Category Archives: energy

A graphene-inorganic-hybrid micro-supercapacitor made of fallen leaves

I wonder if this means the end to leaf blowers. That is almost certainly wishful thinking as the researchers don’t seem to be concerned with how the leaves are gathered.

The schematic illustration of the production of femtosecond laser-induced graphene. Courtesy of KAIST

A January 27, 2022 news item on Nanowerk announces the work (Note: A link has been removed),

A KAIST [Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology] research team has developed graphene-inorganic-hybrid micro-supercapacitors made of fallen leaves using femtosecond laser direct laser writing (Advanced Functional Materials, “Green Flexible Graphene-Inorganic-Hybrid Micro-Supercapacitors Made of Fallen Leaves Enabled by Ultrafast Laser Pulses”).

A January 27, 2022 KAIST press release (also on EurekAlert but published January 26, 2022), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

The rapid development of wearable electronics requires breakthrough innovations in flexible energy storage devices in which micro-supercapacitors have drawn a great deal of interest due to their high power density, long lifetimes, and short charging times. Recently, there has been an enormous increase in waste batteries owing to the growing demand and the shortened replacement cycle in consumer electronics. The safety and environmental issues involved in the collection, recycling, and processing of such waste batteries are creating a number of challenges.

Forests cover about 30 percent of the Earth’s surface and produce a huge amount of fallen leaves. This naturally occurring biomass comes in large quantities and is completely biodegradable, which makes it an attractive sustainable resource. Nevertheless, if the fallen leaves are left neglected instead of being used efficiently, they can contribute to fire hazards, air pollution, and global warming.

To solve both problems at once, a research team led by Professor Young-Jin Kim from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Dr. Hana Yoon from the Korea Institute of Energy Research developed a novel technology that can create 3D porous graphene microelectrodes with high electrical conductivity by irradiating femtosecond laser pulses on the leaves in ambient air. This one-step fabrication does not require any additional materials or pre-treatment. 

They showed that this technique could quickly and easily produce porous graphene electrodes at a low price, and demonstrated potential applications by fabricating graphene micro-supercapacitors to power an LED and an electronic watch. These results open up a new possibility for the mass production of flexible and green graphene-based electronic devices.

Professor Young-Jin Kim said, “Leaves create forest biomass that comes in unmanageable quantities, so using them for next-generation energy storage devices makes it possible for us to reuse waste resources, thereby establishing a virtuous cycle.” 

This research was published in Advanced Functional Materials last month and was sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs, the Korea Forest Service, and the Korea Institute of Energy Research.

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

Green Flexible Graphene–Inorganic-Hybrid Micro-Supercapacitors Made of Fallen Leaves Enabled by Ultrafast Laser Pulses by Truong-Son Dinh Le, Yeong A. Lee, Han Ku Nam, Kyu Yeon Jang, Dongwook Yang, Byunggi Kim, Kanghoon Yim, Seung-Woo Kim, Hana Yoon, Young-Jin Kim. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: First published: 05 December 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

Hydrogen In Motion (H2M), its solid state hydrogen storage nanomaterial, and running for Vancouver (Canada) City Council?

Vancouver city politics don’t usually feature here. but this June 13 ,2022 article by Kenneth Chan for the Daily Hive suggests that might be changing,

Colleen Hardwick’s TEAM for a Livable Vancouver party has officially nominated six candidates to fill Vancouver city councillor seats in the upcoming civic election.


Grace Quan is a co-founder and the head of Hydrogen In Motion, which specializes in developing a nanomaterial to store hydrogen [emphasis mine]. She previously worked for the Canadian International Development Agency and in the Foreign Service and served as a senior advisor to the CFO of the Treasury Board of Canada.

There’s not a lot of detail in the description which is reasonable considering five other candidates were being announced.

Since this blog is focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, the word ‘nanomaterial’ popped out. Its use in the candidate’s description is close to meaningless, similar to saying that your storage container is made from a material. In this case, the material (presumably) is exploiting advantages found at the nanoscale. As for Quan, the work experience cited highlights experience working in government agencies but doesn’t include any technology development.

My main interest is the technology followed by the business aspects. As for why Quan is running for political office and how she will find the time; I can only offer speculation.

Hydrogen in Motion’s storage technology

Obviously the place to look is the Hydrogen in Motion (H2M) website. Descriptions of their technology are vague (from the company’s Hydrogen page),

Hydrogen In Motion solution is leading a breakthrough in solid state hydrogen storage nanomaterial. H2M hydrogen storage redefines the use of hydrogen fuel technologies and simplifying its logistical applications. Our technology offers hydrogen energy solution that has positive economic and environmental impact and provides an infinite source of constant energy with no emissions, low cost commitment and versatility with compact storage. Our technology solution has resolved the constraints currently burdening the hydrogen economy, making it the most viable solution for commercialization of future clean energy.

Which nanomaterial(s) are they using? Carbon nanotubes, graphene, gold nanoparticles, borophene, perovskite, fullerenes, etc.? The company’s Products page offers a little more information and some diagrams,

H2M fuel cell technology is well-adapted for a wide range of applications, from nomadic to stationary, enabling for easy transition to emission free systems. As the H2M nanomaterial is conformable, H2M hydrogen storage containers can be shaped to meet the application requirements; from extending flight duration for drones to grid scale renewable energy storage for solar, wind, and wave. H2M is the most effective Hydrogen storage ever designed.

There are no product names nor pictures of products other than this, which is in the banner,

[downloaded from]

No names, no branding, no product specifications.

Unusually for a startup, neither member of the executive team seems to have been the scientist who developed or is developing the nanomaterial for this technology. Also unusual, there’s not a scientific advisory board. Grace Quan has credentials as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and holds a Master of Business Administration (MB). Plus there’s this from the About Us page,

Grace has over 25 years of experience spanning a wealth of sectors including government – Federal Government of Canada, the Provincial Government (Minister’s Office) of Alberta; Academia – University of British Columbia, and Management of a Flying School; Not-for-Profit / Research Funding Agency – Genome British Columbia; and private sector with various management positions. Grace is well positioned to lead H2M in navigating the complicated world of Federal and Provincial politics and program funding requirements. At the same time Grace’s skills and expertise in the private sector will be invaluable in providing strategic direction in the marketing, finance, human resource, and production domains.

The other member of the executive team, Mark Cannon, the chief technical officer, has a Master of Science and a Bachelor of Mathematics. Plus there’s this from the About Us page,

Mark has over thirty years of experience commercializing academic developments, covering such diverse fields as: real time vision analysis, electromagnetic measurement and simulation, Computer Aided Design of printed circuit boards and microchips, custom integrated semiconductor chips for encryption, optical fibre signal measurement and recovery, and building energy management systems. He has worked at major research and development companies such as Systemhouse, Bell-Northern Research (later absorbed by Nortel), and Cadence Design Systems. Mark is very familiar with technology startups, the exigencies of entrepreneurship, and the business cycle of introducing new products into the market having cofounded two successful start-ups: Unicad Inc. (bought by Cooper & Chyan Technologies) and Viewnyx Corporation. He has also held key roles in two other start-ups, Chrysalis ITS and Optovation Inc.

His experience seems almost entirely focused on electronics and optics. It’s not clear to me how this experience is transferable to hydrogen storage and nanomaterials. (As well, his TechCrunch profile lists him as having founded one company rather than the three listed in his company’s profile.)

The company’s R&D page offers an overview of the process, the skills needed to conduct the research, and some quite interesting details about hydrogen storage but no scientific papers,

Conceive/Improve Theoretical Modelling

The theoretical team uses physical chemical theory starting at the quantum level using density functional theory (DFT) to model material composed of the elements that provide a structure and attract hydrogen. Once the theoretical material has been tested on that scale, further models are built using Molecular dynamics, thermodynamic modeling and finally computational fluid dynamic modeling. The team continuously provide support by modeling the different stages of synthesis to determine the optimal parameters required to achieve the correct synthesis.

Material Synthesis

The synthesis team uses a variety of chemical and physical state alteration techniques to synthesize the desired material. Series of experiments are devised to build the desired material usually one stage at a time. Usually a series of experiments are planned to determine key synthesis parameters that effect the material. Once a base material is completed, a series of experiments is devised and repeated to bring it to the next stage.


Test Hydrogen Absorption & Desorption

Ultimately, the material’s performance is based on the results from the H2MS hydrogen measurement system. Once a material has been successfully synthesized and validated using the H2MS, multiple measurements are made at different temperatures for multiple cycles. This validates the robustness, operating range, and re-usability of the hydrogen storage material. For our first material [emphasis mine], a scale up plan is being developed. Moving from laboratory scale to manufacturing scale [emphasis mine] introduces several challenges in the synthesis of material. This includes equipment selection, fluid and thermal dynamic effects at a larger scale, reaction kinetics, chemical equilibrium and of course, cost.

At what stage is this company?

The business

There are a couple of promising business developments. First, there’s a September 1, 2021 Hydrogen in Motion news release (Note: Links have been removed),

Loop Energy (TSX: LPEN), a developer and manufacturer of hydrogen fuel cell-based solutions, and Hydrogen In Motion (H2M), a leading provider of solid state hydrogen storage, announce their plans to collaborate on converting  a Southern Railway of BC owned and operated diesel electric switcher locomotive to hydrogen electric.

The two British Columbia-based companies will use locally developed technology, including Loop Energy’s 50kw eFlow™ fuel cell system and a low pressure solid state hydrogen storage tank developed by H2M. The project signifies the first instance of Loop supplying its products for use in a rail transport application.

“This is an exciting phase for the hydrogen fuel cell industry as this proves that it is technically and economically feasible to convert diesel-powered switcher locomotives to hydrogen fuel cell-based power systems,” said Grace Quan, CEO of Hydrogen-in-Motion. “The introduction of a hydrogen infrastructure into railyards reduces air contaminants and greenhouse gases and brings clean technologies, job growth and innovation to local communities.”

A few months before, a July 30, 2021 Hydrogen in Motion news release announced an international deal,

Hydrogen In Motion (H2M) announced a collaboration with H2e Power [h2e Power Systems] out of Pune, India for a project to assess, design, install and demonstrate a hydrogen fuel cell 3-Wheeler using H2e PEM Fuel Cell integrated with Hydrogen In Motion’s innovative solid state hydrogen storage technology onboard. This Indo-Canadian collaboration leverages the zero emission and hydrogen strategies released in India and Canada. Hydrogen In Motion is receiving advisory services and up to $600,000 in funding support for this project through the Canadian International Innovation Program (CIIP). CIIP is a funding program offered by Global Affairs Canada [emphasis mine] and is delivered in collaboration with the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP). Respectively in India, H2e’s contributions towards this collaboration are supported by the Department of Science & Technology (DST) in collaboration with Global Innovation and Technology Alliance (GITA).

About This Project – This project will install a hydrogen fuel cell range extender using H2M low pressure hydrogen storage tanks on an electric powered three-wheeled auto rickshaw. Project goal is to significantly extend operational range and provide auxiliary power for home use when not in service.

The lack of scientific papers about the company’s technology is a little concerning. It’s not unheard of but combined with not identifying the scientist/inventor who developed the technology or identifying the source for the technology (in Canada, it’s almost always a university), or giving details about the technology or giving product details or noting that their products are being beta tested (?) in two countries India and Canada, or information about funding (where do they get their money?), or having a scientific advisory board, raises questions. The answer may be simple. They don’t place much value on keeping their website up to date as they are busy.

I did find some company details on the Companies of website,

Hydrogen In Motion Inc. (H2M) is a company from Vancouver BC Canada. The company has corporate status: Active.

This business was incorporated 8 years ago on 8th January 2014

Hydrogen In Motion Inc. (H2M) is governed under the Canada Business Corporations Act – 2014-01-08. It a company of type: Non-distributing corporation with 50 or fewer shareholders.

The date of the company’s last Annual Meeting is 2021-01-01. The status of its annual filings are: 2021 -Filed, 2020 -Filed, 2019 -Filed.

Kona Equity offers an analysis (from the second quarter of 2019 to the fourth quarter of 2020),

Hydrogen In Motion

Founded in 2014


There are no known strengths for Hydrogen In Motion


Hydrogen In Motion has a very small market share in their industry

Revenue generated per employee is less than the industry average

Revenue growth is less than the industry average

The number of employees is not growing as fast as the industry average

Variance of revenue growth is more than the industry average

7 employees

Employee growth rate from first known quarter to current -69.6%

I’d love to see a more recent analysis taking into account the 2021 business deals.

It’s impossible to tell when this job was posted but it provides some interesting insight, All the emphases are mine,

We are looking for an accomplished Chemical Process Engineer to lead our nanomaterial and carbon-rich material production, development and scale-up efforts. The holder of this position will be responsible for leading a team of engineers and technicians in the designing, developing and optimizing of process unit operations to provide high quality nanomaterials at various scales ranging from Research and Development to Commercial Manufacturing with good manufacturing practices (cGMP). The successful candidate is expected to independently strategize, analyze, design and control product scale-up to meet volume and quality demands.

Finally, there’s a chemical engineer or two. Plus, according to the company’s LinkedIn profile, there’s a theoretical physicist, Andrey Tokarev. Two locations are listed for Hydrogen in Motion, the Cordova St. office and something at 12388 88 Ave, Surrey. The company size is listed at 11 to 50 employees.

Grace Quan is good at getting government support for her company as this February 2019 story on the Government of Canada website shows,

Mark Cannon, Hydrogen in Motion CTO, Quak Foo Lee, chemical engineer, Angus Hui, co-op student, Dr. Pei Pei, research associate, Grace Quan, CEO, Sahida Kureshi PhD Candidate, and Dr. Andrey Tokerav, theoretical physicist. [downloaded from]

Canada in Asia-Pacific

Trade diversification | February 2019

Grace Quan’s goal is to deliver hydrogen around the world to help the environment and address climate change.

Quan is the CEO of Vancouver-based Hydrogen in Motion, a clean-tech company leading the way in hydrogen storage.

The number one problem with hydrogen is how to store it, which is why Quan founded Hydrogen in Motion. She set out to find a way to get hydrogen to people around the world.

Quan’s company has figured out how to do this. By using a material that soaks up hydrogen like a sponge, more of it can be stored at a lower pressure and at lower cost.

In the future, clean energy, including hydrogen, should become the method of choice to power anything that requires gas or electricity. For example, vehicles, snow blowers and drones could be powered by hydrogen in the future. Hydrogen is an infinite source of clean energy that can lessen the environmental impact from other sources of energy.

Thanks to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Quan says she can explore new markets in the Asia-Pacific region for hydrogen export.

Japan is a new market that Quan’s company will explore as a result of the CPTPP. There’s a lot of opportunity there, with Tokyo hosting the 2020 Olympics, which are expected to be powered by hydrogen.

Quan recently returned from a trade mission to India [emphasis mine], where local trade commissioners helped her set up a meeting with a major auto maker.

In 2020, Hydrogen in Motion was a ‘success story‘ for Canada’s Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) Tax Incentive Program (Note: A link has been removed),

H2M was selected for the free in-person First-time claimant advisory service when filing its first scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED) claim. Since then, the SR&ED tax incentives have had a significant impact on the company’s work. The company is not only thankful for the program’s funding, but also to the SR&ED staff for their hard work and assistance, especially during the pandemic.

The company’s Chief Executive Officer, Grace Quan, had the following comments:

“In the context of COVID-19 shutdowns and general business disruption, the SR&ED tax incentives have become a critical source of funds as other sources were put on hold due to the pandemic and the financial uncertainty of the times. I wish to express my extreme gratitude for the consideration, efforts and support, as well as thanks, to the Canadian government, the SR&ED Program and its staff for their compassionate and empathetic treatment of individuals and businesses. The staff was friendly, professional, prompt and went above and beyond to help a small business like Hydrogen In Motion. They were a pleasure to work with and were extremely effective in problem resolution and facilitating processing of our SR&ED refund to provide much needed cash flow during these difficult times.”

As you might expect from someone running for political office, Quan is good at promoting herself. From her Advisory Board profile page for the Vancouver Economic Commission,

As President & CEO of Hydrogen In Motion Inc. (H2M), Grace brings fiduciary accountability and strategic vision to the table with her CPA/CMA [certified management accountant] and MBA credentials. Grace has a vast range of financial and managerial experience in private and public sectors from managing a Flying School, to working in a Provincial Minister’s office, to helping to manage the $250 billion dollar budget for the Treasury Board Secretariat of the Government of Canada. 

In 2018 Grace Quan, CEO was recognized by BC Business magazine as one of the 50 Most Influential Women In STEM. [emphasis mine]

July 28, 2021 it was announced that Quan became a member of the World Hydrogen Advisory Board of the Sustainable Energy Council (UK).

Speculating about a political candidate

Grace Quan’s electoral run seems like odd timing. If your company just signed two deals less than a year ago during what seems to be an upswing in its business affairs then running for office (an almost full time job in itself) as a city councillor (a full time job, should you be elected) is an unexpected move from someone with no experience in public office.

Another surprising thing? The British Columbia Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy (CICE) announced a new consortium according to a June 9, 2022 news item (about four days before the announcement of Quan’s political candidacy on the Daily Hive),

The British Columbia Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy (CICE) is partnering with businesses and government organizations to drive B.C.’s low-carbon hydrogen economy forward, with the launch of the B.C. Hydrogen Changemakers Consortium (BCHCC).

The partnership was announced at last night’s official Consortium launch event hosted by CICE and attended by leading B.C. hydrogen players, investors, and government officials. The Consortium launch is part of CICE’s previously announced Hydrogen Blueprint Investment, which will lay a foundation for the establishment of a hydrogen hub in Metro Vancouver, co-locating hydrogen supply and demand.

The group is expected to grow as projects and collaborations increase. To date, the Consortium members include: Ballard Power Systems, Capilano Maritime Design Ltd., Climate Action Secretariat, Fort Capital, FortisBC, Geazone Eco-Courier, Hydra Energy, HTEC, Innovative Clean Energy Fund, InBC Investment Corp., Modo, Parkland Refining, Powertech Labs, and TransLink.

Hydrogen in Motion doesn’t seem to be one of the inaugural members, which may mean nothing or may hint at why Quan is running for office.

Three possibilities

Perhaps the company is not doing so well? There’s a very high failure rate with technology companies. The ‘valley of death’ is the description for taking a development from the lab and turning it into a business (which is almost always highly dependent on government funding). Assuming the company manages to get something to market and finds customers, the next stage, growing the company from a few million in revenues to 10s and 100s of millions of dollars is equally fraught.

Keeping the company afloat for eight years is a big accomplishment especially when you factor in COVID-19 which has had a devastating impact on businesses large and small.

Alternatively, the company is being acquired (or would that be absorbed?) by a larger company. Entrepreneurs in British Columbia have a long history of growing their tech companies with the goal of being acquired and getting a large payout. Quan’s co-founder certainly has experience with growing a company and then selling it to a larger company.

Finally, the company is doing just fine but Quan is bored and needs a new challenge (which may be the case in the other two scenarios as well). if you look at her candidate profile page, you’ll see she has a range of interests.

Note: I am not offering an opinion on Quan’s suitability for political office. This is neither an endorsement nor an ‘anti-endorsement’.

Using natural proteins to grow gold nanoclusters for hybrid bionanomaterials

While there’s a January 10, 2022 news item on Nanowerk, the research being announced was made available online in the Fall of 2021 and is now available in print,

Gold nanoclusters are groups of a few gold atoms with interesting photoluminescent properties. The features of gold nanoclusters depend not only on their structure, but their size and also by the ligands coordinated to them. These inorganic nanomaterials have been used in sensing, biomedicine and optics and their coordination with biomolecules can endow multiple capabilities in biological media.

A research collaboration between the groups of Dr. Juan Cabanillas, Research Professor at IMDEA Nanociencia and Dr. Aitziber L. Cortajarena, Ikerbasque Professor and Principal Investigator at CIC biomaGUNE have explored the use of natural proteins to grow gold nanoclusters, resulting in hybrid bionanomaterials with tunable photoluminescent properties and with a plethora of potential applications.

A January 10, 2022 IMDEA Nanociencia press release, which originated the news item, provides more technical detail about the research,

The nanoclusters –with less than 2 nm in size- differentiate from larger nanoparticles (plasmonic) since they present discrete energy levels coupled optically. The groups of amino acids within the proteins coordinate the gold atoms and allow the groups to be arranged around the gold nanocluster, facilitating the stabilization and adding an extra level of tailoring. These nanoclusters have interesting energy harvesting features. Since the discrete energy levels are optically coupled, the absorption of a photon leads to promotion of an electron to higher levels, which can trigger a photophysical process or a photochemical reaction.  

The results by Cabanillas and Cortajarena groups, published in Advanced Optical Materials and Nano Letters, explore the origin of the photoluminescence in protein-designed gold nanoclusters and shed light into the strong influence of environmental conditions on the nature of luminescence. Nanocluster capping by two types of amino acids (histidine and cysteine) allow for changing the emission spectral range from blue to red, paving the way to tune the optical properties by an appropriate ligand choice. The nature of emission is also changed with capping, from fluorescence to phosphorescence, respectively. The synergistic protein-nanocluster effects on emission are still not clear, and the groups at IMDEA Nanociencia and CIC biomaGUNE are working to elucidate the mechanisms behind. There are potential applications for the aforementioned nanoclusters, in solid state as active medium in laser cavities. Optical gain properties from these nanoclusters are yet to be demonstrated, which could pave the way to a new generation of potentially interesting laser devices. As the combination of gold plus proteins is potentially biocompatible, many potential applications in biomedicine can also be envisaged.

A related publication of the groups in Nano Letters demonstrates that the insertion of tryptophans, amino acids with high electron density, in the vicinity of the nanocluster boosts its photoluminescence quantum efficiency up to 40% in some cases, values relevant for solid state light emission applications. Researchers also observed an antenna effect: the tryptophans can absorb light in a discrete manner and transfer the energy to the cluster. This effect has interest for energy harvesting and for sensing purposes as well.

The proteins through the biocapping enable the synthesis of the nanoclusters and largely improve their quantum efficiency. “The photoluminescence quantum efficiency is largely improved when using the biocapping” Dr. Cabanillas says. He believes this research work means “a new field opening for the tuning of optical properties of nanoclusters through protein engineering, and much work is ahead for the understanding of the amplification mechanism”. Dr. Cortajarena emphasizes “we have already demonstrated the great potential of engineered photoluminescent protein-nanocluster in biomedical and technological fields, and understanding the fundamental emission mechanisms is pivotal for future applications“. A variety of further applications include biosensors, as the protein admits functionalization with recognition molecules, energy harvesting, imaging and photodynamic therapies. Further work is ahead this opening avenue for photophysics research.

This research is a collaboration led by Dr. Juan Cabanillas and Dr. Aitziber L. Cortajarena research groups at IMDEA Nanociencia and CIC biomaGUNE, with contributions from researchers at the Diamond Light Source Ltd. [synchrotron] and DIPC. It has been cofounded by the projects AMAPOLA, NMAT2D, FULMATEN, Atracción de Talento from Comunidad de Madrid and the Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence award to IMDEA Nanociencia. CIC biomaGUNE acknowledges support by the projects ERC-ProNANO, ERC-NIMM, ProTOOLs and the Maria de Maeztu Units of Excellence Programme.

Here are links to and citations for the papers,

Tuning the Optical Properties of Au Nanoclusters by Designed Proteins by Elena Lopez-Martinez, Diego Gianolio, Saül Garcia-Orrit, Victor Vega-Mayoral, Juan Cabanillas-Gonzalez, Carlos Sanchez-Cano, Aitziber L. Cortajarena. Advanced Optical Materials Volume 10, Issue 1 January 4, 2022 2101332 DOI: First published: 31 October 2021

This paper is open access.

Boosting the Photoluminescent Properties of Protein-Stabilized Gold Nanoclusters through Protein Engineering by Antonio Aires, Ahmad Sousaraei, Marco Möller, Juan Cabanillas-Gonzalez, and Aitziber L. Cortajarena. Nano Lett. 2021, 21, 21, 9347–9353 DOI: Publication Date: November 1, 2021 Copyright © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Not being familiar with either of the two research institutions mentioned in the press release, I did a little digging.

Here’s a little information about IMDEA Nanociencia (IMDEA Nanoscience Institute), from its Wikipedia entry, Note: All links have been removed,

IMDEA Nanoscience Institute is a private non-profit foundation within the IMDEA Institutes network, created in 2006-2007 as a result of collaboration agreement between the Community of Madrid and Spanish Ministry of Education and Science. The foundation manages IMDEA-Nanoscience Institute,[1] a scientific centre dedicated to front-line research in nanoscience, nanotechnology and molecular design and aiming at transferable innovations and close contact with industries. IMDEA Nanoscience is a member of the Campus of International excellence, a consortium of research institutes promoted by the Autonomous University of Madrid and Spanish National Research Council (UAM/CSIC).[2]

As for CIC biomaGUNE, here’s more from its institutional profile on the website,

The Centre for Cooperative Research in Biomaterials-CIC biomaGUNE, located in San Sebastian (Spain), was officially opened in December 2006. CIC biomaGUNE is a non-profit research organization created to promote scientific research and technological innovation at the highest levels in the Basque Country following the BioBasque policy in order to create a new business sector based on biosciences. Established by the Department of Industry, Technology & Innovation of the Government of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, CIC biomaGUNE constitutes one of the Centres of the CIC network, the largest Basque Country research network on specific strategic areas, having the mission to contribute to the economical and social development of the country through the generation of knowledge and speeding up the process that leads to technological innovation.

Graphene: a long story

For a change this October 19, 2021 item on isn’t highlighting a single research paper so much as it provides a history of graphene and context for research being done at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) at the University of Maryland (US),

Carbon is not the shiniest element, nor the most reactive, nor the rarest. But it is one of the most versatile.

Carbon is the backbone of life on earth and the fossil fuels that have resulted from the demise of ancient life. Carbon is the essential ingredient for turning iron into steel, which underlies technologies from medieval swords to skyscrapers and submarines. And strong, lightweight carbon fibers are used in cars, planes and windmills. Even just carbon on its own is extraordinarily adaptable: It is the only ingredient in (among other things) diamonds, buckyballs and graphite (the stuff used to make pencil lead).

This last form, graphite, is at first glance the most mundane, but thin sheets of it host a wealth of uncommon physics. Research into individual atom-thick sheets of graphite—called graphene—took off after 2004 when scientists developed a reliable way to produce it (using everyday adhesive tape to repeatedly peel layers apart). In 2010 early experiments demonstrating the quantum richness of graphene earned two researchers the Nobel Prize in physics.

In recent years, graphene has kept on giving. Researchers have discovered that stacking layers of graphene two or three at a time (called, respectively, bilayer graphene or trilayer graphene) and twisting the layers relative to each other opens fertile new territory for scientists to explore. Research into these stacked sheets of graphene is like the Wild West, complete with the lure of striking gold and the uncertainty of uncharted territory.

Researchers at JQI and the Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) at the University of Maryland, including JQI Fellows Sankar Das Sarma and Jay Sau and others, are busy creating the theoretical physics foundation that will be a map of this new landscape. And there is a lot to map; the phenomena in graphene range from the familiar like magnetism to more exotic things like strange metallicity, different versions of the quantum Hall effect, and the Pomeranchuk effect—each of which involve electrons coordinating to produce unique behaviors. One of the most promising veins for scientific treasure is the appearance of superconductivity (lossless electrical flow) in stacked graphene.

“Here is a system where almost every interesting quantum phase of matter that theorists ever could imagine shows up in a single system as the twist angle, carrier density, and temperature are tuned in a single sample in a single experiment,” says Das Sarma, who is also the Director of the CMTC. “Sounds like magic or science fantasy, except it is happening every day in at least ten laboratories in the world.”

The richness and diversity of the electrical behaviors in graphene stacks has inspired a stampede of research. The 2021 American Physical Society March Meeting included 13 sessions addressing the topics of graphene or twisted bilayers, and Das Sarma hosted a day long virtual conference in June for researchers to discuss twisted graphene and the related research inspired by the topic. The topic of stacked graphene is extensively represented in scientific journals, and the online arXiv preprint server has over 2,000 articles posted about “bilayer graphene”—nearly 1,000 since 2018.

Perhaps surprisingly, graphene’s wealth of quantum research opportunities is tied to its physical simplicity.

An October 18, 2021 JQI news release by Bailey Bedford, which originated the news item, explains why researchers have described a twist found in graphene as ‘magic’,

Researchers have discovered that at a special, small twist angle (about 1.1 degrees)—whimsically named the “magic angle”—the environment is just right to create strong interactions that radically change its properties. When that precise angle is reached, the electrons tend to cluster around certain areas of the graphene, and new electrical behaviors suddenly appear as if summoned with a dramatic magician’s flourish. Magic angle graphene behaves as a poorly-conducting insulator in some circumstances and in other cases goes to the opposite extreme of being a superconductor—a material that transports electricity without any loss of energy.

The discovery of magic-angle graphene and that it has certain quantum behaviors similar to a high-temperature superconductor was the Physics World 2018 Breakthrough of the Year. Superconductors have many valuable potential uses, like revolutionizing energy infrastructure and making efficient maglev trains. Finding a convenient, room-temperature superconductor has been a holy grail for scientists.

I haven’t done to justice to this piece and, so, for anyone interested in graphene, superconductors, and electronics I recommend reading the piece (October 18, 2021 JQI news release by Bailey Bedford) in its entirety where you’ll also find references to these articles and more,

Reference Publication

Related JQI Articles

Artificial ionic neuron for electronic memories

This venture into brain-like (neuromorphic) computing comes from France according to an August 17, 2021 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Brain-inspired electronics are the subject of intense research. Scientists from CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique; French National Centre for Scientific Research) and the Ecole Normale Supérieure – PSL have theorized how to develop artificial neurons using, as nerve cells, ions to carry the information.

Their work, published in Science (“Modeling of emergent memory and voltage spiking in ionic transport through angstrom-scale slits”), reports that devices made of a single layer of water transporting ions within graphene nanoslits have the same transmission capacity as a neuron.

Caption Artificial neuron prototype: nanofluidic slits can play the role of ion channels and allow neurons to communicate. Ion clusters achieve the ion transport that causes this communication. Credit © Paul Robin, ENS Laboratoire de Physique (CNRS/ENS-PSL/Sorbonne Université/Université de Paris).

Au August 16, 2021 CNRS press release (also on EurekAlert but published August 6, 2021), which originated the news item, provides insight into the international interest in neuromorphic computing along with a few technical details about this latest research,

With an energy consumption equivalent to two bananas per day, the human brain can perform many complex tasks. Its high energy efficiency depends in particular on its base unit, the neuron, which has a membrane with nanometric pores called ion channels, which open and close according to the stimuli received. The resulting ion flows create an electric current responsible for the emission of action potentials, signals that allow neurons to communicate with each other.

Artificial intelligence can do all of these tasks but only at the cost of energy consumption tens of thousands of times that of the human brain. So the entire research challenge today is to design electronic systems that are as energy efficient as the human brain, for example, by using ions, not electrons, to carry the information. For this, nanofluidics, the study of how fluids behave in channels less than 100 nanometers wide, offer many perspectives. In a new study, a team from the ENS Laboratoire de Physique (CNRS/ENS-PSL/Sorbonne Université/Université de Paris) shows how to construct a prototype of an artificial neuron formed of extremely thin graphene slits containing a single layer of water molecules1. The scientists have shown that, under the effect of an electric field, the ions from this layer of water assemble into elongated clusters and develop a property known as the memristor effect: these clusters retain some of the stimuli that have been received in the past. To repeat the comparison with the brain, the graphene slits reproduce the ion channels, clusters and ion flows. And, using theoretical and digital tools, scientists have shown how to assemble these clusters to reproduce the physical mechanism of emission of action potentials, and thus the transmission of information.

This theoretical work continues experimentally within the French team, in collaboration with scientists from the University of Manchester (UK). The goal now is to prove experimentally that such systems can implement simple learning algorithms that can serve as the basis for tomorrow’s electronic memories.

1 Recently invented in Manchester by the group of André Geim (Nobel Prize in Physics 2010)

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

Modeling of emergent memory and voltage spiking in ionic transport through angstrom-scale slits by Paul Robin, Nikita Kavokine, Lydéric Bocquet. Science 06 Aug 2021: Vol. 373, Issue 6555, pp. 687-691 DOI: 10.1126/science.abf7923

This paper is behind a paywall.

Tamarind shells turned into carbon nanosheets for supercapacitors

Fro anyone who needs a shot of happiness, this is a very happy scientist,

Caption: Assistant Professor (Steve) Cuong Dang, from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, who led the study, displaying pieces of tamarind shell, which were integral to the study. Credit to NTU Singapore

A July 14, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily describes the source of assistant professor (Steve) Cuong Dang’s happiness,

Shells of tamarind, a tropical fruit consumed worldwide, are discarded during food production. As they are bulky, tamarind shells take up a considerable amount of space in landfills where they are disposed as agricultural waste.

However, a team of international scientists led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has found a way to deal with the problem. By processing the tamarind shells which are rich in carbon, the scientists converted the waste material into carbon nanosheets, which are a key component of supercapacitors – energy storage devices that are used in automobiles, buses, electric vehicles, trains, and elevators.

The study reflects NTU’s commitment to address humanity’s grand challenges on sustainability as part of its 2025 strategic plan, which seeks to accelerate the translation of research discoveries into innovations that mitigate our impact on the environment.

A July 14, 2021 NTU press release (also here [scroll down to click on the link to the full press release] and on EurekAlert but published July 13, 2021), which originated the news item, delves further into the topic,

he team, made up of researchers from NTU Singapore, the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences in Norway, and Alagappa University in India, believes that these nanosheets, when scaled up, could be an eco-friendly alternative to their industrially produced counterparts, and cut down on waste at the same time.

Assistant Professor (Steve) Cuong Dang, from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, who led the study, said: “Through a series of analysis, we found that the performance of our tamarind shell-derived nanosheets was comparable to their industrially made counterparts in terms of porous structure and electrochemical properties. The process to make the nanosheets is also the standard method to produce active carbon nanosheets.”

Professor G. Ravi, Head, Department of Physics, who co-authored the study with Asst Prof Dr R. Yuvakkumar, who are both from Alagappa University, said: “The use of tamarind shells may reduce the amount of space required for landfills, especially in regions in Asia such as India, one of the world’s largest producers of tamarind, which is also grappling with waste disposal issues.”

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Chemosphere in June [2021].

The step-by-step recipe for carbon nanosheets

To manufacture the carbon nanosheets, the researchers first washed tamarind fruit shells and dried them at 100°C for around six hours, before grinding them into powder.

The scientists then baked the powder in a furnace for 150 minutes at 700-900 degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen to convert them into ultrathin sheets of carbon known as nanosheets.

Tamarind shells are rich in carbon and porous in nature, making them an ideal material from which to manufacture carbon nanosheets.

A common material used to produce carbon nanosheets are industrial hemp fibres. However, they require to be heated at over 180°C for 24 hours – four times longer than that of tamarind shells, and at a higher temperature. This is before the hemp is further subjected to intense heat to convert them into carbon nanosheets.

Professor Dhayalan Velauthapillai, Head of the research group for Advanced Nanomaterials for Clean Energy and Health Applications at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, who participated in the study, said: “Carbon nanosheets comprise of layers of carbon atoms arranged in interconnecting hexagons, like a honeycomb. The secret behind their energy storing capabilities lies in their porous structure leading to large surface area which help the material to store large amounts of electric charges.”

The tamarind shell-derived nanosheets also showed good thermal stability and electric conductivity, making them promising options for energy storage.

The researchers hope to explore larger scale production of the carbon nanosheets with agricultural partners. They are also working on reducing the energy needed for the production process, making it more environmentally friendly, and are seeking to improve the electrochemical properties of the nanosheets.

The team also hopes to explore the possibility of using different types of fruit skins or shells to produce carbon nanosheets.

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

Cleaner production of tamarind fruit shell into bio-mass derived porous 3D-activated carbon nanosheets by CVD technique for supercapacitor applications by V. Thirumal, K. Dhamodharan, R. Yuvakkumar, G. Ravi, B. Saravanakumar, M. Thambidurai, Cuong Dang, Dhayalan Velauthapillai. Chemosphere Volume 282, November 2021, 131033 DOI: Available online 2 June 2021.

This paper is behind a paywall.

Because we could all do with a little more happiness these days,

Caption: (L-R) Senior Research Fellow Dr Thambidurai Mariyappan, also from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, who was part of the study, and Asst Prof Dang, holding up tamarind pods. Credit to NTU Singapore

General Fusion moves headquarters to Vancouver Airport (sort of)

Nuclear energy is not usually of much interest to me but there is a Canadian company doing some interesting work in that area. So, before getting to the news about the company’s move, here’s a general description of fusion energy and how General Fusion (the company) is approaching the clean energy problem, from a June 18, 2021 posting by Bob McDonald on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Quirks and Quarks blog (Note: Links have been removed),

Vancouver-based fusion energy company General Fusion has entered an agreement with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to build a nuclear fusion demonstration plant to be operational in 2025. It will take a unique approach to generating clean energy.   

There is an industry joke that fusion energy has been 20 years away for 50 years. The quest to produce clean energy by duplicating the processes happening at the centre of the sun has been a difficult and expensive challenge.

It has yet to be accomplished on anything like a commercial scale. That is partly because on Earth the fusion process involves handling materials at extreme pressures and temperatures many times hotter than the surface of the sun.

The nuclear technology that has provided electricity for decades around the world relies on fission, which splits heavy atoms such as uranium into lighter elements, releasing energy. However, this produces hazardous and durable radioactive waste that must be stored, and more catastrophically has led to major accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Fusion is the opposite of fission. Lighter elements such as hydrogen are heated and compressed to fuse into heavier ones. This releases energy, but with a much smaller legacy of radioactive waste, and no risk of meltdown.

The world’s largest fusion reactor experiment, ITER (Latin for “the way”) [International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor] is currently under construction in southern France. It’s a massive international collaboration developing on fusion technology that’s been been explored since it was invented in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. It involves a doughnut-shaped metallic chamber called a tokamak that is surrounded by incredibly powerful superconducting magnets. 

An electrically charged gas, or plasma, will be injected into the chamber where the magnets hold it, compressed and suspended, so it does not touch the walls and burn through them. The plasma will be heated to the unbelievable temperature of 150 million C, when fusion begins to take place.

And therein lies the problem. So far, experimental fusion reactors have required more energy to heat the plasma to start the fusion reaction than can be harvested from the reaction itself. Size is part of the problem. Demonstration reactors are small and meant to test equipment and materials, not produce power. ITER is supposed to be large enough to produce 10 times as much power as is required to heat up its plasma.

And that’s the holy grail of fusion: to produce enough power that the nuclear fusion reaction can become self-sustaining.

General Fusion takes a completely different approach by using mechanical pressure to contain and heat the plasma, rather than gigantic electromagnets. A series of powerful pistons surround a container of liquid metal with the hydrogen plasma in the centre. The pistons mechanically squeeze the liquid on all sides at once, heating the fuel by compression the way fuel in a diesel engine is compressed and heated in a cylinder until it ignites. 

Exciting, eh? If you have time, you may want to read McDonald’s June 18, 2021 posting for a few more details about General Fusion’s technology and for some embedded images.

At one point I was under the impression that General Fusion was involved with ITER but that seems to have been a misunderstanding on my part.

I first wrote about General Fusion in a December 2, 2011 posting titled: Burnaby-based company (Canada) challenges fossil fuel consumption with nuclear fusion. (For those unfamiliar with the Vancouver area, there’s the city of Vancouver and there’s Vancouver Metro, which includes the city of Vancouver and others in the region. Burnaby is part of Metro Vancouver; General Fusion is moving to Sea Island (near Vancouver Airport), in Richmond, which is also in Metro Vancouver.) Kenneth Chan’s October 20, 2021 article for the Daily Hive gives more detail about General Fusion’s new facilities (Note: A link has been removed),

The new facility will span two buildings at 6020 and 6082 Russ Baker Way, near YVR’s [Vancouver Airport] South Terminal. This includes a larger building previously used for aircraft engine maintenance and repair.

The relocation process could start before the end of 2021, allowing the company to more than quadruple its workforce over the coming years. Currently, it employs about 140 people.

The Sea Island [in Richmond] facility will house its corporate offices, primary fusion technology development division, and many of its engineering laboratories. This new facility provides General Fusion with the ability to build a new demonstration prototype to support the commercialization of its magnetized target fusion technology.

The company’s research and development into practical fusion technology as a zero-carbon power solution to address the world’s growing energy needs, while fighting climate change, is supported by the federal governments of Canada, US, and UK.

General Fusion is backed by dozens of large global private investors, including Bezos Expeditions, which is the personal investment entity for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It has raised a total of about USD$200 million in financing to date.

“British Columbia is at the centre of a thriving, world-class technology innovation ecosystem, just the right place for us to continue investing in our growing workforce and the future of our company,” said Christofer Mowry, CEO of General Fusion, in a statement.

Earlier this year, YVR also indicated it is considering allowing commercial and industrial developments on several hundred acres of under-utilized parcels of land next to the north and south runways, for uses that complement airport activities. This would also provide the airport with a new source of revenue, after major financial losses from the years-long impact of COVID-19.

You can find General Fusion here and you can find ITER here.

The coolest paint

It’s the ‘est’ of it all. The coolest, the whitest, the blackest … Scientists and artists are both pursuing the ‘est’. (More about the pursuit later in this posting.)

In this case, scientists have developed the coolest, whitest paint yet. From an April 16, 2021 news item on Nanowerk,

In an effort to curb global warming, Purdue University engineers have created the whitest paint yet. Coating buildings with this paint may one day cool them off enough to reduce the need for air conditioning, the researchers say.

In October [2020], the team created an ultra-white paint that pushed limits on how white paint can be. Now they’ve outdone that. The newer paint not only is whiter but also can keep surfaces cooler than the formulation that the researchers had previously demonstrated.

“If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses,” said Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering.

Caption: Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering, holds up his lab’s sample of the whitest paint on record. Credit: Purdue University/Jared Pike

This is nicely done. Researcher Xiulin Ruan is standing close to a structure that could be said to resemble the sun while in shirtsleeves and sunglasses and holding up a sample of his whitest paint in April (not usually a warm month in Indiana).

An April 15, 2021 Purdue University news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work and hints about its commercial applications both civilian and military,

The researchers believe that this white may be the closest equivalent of the blackest black, “Vantablack,” [emphasis mine; see comments later in this post] which absorbs up to 99.9% of visible light. The new whitest paint formulation reflects up to 98.1% of sunlight – compared with the 95.5% of sunlight reflected by the researchers’ previous ultra-white paint – and sends infrared heat away from a surface at the same time.

Typical commercial white paint gets warmer rather than cooler. Paints on the market that are designed to reject heat reflect only 80%-90% of sunlight and can’t make surfaces cooler than their surroundings.

The team’s research paper showing how the paint works publishes Thursday (April 15 [2021]) as the cover of the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

What makes the whitest paint so white

Two features give the paint its extreme whiteness. One is the paint’s very high concentration of a chemical compound called barium sulfate [emphasis mine] which is also used to make photo paper and cosmetics white.

“We looked at various commercial products, basically anything that’s white,” said Xiangyu Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on this project as a Purdue Ph.D. student in Ruan’s lab. “We found that using barium sulfate, you can theoretically make things really, really reflective, which means that they’re really, really white.”

The second feature is that the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes in the paint. How much each particle scatters light depends on its size, so a wider range of particle sizes allows the paint to scatter more of the light spectrum from the sun.

“A high concentration of particles that are also different sizes gives the paint the broadest spectral scattering, which contributes to the highest reflectance,” said Joseph Peoples, a Purdue Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering.

There is a little bit of room to make the paint whiter, but not much without compromising the paint.”Although a higher particle concentration is better for making something white, you can’t increase the concentration too much. The higher the concentration, the easier it is for the paint to break or peel off,” Li said.

How the whitest paint is also the coolest

The paint’s whiteness also means that the paint is the coolest on record. Using high-accuracy temperature reading equipment called thermocouples, the researchers demonstrated outdoors that the paint can keep surfaces 19 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than their ambient surroundings at night. It can also cool surfaces 8 degrees Fahrenheit below their surroundings under strong sunlight during noon hours.

The paint’s solar reflectance is so effective, it even worked in the middle of winter. During an outdoor test with an ambient temperature of 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the paint still managed to lower the sample temperature by 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

This white paint is the result of six years of research building on attempts going back to the 1970s to develop radiative cooling paint as a feasible alternative to traditional air conditioners.

Ruan’s lab had considered over 100 different materials, narrowed them down to 10 and tested about 50 different formulations for each material. Their previous whitest paint was a formulation made of calcium carbonate, an earth-abundant compound commonly found in rocks and seashells.

The researchers showed in their study that like commercial paint, their barium sulfate-based paint can potentially handle outdoor conditions. The technique that the researchers used to create the paint also is compatible with the commercial paint fabrication process.

Patent applications for this paint formulation have been filed through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. This research was supported by the Cooling Technologies Research Center at Purdue University and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research [emphasis mine] through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (Grant No.427 FA9550-17-1-0368). The research was performed at Purdue’s FLEX Lab and Ray W. Herrick Laboratories and the Birck Nanotechnology Center of Purdue’s Discovery Park.

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

Ultrawhite BaSO4 Paints and Films for Remarkable Daytime Subambient Radiative Cooling by Xiangyu Li, Joseph Peoples, Peiyan Yao, and Xiulin Ruan. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2021, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: Publication Date:April 15, 2021 © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Vantablack and the ongoing ‘est’ of blackest

Vantablack’s 99.9% light absorption no longer qualifies it for the ‘blackest black’. A newer standard for the ‘blackest black’ was set by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology at 99.99% light absorption with its N.I.S.T. ultra-black in 2019, although that too seems to have been bested.

I have three postings covering the Vantablack and blackest black story,

The third posting (December 2019) provides a brief summary of the story along with what was the latest from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. There’s also a little bit about the ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ an art piece demonstrating the blackest black material from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which they state has 99.995% (at least) absorption of light.

From a science perspective, the blackest black would be useful for space exploration.

I am surprised there doesn’t seem to have been an artistic rush to work with the whitest white. That impression may be due to the fact that the feuds get more attention than quiet work.

Dark side to the whitest white?

Andrew Parnell, research fellow in physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield (UK), mentions a downside to obtaining the material needed to produce this cooling white paint in a June 10, 2021 essay on The Conversation (h/t Fast Company), Note: Links have been removed,

… this whiter-than-white paint has a darker side. The energy required to dig up raw barite ore to produce and process the barium sulphite that makes up nearly 60% of the paint means it has a huge carbon footprint. And using the paint widely would mean a dramatic increase in the mining of barium.

Parnell ends his essay with this (Note: Links have been removed),

Barium sulphite-based paint is just one way to improve the reflectivity of buildings. I’ve spent the last few years researching the colour white in the natural world, from white surfaces to white animals. Animal hairs, feathers and butterfly wings provide different examples of how nature regulates temperature within a structure. Mimicking these natural techniques could help to keep our cities cooler with less cost to the environment.

The wings of one intensely white beetle species called Lepidiota stigma appear a strikingly bright white thanks to nanostructures in their scales, which are very good at scattering incoming light. This natural light-scattering property can be used to design even better paints: for example, by using recycled plastic to create white paint containing similar nanostructures with a far lower carbon footprint. When it comes to taking inspiration from nature, the sky’s the limit.

Technology for mopping up oil spills

It’s a little disheartening to write about technology for mopping up oils spills as there doesn’t to be much improvement in the situation as Adele Peters notes in her June 4, 2021 article (A decade after Deepwater Horizon, we’re still cleaning up oil spills the same way) for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Off the coastline of Sri Lanka, where a burning cargo ship has been spilling toxic chemicals and plastic pellets over the past two weeks, the government is preparing for the next possible stage of the disaster: As the ship sinks, it may also spill some of the hundreds of tons of oil in its fuel tanks.

The government is readying oil dispersants, booms, and oil skimmers, all tools that were used in the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. They didn’t work perfectly then—more than 1,000 miles of shoreline were polluted—and more than a decade later, they’re still commonly used. But solutions that might work better are under development, including reusable sponges that can suck up oil both on the surface and underwater.

Dispersants, one common tool now, are chemicals designed to break up the oil into tiny droplets so that, in theory, microorganisms in the water can break down the oil more easily. But at least one study found that dispersant could harm those organisms. Deep-sea coral also appears to suffer more from the mix of dispersant and oil than oil alone. Booms are designed to contain oil on the surface so it can be scraped off with a skimmer, but that only works if the water’s relatively calm, and it doesn’t deal with oil below the surface. The oil on the surface can also be burned, but it creates a plume of thick black smoke. “That does get rid of the oil from the water, but then it turns a water pollution problem into an air pollution problem,” says Seth Darling, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory who developed an alternative called the Oleo Sponge [emphasis mine].

… a team from two German universities that developed a system of wood chips that can be dropped in the water to collect oil even in rough weather, when current tools don’t work well. The system is ready for deployment if a spill happens in the Baltic Sea. Another earlier-stage solution proposes using a robot to detect and capture oil.

I’m glad to see at least one new oil spill cleanup technology being readied for deployment in Peters’ June 4, 2021 article, we should be preparing for more spills as the Arctic melts and plans are made to develop new shipping routes.

Amongst other oil spill cleanup technologies, Peters mentions the ‘Oleo Sponge’, which was featured here in a March 30, 2017 posting when researchers were looking for investors to commercialize the product. According to Peters the oleo sponge hasn’t yet made it to market; it’s a fate many of these technologies are destined to meet. Meanwhile, scientists continue to develop new methods and techniques for mopping up oil spills as safely as possible. For example, there’s an oil spill sucking robot mentioned in my October 30, 2020 posting, which features yet another article by Peters.

In the summer of 2020 there were two major oil spills, one in the Russian Arctic and one in an ecologically sensitive area near Mauritius. For more about those events, there’s an August 14, 2020 posting, which starts with news of an oil spill technology featuring dog fur and then focuses primarily on the oil spill in the Russian Arctic with a brief mention of the spill near Mauritius in June 2020 (scroll down to the ‘Exceptionally warm weather’ subhead and see the paragraph above it for the mention and a link to a story).

Carbon nanotubes can scavenge energy from environment to generate electricity

A June 7, 2021 news item on announces research into a new method for generating electricity (Note: A link has been removed),

MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] engineers have discovered a new way of generating electricity using tiny carbon particles that can create a current simply by interacting with liquid surrounding them.

The liquid, an organic solvent, draws electrons out of the particles, generating a current that could be used to drive chemical reactions or to power micro- or nanoscale robots, the researchers say.

“This mechanism is new, and this way of generating energy is completely new,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “This technology is intriguing because all you have to do is flow a solvent through a bed of these particles. This allows you to do electrochemistry, but with no wires.”

A June 7, 2021 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which generated the news item, delves further into the research,

In a new study describing this phenomenon, the researchers showed that they could use this electric current to drive a reaction known as alcohol oxidation — an organic chemical reaction that is important in the chemical industry.

Strano is the senior author of the paper, which appears today [June 7, 2021] in Nature Communications. The lead authors of the study are MIT graduate student Albert Tianxiang Liu and former MIT researcher Yuichiro Kunai. Other authors include former graduate student Anton Cottrill, postdocs Amir Kaplan and Hyunah Kim, graduate student Ge Zhang, and recent MIT graduates Rafid Mollah and Yannick Eatmon.

Unique properties

The new discovery grew out of Strano’s research on carbon nanotubes — hollow tubes made of a lattice of carbon atoms, which have unique electrical properties. In 2010, Strano demonstrated, for the first time, that carbon nanotubes can generate “thermopower waves.” When a carbon nanotube is coated with layer of fuel, moving pulses of heat, or thermopower waves, travel along the tube, creating an electrical current.

That work led Strano and his students to uncover a related feature of carbon nanotubes. They found that when part of a nanotube is coated with a Teflon-like polymer, it creates an asymmetry that makes it possible for electrons to flow from the coated to the uncoated part of the tube, generating an electrical current. Those electrons can be drawn out by submerging the particles in a solvent that is hungry for electrons.

To harness this special capability, the researchers created electricity-generating particles by grinding up carbon nanotubes and forming them into a sheet of paper-like material. One side of each sheet was coated with a Teflon-like polymer, and the researchers then cut out small particles, which can be any shape or size. For this study, they made particles that were 250 microns by 250 microns.

When these particles are submerged in an organic solvent such as acetonitrile, the solvent adheres to the uncoated surface of the particles and begins pulling electrons out of them.

“The solvent takes electrons away, and the system tries to equilibrate by moving electrons,” Strano says. “There’s no sophisticated battery chemistry inside. It’s just a particle and you put it into solvent and it starts generating an electric field.”

Particle power

The current version of the particles can generate about 0.7 volts of electricity per particle. In this study, the researchers also showed that they can form arrays of hundreds of particles in a small test tube. This “packed bed” reactor generates enough energy to power a chemical reaction called an alcohol oxidation, in which an alcohol is converted to an aldehyde or a ketone. Usually, this reaction is not performed using electrochemistry because it would require too much external current.

“Because the packed bed reactor is compact, it has more flexibility in terms of applications than a large electrochemical reactor,” Zhang says. “The particles can be made very small, and they don’t require any external wires in order to drive the electrochemical reaction.”

In future work, Strano hopes to use this kind of energy generation to build polymers using only carbon dioxide as a starting material. In a related project, he has already created polymers that can regenerate themselves using carbon dioxide as a building material, in a process powered by solar energy. This work is inspired by carbon fixation, the set of chemical reactions that plants use to build sugars from carbon dioxide, using energy from the sun.

In the longer term, this approach could also be used to power micro- or nanoscale robots. Strano’s lab has already begun building robots at that scale, which could one day be used as diagnostic or environmental sensors. The idea of being able to scavenge energy from the environment to power these kinds of robots is appealing, he says.

“It means you don’t have to put the energy storage on board,” he says. “What we like about this mechanism is that you can take the energy, at least in part, from the environment.”

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

Solvent-induced electrochemistry at an electrically asymmetric carbon Janus particle by Albert Tianxiang Liu, Yuichiro Kunai, Anton L. Cottrill, Amir Kaplan, Ge Zhang, Hyunah Kim, Rafid S. Mollah, Yannick L. Eatmon & Michael S. Strano. Nature Communications volume 12, Article number: 3415 (2021) DOI: 07 June 2021

This paper is open access.