. 27, 2016 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the researchers and the work,

J. Joshua Yang and Qiangfei Xia are professors in the electrical and computer engineering department in the UMass Amherst College of Engineering. Yang describes the research as part of collaborative work on a new type of memristive device.

Memristive devices are electrical resistance switches that can alter their resistance based on the history of applied voltage and current. These devices can store and process information and offer several key performance characteristics that exceed conventional integrated circuit technology.

“Memristors have become a leading candidate to enable neuromorphic computing by reproducing the functions in biological synapses and neurons in a neural network system, while providing advantages in energy and size,” the researchers say.

Neuromorphic computing—meaning microprocessors configured more like human brains than like traditional computer chips—is one of the most promising transformative computing technologies currently under intensive study. Xia says, “This work opens a new avenue of neuromorphic computing hardware based on memristors.”

They say that most previous work in this field with memristors has not implemented diffusive dynamics without using large standard technology found in integrated circuits commonly used in microprocessors, microcontrollers, static random access memory and other digital logic circuits.

The researchers say they proposed and demonstrated a bio-inspired solution to the diffusive dynamics that is fundamentally different from the standard technology for integrated circuits while sharing great similarities with synapses. They say, “Specifically, we developed a diffusive-type memristor where diffusion of atoms offers a similar dynamics [?] and the needed time-scales as its bio-counterpart, leading to a more faithful emulation of actual synapses, i.e., a true synaptic emulator.”

The researchers say, “The results here provide an encouraging pathway toward synaptic emulation using diffusive memristors for neuromorphic computing.”

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

Memristors with diffusive dynamics as synaptic emulators for neuromorphic computing by Zhongrui Wang, Saumil Joshi, Sergey E. Savel’ev, Hao Jiang, Rivu Midya, Peng Lin, Miao Hu, Ning Ge, John Paul Strachan, Zhiyong Li, Qing Wu, Mark Barnell, Geng-Lin Li, Huolin L. Xin, R. Stanley Williams [emphasis mine], Qiangfei Xia, & J. Joshua Yang. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4756 Published online 26 September 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I’ve emphasized R. Stanley Williams’ name as he was the lead researcher on the HP Labs team that proved Leon Chua’s 1971 theory about the memristor and exerted engineering control of the memristor in 2008. (Bernard Widrow, in the 1960s,  predicted and proved the existence of something he termed a ‘memistor’. Chua arrived at his ‘memristor’ theory independently.)

Austin Silver in a Sept. 29, 2016 posting on The Human OS blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) delves into this latest memristor research (Note: Links have been removed),

In research published in Nature Materials on 26 September [2016], Yang and his team mimicked a crucial underlying component of how synaptic connections get stronger or weaker: the flow of calcium.

The movement of calcium into or out of the neuronal membrane, neuroscientists have found, directly affects the connection. Chemical processes move the calcium in and out— triggering a long-term change in the synapses’ strength. 2015 research in ACS NanoLetters and Advanced Functional Materials discovered that types of memristors can simulate some of the calcium behavior, but not all.

In the new research, Yang combined two types of memristors in series to create an artificial synapse. The hybrid device more closely mimics biological synapse behavior—the calcium flow in particular, Yang says.

The new memristor used–called a diffusive memristor because atoms in the resistive material move even without an applied voltage when the device is in the high resistance state—was a dielectic film sandwiched between Pt [platinum] or Au [gold] electrodes. The film contained Ag [silver] nanoparticles, which would play the role of calcium in the experiments.

By tracking the movement of the silver nanoparticles inside the diffusive memristor, the researchers noticed a striking similarity to how calcium functions in biological systems.

A voltage pulse to the hybrid device drove silver into the gap between the diffusive memristor’s two electrodes–creating a filament bridge. After the pulse died away, the filament started to break and the silver moved back— resistance increased.

Like the case with calcium, a force made silver go in and a force made silver go out.

To complete the artificial synapse, the researchers connected the diffusive memristor in series to another type of memristor that had been studied before.

When presented with a sequence of voltage pulses with particular timing, the artificial synapse showed the kind of long-term strengthening behavior a real synapse would, according to the researchers. “We think it is sort of a real emulation, rather than simulation because they have the physical similarity,” Yang says.

I was glad to find some additional technical detail about this new memristor and to find the Human OS blog, which is new to me and according to its home page is a “biomedical blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.”

Synthetic biowire for nanoelectronics

Apparently this biowire derived by synthetic biology processes can make nanoelectronics a greener affair. From a July 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst report in the current issue of Small that they have genetically designed a new strain of bacteria that spins out extremely thin and highly conductive wires made up of solely of non-toxic, natural amino acids.

A July 14, 2016 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovley say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials.

Lovley says, “New sources of electronic materials are needed to meet the increasing demand for making smaller, more powerful electronic devices in a sustainable way.” The ability to mass-produce such thin conductive wires with this sustainable technology has many potential applications in electronic devices, functioning not only as wires, but also transistors and capacitors. Proposed applications include biocompatible sensors, computing devices, and as components of solar panels.

This advance began a decade ago, when Lovley and colleagues discovered that Geobacter, a common soil microorganism, could produce “microbial nanowires,” electrically conductive protein filaments that help the microbe grow on the iron minerals abundant in soil. These microbial nanowires were conductive enough to meet the bacterium’s needs, but their conductivity was well below the conductivities of organic wires that chemists could synthesize.

“As we learned more about how the microbial nanowires worked we realized that it might be possible to improve on Nature’s design,” says Lovley. “We knew that one class of amino acids was important for the conductivity, so we rearranged these amino acids to produce a synthetic nanowire that we thought might be more conductive.”

The trick they discovered to accomplish this was to introduce tryptophan, an amino acid not present in the natural nanowires. Tryptophan is a common aromatic amino acid notorious for causing drowsiness after eating Thanksgiving turkey. However, it is also highly effective at the nanoscale in transporting electrons.

“We designed a synthetic nanowire in which a tryptophan was inserted where nature had used a phenylalanine and put in another tryptophan for one of the tyrosines. We hoped to get lucky and that Geobacter might still form nanowires from this synthetic peptide and maybe double the nanowire conductivity,” says Lovley.

The results greatly exceeded the scientists’ expectations. They genetically engineered a strain of Geobacter and manufactured large quantities of the synthetic nanowires 2000 times more conductive than the natural biological product. An added bonus is that the synthetic nanowires, which Lovley refers to as “biowire,” had a diameter only half that of the natural product.

“We were blown away by this result,” says Lovley. The conductivity of biowire exceeds that of many types of chemically-produced organic nanowires with similar diameters. The extremely thin diameter of 1.5 nanometers (over 60,000 times thinner than a human hair) means that thousands of the wires can easily be packed into a very small space.

The added benefit is that making biowire does not require any of the dangerous chemicals that are needed for synthesis of other nanowires. Also, biowire contains no toxic components. “Geobacter can be grown on cheap renewable organic feedstocks so it is a very ‘green’ process,” he notes. And, although the biowire is made out of protein, it is extremely durable. In fact, Lovley’s lab had to work for months to establish a method to break it down.

“It’s quite an unusual protein,” Lovley says. “This may be just the beginning” he adds. Researchers in his lab recently produced more than 20 other Geobacter strains, each producing a distinct biowire variant with new amino acid combinations. He notes, “I am hoping that our initial success will attract more funding to accelerate the discovery process. We are hoping that we can modify biowire in other ways to expand its potential applications.”

As it often does, funding provides some notes of interest,

This research was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the UMass Amherst Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing.

Caption: Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. Credit: UMass Amherst

Caption: Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. Credit: UMass Amherst

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

Synthetic Biological Protein Nanowires with High Conductivity by Yang Tan, Ramesh Y. Adhikari, Nikhil S. Malvankar, Shuang Pi, Joy E. Ward, Trevor L. Woodard, Kelly P. Nevin, Qiangfei Xia, Mark T. Tuominen, and Derek R. Lovley. Small DOI: 10.1002/smll.201601112 Version of Record online: 13 JUL 2016

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Just how bendy are the new organic semiconductors?

In all the excitement about flexible electronics, an interesting question about performance, which seems to have been overlooked until now (how bendy are they?), is being answered by scientists, according to a May 5, 2015 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert),

A revolution is coming in flexible electronic technologies as cheaper, more flexible, organic transistors come on the scene to replace expensive, rigid, silicone-based semiconductors, but not enough is known about how bending in these new thin-film electronic devices will affect their performance, say materials scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

They are the first to apply inhomogeneous deformations, that is strain, to the conducting channel of an organic transistor and to understand the observed effects, says Reyes-Martinez [Marcos Reyes-Martinez], who conducted the series of experiments as part of his doctoral work.

As he explains, “This is relevant to today’s tech industry because transistors drive the logic of all the consumer electronics we use. In the screen on your smart phone, for example, every little pixel that makes up the image is turned on and off by hundreds of thousands or even millions of miniaturized transistors.”

“Traditionally, the transistors are rigid, made of an inorganic material such as silicon,” he adds. “We’re working with a crystalline semiconductorcalled rubrene, which is an organic, carbon-based material that has performance factors, such as charge-carrier mobility, surpassing those measured in amorphous silicon. Organic semiconductors are an interesting alternative to silicon because their properties can be tuned to make them easily processed, allowing them to coat a variety of surfaces, including soft substrates at relatively low temperatures. As a result, devices based on organic semiconductors are projected to be cheaper since they do not require high temperatures, clean rooms and expensive processing steps like silicon does.”

Until now, Reyes-Martinez notes, most researchers have focused on controlling the detrimental effects of mechanical deformation to atransistor’s electrical properties. But in their series of systematic experiments, the UMass Amherst team discovered that mechanical deformations only decrease performance under certain conditions, and actually can enhance or have no effect in other instances.

“Our goal was not only to show these effects, but to explain and understand them. What we’ve done istake advantage of the ordered structure of ultra-thin organic single crystals of rubrene to fabricate high-perfomance, thin-film transistors,” he says. “This is the first time that anyone has carried out detailed fundamental work at these length scales with a single crystal.”

Though single crystals were once thought to be too fragile for flexible applications, the UMass Amherst team found that crystals ranging in thickness from about 150 nanometers to 1 micrometer were thin enough to be wrinkled and applied to any elastomer substrate. Reyes-Martinez also notes, “Our experiments are especially important because they help scientists working on flexible electronic devices to determine performance limitations of new materials under extreme mechanical deformations, such as when electronic devices conform to skin.”

They developed an analytical model based on plate bending theoryto quantifythe different local strains imposed on the transistor structure by the wrinkle deformations. Using their model they are able to predict how different deformations modulate charge mobility, which no one had quantified before, Reyes-Martinez notes.

These contributions “represent a significant step forward in structure-function relationships in organic semiconductors, critical for the development of the next generation of flexible electronic devices,” the authors point out.

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

Rubrene crystal field-effect mobility modulation via conducting channel wrinkling by Marcos A. Reyes-Martinez, Alfred J. Crosby,  & Alejandro L. Briseno. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6948 doi:10.1038/ncomms7948 Published 05 May 2015

This is an open access paper.

Geckskin update

It appears that researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have found a way to make their ‘Geckskin’, an adhesive product modeled on a gecko’s feet (a lizard famously able to stick to an object by a single toe), adhere to the widest range of surfaces yet (from an April 17, 2014 University of Massachusetts news release [also on EurekAlert but dated April 18, 2014]),

The ability to stick objects to a wide range of surfaces such as drywall, wood, metal and glass with a single adhesive has been the elusive goal of many research teams across the world, but now a team of University of Massachusetts Amherst inventors describe a new, more versatile version of their invention, Geckskin, that can adhere strongly to a wider range of surfaces, yet releases easily, like a gecko’s feet.

“Imagine sticking your tablet on a wall to watch your favorite movie and then moving it to a new location when you want, without the need for pesky holes in your painted wall,” says polymer science and engineering professor Al Crosby. Geckskin is a ‘gecko-like,’ reusable adhesive device that they had previously demonstrated can hold heavy loads on smooth surfaces such as glass.

‘Geckskin’ first mentioned here in an April 3, 2012 posting features a different approach to mimicking the gecko’s adhesiveness; most teams are focused on the nanoscopic hairs on the gecko’s feet while the researchers at the University of Massachusetts have worked on ‘draping’,

The University of Massachusetts team’s innovation (from the Feb. 17, 2012 news item),

The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create an integrated adhesive with a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric, which allows the pad to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. Further, as in natural gecko feet, the skin is woven into a synthetic “tendon,” yielding a design that plays a key role in maintaining stiffness and rotational freedom, the researchers explain.

Importantly, the Geckskin’s adhesive pad uses simple everyday materials such as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which holds promise for developing an inexpensive, strong and durable dry adhesive.

The UMass Amherst researchers are continuing to improve their Geckskin design by drawing on lessons from the evolution of gecko feet, which show remarkable variation in anatomy. “Our design for Geckskin shows the true integrative power of evolution for inspiring synthetic design that can ultimately aid humans in many ways,” says Irschick.

Two years later, the researchers have proved their concept across a range of surfaces (from the 2014 news release),

In Geckskin, the researchers created this ability by combining soft elastomers and ultra-stiff fabrics such as glass or carbon fiber fabrics. By “tuning” the relative stiffness of these materials, they can optimize Geckskin for a range of applications, the inventors say.

To substantiate their claims of Geckskin’s properties, the UMass Amherst team compared three versions to the abilities of a living Tokay gecko on several surfaces, as described in their journal article this month. As predicted by their theory, one Geckskin version matches and even exceeds the gecko’s performance on all tested surfaces.

Irschick points out, “The gecko’s ability to stick to a variety of surfaces is critical for its survival, but it’s equally important to be able to release and re-stick whenever it wants. Geckskin displays the same ability on different commonly used surfaces, opening up great possibilities for new technologies in the home, office or outdoors.”

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

Creating Gecko-Like Adhesives for “Real World” Surfaces by Daniel R. King, Michael D. Bartlett, Casey A. Gilman, Duncan J. Irschick, and Alfred J. Crosby. Advanced Materials. Article first published online: 17 APR 2014 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201306259

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

The researchers have produced a video (silent) where they demonstrate the Geckskin’s adhesive properties over a number of different surfaces. At seven minutes or so, it runs a bit longer than the videos I embed here but you can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SayqhqTZoxI&feature=youtu.be.

Chad Mirkin’s periodic table of modified nucleic acid nanoparticles

Chad Mirkin has been pushing his idea for a new periodic table of ‘nanoparticles’ since at least Feb. 2013 (I wrote about this and some of Mirkin’s other work in my Feb. 19, 2013 posting) when he presented it at the 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. From a Feb. 17, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Northwestern University’s Chad A. Mirkin, a leader in nanotechnology research and its application, has developed a completely new set of building blocks that is based on nanoparticles and DNA. Using these tools, scientists will be able to build — from the bottom up, just as nature does — new and useful structures.

Mirkin will discuss his research in a session titled “Nucleic Acid-Modified Nanostructures as Programmable Atom Equivalents: Forging a New Periodic Table” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston.

“We have a new set of building blocks,” Mirkin said. “Instead of taking what nature gives you, we can control every property of the new material we make. [emphasis mine] We’ve always had this vision of building matter and controlling architecture from the bottom up, and now we’ve shown it can be done.”

Mirkin seems a trifle grandiose; I’m hoping he doesn’t have any grand creation projects that require seven days.

Getting back to the new periodic table, the Feb. 13, 2013 Northwestern University news release by Megan Fellman, which originated the news item,  provides a few more details,

Using nanoparticles and DNA, Mirkin has built more than 200 different crystal structures with 17 different particle arrangements. Some of the lattice types can be found in nature, but he also has built new structures that have no naturally occurring mineral counterpart.
Mirkin can make new materials and arrangements of particles by controlling the size, shape, type and location of nanoparticles within a given particle lattice. He has developed a set of design rules that allow him to control almost every property of a material.

New materials developed using his method could help improve the efficiency of optics, electronics and energy storage technologies. “These same nanoparticle building blocks have already found wide-spread commercial utility in biology and medicine as diagnostic probes for markers of disease,” Mirkin added.

With this present advance, Mirkin uses nanoparticles as “atoms” and DNA as “bonds.” He starts with a nanoparticle, which could be gold, silver, platinum or a quantum dot, for example. The core material is selected depending on what physical properties the final structure should have.

He then attaches hundreds of strands of DNA (oligonucleotides) to the particle. The oligonucleotide’s DNA sequence and length determine how bonds form between nanoparticles and guide the formation of specific crystal lattices.

“This constitutes a completely new class of building blocks in materials science that gives you a type of programmability that is extraordinarily versatile and powerful,” Mirkin said. “It provides nanotechnologists for the first time the ability to tailor properties of materials in a highly programmable way from the bottom up.”

Mirkin and his colleagues have since published a paper about this new periodic table in Angewandte Chemie (May 2013). And, earlier today (July 5, 2013) Philip Ball writing (A self-assembled periodic table) for the Royal Society of Chemistry provided a critique of the idea while supporting it in principle,

Mirkin and his colleagues perceive the pairing of [DNA] strands as somewhat analogous to the covalent pairing of electrons and call their DNA-tagged nanoparticles programmable atom equivalents (PAEs). These PAEs may bind to one another according to particular combinatorial rules and Mirkin proposes a kind of periodic table of PAEs that systematises their possible interactions and permutations.
Well, it’s not hard to start enumerating ways in which PAEs are unlike atoms. Most fundamentally, perhaps, the bonding propensity of a PAE need bear no real relation to the ‘atom’ (the nanoparticle) with which it is associated: a given nanoparticle might be paired with any other, and there’s nothing periodic about those tendencies.

I recommend reading Ball’s piece for the way he analyzes the weaknesses and for why he thinks the effort to organize PAEs conceptually is worthwhile.

For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ published paper,

Nucleic Acid-Modified Nanostructures as Programmable Atom Equivalents: Forging a New “Table of Elements by Robert J. Macfarlane, Matthew N. O’Brien, Dr. Sarah Hurst Petrosko, and Prof. Chad A. Mirkin. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 52, Issue 22, pages 5688–5698, May 27, 2013. Article first published online: 2 MAY 2013 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201209336

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

This article is behind a paywall.

One final comment, this is not the first ‘nanoparticle table of elements’.  Larry Bell mentioned one in his Dec. 7, 2010 NISENet (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) blog posting,

The focus of today’s sessions at NSF’s [US National Science Foundation] meeting of nanoscale science and engineering grantees focuses on putting the science to practical use. First up this morning is nanomanufacturing. Mark Tuonimen from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst gave a talk about the Nanoscale Manufacturing Network and one of his images caught my imagination. This image, which comes from the draft Nano2 vision document on the next decade of nanoscale research, illustrates and idea that is sometimes referred to as a periodic table of nanoparticles.

[downloaded from http://www.nisenet.org/blogs/observations_insights/periodic_table_nanoparticles]

[downloaded from http://www.nisenet.org/blogs/observations_insights/periodic_table_nanoparticles]

Bell goes on to describe one way in which a nanoparticle table of elements would have to differ from the traditional chemistry table.

Geckskin and Z-Man

Z-Man or do I mean SpiderMan? They used to make reference to SpiderMan and/or geckos when there was some research breakthrough or other concerning adhesion (specifically, bioadhesion) but these days, it’s all geckos, all the time.

I’m going to start with the first announcement from the research team at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, from the Feb. 17, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

For years, biologists have been amazed by the power of gecko feet, which let these 5-ounce lizards produce an adhesive force roughly equivalent to carrying nine pounds up a wall without slipping. Now, a team of polymer scientists and a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered exactly how the gecko does it, leading them to invent “Geckskin,” a device that can hold 700 pounds on a smooth wall. Doctoral candidate Michael Bartlett in Alfred Crosby’s polymer science and engineering lab at UMass Amherst is the lead author of their article describing the discovery in the current online issue of Advanced Materials (“Looking Beyond Fibrillar Features to Scale Gecko-Like Adhesion”). The group includes biologist Duncan Irschick, a functional morphologist who has studied the gecko’s climbing and clinging abilities for over 20 years. Geckos are equally at home on vertical, slanted, even backward-tilting surfaces.

Here’s a picture illustrating the material’s strength,

A card-sized pad of Geckskin can firmly attach very heavy objects such as this 42-inch television weighing about 40 lbs. (18 kg) to a smooth vertical surface. The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric that includes a synthetic tendon. Together these features allow the stiff yet flexible pad to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. Photo courtesy of UMass Amherst

This image is meant as an illustration of what the product could do and not as a demonstration, i.e., the tv is not being held up by ‘geckskin’.

There are other research teams around the world working on ways to imitate the properties of gecko feet or bioadhesion (my Nov. 2, 2011 posting mentions some work on robots with ‘gecko feet’ at Simon Fraser University [Canada] and my March 19, 2012 posting mentions in passing some work being done at the University of Waterloo [Canada] are two recent examples).

The University of Massachusetts team’s innovation (from the Feb. 17, 2012 news item),

The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create an integrated adhesive with a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric, which allows the pad to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. Further, as in natural gecko feet, the skin is woven into a synthetic “tendon,” yielding a design that plays a key role in maintaining stiffness and rotational freedom, the researchers explain.

Importantly, the Geckskin’s adhesive pad uses simple everyday materials such as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which holds promise for developing an inexpensive, strong and durable dry adhesive.

The UMass Amherst researchers are continuing to improve their Geckskin design by drawing on lessons from the evolution of gecko feet, which show remarkable variation in anatomy. “Our design for Geckskin shows the true integrative power of evolution for inspiring synthetic design that can ultimately aid humans in many ways,” says Irschick.

The research at the University of Massachusetts is being funded, in part, by DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) through its Z-man program. From the March 2, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

“Geckskin” is one output of the Z-Man program. It is a synthetically-fabricated reversible adhesive inspired by the gecko’s ability to climb surfaces of various materials and roughness, including smooth surfaces like glass. Performers on Z-Man designed adhesive pads to mimic the gecko foot over multiple length scales, from the macroscopic foot tendons to the microscopic setae and spatulae, to maximize reversible van der Waals interactions with the surface.

Here’s the reasoning for the Z-Man program, from the March 2, 2012 news item,

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s “Z-Man program” aims to develop biologically inspired climbing aids to enable soldiers to scale vertical walls constructed from typical building materials, while carrying a full combat load, and without the use of ropes or ladders.

Soldiers operate in all manner of environments, including tight urban terrain. Their safety and effectiveness demand maximum flexibility for maneuvering and responding to circumstances. To overcome obstacles and secure entrance and egress routes, soldiers frequently rely on ropes, ladders and related climbing tools. Such climbing tools cost valuable time to use, have limited application and add to the load warfighters are forced to carry during missions.

The Z-Man program provides more information, as well as, images here, where you will find this image, which is not as pretty as the one with the tv screen but this one is a demonstration,

A proof-of-concept demonstration of a 16-square-inch sheet of Geckskin adhering to a vertical glass wall while supporting a static load of up to 660 pounds. (from the Z-Man Program website)

In the very latest news, the University of Massachusetts team has won international funding for its (and Cambridge University’s) work on bioadhesion. From the University of Massachusetts at Amherst March 28, 2012 [news release],

Duncan Irschick, Biology, and Al Crosby, Polymer Science and Engineering, with Walter Federle of Cambridge University, have been awarded a three-year, $900,000 grant from the Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) in Strasbourg, France, to study bioadhesion in geckos and insects.

Theirs was one of only 25 teams from among approximately 800 to apply worldwide. HFSP is a global organization that funds research at the frontiers of the life sciences.

Crosby, Irschick and colleagues received international scientific and media attention over the past several weeks for their discovery reported in the journal Advanced Materials, of how gecko feet and skin produce an adhesive force roughly equivalent to the 5-ounce animal carrying nine pounds up a wall without slipping. This led them to invent “Geckskin,” a device that can hold 700 pounds on a smooth wall. Irschick, a functional morphologist who has studied the gecko’s climbing and clinging abilities for over 20 years, says the lizards are equally at home on vertical, slanted and even backward-tilting surfaces.

Not having heard of the Human Science Frontier Program (HSFP) previously, I was moved to investigate further. From the About Us page,

The Human Frontier Science Program is a program of funding for frontier research in the life sciences. It is implemented by the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) with its office in Strasbourg.

The members of the HFSPO, the so-called Management Supporting Parties (MSPs) are the contributing countries and the European Union, which contributes on behalf of the non-G7 EU members.

The current MSPs are Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the European Union.

I wonder how much impact all the publicity had on the funding decision. In any event, it’s good to find out about a new funding program and I wish anyone who applies the best of luck!