Tag Archives: US Department of Energy

US white paper on neuromorphic computing (or the nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for future computing)

The US has embarked on a number of what is called “Grand Challenges.” I first came across the concept when reading about the Bill and Melinda Gates (of Microsoft fame) Foundation. I gather these challenges are intended to provide funding for research that advances bold visions.

There is the US National Strategic Computing Initiative established on July 29, 2015 and its first anniversary results were announced one year to the day later. Within that initiative a nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing was issued and, according to a July 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk, a white paper on the topic has been issued (Note: A link has been removed),

Today [July 29, 2016), Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) released a white paper (pdf) describing the collective Federal vision for the emerging and innovative solutions needed to realize the Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing.

The grand challenge, announced on October 20, 2015, is to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” The white paper describes the technical priorities shared by the agencies, highlights the challenges and opportunities associated with these priorities, and presents a guiding vision for the research and development (R&D) needed to achieve key technical goals. By coordinating and collaborating across multiple levels of government, industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations, the nanotechnology and computer science communities can look beyond the decades-old approach to computing based on the von Neumann architecture and chart a new path that will continue the rapid pace of innovation beyond the next decade.

A July 29, 2016 US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office news release, which originated the news item, further and succinctly describes the contents of the paper,

“Materials and devices for computing have been and will continue to be a key application domain in the field of nanotechnology. As evident by the R&D topics highlighted in the white paper, this challenge will require the convergence of nanotechnology, neuroscience, and computer science to create a whole new paradigm for low-power computing with revolutionary, brain-like capabilities,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. …

The white paper was produced as a collaboration by technical staff at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Intelligence Community. …

The white paper titled “A Federal Vision for Future Computing: A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge” is 15 pp. and it offers tidbits such as this (Note: Footnotes not included),

A new materials base may be needed for future electronic hardware. While most of today’s electronics use silicon, this approach is unsustainable if billions of disposable and short-lived sensor nodes are needed for the coming Internet-of-Things (IoT). To what extent can the materials base for the implementation of future information technology (IT) components and systems support sustainability through recycling and bio-degradability? More sustainable materials, such as compostable or biodegradable systems (polymers, paper, etc.) that can be recycled or reused,  may play an important role. The potential role for such alternative materials in the fabrication of integrated systems needs to be explored as well. [p. 5]

The basic architecture of computers today is essentially the same as those built in the 1940s—the von Neumann architecture—with separate compute, high-speed memory, and high-density storage components that are electronically interconnected. However, it is well known that continued performance increases using this architecture are not feasible in the long term, with power density constraints being one of the fundamental roadblocks.7 Further advances in the current approach using multiple cores, chip multiprocessors, and associated architectures are plagued by challenges in software and programming models. Thus,  research and development is required in radically new and different computing architectures involving processors, memory, input-output devices, and how they behave and are interconnected. [p. 7]

Neuroscience research suggests that the brain is a complex, high-performance computing system with low energy consumption and incredible parallelism. A highly plastic and flexible organ, the human brain is able to grow new neurons, synapses, and connections to cope with an ever-changing environment. Energy efficiency, growth, and flexibility occur at all scales, from molecular to cellular, and allow the brain, from early to late stage, to never stop learning and to act with proactive intelligence in both familiar and novel situations. Understanding how these mechanisms work and cooperate within and across scales has the potential to offer tremendous technical insights and novel engineering frameworks for materials, devices, and systems seeking to perform efficient and autonomous computing. This research focus area is the most synergistic with the national BRAIN Initiative. However, unlike the BRAIN Initiative, where the goal is to map the network connectivity of the brain, the objective here is to understand the nature, methods, and mechanisms for computation,  and how the brain performs some of its tasks. Even within this broad paradigm,  one can loosely distinguish between neuromorphic computing and artificial neural network (ANN) approaches. The goal of neuromorphic computing is oriented towards a hardware approach to reverse engineering the computational architecture of the brain. On the other hand, ANNs include algorithmic approaches arising from machinelearning,  which in turn could leverage advancements and understanding in neuroscience as well as novel cognitive, mathematical, and statistical techniques. Indeed, the ultimate intelligent systems may as well be the result of merging existing ANN (e.g., deep learning) and bio-inspired techniques. [p. 8]

As government documents go, this is quite readable.

For anyone interested in learning more about the future federal plans for computing in the US, there is a July 29, 2016 posting on the White House blog celebrating the first year of the US National Strategic Computing Initiative Strategic Plan (29 pp. PDF; awkward but that is the title).

Pushing efficiency of perovskite-based solar cells to 31%

This atomic force microscopy image of the grainy surface of a perovskite solar cell reveals a new path to much greater efficiency. Individual grains are outlined in black, low-performing facets are red, and high-performing facets are green. A big jump in efficiency could possibly be obtained if the material can be grown so that more high-performing facets develop. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

This atomic force microscopy image of the grainy surface of a perovskite solar cell reveals a new path to much greater efficiency. Individual grains are outlined in black, low-performing facets are red, and high-performing facets are green. A big jump in efficiency could possibly be obtained if the material can be grown so that more high-performing facets develop. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

It’s always fascinating to observe a trend (or a craze) in science, an endeavour that outsiders (like me) tend to think of as impervious to such vagaries. Perovskite seems to be making its way past the trend/craze phase and moving into a more meaningful phase. From a July 4, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have discovered a possible secret to dramatically boosting the efficiency of perovskite solar cells hidden in the nanoscale peaks and valleys of the crystalline material.

Solar cells made from compounds that have the crystal structure of the mineral perovskite have captured scientists’ imaginations. They’re inexpensive and easy to fabricate, like organic solar cells. Even more intriguing, the efficiency at which perovskite solar cells convert photons to electricity has increased more rapidly than any other material to date, starting at three percent in 2009 — when researchers first began exploring the material’s photovoltaic capabilities — to 22 percent today. This is in the ballpark of the efficiency of silicon solar cells.

Now, as reported online July 4, 2016 in the journal Nature Energy (“Facet-dependent photovoltaic efficiency variations in single grains of hybrid halide perovskite”), a team of scientists from the Molecular Foundry and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, both at Berkeley Lab, found a surprising characteristic of a perovskite solar cell that could be exploited for even higher efficiencies, possibly up to 31 percent.

A July 4, 2016 Berkeley Lab news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details the research,

Using photoconductive atomic force microscopy, the scientists mapped two properties on the active layer of the solar cell that relate to its photovoltaic efficiency. The maps revealed a bumpy surface composed of grains about 200 nanometers in length, and each grain has multi-angled facets like the faces of a gemstone.

Unexpectedly, the scientists discovered a huge difference in energy conversion efficiency between facets on individual grains. They found poorly performing facets adjacent to highly efficient facets, with some facets approaching the material’s theoretical energy conversion limit of 31 percent.

The scientists say these top-performing facets could hold the secret to highly efficient solar cells, although more research is needed.

“If the material can be synthesized so that only very efficient facets develop, then we could see a big jump in the efficiency of perovskite solar cells, possibly approaching 31 percent,” says Sibel Leblebici, a postdoctoral researcher at the Molecular Foundry.

Leblebici works in the lab of Alexander Weber-Bargioni, who is a corresponding author of the paper that describes this research. Ian Sharp, also a corresponding author, is a Berkeley Lab scientist at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. Other Berkeley Lab scientists who contributed include Linn Leppert, Francesca Toma, and Jeff Neaton, the director of the Molecular Foundry.

A team effort

The research started when Leblebici was searching for a new project. “I thought perovskites are the most exciting thing in solar right now, and I really wanted to see how they work at the nanoscale, which has not been widely studied,” she says.

She didn’t have to go far to find the material. For the past two years, scientists at the nearby Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis have been making thin films of perovskite-based compounds, and studying their ability to convert sunlight and CO2 into useful chemicals such as fuel. Switching gears, they created pervoskite solar cells composed of methylammonium lead iodide. They also analyzed the cells’ performance at the macroscale.

The scientists also made a second set of half cells that didn’t have an electrode layer. They packed eight of these cells on a thin film measuring one square centimeter. These films were analyzed at the Molecular Foundry, where researchers mapped the cells’ surface topography at a resolution of ten nanometers. They also mapped two properties that relate to the cells’ photovoltaic efficiency: photocurrent generation and open circuit voltage.

This was performed using a state-of-the-art atomic force microscopy technique, developed in collaboration with Park Systems, which utilizes a conductive tip to scan the material’s surface. The method also eliminates friction between the tip and the sample. This is important because the material is so rough and soft that friction can damage the tip and sample, and cause artifacts in the photocurrent.

Surprise discovery could lead to better solar cells

The resulting maps revealed an order of magnitude difference in photocurrent generation, and a 0.6-volt difference in open circuit voltage, between facets on the same grain. In addition, facets with high photocurrent generation had high open circuit voltage, and facets with low photocurrent generation had low open circuit voltage.

“This was a big surprise. It shows, for the first time, that perovskite solar cells exhibit facet-dependent photovoltaic efficiency,” says Weber-Bargioni.

Adds Toma, “These results open the door to exploring new ways to control the development of the material’s facets to dramatically increase efficiency.”

In practice, the facets behave like billions of tiny solar cells, all connected in parallel. As the scientists discovered, some cells operate extremely well and others very poorly. In this scenario, the current flows towards the bad cells, lowering the overall performance of the material. But if the material can be optimized so that only highly efficient facets interface with the electrode, the losses incurred by the poor facets would be eliminated.

“This means, at the macroscale, the material could possibly approach its theoretical energy conversion limit of 31 percent,” says Sharp.

A theoretical model that describes the experimental results predicts these facets should also impact the emission of light when used as an LED. …

The Molecular Foundry is a DOE Office of Science User Facility located at Berkeley Lab. The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis is a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by the California Institute of Technology in partnership with Berkeley Lab.

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

Facet-dependent photovoltaic efficiency variations in single grains of hybrid halide perovskite by Sibel Y. Leblebici, Linn Leppert, Yanbo Li, Sebastian E. Reyes-Lillo, Sebastian Wickenburg, Ed Wong, Jiye Lee, Mauro Melli, Dominik Ziegler, Daniel K. Angell, D. Frank Ogletree, Paul D. Ashby, Francesca M. Toma, Jeffrey B. Neaton, Ian D. Sharp, & Alexander Weber-Bargioni. Nature Energy 1, Article number: 16093 (2016  doi:10.1038/nenergy.2016.93 Published online: 04 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dexter Johnson’s July 6, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website} presents his take on the impact that this new finding may have,

The rise of the crystal perovskite as a potential replacement for silicon in photovoltaics has been impressive over the last decade, with its conversion efficiency improving from 3.8 to 22.1 percent over that time period. Nonetheless, there has been a vague sense that this rise is beginning to peter out of late, largely because when a solar cell made from perovskite gets larger than 1 square centimeter the best conversion efficiency had been around 15.6 percent. …

X-rays reveal memristor workings

A June 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily focuses on memristors. (It’s been about two months since my last memristor posting on April 22, 2016 regarding electronic synapses and neural networks). This piece announces new insight into how memristors function at the atomic scale,

In experiments at two Department of Energy national labs — SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — scientists at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) [also referred to as HP Labs or Hewlett Packard Laboratories] have experimentally confirmed critical aspects of how a new type of microelectronic device, the memristor, works at an atomic scale.

This result is an important step in designing these solid-state devices for use in future computer memories that operate much faster, last longer and use less energy than today’s flash memory. …

“We need information like this to be able to design memristors that will succeed commercially,” said Suhas Kumar, an HPE scientist and first author on the group’s technical paper.

A June 13, 2016 SLAC news release, which originated the news item, offers a brief history according to HPE and provides details about the latest work,

The memristor was proposed theoretically [by Dr. Leon Chua] in 1971 as the fourth basic electrical device element alongside the resistor, capacitor and inductor. At its heart is a tiny piece of a transition metal oxide sandwiched between two electrodes. Applying a positive or negative voltage pulse dramatically increases or decreases the memristor’s electrical resistance. This behavior makes it suitable for use as a “non-volatile” computer memory that, like flash memory, can retain its state without being refreshed with additional power.

Over the past decade, an HPE group led by senior fellow R. Stanley Williams has explored memristor designs, materials and behavior in detail. Since 2009 they have used intense synchrotron X-rays to reveal the movements of atoms in memristors during switching. Despite advances in understanding the nature of this switching, critical details that would be important in designing commercially successful circuits  remained controversial. For example, the forces that move the atoms, resulting in dramatic resistance changes during switching, remain under debate.

In recent years, the group examined memristors made with oxides of titanium, tantalum and vanadium. Initial experiments revealed that switching in the tantalum oxide devices could be controlled most easily, so it was chosen for further exploration at two DOE Office of Science User Facilities – SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS).

At ALS, the HPE researchers mapped the positions of oxygen atoms before and after switching. For this, they used a scanning transmission X-ray microscope and an apparatus they built to precisely control the position of their sample and the timing and intensity of the 500-electronvolt ALS X-rays, which were tuned to see oxygen.

The experiments revealed that even weak voltage pulses create a thin conductive path through the memristor. During the pulse the path heats up, which creates a force that pushes oxygen atoms away from the path, making it even more conductive. Reversing the voltage pulse resets the memristor by sucking some of oxygen atoms back into the conducting path, thereby increasing the device’s resistance. The memristor’s resistance changes between 10-fold and 1 million-fold, depending on operating parameters like the voltage-pulse amplitude. This resistance change is dramatic enough to exploit commercially.

To be sure of their conclusion, the researchers also needed to understand if the tantalum atoms were moving along with the oxygen during switching. Imaging tantalum required higher-energy, 10,000-electronvolt X-rays, which they obtained at SSRL’s Beam Line 6-2. In a single session there, they determined that the tantalum remained stationary.

“That sealed the deal, convincing us that our hypothesis was correct,” said HPE scientist Catherine Graves, who had worked at SSRL as a Stanford graduate student. She added that discussions with SLAC experts were critical in guiding the HPE team toward the X-ray techniques that would allow them to see the tantalum accurately.

Kumar said the most promising aspect of the tantalum oxide results was that the scientists saw no degradation in switching over more than a billion voltage pulses of a magnitude suitable for commercial use. He added that this knowledge helped his group build memristors that lasted nearly a billion switching cycles, about a thousand-fold improvement.

“This is much longer endurance than is possible with today’s flash memory devices,” Kumar said. “In addition, we also used much higher voltage pulses to accelerate and observe memristor failures, which is also important in understanding how these devices work. Failures occurred when oxygen atoms were forced so far away that they did not return to their initial positions.”

Beyond memory chips, Kumar says memristors’ rapid switching speed and small size could make them suitable for use in logic circuits. Additional memristor characteristics may also be beneficial in the emerging class of brain-inspired neuromorphic computing circuits.

“Transistors are big and bulky compared to memristors,” he said. “Memristors are also much better suited for creating the neuron-like voltage spikes that characterize neuromorphic circuits.”

The researchers have provided an animation illustrating how memristors can fail,

This animation shows how millions of high-voltage switching cycles can cause memristors to fail. The high-voltage switching eventually creates regions that are permanently rich (blue pits) or deficient (red peaks) in oxygen and cannot be switched back. Switching at lower voltages that would be suitable for commercial devices did not show this performance degradation. These observations allowed the researchers to develop materials processing and operating conditions that improved the memristors’ endurance by nearly a thousand times. (Suhas Kumar) Courtesy: SLAC

This animation shows how millions of high-voltage switching cycles can cause memristors to fail. The high-voltage switching eventually creates regions that are permanently rich (blue pits) or deficient (red peaks) in oxygen and cannot be switched back. Switching at lower voltages that would be suitable for commercial devices did not show this performance degradation. These observations allowed the researchers to develop materials processing and operating conditions that improved the memristors’ endurance by nearly a thousand times. (Suhas Kumar) Courtesy: SLAC

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

Direct Observation of Localized Radial Oxygen Migration in Functioning Tantalum Oxide Memristors by Suhas Kumar, Catherine E. Graves, John Paul Strachan, Emmanuelle Merced Grafals, Arthur L. David Kilcoyne3, Tolek Tyliszczak, Johanna Nelson Weker, Yoshio Nishi, and R. Stanley Williams. Advanced Materials, First published: 2 February 2016; Print: Volume 28, Issue 14 April 13, 2016 Pages 2772–2776 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201505435

This paper is behind a paywall.

Some of the ‘memristor story’ is contested and you can find a brief overview of the discussion in this Wikipedia memristor entry in the section on ‘definition and criticism’. There is also a history of the memristor which dates back to the 19th century featured in my May 22, 2012 posting.

Cleaning up nuclear waste gases with nanotechnology-enabled materials

Swiss and US scientists have developed a nanoporous crystal that could be used to clean up nuclear waste gases according to a June 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of scientists at EPFL [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland] and the US have discovered a material that can clear out radioactive waste from nuclear plants more efficiently, cheaply, and safely than current methods.

Nuclear energy is one of the cheapest alternatives to carbon-based fossil fuels. But nuclear-fuel reprocessing plants generate waste gas that is currently too expensive and dangerous to deal with. Scanning hundreds of thousands of materials, scientists led by EPFL and their US colleagues have now discovered a material that can absorb nuclear waste gases much more efficiently, cheaply and safely. The work is published in Nature Communications (“Metal–organic framework with optimally selective xenon adsorption and separation”).

A June 14, 2016 EPFL press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further,

Nuclear-fuel reprocessing plants generate volatile radionuclides such as xenon and krypton, which escape in the so-called “off-gas” of these facilities – the gases emitted as byproducts of the chemical process. Current ways of capturing and clearing out these gases involve distillation at very low temperatures, which is expensive in both terms of energy and capital costs, and poses a risk of explosion.

Scientists led by Berend Smit’s lab at EPFL (Sion) and colleagues in the US, have now identified a material that can be used as an efficient, cheaper, and safer alternative to separate xenon and krypton – and at room temperature. The material, abbreviated as SBMOF-1, is a nanoporous crystal and belongs a class of materials that are currently used to clear out CO2 emissions and other dangerous pollutants. These materials are also very versatile, and scientists can tweak them to self-assemble into ordered, pre-determined crystal structures. In this way, they can synthesize millions of tailor-made materials that can be optimized for gas storage separation, catalysis, chemical sensing and optics.

The scientists carried out high-throughput screening of large material databases of over 125,000 candidates. To do this, they used molecular simulations to find structures that can separate xenon and krypton, and under conditions that match those involved in reprocessing nuclear waste.

Because xenon has a much shorter half-life than krypton – a month versus a decade – the scientists had to find a material that would be selective for both but would capture them separately. As xenon is used in commercial lighting, propulsion, imaging, anesthesia and insulation, it can also be sold back into the chemical market to offset costs.

The scientists identified and confirmed that SBMOF-1 shows remarkable xenon capturing capacity and xenon/krypton selectivity under nuclear-plant conditions and at room temperature.

The US partners have also made an announcement with this June 13, 2016 Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: It is a little repetitive but there’s good additional information,

Researchers are investigating a new material that might help in nuclear fuel recycling and waste reduction by capturing certain gases released during reprocessing. Conventional technologies to remove these radioactive gases operate at extremely low, energy-intensive temperatures. By working at ambient temperature, the new material has the potential to save energy, make reprocessing cleaner and less expensive. The reclaimed materials can also be reused commercially.

Appearing in Nature Communications, the work is a collaboration between experimentalists and computer modelers exploring the characteristics of materials known as metal-organic frameworks.

“This is a great example of computer-inspired material discovery,” said materials scientist Praveen Thallapally of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Usually the experimental results are more realistic than computational ones. This time, the computer modeling showed us something the experiments weren’t telling us.”

Waste avoidance

Recycling nuclear fuel can reuse uranium and plutonium — the majority of the used fuel — that would otherwise be destined for waste. Researchers are exploring technologies that enable safe, efficient, and reliable recycling of nuclear fuel for use in the future.

A multi-institutional, international collaboration is studying materials to replace costly, inefficient recycling steps. One important step is collecting radioactive gases xenon and krypton, which arise during reprocessing. To capture xenon and krypton, conventional technologies use cryogenic methods in which entire gas streams are brought to a temperature far below where water freezes — such methods are energy intensive and expensive.

Thallapally, working with Maciej Haranczyk and Berend Smit of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory [LBNL] and others, has been studying materials called metal-organic frameworks, also known as MOFs, that could potentially trap xenon and krypton without having to use cryogenics.

These materials have tiny pores inside, so small that often only a single molecule can fit inside each pore. When one gas species has a higher affinity for the pore walls than other gas species, metal-organic frameworks can be used to separate gaseous mixtures by selectively adsorbing.

To find the best MOF for xenon and krypton separation, computational chemists led by Haranczyk and Smit screened 125,000 possible MOFs for their ability to trap the gases. Although these gases can come in radioactive varieties, they are part of a group of chemically inert elements called “noble gases.” The team used computing resources at NERSC, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at LBNL.

“Identifying the optimal material for a given process, out of thousands of possible structures, is a challenge due to the sheer number of materials. Given that the characterization of each material can take up to a few hours of simulations, the entire screening process may fill a supercomputer for weeks,” said Haranczyk. “Instead, we developed an approach to assess the performance of materials based on their easily computable characteristics. In this case, seven different characteristics were necessary for predicting how the materials behaved, and our team’s grad student Cory Simon’s application of machine learning techniques greatly sped up the material discovery process by eliminating those that didn’t meet the criteria.”

The team’s models identified the MOF that trapped xenon most selectively and had a pore size close to the size of a xenon atom — SBMOF-1, which they then tested in the lab at PNNL.

After optimizing the preparation of SBMOF-1, Thallapally and his team at PNNL tested the material by running a mixture of gases through it — including a non-radioactive form of xenon and krypton — and measuring what came out the other end. Oxygen, helium, nitrogen, krypton, and carbon dioxide all beat xenon out. This indicated that xenon becomes trapped within SBMOF-1’s pores until the gas saturates the material.

Other tests also showed that in the absence of xenon, SBMOF-1 captures krypton. During actual separations, then, operators would pass the gas streams through SBMOF-1 twice to capture both gases.

The team also tested SBMOF-1’s ability to hang onto xenon in conditions of high humidity. Humidity interferes with cryogenics, and gases must be dehydrated before putting them through the ultra-cold method, another time-consuming expense. SBMOF-1, however, performed quite admirably, retaining more than 85 percent of the amount of xenon in high humidity as it did in dry conditions.

The final step in collecting xenon or krypton gas would be to put the MOF material under a vacuum, which sucks the gas out of the molecular cages for safe storage. A last laboratory test examined how stable the material was by repeatedly filling it up with xenon gas and then vacuuming out the xenon. After 10 cycles of this, SBMOF-1 collected just as much xenon as the first cycle, indicating a high degree of stability for long-term use.

Thallapally attributes this stability to the manner in which SBMOF-1 interacts with xenon. Rather than chemical reactions between the molecular cages and the gases, the relationship is purely physical. The material can last a lot longer without constantly going through chemical reactions, he said.

A model finding

Although the researchers showed that SBMOF-1 is a good candidate for nuclear fuel reprocessing, getting these results wasn’t smooth sailing. In the lab, the researchers had followed a previously worked out protocol from Stony Brook University to prepare SBMOF-1. Part of that protocol requires them to “activate” SBMOF-1 by heating it up to 300 degrees Celsius, three times the temperature of boiling water.

Activation cleans out material left in the pores from MOF synthesis. Laboratory tests of the activated SBMOF-1, however, showed the material didn’t behave as well as it should, based on the computer modeling results.

The researchers at PNNL repeated the lab experiments. This time, however, they activated SBMOF-1 at a lower temperature, 100 degrees Celsius, or the actual temperature of boiling water. Subjecting the material to the same lab tests, the researchers found SBMOF-1 behaving as expected, and better than at the higher activation temperature.

But why? To figure out where the discrepancy came from, the researchers modeled what happened to SBMOF-1 at 300 degrees Celsius. Unexpectedly, the pores squeezed in on themselves.

“When we heated the crystal that high, atoms within the pore tilted and partially blocked the pores,” said Thallapally. “The xenon doesn’t fit.”

Armed with these new computational and experimental insights, the researchers can explore SBMOF-1 and other MOFs further for nuclear fuel recycling. These MOFs might also be able to capture other noble gases such as radon, a gas known to pool in some basements.

Researchers hailed from several other institutions as well as those listed earlier, including University of California, Berkeley, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and IMDEA Materials Institute in Spain. This work was supported by the [US] Department of Energy Offices of Nuclear Energy and Science.

Here’s an image the researchers have provided to illustrate their work,

Caption: The crystal structure of SBMOF-1 (green = Ca, yellow = S, red = O, gray = C, white = H). The light blue surface is a visualization of the one-dimensional channel that SBMOF-1 creates for the gas molecules to move through. The darker blue surface illustrates where a Xe atom sits in the pores of SBMOF-1 when it adsorbs. Credit: Berend Smit/EPFL/University of California Berkley

Caption: The crystal structure of SBMOF-1 (green = Ca, yellow = S, red = O, gray = C, white = H). The light blue surface is a visualization of the one-dimensional channel that SBMOF-1 creates for the gas molecules to move through. The darker blue surface illustrates where a Xe atom sits in the pores of SBMOF-1 when it adsorbs. Credit: Berend Smit/EPFL/University of California Berkley

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

Metal–organic framework with optimally selective xenon adsorption and separation by Debasis Banerjee, Cory M. Simon, Anna M. Plonka, Radha K. Motkuri, Jian Liu, Xianyin Chen, Berend Smit, John B. Parise, Maciej Haranczyk, & Praveen K. Thallapally. Nature Communications 7, Article number: ncomms11831  doi:10.1038/ncomms11831 Published 13 June 2016

This paper is open access.

Final comment, this is the second time in the last month I’ve stumbled across more positive approaches to nuclear energy. The first time was a talk (Why Nuclear Power is Necessary) held in Vancouver, Canada in May 2016 (details here). I’m not trying to suggest anything unduly sinister but it is interesting since most of my adult life nuclear power has been viewed with fear and suspicion.

A new state for water molecules

ORNL researchers discovered that water in beryl displays some unique and unexpected characteristics. (Photo by Jeff Scovil)

ORNL researchers discovered that water in beryl displays some unique and unexpected characteristics. (Photo by Jeff Scovil)

That striking image from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL; US) depicting a new state for water molecules looks like mixed media: photography and drawing/illustration. Thankfully, an April 22, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily provides a text description,

Neutron scattering and computational modeling have revealed unique and unexpected behavior of water molecules under extreme confinement that is unmatched by any known gas, liquid or solid states.

In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory [ORNL] describe a new tunneling state of water molecules confined in hexagonal ultra-small channels — 5 angstrom across — of the mineral beryl. An angstrom is 1/10-billionth of a meter, and individual atoms are typically about 1 angstrom in diameter.

The discovery, made possible with experiments at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom, demonstrates features of water under ultra confinement in rocks, soil and cell walls, which scientists predict will be of interest across many disciplines.

An April 22, 2016 ORNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more detail,

“At low temperatures, this tunneling water exhibits quantum motion through the separating potential walls, which is forbidden in the classical world,” said lead author Alexander Kolesnikov of ORNL’s Chemical and Engineering Materials Division. “This means that the oxygen and hydrogen atoms of the water molecule are ‘delocalized’ and therefore simultaneously present in all six symmetrically equivalent positions in the channel at the same time. It’s one of those phenomena that only occur in quantum mechanics and has no parallel in our everyday experience.”

The existence of the tunneling state of water shown in ORNL’s study should help scientists better describe the thermodynamic properties and behavior of water in highly confined environments such as water diffusion and transport in the channels of cell membranes, in carbon nanotubes and along grain boundaries and at mineral interfaces in a host of geological environments.

ORNL co-author Lawrence Anovitz noted that the discovery is apt to spark discussions among materials, biological, geological and computational scientists as they attempt to explain the mechanism behind this phenomenon and understand how it applies to their materials.

“This discovery represents a new fundamental understanding of the behavior of water and the way water utilizes energy,” Anovitz said. “It’s also interesting to think that those water molecules in your aquamarine or emerald ring – blue and green varieties of beryl – are undergoing the same quantum tunneling we’ve seen in our experiments.”

While previous studies have observed tunneling of atomic hydrogen in other systems, the ORNL discovery that water exhibits such tunneling behavior is unprecedented. The neutron scattering and computational chemistry experiments showed that, in the tunneling state, the water molecules are delocalized around a ring so the water molecule assumes an unusual double top-like shape.

“The average kinetic energy of the water protons directly obtained from the neutron experiment is a measure of their motion at almost absolute zero temperature and is about 30 percent less than it is in bulk liquid or solid water,” Kolesnikov said. “This is in complete disagreement with accepted models based on the energies of its vibrational modes.”

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

Quantum Tunneling of Water in Beryl: A New State of the Water Molecule by Alexander I. Kolesnikov, George F. Reiter, Narayani Choudhury, Timothy R. Prisk, Eugene Mamontov, Andrey Podlesnyak, George Ehlers, Andrew G. Seel, David J. Wesolowski, and Lawrence M. Anovitz.
Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 167802 – Published 22 April 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Doped carbon nanotubes and a new path to quantum encryption

An April 12, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes a use for  carbon nanotubes in the field of quantum encryption,

Critical information, ranging from credit card numbers to national security data, is sent in streams of light, or laser pulses. However, the data transmitted in this manner can be stolen by splitting out a few photons (packets of light) from the laser pulse. Such eavesdropping could be prevented by encoding the data into single photons. But that requires generating single photons. Researchers demonstrated a new material, made from tiny carbon tubes, that emits the desired photons at room temperature.

A March 31, 2016 US Department of Energy news release, which originated the news item, explains the concept in more detail,

Digital eavesdropping could be prevented by encoding bits of information in the properties, or quantum mechanical states, of single photons. Single photons emitted by carbon nanotubes altered, or doped with oxygen, are especially attractive for realizing this quantum information technology.


Single photon generation requires an isolated, quantum mechanical, two-level system that can emit only one photon in one excitation-emission cycle. While artificial nanoscale materials (such as quantum dots and vacancy centers in diamonds) have been explored for single photon generation, none have emerged as the ideal candidate that meets all of the technological requirements. These requirements include the ability to generate single photons in the 1.3 to 1.5 µm fiber optic telecommunication wavelength range at room temperature. Earlier studies revealed that carbon nanotubes were not suited for use in quantum communications because the tubes required extremely low temperatures and had strong photoluminescence fluctuations. In contrast to these earlier findings, researchers led by Han Htoon and Stephen Doorn of the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies showed that oxygen doping of carbon nanotubes can lead to fluctuation-free photoluminescence emission in the telecommunication wavelength range. Experiments measuring the time-distribution of two successive photon emission events also unambiguously demonstrated single photon emission at room temperature. Furthermore, because oxygen doping is achieved through a simple deposition of a silicon dioxide layer, these doped carbon nanotubes are fully compatible with silicon microfabrication technology and can be fabricated into electrically driven single photon sources. In addition, the silicon dioxide layer encapsulating the nanotubes allows for their easy integration into electronic and photonic integrated circuits. Beyond the implementation of this new method into quantum communication technologies, nanotube-based single photon sources could enable other transformative quantum technologies, including ultra-sensitive absorption measurements, sub-diffraction imaging, and linear quantum computing.

The researchers have provided an illustration of doped carbon nanotubes,

The deposition of a silicon dioxide layer (yellow layer) on a carbon nanotube (gray spheres) introduces solitary oxygen dopants (red spheres). A single photon (red and white star) is emitted when a dopant is excited by a laser pulse (green arrow). Image courtesy of the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies

The deposition of a silicon dioxide layer (yellow layer) on a carbon nanotube (gray spheres) introduces solitary oxygen dopants (red spheres). A single photon (red and white star) is emitted when a dopant is excited by a laser pulse (green arrow). Image courtesy of the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper, which was published a surprisingly long time ago,

Room-temperature single-photon generation from solitary dopants of carbon nanotubes by Xuedan Ma, Nicolai F. Hartmann, Jon K. S. Baldwin, Stephen K. Doorn, & Han Htoon.  Nature Nanotechnology 10, 671–675 (2015)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.136 Published online 13 July 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotubes transport protons faster than bulk water

An April 4, 2016 news item on Science Daily focuses on carbon nanotubes that measure eight-tenths of a nanometre and transport protons more quickly than bulk water by an order of magnitude,

For the first time, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) researchers have shown that carbon nanotubes as small as eight-tenths of a nanometer in diameter can transport protons faster than bulk water, by an order of magnitude.

The research validates a 200-year old mechanism of proton transport.

A US Department of Energy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more explanation,

The transport rates in these nanotube pores, which form one-dimensional water wires, also exceed those of biological channels and man-made proton conductors, making carbon nanotubes the fastest known proton conductor. …

Practical applications include proton exchange membranes, proton-based signaling in biological systems and the emerging field of proton bioelectronics (protonics).

“The cool thing about our results is that we found that when you squeeze water into the nanotube, protons move through that water even faster than through normal (bulk) water,” said Aleksandr Noy, an LLNL biophysicist and a lead author of the paper. (Bulk water is similar to what you would find in a cup of water that is much bigger than the size of a single water molecule).

The idea that protons travel fast in solutions by hopping along chains of hydrogen-bonded water molecules dates back 200 years to the work of Theodore von Grotthuss and still remains the foundation of the scientific understanding of proton transport. In the new research, LLNL researchers used carbon nanotube pores to line up water molecules into perfect one-dimensional chains and showed that they allow proton transport rates to approach the ultimate limits for the Grotthuss transport mechanism.

“The possibility to achieve fast proton transport by changing the degree of water confinement is exciting,” Noy said. “So far, the man-made proton conductors, such as polymer Nafion, use a different principle to enhance the proton transport. We have mimicked the way biological systems enhance the proton transport, took it to the extreme, and now our system realizes the ultimate limit of proton conductivity in a nanopore.”

Of all man-made materials, the narrow hydrophobic inner pores of carbon nanotubes (CNT) hold the most promise to deliver the level of confinement and weak interactions with water molecules that facilitate the formation of one-dimensional hydrogen-bonded water chains that enhance proton transport.

Earlier molecular dynamic simulations showed that water in 0.8 nm diameter carbon nanotubes would create such water wires and predicted that these channels would exhibit proton transport rates that would be much faster than those of bulk water. Ramya Tunuguntla, an LLNL postdoctoral researcher and the first author on the paper, said that despite significant efforts in carbon nanotube transport studies, these predictions proved to be hard to validate, mainly because of the difficulties in creating sub-1-nm diameter CNT pores.

However, the Lawrence Livermore team along with colleagues from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC Berkeley was able to create a simple and versatile experimental system for studying transport in ultra-narrow CNT pores. They used carbon nanotube porins (CNTPs), a technology they developed earlier at LLNL, which uses carbon nanotubes embedded in the lipid membrane to mimic biological ion channel functionality. The key breakthrough was the creation of nanotube porins with a diameter of less than 1 nm, which allowed researchers for the first time to achieve true one-dimensional water confinement.

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

Ultrafast proton transport in sub-1-nm diameter carbon nanotube porins by Ramya H. Tunuguntla, Frances I. Allen, Kyunghoon Kim, Allison Belliveau, & Aleksandr Noy. Nature Nanotechnology (2016) doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.43 Published online 04 April 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nature-inspired nanotubes from the Lawrence Berkeley National* Laboratory

A March 29, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now  announces a new technique for nature-inspired self-assembling polymer nanotubes,

When it comes to the various nanowidgets scientists are developing, nanotubes are especially intriguing. That’s because hollow tubes that have diameters of only a few billionths of a meter have the potential to be incredibly useful, from delivering cancer-fighting drugs inside cells to desalinating seawater.

But building nanostructures is difficult. And creating a large quantity of nanostructures with the same trait, such as millions of nanotubes with identical diameters, is even more difficult. This kind of precision manufacturing is needed to create the nanotechnologies of tomorrow.

Help could be on the way. As reported online the week of March 28 [2016] in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS], researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have discovered a family of nature-inspired polymers that, when placed in water, spontaneously assemble into hollow crystalline nanotubes. What’s more, the nanotubes can be tuned to all have the same diameter of between five and ten nanometers, depending on the length of the polymer chain.

A March 28, 2016 Berkeley Lab news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The polymers have two chemically distinct blocks that are the same size and shape. The scientists learned these blocks act like molecular tiles that form rings, which stack together to form nanotubes up to 100 nanometers long, all with the same diameter.

“This points to a new way we can use synthetic polymers to create complex nanostructures in a very precise way,” says Ron Zuckermann, who directs the Biological Nanostructures Facility in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, where much of this research was conducted.

Several other Berkeley Lab scientists contributed to this research, including Nitash Balsara of the Materials Sciences Division and Ken Downing of the Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging Division.

“Creating uniform structures in high yield is a goal in nanotechnology,” adds Zuckermann. “For example, if you can control the diameter of nanotubes, and the chemical groups exposed in their interior, then you can control what goes through—which could lead to new filtration and desalination technologies, to name a few examples.”

The research is the latest in the effort to build nanostructures that approach the complexity and function of nature’s proteins, but are made of durable materials. In this work, the Berkeley Lab scientists studied a polymer that is a member of the peptoid family. Peptoids are rugged synthetic polymers that mimic peptides, which nature uses to form proteins. They can be tuned at the atomic scale to carry out specific functions.

For the past several years, the scientists have studied a particular type of peptoid, called a diblock copolypeptoid, because it binds with lithium ions and could be used as a battery electrolyte. Along the way, they serendipitously found the compounds form nanotubes in water. How exactly these nanotubes form has yet to be determined, but this latest research sheds light on their structure, and hints at a new design principle that could be used to build nanotubes and other complex nanostructures.

Diblock copolypeptoids are composed of two peptoid blocks, one that’s hydrophobic one that’s hydrophilic. The scientists discovered both blocks crystallize when they meet in water, and form rings consisting of two to three individual peptoids. The rings then form hollow nanotubes.

Cryo-electron microscopy imaging of 50 of the nanotubes showed the diameter of each tube is highly uniform along its length, as well as from tube to tube. This analysis also revealed a striped pattern across the width of the nanotubes, which indicates the rings stack together to form tubes, and rules out other packing arrangements. In addition, the peptoids are thought to arrange themselves in a brick-like pattern, with hydrophobic blocks lining up with other hydrophobic blocks, and the same for hydrophilic blocks.

“Images of the tubes captured by electron microscopy were essential for establishing the presence of this unusual structure,” says Balsara. “The formation of tubular structures with a hydrophobic core is common for synthetic polymers dispersed in water, so we were quite surprised to see the formation of hollow tubes without a hydrophobic core.”

X-ray scattering analyses conducted at beamline 7.3.3 of the Advanced Light Source revealed even more about the nanotubes’ structure. For example, it showed that one of the peptoid blocks, which is usually amorphous, is actually crystalline.

Remarkably, the nanotubes assemble themselves without the usual nano-construction aids, such as electrostatic interactions or hydrogen bond networks.

“You wouldn’t expect something as intricate as this could be created without these crutches,” says Zuckermann. “But it turns out the chemical interactions that hold the nanotubes together are very simple. What’s special here is that the two peptoid blocks are chemically distinct, yet almost exactly the same size, which allows the chains to pack together in a very regular way. These insights could help us design useful nanotubes and other structures that are rugged and tunable—and which have uniform structures.”

This cryo-electron microscopy image shows the self-assembling nanotubes have the same diameter. The circles are head-on views of nanotubes. The dark-striped features likely result from crystallized peptoid blocks. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

This cryo-electron microscopy image shows the self-assembling nanotubes have the same diameter. The circles are head-on views of nanotubes. The dark-striped features likely result from crystallized peptoid blocks. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

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

Self-assembly of crystalline nanotubes from monodisperse amphiphilic diblock copolypeptoid tiles by Jing Sun, Xi Jiang, Reidar Lund, Kenneth H. Downing, Nitash P. Balsara, and Ronald N. Zuckermann. PNAS 2016 ; published ahead of print March 28, 2016, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1517169113

This paper is behind a paywall.

*’Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’ changed to ‘Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’ on April 3, 2016.

US Nanotechnology Initiative for water sustainability

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 was World Water Day and to coincide with that event the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in collaboration with several other agencies announced a new ‘signature initiative’. From a March 24, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

As a part of the White House Water Summit held yesterday on World Water Day, the Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) announced the launch of a Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI), Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge.

A March 23, 2016 NNI news release provides more information about why this initiative is important,

Access to clean water remains one of the world’s most pressing needs. As today’s White House Office of Science and Technology blog post explains, “the small size and exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials are particularly promising for addressing the key technical challenges related to water quality and quantity.”

“One cannot find an issue more critical to human life and global security than clean, plentiful, and reliable water sources,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). “Through the NSI mechanism, NNI member agencies will have an even greater ability to make meaningful strides toward this initiative’s thrust areas: increasing water availability, improving the efficiency of water delivery and use, and enabling next-generation water monitoring systems.”

A March 23, 2016 US White House blog posting by Lloyd Whitman and Lisa Friedersdorf describes the efforts in more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The small size and exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials are particularly promising for addressing the pressing technical challenges related to water quality and quantity. For example, the increased surface area—a cubic centimeter of nanoparticles has a surface area larger than a football field—and reactivity of nanometer-scale particles can be exploited to create catalysts for water purification that do not require rare or precious metals. And composites incorporating nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes might one day enable stronger, lighter, and more durable piping systems and components. Under this NSI, Federal agencies will coordinate and collaborate to more rapidly develop nanotechnology-enabled solutions in three main thrusts: [thrust 1] increasing water availability; [thrust 2] improving the efficiency of water delivery and use; and [thrust 3] enabling next-generation water monitoring systems.

A technical “white paper” released by the agencies this week highlights key technical challenges for each thrust, identifies key objectives to overcome those challenges, and notes areas of research and development where nanotechnology promises to provide the needed solutions. By shining a spotlight on these areas, the new NSI will increase Federal coordination and collaboration, including with public and private stakeholders, which is vital to making progress in these areas. The additional focus and associated collective efforts will advance stewardship of water resources to support the essential food, energy, security, and environment needs of all stakeholders.

We applaud the commitment of the Federal agencies who will participate in this effort—the Department of Commerce/National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture. As made clear at this week’s White House Water Summit, the world’s water systems are under tremendous stress, and new and emerging technologies will play a critical role in ensuring a sustainable water future.

The white paper (12 pp.) is titled: Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge and describes the thrusts in more detail.

A March 22, 2016 US White House fact sheet lays out more details including funding,

Click here to learn more about all of the commitments and announcements being made today. They include:

  • Nearly $4 billion in private capital committed to investment in a broad range of water-infrastructure projects nationwide. This includes $1.5 billion from Ultra Capital to finance decentralized and scalable water-management solutions, and $500 million from Sustainable Water to develop water reclamation and reuse systems.
  • More than $1 billion from the private sector over the next decade to conduct research and development into new technologies. This includes $500 million from GE to fuel innovation, expertise, and global capabilities in advanced water, wastewater, and reuse technologies.
  • A Presidential Memorandum and supporting Action Plan on building national capabilities for long-term drought resilience in the United States, including by setting drought resilience policy goals, directing specific drought resilience activities to be completed by the end of the year, and permanently establishing the National Drought Resilience Partnership as an interagency task force responsible for coordinating drought-resilience, response, and recovery efforts.
  • Nearly $35 million this year in Federal grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support cutting-edge water science;
  • The release of a new National Water Model that will dramatically enhance the Nation’s river-forecasting capabilities by delivering forecasts for approximately 2.7 million locations, up from 4,000 locations today (a 700-fold increase in forecast density).

This seems promising and hopefully other countries will follow suit.

When an atom more or less makes a big difference

As scientists continue exploring the nanoscale, it seems that finding the number of atoms in your particle makes a difference is no longer so surprising. From a Jan. 28, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Combining experimental investigations and theoretical simulations, researchers have explained why platinum nanoclusters of a specific size range facilitate the hydrogenation reaction used to produce ethane from ethylene. The research offers new insights into the role of cluster shapes in catalyzing reactions at the nanoscale, and could help materials scientists optimize nanocatalysts for a broad class of other reactions.

A Jan. 28, 2016 Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) news release (*also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

At the macro-scale, the conversion of ethylene has long been considered among the reactions insensitive to the structure of the catalyst used. However, by examining reactions catalyzed by platinum clusters containing between 9 and 15 atoms, researchers in Germany and the United States found that at the nanoscale, that’s no longer true. The shape of nanoscale clusters, they found, can dramatically affect reaction efficiency.

While the study investigated only platinum nanoclusters and the ethylene reaction, the fundamental principles may apply to other catalysts and reactions, demonstrating how materials at the very smallest size scales can provide different properties than the same material in bulk quantities. …

“We have re-examined the validity of a very fundamental concept on a very fundamental reaction,” said Uzi Landman, a Regents’ Professor and F.E. Callaway Chair in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We found that in the ultra-small catalyst range, on the order of a nanometer in size, old concepts don’t hold. New types of reactivity can occur because of changes in one or two atoms of a cluster at the nanoscale.”

The widely-used conversion process actually involves two separate reactions: (1) dissociation of H2 molecules into single hydrogen atoms, and (2) their addition to the ethylene, which involves conversion of a double bond into a single bond. In addition to producing ethane, the reaction can also take an alternative route that leads to the production of ethylidyne, which poisons the catalyst and prevents further reaction.

The project began with Professor Ueli Heiz and researchers in his group at the Technical University of Munich experimentally examining reaction rates for clusters containing 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 platinum atoms that had been placed atop a magnesium oxide substrate. The 9-atom nanoclusters failed to produce a significant reaction, while larger clusters catalyzed the ethylene hydrogenation reaction with increasingly better efficiency. The best reaction occurred with 13-atom clusters.

Bokwon Yoon, a research scientist in Georgia Tech’s Center for Computational Materials Science, and Landman, the center’s director, then used large-scale first-principles quantum mechanical simulations to understand how the size of the clusters – and their shape – affected the reactivity. Using their simulations, they discovered that the 9-atom cluster resembled a symmetrical “hut,” while the larger clusters had bulges that served to concentrate electrical charges from the substrate.

“That one atom changes the whole activity of the catalyst,” Landman said. “We found that the extra atom operates like a lightning rod. The distribution of the excess charge from the substrate helps facilitate the reaction. Platinum 9 has a compact shape that doesn’t facilitate the reaction, but adding just one atom changes everything.”

Here’s an illustration featuring the difference between a 9 atom cluster and a 10 atom cluster,

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

A single atom makes a difference in the catalytic properties of platinum nanoclusters. Shown are platinum 9 (top) and platinum 10 (bottom). (Credit: Uzi Landman, Georgia Tech)

The news release explains why the larger clusters function as catalysts,

Nanoclusters with 13 atoms provided the maximum reactivity because the additional atoms shift the structure in a phenomena Landman calls “fluxionality.” This structural adjustment has also been noted in earlier work of these two research groups, in studies of clusters of gold [emphasis mine] which are used in other catalytic reactions.

“Dynamic fluxionality is the ability of the cluster to distort its structure to accommodate the reactants to actually enhance reactivity,” he explained. “Only very small aggregates of metal can show such behavior, which mimics a biochemical enzyme.”

The simulations showed that catalyst poisoning also varies with cluster size – and temperature. The 10-atom clusters can be poisoned at room temperature, while the 13-atom clusters are poisoned only at higher temperatures, helping to account for their improved reactivity.

“Small really is different,” said Landman. “Once you get into this size regime, the old rules of structure sensitivity and structure insensitivity must be assessed for their continued validity. It’s not a question anymore of surface-to-volume ratio because everything is on the surface in these very small clusters.”

While the project examined only one reaction and one type of catalyst, the principles governing nanoscale catalysis – and the importance of re-examining traditional expectations – likely apply to a broad range of reactions catalyzed by nanoclusters at the smallest size scale. Such nanocatalysts are becoming more attractive as a means of conserving supplies of costly platinum.

“It’s a much richer world at the nanoscale than at the macroscopic scale,” added Landman. “These are very important messages for materials scientists and chemists who wish to design catalysts for new purposes, because the capabilities can be very different.”

Along with the experimental surface characterization and reactivity measurements, the first-principles theoretical simulations provide a unique practical means for examining these structural and electronic issues because the clusters are too small to be seen with sufficient resolution using most electron microscopy techniques or traditional crystallography.

“We have looked at how the number of atoms dictates the geometrical structure of the cluster catalysts on the surface and how this geometrical structure is associated with electronic properties that bring about chemical bonding characteristics that enhance the reactions,” Landman added.

I highlighted the news release’s reference to gold nanoclusters as I have noted the number issue in two April 14, 2015 postings, neither of which featured Georgia Tech, Gold atoms: sometimes they’re a metal and sometimes they’re a molecule and Nature’s patterns reflected in gold nanoparticles.

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

Structure sensitivity in the nonscalable regime explored via catalysed ethylene hydrogenation on supported platinum nanoclusters by Andrew S. Crampton, Marian D. Rötzer, Claron J. Ridge, Florian F. Schweinberger, Ueli Heiz, Bokwon Yoon, & Uzi Landman.  Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10389  doi:10.1038/ncomms10389 Published 28 January 2016

This paper is open access.

*’also on EurekAlert’ added Jan. 29, 2016.