Tag Archives: US National Institute of Standards and Technology

Nanosafety research: a quality control issue

Toxicologist Dr. Harald Krug has published a review of several thousand studies on nanomaterials safety exposing problematic research methodologies and conclusions. From an Oct. 29, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Empa [Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology] toxicologist Harald Krug has lambasted his colleagues in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“Nanosafety Research—Are We on the Right Track?”). He evaluated several thousand studies on the risks associated with nanoparticles and discovered no end of shortcomings: poorly prepared experiments and results that don’t carry any clout. Instead of merely leveling criticism, however, Empa is also developing new standards for such experiments within an international network.

An Oct. 29, 2014 Empa press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the new enthusiasm for research into nanomaterials and safety,

Researching the safety of nanoparticles is all the rage. Thousands of scientists worldwide are conducting research on the topic, examining the question of whether titanium dioxide nanoparticles from sun creams can get through the skin and into the body, whether carbon nanotubes from electronic products are as hazardous for the lungs as asbestos used to be or whether nanoparticles in food can get into the blood via the intestinal flora, for instance. Public interest is great, research funds are flowing – and the number of scientific projects is skyrocketing: between 1980 and 2010, a total of 5,000 projects were published, followed by another 5,000 in just the last three years. However, the amount of new knowledge has only increased marginally. After all, according to Krug the majority of the projects are poorly executed and all but useless for risk assessments.

The press release goes on to describe various pathways into the body and problems with research methodologies,

How do nanoparticles get into the body?

Artificial nanoparticles measuring between one and 100 nanometers in size can theoretically enter the body in three ways: through the skin, via the lungs and via the digestive tract. Almost every study concludes that healthy, undamaged skin is an effective protective barrier against nanoparticles. When it comes to the route through the stomach and gut, however, the research community is at odds. But upon closer inspection the value of many alarmist reports is dubious – such as when nanoparticles made of soluble substances like zinc oxide or silver are being studied. Although the particles disintegrate and the ions drifting into the body are cytotoxic, this effect has nothing to do with the topic of nanoparticles but is merely linked to the toxicity of the (dissolved) substance and the ingested dose.

Laboratory animals die in vain – drastic overdoses and other errors

Krug also discovered that some researchers maltreat their laboratory animals with absurdly high amounts of nanoparticles. Chinese scientists, for instance, fed mice five grams of titanium oxide per kilogram of body weight, without detecting any effects. By way of comparison: half the amount of kitchen salt would already have killed the animals. A sloppy job is also being made of things in the study of lung exposure to nanoparticles: inhalation experiments are expensive and complex because a defined number of particles has to be swirled around in the air. Although it is easier to place the particles directly in the animal’s windpipe (“instillation”), some researchers overdo it to such an extent that the animals suffocate on the sheer mass of nanoparticles.

While others might well make do without animal testing and conduct in vitro experiments on cells, here, too, cell cultures are covered by layers of nanoparticles that are 500 nanometers thick, causing them to die from a lack of nutrients and oxygen alone – not from a real nano-effect. And even the most meticulous experiment is worthless if the particles used have not been characterized rigorously beforehand. Some researchers simply skip this preparatory work and use the particles “straight out of the box”. Such experiments are irreproducible, warns Krug.

As noted in the news item, the scientists at Empa have devised a solution to some to of the problems (from the press release),

The solution: inter-laboratory tests with standard materials
Empa is thus collaborating with research groups like EPFL’s Powder Technology Laboratory, with industrial partners and with Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) to find a solution to the problem: on 9 October the “NanoScreen” programme, one of the “CCMX Materials Challenges”, got underway, which is expected to yield a set of pre-validated methods for lab experiments over the next few years. It involves using test materials that have a closely defined particle size distribution, possess well-documented biological and chemical properties and can be altered in certain parameters – such as surface charge. “Thanks to these methods and test substances, international labs will be able to compare, verify and, if need be, improve their experiments,” explains Peter Wick, Head of Empa’s laboratory for Materials-Biology Interactions.

Instead of the all-too-familiar “fumbling around in the dark”, this would provide an opportunity for internationally coordinated research strategies to not only clarify the potential risks of new nanoparticles in retrospect but even be able to predict them. The Swiss scientists therefore coordinate their research activities with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US, the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) and the Korean Institute of Standards and Science (KRISS).

Bravo! and thank you Dr. Krug and Empa for confirming something I’ve suspected due to hints from more informed commentators. Unfortunately my ignorance. about research protocols has not permitted me to undertake a better analysis of the research. ,

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

Nanosafety Research—Are We on the Right Track? by Prof. Dr. Harald F. Krug. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201403367 Article first published online: 10 OCT 2014

This is an open access paper.

Smallest known reference material issued

I betray some of my occupational origins with this comment; a reference material is not necessarily a reference book. A Sept. 25, 2014, news item on Nanowerk clarifies the use of the term reference material in relationship to the US National Institute of Standards and technology while describing a new set designed for use at the nanoscale,

If it’s true that good things come in small packages, then the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) can now make anyone working with nanoparticles very happy. NIST recently issued Reference Material (RM) 8027, the smallest known reference material ever created for validating measurements of these man-made, ultrafine particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size.

RM 8027 consists of five hermetically sealed ampoules containing one milliliter of silicon nanoparticles—all certified to be close to 2 nanometers in diameter—suspended in toluene.

A Sept. 24, 2014 NIST news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Sept. 25, 2014), which originated the news item, provides a more detailed description and purchasing instructions

To yield the appropriate sizes for the new RM, the nanocrystals are etched from a silicon wafer, separated using ultrasound and then stabilized within an organic shell. Particle size and chemical composition are determined by dynamic light scattering, analytical centrifugation, electron microscopy and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), a powerful technique that can measure elements at concentrations as low as several parts per billion.

“For anyone working with nanomaterials at dimensions 5 nanometers or less, our well-characterized nanoparticles can ensure confidence that their measurements are accurate,” says NIST research chemist Vytas Reipa, leader of the team that developed and qualified RM 8027.

Silicon nanoparticles such as those in RM 8027 are being studied as alternative semiconductor materials for next-generation photovoltaic solar cells and solid-state lighting, and as a replacement for carbon in the cathodes of lithium batteries. Another potential application comes from the fact that silicon crystals at dimensions of 5 nanometers or less fluoresce under ultraviolet light. Because of this property, silicon nanoparticles may one day serve as easily detectable “tags” for tracking nanosized substances in biological, environmental or other dynamic systems.

RM 8027 maybe ordered from the NIST Standard Reference Materials Program by phone, (301) 975-2200; by fax, (301) 948-3730; or online at http://www.nist.gov/srm.

NIST has provided an illustration,

Caption: A structural model of a typical silicon nanocrystal (yellow) was stabilized within an organic shell of cyclohexane (blue). Credit: NIST

Caption: A structural model of a typical silicon nanocrystal (yellow) was stabilized within an organic shell of cyclohexane (blue).
Credit: NIST

NIST also supplied this image,

Caption: This is a high-resolution transmission electron microscope photograph of a single silicon nanoparticle. Credit: NIST

Caption: This is a high-resolution transmission electron microscope photograph of a single silicon nanoparticle. Credit: NIST

As is common with the images that scientists actually use in their work, the colour palette is gray.

Carbon capture with nanoporous material in the oilfields

Researchers at Rice University (Texas) have devised a new technique for carbon capture according to a June 3, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Rice University scientists have created an Earth-friendly way to separate carbon dioxide from natural gas at wellheads.

A porous material invented by the Rice lab of chemist James Tour sequesters carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, at ambient temperature with pressure provided by the wellhead and lets it go once the pressure is released. The material shows promise to replace more costly and energy-intensive processes.

A June 3, 2014 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, provides a general description of how carbon dioxide is currently removed during fossil fuel production and adds a few more details about the new technology,

Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel. Development of cost-effective means to separate carbon dioxide during the production process will improve this advantage over other fossil fuels and enable the economic production of gas resources with higher carbon dioxide content that would be too costly to recover using current carbon capture technologies, Tour said. Traditionally, carbon dioxide has been removed from natural gas to meet pipelines’ specifications.

The Tour lab, with assistance from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), produced the patented material that pulls only carbon dioxide molecules from flowing natural gas and polymerizes them while under pressure naturally provided by the well.

When the pressure is released, the carbon dioxide spontaneously depolymerizes and frees the sorbent material to collect more.

All of this works in ambient temperatures, unlike current high-temperature capture technologies that use up a significant portion of the energy being produced.

The news release mentions current political/legislative actions in the US and the implications for the oil and gas industry while further describing the advantages of this new technique,

“If the oil and gas industry does not respond to concerns about carbon dioxide and other emissions, it could well face new regulations,” Tour said, noting the White House issued its latest National Climate Assessment last month [May 2014] and, this week [June 2, 2014], set new rules to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants.

“Our technique allows one to specifically remove carbon dioxide at the source. It doesn’t have to be transported to a collection station to do the separation,” he said. “This will be especially effective offshore, where the footprint of traditional methods that involve scrubbing towers or membranes are too cumbersome.

“This will enable companies to pump carbon dioxide directly back downhole, where it’s been for millions of years, or use it for enhanced oil recovery to further the release of oil and natural gas. Or they can package and sell it for other industrial applications,” he said.

This is an epic (Note to writer: well done) news release as only now is there a technical explanation,

The Rice material, a nanoporous solid of carbon with nitrogen or sulfur, is inexpensive and simple to produce compared with the liquid amine-based scrubbers used now, Tour said. “Amines are corrosive and hard on equipment,” he said. “They do capture carbon dioxide, but they need to be heated to about 140 degrees Celsius to release it for permanent storage. That’s a terrible waste of energy.”

Rice graduate student Chih-Chau Hwang, lead author of the paper, first tried to combine amines with porous carbon. “But I still needed to heat it to break the covalent bonds between the amine and carbon dioxide molecules,” he said. Hwang also considered metal oxide frameworks that trap carbon dioxide molecules, but they had the unfortunate side effect of capturing the desired methane as well and they are far too expensive to make for this application.

The porous carbon powder he settled on has massive surface area and turns the neat trick of converting gaseous carbon dioxide into solid polymer chains that nestle in the pores.

“Nobody’s ever seen a mechanism like this,” Tour said. “You’ve got to have that nucleophile (the sulfur or nitrogen atoms) to start the polymerization reaction. This would never work on simple activated carbon; the key is that the polymer forms and provides continuous selectivity for carbon dioxide.”

Methane, ethane and propane molecules that make up natural gas may try to stick to the carbon, but the growing polymer chains simply push them off, he said.

The researchers treated their carbon source with potassium hydroxide at 600 degrees Celsius to produce the powders with either sulfur or nitrogen atoms evenly distributed through the resulting porous material. The sulfur-infused powder performed best, absorbing 82 percent of its weight in carbon dioxide. The nitrogen-infused powder was nearly as good and improved with further processing.

Tour said the material did not degrade over many cycles, “and my guess is we won’t see any. After heating it to 600 degrees C for the one-step synthesis from inexpensive industrial polymers, the final carbon material has a surface area of 2,500 square meters per gram, and it is enormously robust and extremely stable.”

Apache Corp., a Houston-based oil and gas exploration and production company, funded the research at Rice and licensed the technology. Tour expected it will take time and more work on manufacturing and engineering aspects to commercialize.

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

Capturing carbon dioxide as a polymer from natural gas by Chih-Chau Hwang, Josiah J. Tour, Carter Kittrell, Laura Espinal, Lawrence B. Alemany, & James M. Tour. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3961 doi:10.1038/ncomms4961 Published 03 June 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

The researchers have made an illustration of the material available,

 Illustration by Tanyia Johnson/Rice University

Illustration by Tanyia Johnson/Rice University

This morning, Azonano posted a June 6, 2014 news item about a patent for carbon capture,

CO2 Solutions Inc. ( the “Corporation”), an innovator in the field of enzyme-enabled carbon capture technology, today announced it has received a Notice of Allowance from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for its patent application No. 13/264,294 entitled Process for CO2 Capture Using Micro-Particles Comprising Biocatalysts.

One might almost think these announcements were timed to coincide with the US White House’s moves.

As for CO2 Solutions, this company is located in Québec, Canada.  You can find out more about the company here (you may want to click on the English language button).

Competition, collaboration, and a smaller budget: the US nano community responds

Before getting to the competition, collaboration, and budget mentioned in the head for this posting, I’m supplying some background information.

Within the context of a May 20, 2014 ‘National Nanotechnology Initiative’ hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Technology, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the US General Accountability Office (GAO) presented a 22 pp. précis (PDF; titled: NANOMANUFACTURING AND U.S. COMPETITIVENESS; Challenges and Opportunities) of its 125 pp. (PDF version report titled: Nanomanufacturing: Emergence and Implications for U.S. Competitiveness, the Environment, and Human Health).

Having already commented on the full report itself in a Feb. 10, 2014 posting, I’m pointing you to Dexter Johnson’s May 21, 2014 post on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) where he discusses the précis from the perspective of someone who was consulted by the US GAO when they were writing the full report (Note: Links have been removed),

I was interviewed extensively by two GAO economists for the accompanying [full] report “Nanomanufacturing: Emergence and Implications for U.S. Competitiveness, the Environment, and Human Health,” where I shared background information on research I helped compile and write on global government funding of nanotechnology.

While I acknowledge that the experts who were consulted for this report are more likely the source for its views than I am, I was pleased to see the report reflect many of my own opinions. Most notable among these is bridging the funding gap in the middle stages of the manufacturing-innovation process, which is placed at the top of the report’s list of challenges.

While I am in agreement with much of the report’s findings, it suffers from a fundamental misconception in seeing nanotechnology’s development as a kind of race between countries. [emphases mine]

(I encourage you to read the full text of Dexter’s comments as he offers more than a simple comment about competition.)

Carrying on from this notion of a ‘nanotechnology race’, at least one publication focused on that aspect. From the May 20, 2014 article by Ryan Abbott for CourthouseNews.com,

Nanotech Could Keep U.S. Ahead of China

WASHINGTON (CN) – Four of the nation’s leading nanotechnology scientists told a U.S. House of Representatives panel Tuesday that a little tweaking could go a long way in keeping the United States ahead of China and others in the industry.

The hearing focused on the status of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal program launched in 2001 for the advancement of nanotechnology.

As I noted earlier, the hearing was focused on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and all of its efforts. It’s quite intriguing to see what gets emphasized in media reports and, in this case, the dearth of media reports.

I have one more tidbit, the testimony from Lloyd Whitman, Interim Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and Deputy Director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, National Institute of Standards and Technology. The testimony is in a May 21, 2014 news item on insurancenewsnet.com,

Testimony by Lloyd Whitman, Interim Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and Deputy Director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, National Institute of Standards and Technology

Chairman Bucshon, Ranking Member Lipinski, and Members of the Committee, it is my distinct privilege to be here with you today to discuss nanotechnology and the role of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in promoting its development for the benefit of the United States.

Highlights of the National Nanotechnology Initiative

Our current Federal research and development program in nanotechnology is strong. The NNI agencies continue to further the NNI’s goals of (1) advancing nanotechnology R&D, (2) fostering nanotechnology commercialization, (3) developing and maintaining the U.S. workforce and infrastructure, and (4) supporting the responsible and safe development of nanotechnology. …

,,,

The sustained, strategic Federal investment in nanotechnology R&D combined with strong private sector investments in the commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled products has made the United States the global leader in nanotechnology. The most recent (2012) NNAP report analyzed a wide variety of sources and metrics and concluded that “… in large part as a result of the NNI the United States is today… the global leader in this exciting and economically promising field of research and technological development.” n10 A recent report on nanomanufacturing by Congress’s own Government Accountability Office (GAO) arrived at a similar conclusion, again drawing on a wide variety of sources and stakeholder inputs. n11 As discussed in the GAO report, nanomanufacturing and commercialization are key to capturing the value of Federal R&D investments for the benefit of the U.S. economy. The United States leads the world by one important measure of commercial activity in nanotechnology: According to one estimate, n12 U.S. companies invested $4.1 billion in nanotechnology R&D in 2012, far more than investments by companies in any other country.  …

There’s cognitive dissonance at work here as Dexter notes in his own way,

… somewhat ironically, the [GAO] report suggests that one of the ways forward is more international cooperation, at least in the development of international standards. And in fact, one of the report’s key sources of information, Mihail Roco, has made it clear that international cooperation in nanotechnology research is the way forward.

It seems to me that much of the testimony and at least some of the anxiety about being left behind can be traced to a decreased 2015 budget allotment for nanotechnology (mentioned here in a March 31, 2014 posting [US National Nanotechnology Initiative’s 2015 budget request shows a decrease of $200M]).

One can also infer a certain anxiety from a recent presentation by Barbara Herr Harthorn, head of UCSB’s [University of California at Santa Barbara) Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS). She was at a February 2014 meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (mentioned in parts one and two [the more substantive description of the meeting which also features a Canadian academic from the genomics community] of my recent series on “Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement”). II noted in part five of the series what seems to be a shift towards brain research as a likely beneficiary of the public engagement work accomplished under NNI auspices and, in the case of the Canadian academic, the genomics effort.

The Americans are not the only ones feeling competitive as this tweet from Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Sheffield University (UK), physicist, and author of Soft Machines, suggests,

May 18

The UK has fewer than 1% of world patents on graphene, despite it being discovered here, according to the FT –

I recall reading a report a few years back which noted that experts in China were concerned about falling behind internationally in their research efforts. These anxieties are not new, CP Snow’s book and lecture The Two Cultures (1959) also referenced concerns in the UK about scientific progress and being left behind.

Competition/collaboration is an age-old conundrum and about as ancient as anxieties of being left behind. The question now is how are we all going to resolve these issues this time?

ETA May 28, 2014: The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has produced a summary of the May 20, 2014 hearing as part of their FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News, May 27, 2014 (no. 93).

ETA Sept. 12, 2014: My first posting about the diminished budget allocation for the US NNI was this March 31, 2014 posting.

Textiles laced with carbon nanotubes for clothing that protects against poison gas

The last time I featured carbon nanotube-infused clothing was in a Nov. 4, 2013 post featuring a $20,000+ bulletproof business suit. It now seems that carbon nanotubes in clothing might also be used to protect the wearer against poison gases (from a May 7, 2014 news item on Nanowerk; Note:  A link has been removed),

Nerve agents are among the world’s most feared chemical weapons, but scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a way to engineer carbon nanotubes to dismantle the molecules of a major class of these chemicals (“Functionalized, carbon nanotube material for the catalytic degradation of organophosphate nerve agents”). In principle, they say, the nanotubes could be woven into clothing that destroys the nerve agents on contact before they reach the skin.

A May 6, 2014 US NIST news release, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

The team’s experiments show that [carbon] nanotubes—special molecules that resemble cylinders formed of chicken wire—can be combined with a copper-based catalyst able to break apart a key chemical bond in the class of nerve agents that includes Sarin. A small amount of catalyst can break this bond in a large number of molecules, potentially rendering a nerve agent far less harmful. Because nanotubes further enhance the breakdown capability of the catalyst and can be woven into fabric easily, the NIST team members say the findings could help protect military personnel involved in cleanup operations.

Sarin—used in a 1995 Tokyo subway attack—is one of several deadly nerve agents of a group called organophosphates. Many are classified as weapons of mass destruction. While organophosphates are harmful if inhaled, they also are dangerous if absorbed through the skin, and can be even be re-released from clothing if not thoroughly decontaminated.

To protect themselves during research, the team did not work with actual nerve agents, but instead used a “mimic molecule” that contains a chemical bond identical to the one found in organophosphates. Breaking this bond splits the molecule into pieces that are far less dangerous.

The team developed a way to attach the catalyst molecule to the nanotubes and then tested the effectiveness of the tube-catalyst complex to break the bonds. To perform the test, the complex was deposited onto a small sheet of paper and put into a solution containing the mimic molecule. For comparison, the catalyst without nanotubes was tested simultaneously in a different solution. Then it was a simple matter of stirring and watching chemistry in action.

“The solution was initially transparent, almost like water,” says the team’s John Heddleston, “but as soon as we added the paper, the solution started to turn yellow as the breakdown product accumulated. Measuring this color change over time told us the amount and rate of catalysis. We began to see a noticeable difference within an hour, and the longer we left it, the more yellow it became.” The catalyst-nanotube complex far outperformed the catalyst alone.

Principal investigator Angela Hight Walker says that several questions will need to be addressed before catalytic nanotubes start showing up in clothing, such as whether it is better to add the catalyst to the nanotubes before or after they are woven into the fabric.

“We’d also like to find ways to make the catalytic reaction go faster, which is always better,” Hight Walker says. “But our research group has been focusing on the fundamental science of nanoparticles for years, so we are in a good position to answer these questions.”

It’s not clear to me if this technique of combining carbon nanotubes with copper for protection against poison gas will affect, adversely or otherwise, the bulletproofing properties associated with carbon nanotubes. In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper from the NIST researchers,

Functionalized, carbon nanotube material for the catalytic degradation of organophosphate nerve agents by Mark M. Bailey, John M. Heddleston, Jeffrey Davis, Jessica L. Staymates, & Angela R. Hight Walker.  Nano Research March 2014, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 390-398

This paper is behind a paywall.

Getting to know your piezoelectrics

It took me a couple of tries before I could see the butterfly in the neutron scattering image (on the left), which illustrates work undertaken in an attempt to better understand piezoelectrics (found in hard drives, loud speakers, etc.) by researchers at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver area, Canada) and the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.

These two neutron scattering images represent the nanoscale structures of single crystals of PMN and PZT. Because the atoms in PMN deviate slightly from their ideal positions, diffuse scattering results in a distinctive "butterfly" shape quite different from that of PZT, in which the atoms are more regularly spaced. Credit: NIST

These two neutron scattering images represent the nanoscale structures of single crystals of PMN and PZT. Because the atoms in PMN deviate slightly from their ideal positions, diffuse scattering results in a distinctive “butterfly” shape quite different from that of PZT, in which the atoms are more regularly spaced.
Credit: NIST

A Jan. 30, 2014 news release on EurekAlert (also found on on the NIST website where it’s dated Jan. 29, 2014) describes piezoelectrics,

Piezoelectrics—materials that can change mechanical stress to electricity and back again—are everywhere in modern life. Computer hard drives. Loud speakers. Medical ultrasound. Sonar. Though piezoelectrics are a widely used technology, there are major gaps in our understanding of how they work. Now researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Canada’s Simon Fraser University believe they’ve learned why one of the main classes of these materials, known as relaxors, behaves in distinctly different ways from the rest and exhibit the largest piezoelectric effect. And the discovery comes in the shape of a butterfly. …

The news release goes on to explain piezoelectrics and provide details about how the researchers made their discovery,

The team examined two of the most commonly used piezoelectric compounds—the ferroelectric PZT and the relaxor PMN—which look very similar on a microscopic scale. Both are crystalline materials composed of cube-shaped unit cells (the basic building blocks of all crystals) that contain one lead atom and three oxygen atoms. The essential difference is found at the centers of the cells: in PZT these are randomly occupied by either one zirconium atom or one titanium atom, both of which have the same electric charge, but in PMN one finds either niobium or manganese, which have very different electric charges. The differently charged atoms produce strong electric fields that vary randomly from one unit cell to another in PMN and other relaxors, a situation absent in PZT.

“PMN-based relaxors and ferroelectric PZT have been known for decades, but it has been difficult to identify conclusively the origin of the behavioral differences between them because it has been impossible to grow sufficiently large single crystals of PZT,” says the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR)’s Peter Gehring. “We’ve wanted a fundamental explanation of why relaxors exhibit the greatest piezoelectric effect for a long time because this would help guide efforts to optimize this technologically valuable property.”

A few years ago, scientists from Simon Fraser University found a way to make crystals of PZT large enough that PZT and PMN crystals could be examined with a single tool for the first time, permitting the first apples-to-apples comparison of relaxors and ferroelectrics. That tool was the NCNR’s neutron beams, which revealed new details about where the atoms in the unit cells were located. In PZT, the atoms sat more or less right where they were expected, but in the PMN, their locations deviated from their expected positions—a finding Gehring says could explain the essentials of relaxor behavior.

“The neutron beams scatter off the PMN crystals in a shape that resembles a butterfly,” Gehring says. “It gives a characteristic blurriness that reveals the nanoscale structure that exists in PMN—and in all other relaxors studied with this method as well—but does not exist in PZT. It’s our belief that this butterfly-shaped scattering might be a characteristic signature of relaxors.”

Additional tests the team performed showed that PMN-based relaxors are over 100 percent more sensitive to mechanical stimulation compared to PZT, another first-time measurement. Gehring says he hopes the findings will help materials scientists do more to optimize the behavior of piezoelectrics generally.

Here’s a citation for the researchers’ paper,

Role of random electric fields in relaxors by Daniel Phelan, Christopher Stock, Jose A. Rodriguez-Rivera, Songxue Chia, Juscelino Leão, Xifa Long, Yujuan Xie, Alexei A. Bokov, Zuo-Guang Ye, Panchapakesan Ganesh, and Peter M. Gehring. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 21, 2014. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1314780111

This paper is behind a paywall.

Casimir and its reins: engineering nanostructures to control quantum effects

Thank you to whomever wrote this headline for the Oct. 22, 2013 US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) news release, also on EurekAlert, titled: The Reins of Casimir: Engineered Nanostructures Could Offer Way to Control Quantum Effect … Once a Mystery Is Solved, for getting the word ‘reins’ correct.

I can no longer hold back my concern over the fact that there are three words that sound the same but have different meanings and one of those words is often mistakenly used in place of the other.

reins

reigns

rains

The first one, reins, refers to narrow leather straps used to control animals (usually horses), as per this picture, It’s also used as a verb to indicate situation where control must be exerted, e.g., the spending must be reined in.

Reining Sliding Stop Mannheim Maimarkt 2007 Date 01.05.2007 Source  Own work Author AllX [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reining_slidingstop.jpg]

Reining Sliding Stop Mannheim Maimarkt 2007 Date 01.05.2007 Credit: AllX [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reining_slidingstop.jpg]

 This ‘reign’ usually references people like these,

“Queen Elizabeth II greets employees on her walk from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center mission control to a reception in the center’s main auditorium in Greenbelt, Maryland where she was presented with a framed Hubble image by Congressman Steny Hoyer and Senator Barbara Mikulski. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as one of the last stops on their six-day United States visit.” Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_II_greets_NASA_GSFC_employees,_May_8,_2007_edit.jpg]

“Queen Elizabeth II greets employees on her walk from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center mission control to a reception in the center’s main auditorium in Greenbelt, Maryland where she was presented with a framed Hubble image by Congressman Steny Hoyer and Senator Barbara Mikulski. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as one of the last stops on their six-day United States visit.” Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_II_greets_NASA_GSFC_employees,_May_8,_2007_edit.jpg]

 And,

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej waves to well-wishers during a concert at Siriraj hospital in Bangkok on September 29, 2010. Credit: Government of Thailand [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:King_Bhumibol_Adulyadej_2010-9-29.jpg]

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej waves to well-wishers during a concert at Siriraj hospital in Bangkok on September 29, 2010. Credit: Government of Thailand [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:King_Bhumibol_Adulyadej_2010-9-29.jpg]

Kings, Queens, etc. reign over or rule their subjects or they have reigns, i.e., the period during which they hold the position of queen/king, etc. There are also uses such as this one found in the song title ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ (Pete Townshend)

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen ‘reigns’ used in place of ‘reins’, the worst part being? I’ve caught myself making the mistake. So, a heartfelt thank you to the NIST news release writer for getting it right. As for the other ‘rains’, neither I not anyone else seems to make that mistake (so far as I’ve seen).

Now on to the news,

You might think that a pair of parallel plates hanging motionless in a vacuum just a fraction of a micrometer away from each other would be like strangers passing in the night—so close but destined never to meet. Thanks to quantum mechanics, you would be wrong.

Scientists working to engineer nanoscale machines know this only too well as they have to grapple with quantum forces and all the weirdness that comes with them. These quantum forces, most notably the Casimir effect, can play havoc if you need to keep closely spaced surfaces from coming together.

Controlling these effects may also be necessary for making small mechanical parts that never stick to each other, for building certain types of quantum computers, and for studying gravity at the microscale.

In trying to solve the problem of keeping closely spaced surfaces from coming together, the scientists uncovered another problem,

One of the insights of quantum mechanics is that no space, not even outer space, is ever truly empty. It’s full of energy in the form of quantum fluctuations, including fluctuating electromagnetic fields that seemingly come from nowhere and disappear just as fast.

Some of this energy, however, just isn’t able to “fit” in the submicrometer space between a pair of electromechanical contacts. More energy on the outside than on the inside results in a kind of “pressure” called the Casimir force, which can be powerful enough to push the contacts together and stick.

Prevailing theory does a good job describing the Casimir force between featureless, flat surfaces and even between most smoothly curved surfaces. However, according to NIST researcher and co-author of the paper, Vladimir Aksyuk, existing theory fails to predict the interactions they observed in their experiment.

“In our experiment, we measured the Casimir attraction between a gold-coated sphere and flat gold surfaces patterned with rows of periodic, flat-topped ridges, each less than 100 nanometers across, separated by somewhat wider gaps with deep sheer-walled sides,” says Aksyuk. “We wanted to see how a nanostructured metallic surface would affect the Casimir interaction, which had never been attempted with a metal surface before. Naturally, we expected that there would be reduced attraction between our grooved surface and the sphere, regardless of the distance between them, because the top of the grooved surface presents less total surface area and less material. However, we knew the Casimir force’s dependence on the surface shape is not that simple.”

Indeed, what they found was more complicated.

According to Aksyuk, when they increased the separation between the surface of the sphere and the grooved surface, the researchers found that the Casimir attraction decreased much more quickly than expected. When they moved the sphere farther away, the force fell by a factor of two below the theoretically predicted value. When they moved the sphere surface close to the ridge tops, the attraction per unit of ridge top surface area increased.

“Theory can account for the stronger attraction, but not for the too-rapid weakening of the force with increased separation,” says Aksyuk. “So this is new territory, and the physics community is going to need to come up with a new model to describe it.”

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

Strong Casimir force reduction through metallic surface nanostructuring by Francesco Intravaia, Stephan Koev, Il Woong Jung, A. Alec Talin, Paul S. Davids, Ricardo S. Decca, Vladimir A. Aksyuk, Diego A. R. Dalvit, & Daniel López. Nature Communications 4, Article number: 2515 doi:10.1038/ncomms3515 Published 27 September 2013.

This article is open access.

Ballooning with carbon nanotubes on behalf of climate science

What a gorgeous picture!

Scientific balloon launched from New Mexico in September 2013 carrying an experimental instrument designed to collect and measure the energy of light emitted by the Sun, with the help of NIST chips coated with carbon nanotubes. Credit: LASP

Scientific balloon launched from New Mexico in September 2013 carrying an experimental instrument designed to collect and measure the energy of light emitted by the Sun, with the help of NIST chips coated with carbon nanotubes.
Credit: LASP

US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers made the carbon nanotube chips which help the instruments in the pictured balloon (above) to collect data about light. From the Oct. 24, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,,

A huge plastic balloon floated high in the skies over New Mexico on Sept. 29, 2013, carrying instruments to collect climate-related test data with the help of carbon nanotube chips made by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The onboard instrument was an experimental spectrometer designed to collect and measure visible and infrared wavelengths of light ranging from 350 to 2,300 nanometers. Simpler, lighter and less expensive than conventional counterparts, the spectrometer was tested to determine how accurately it can measure the relative energy of light emitted by the Sun and subsequently reflected or scattered by the Earth and Moon.

The Oct. 22, 2013 NIST news release, which originated the news item, provides some additional detail (Note: Footnotes have been removed),

Researchers at NIST’s Boulder, Colo., campus made the spectrometer’s “slit,” a high-precision chip that selected the entering light. The device was made under a recent agreement between NIST and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). The slit was then calibrated at NIST’s Gaithersburg, Md., headquarters.

For nearly a decade, NIST Boulder researchers have been using carbon nanotubes, the darkest material on Earth, to make coatings for laser power detectors. Nanotubes efficiently absorb nearly all light across a broad span of wavelengths, a useful feature for reducing internal scatter in the balloon imager. NIST also has facilities for, and expertise in, pairing nanotubes with micromachined silicon chips.

The Oct. 1, 2013 LASP (University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) news release about the project offers information about the climate change data the researchers are hoping to collect and about the spectrometer being used for that purpose,

The instrument, funded by a $4.7 million NASA Earth Science Technology Office Instrument Incubator Program contract, is intended to acquire extremely accurate radiometric measurements of Earth relative to the incident sunlight. Over time, such measurements can tell scientists about changes in land-use, vegetation, urban landscape use, and atmospheric conditions on our planet. Such long-term radiometric measurements from the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science (HySICS) instrument can then help scientists identify the drivers of climate change.

Greg Kopp, HySICS Principal Investigator and CU-LASP research scientist, said, “HySICS allows us to acquire an accurate baseline of current Earth conditions so that we can monitor changes that are so relevant to society. This high altitude balloon flight was the first of two to demonstrate the instrument’s potential space capabilities needed to extend the measurements around the globe and over longer times.”

The instrument relies on precise measurements of the Sun for on-orbit calibrations. These solar measurements provide calibrations of the Earth measurements against this well-measured solar reference that other high accuracy space assets provide. Based on accurate solar calibrations, the HySICS radiometric measurements of the Earth can thus establish a long-term data record that is ten times more accurate than any current measurements.

For anyone interested in a more technical description of the device, the NIST news release has this,

For the balloon spectrometer, known as HySICS (HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science), NIST made two types of custom chips that were stacked together in a sandwich. In the middle were aperture chips, coated with aluminum to block light transmission through the silicon, with small rectangular openings etched into the chip to allow light into the instrument.

A precision spectrometer must ensure that it only gathers light coming directly from its target, so the two outer layers of the sandwich were masking chips—larger openings etched at an angle and coated with tall, thin carbon nanotubes. These VANTAs (“vertically aligned nanotube arrays”) act as superefficient sponges to absorb scattered or stray light across the entire spectral range of the Sun.

While the balloon was in flight, the spectrometer scanned the slit across the Sun to measure solar irradiance. Spectral filters were calibrated by scanning the slit across the Moon and making measurements with and without filters in the beam path. The spectrometer also imaged light emitted from the Earth using the Sun as a reference light source.

For the information junkies amongst us, the Oct. 22, 2013 NIST news release offers links to more information about carbon nanotubes, etc. while the Oct. 1, 2013 LASP news release offers contact information for lead researcher, Greg Kopp.

‘Entangling’ microscopic drum beats with electrical signals

Scientists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have gotten closer to extending observations pf quantum entanglement into the macroscale (real life scale) according to an Oct. 3, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Extending evidence of quantum behavior farther into the large-scale world of everyday life, physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have “entangled” — linked the properties of — a microscopic mechanical drum with electrical signals. The results confirm that NIST’s micro-drum could be used as a quantum memory in future quantum computers, which would harness the rules of quantum physics to solve important problems that are intractable today. The work also marks the first-ever entanglement of a macroscopic oscillator, expanding the range of practical uses of the drum.

The Oct. 3, 2013 NIST news release, which originated the news item, describes how scientists are increasingly observing  and testing for entanglement at larger scales,

Entanglement is a curious feature of the quantum world once believed to occur only at atomic and smaller scales. In recent years, scientists have been finding it in larger systems. Entanglement has technological uses. For instance, it is essential for quantum computing operations such as correcting errors, and for quantum teleportation of data from one place to another.

The experiments, described Oct. 3, 2013, in Science Express,* were performed at JILA, a joint institute of NIST and the University of Colorado Boulder.

NIST introduced the aluminum micro-drum in 2011 and earlier this year suggested it might be able to store data in quantum computers.** The drum—just 15 micrometers in diameter and 100 nanometers thick—features both mechanical properties (such as vibrations) and quantum properties (such as the ability to store and transfer individual quanta of energy).

The drum is part of an electromechanical circuit that can exchange certain quantum states between the waveform of a microwave pulse and vibration in the drum. In the latest JILA experiment, a microwave signal “cooled” the drum to a very low energy level, just one unit of vibration, in a way analogous to some laser-cooling techniques. Then another signal caused the drum’s motion to become entangled with a microwave pulse that emerged spontaneously in the system.

The drum stored the quantum information in the form of vibrational energy for at least 10 microseconds, long enough to be useful in experiments. Then the same type of microwave signal that cooled the drum was used to transfer the state stored in the drum to a second microwave pulse.

Researchers measured the properties of the two microwave pulses—specific points on the curves of the travelling waves—and found that the results were strongly correlated over 10,000 repetitions of the experiment. The evidence of quantum entanglement comes from the fact that measuring the first microwave pulse allowed scientists to anticipate the characteristics of the second pulse with greater accuracy than would otherwise be expected. The correlations between the two pulses indicated that the first pulse was entangled with the drum and the second pulse encoded the drum’s quantum state.

The results suggest that the drum, in addition to its potential as a quantum memory device, also could be used to generate entanglement in microwaves, to convert one form of quantum information to an otherwise incompatible form, and to sense tiny forces with improved precision.

Here are two links to and citations for the researchers’ paper and for an article, respectively,,

* T.A. Palomaki, J.D. Teufel, R.W. Simmonds and K.W. Lehnert. Entangling mechanical motion with microwave fields. Science Express. Oct. 3, 2013. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1244563
** See 2013 NIST Tech Beat article, “NIST Mechanical Micro-Drum Used as Quantum Memory,” at http://www.nist.gov/pml/div689/drum-031313.cfm.

The Science Express paper is behind a paywall and the NIST Tech Beat article is not avallable due to the US government shutdown.

This ‘entanglement’ news reminds me Geraldo Barbosa’s challenge about seeing quantum entanglement in every day life featured in my Mar. 1, 2012 posting,

You can find Barbosa’s paper/challenge, Can humans see beyond intensity images? here. The abstract presents the challenge this way,

The human’s visual system detect intensity images. Quite interesting, detector systems have shown the existence of different kind of images. Among them, images obtained by two detectors (detector array or spatially scanning detector) capturing signals within short window times may reveal a “hidden” image not contained in either isolated detector: Information on this image depend on the two detectors simultaneously. In general, they are called “high-order” images because they may depend on more than two electric fields. Intensity images depend on the square of magnitude of the light’s electric field. Can the human visual sensory system perceive high-order images as well? This paper proposes a way to test this idea. A positive answer could give new insights on the “visual-conscience” machinery, opening a new sensory channel for humans. Applications could be devised, e.g., head position sensing, privacy in communications at visual ranges and many others.

Blind and visually impaired students introduced to nanotechnology

The US National Institute for Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) recently held a programme for blind and visually impaired students for the third year. According to a Sept. 20, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

In July 2013, 45 blind and visually impaired high school students from around the country gathered at Towson University for a weeklong event designed to expose them to science careers long believed to be impossible for the blind. Twenty of those students participated in an exciting educational program on nanoscale science led by NIST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) Project Leader Vladimir Aksyuk, who has participated in this event for the last three years, and CNST/University of Maryland Postdoctoral Researcher Kevin Twedt, who is visually impaired.

The NIST CNST Sept. 19,2012 news release, which originated the news item, offers details about the activities the students engaged in,

During six hours of hands-on activities spread over two days, the students learned the basics of size and scale, the metric system, and received an introduction to the nanoscale. They then learned the techniques scientists use to create and measure nanoscale structures. By probing canes against floor models of different shapes and sizes, they were exposed to how an atomic force microscope probe senses topographic changes on a surface. Using plastic models, they explored the structural relationships between carbon atoms forming either planar graphene or three-dimensional carbon nanotubes. Finally, by scanning a laser pointer across black shapes on white paper and using a photodiode with an audio output that got louder in white regions and quieter in dark regions, the students learned how a scanning electron microscope creates images by scanning a beam of electrons across a surface.

“Most of these students had never really considered careers in science or knew that they are possible for blind people,” says Twedt, who has had 20/200 vision since birth. “In a few days, the students gained an appreciation for the work scientists do and perhaps some will consider going into science later on.”

It’s exciting to see this more inclusive programming.