Category Archives: energy

A unique design for harvesting biomechanical motion

Researchers have discovered a new technique for doing this according to an April 25, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily,

Harvesting energy from the day-to-day movements of the human body and turning it into useful electrical energy, is the focus of a new piece of research involving a Northumbria University Professor.

Academics from Northwestern Polytechnical University in China, supported by Professor Richard Fu from Northumbria, have developed a unique design for sensors capable of using human movements — such as bending, twisting and stretching — to power wearable technology devices including smart watches and fitness trackers.

An April 25, 2022 Northumbria University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the topic (Note: Links have been removed),

Self-powered pressure sensors are one of the key components used in these smart electronic devices which are growing in popularity today. The sensors can operate without the need for external power supplies.

Detecting health conditions and measuring performance in sport are among the potential uses for these types of sensors. As a result, they are the focus of extensive research and development, but remain challenging to produce with the performance sensing, flexibility, and sufficient level of power needed for wearable technology.

A new research paper published in the prestigious international scientific journal, Advanced Science, describes how the team led by Professor Weizheng Yuan, Professor Honglong Chang and Associate Professor Kai Tao from Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU), has worked with Professor Fu to develop a solution.

Their novel method involves using sophisticated materials with pre-patterned pyramid shapes to create friction against the silicone polymer known as polydimethylsiloxane or PDMS. This friction generates a self-powering effect, or triboelectricity, which can significantly enhance the energy available to power a wearable device. 

Professor Tao from NPU explained: “This results in a self-powered tactile sensor with wide environmental tolerance and excellent sensing performance, and it can detect subtle pressure changes by measuring the variations of triboelectric output signal without an external power supply. The sensor design has been tested an is capable of controlling electrical appliances and robotic hands by simulating human finger gestures, confirming its potential for use in wearable technology.”

Professor Fu added: “This self-powered sensor based on hydrogels has a simple fabrication process, but with a superb flexibility, good transparency, fast response and high stability.”

Professor Honglong Chang, Dean of School of Mechanical Engineering at NPU, said Northumbria University is one of their most important international partners.

“One of our important tasks this year is to further promote the cooperative relationship with Northumbria University,” he explained. “We are organising NU-NPU bilateral academic forums this year, and we look forward to establishing strong collaborations in various research areas with Northumbria University.”

Professor Jon Reast, Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) at Northumbria University, said he was delighted with the success of the partnership with NPU. “It’s fantastic that this research collaboration is proving successful and producing such ground-breaking work.

“We work closely with more than 500 partner universities, colleges and schools across the world. Within these, NPU is one of a set of extremely high-quality research-led university partners. The relationship with NPU includes researchers within smart materials engineering as well as smart design and is producing some truly excellent, impactful, research in both areas.”

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

Ultra-Sensitive, Deformable, and Transparent Triboelectric Tactile Sensor Based on Micro-Pyramid Patterned Ionic Hydrogel for Interactive Human–Machine Interfaces by Kai Tao, Zhensheng Chen, Jiahao Yu, Haozhe Zeng, Jin Wu, Zixuan Wu, Qingyan Jia, Peng Li, Yongqing Fu, Honglong Chang, Weizheng Yuan. Advanced Science Volume 9, Issue 10 April 5, 2022 2104168 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/advs.202104168 First published: 31 January 2022

This paper is open access.

Overview of fusion energy scene

It’s funny how you think you know something and then realize you don’t. I’ve been hearing about cold fusion/fusion energy for years but never really understood what the term meant. So, this post includes an explanation, as well as, an overview, and a Cold Fusion Rap to ‘wrap’ it all up. (Sometimes I cannot resist a pun.)

Fusion energy explanation (1)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a Climate Portal where fusion energy is explained,

Fusion energy is the source of energy at the center of stars, including our own sun. Stars, like most of the universe, are made up of hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe, created during the big bang. The center of a star is so hot and so dense that the immense pressure forces hydrogen atoms together. These atoms are forced together so strongly that they create new atoms entirely—helium atoms—and release a staggering amount of energy in the process. This energy is called fusion energy.

More energy than chemical energy

Fusion energy, like fossil fuels, is a form of stored energy. But fusion can create 20 to 100 million times more energy than the chemical reaction of a fossil fuel. Most of the mass of an atom, 99.9 percent, is contained at an atom’s center—inside of its nucleus. The ratio of this matter to the empty space in an atom is almost exactly the same ratio of how much energy you release when you manipulate the nucleus. In contrast, a chemical reaction, such as burning coal, rearranges the atoms through heat, but doesn’t alter the atoms themselves, so we don’t get as much energy.

Making fusion energy

For scientists, making fusion energy means recreating the conditions of stars, starting with plasma. Plasma is the fourth state of matter, after solids, liquids and gases. Ice is an example of a solid. When heated up, it becomes a liquid. Place that liquid in a pot on the stove, and it becomes a gas (steam). If you take that gas and continue to make it hotter, at around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (~6,000 Kelvin), it will change from a gas to the next phase of matter: plasma. Ninety-nine percent of the mass in the universe is in the plasma state, since almost the entire mass of the universe is in super hot stars that exist as plasma.

To make fusion energy, scientists must first build a steel chamber and create a vacuum, like in outer space. The next step is to add hydrogen gas. The gas particles are charged to produce an electric current and then surrounded and contained with an electromagnetic force; the hydrogen is now a plasma. This plasma is then heated to about 100 million degrees and fusion energy is released.

Fusion energy explanation (2)

A Vancouver-based company, General Fusion, offers an explanation of how they have approached making fusion energy a reality,

How It Works: Plasma Injector Technology at General Fusion from General Fusion on Vimeo.

After announcing that a General Fusion demonstration plant would be built in the UK (see June 17, 2021 General Fusion news release), there’s a recent announcement about an agreement with the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) to commericialize the technology, from an October 17, 2022 General Fusion news release,

Today [October 17, 2022], General Fusion and the UKAEA kick off projects to advance the commercialization of magnetized target fusion energy as part of an important collaborative agreement. With these unique projects, General Fusion will benefit from the vast experience of the UKAEA’s team. The results will hone the design of General Fusion’s demonstration machine being built at the Culham Campus, part of the thriving UK fusion cluster. Ultimately, the company expects the projects will support its efforts to provide low-cost and low-carbon energy to the electricity grid.

General Fusion’s approach to fusion maximizes the reapplication of existing industrialized technologies, bypassing the need for expensive superconducting magnets, significant new materials, or high-power lasers. The demonstration machine will create fusion conditions in a power-plant-relevant environment, confirming the performance and economics of the company’s technology.

“The leading-edge fusion researchers at UKAEA have proven experience building, commissioning, and successfully operating large fusion machines,” said Greg Twinney, Chief Executive Officer, General Fusion. “Partnering with UKAEA’s incredible team will fast-track work to advance our technology and achieve our mission of delivering affordable commercial fusion power to the world.”

“Fusion energy is one of the greatest scientific and engineering quests of our time,” said Ian Chapman, UKAEA CEO. “This collaboration will enable General Fusion to benefit from the ground-breaking research being done in the UK and supports our shared aims of making fusion part of the world’s future energy mix for generations to come.”

I last wrote about General Fusion in a November 3, 2021 posting about the company’s move (?) to Sea Island, Richmond,

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.

As of the date of this posting, I have not been able to confirm the move. The company’s Contact webpage lists an address in Burnaby, BC for its headquarters.

The overview

Alex Pasternak in an August 17, 2022 article (The frontrunners in the trillion-dollar race for limitless fusion power) provides an overview of the international race with a very, very strong emphasis on the US scene (Note: Links have been removed),

With energy prices on the rise, along with demands for energy independence and an urgent need for carbon-free power, plans to walk away from nuclear energy are now being revised in Japan, South Korea, and even Germany. Last month, Europe announced green bonds for nuclear, and the U.S., thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, will soon devote millions to new nuclear designs, incentives for nuclear production and domestic uranium mining, and, after years of paucity in funding, cash for fusion.

The new investment comes as fusion—long considered a pipe dream—has attracted real money from big venture capital and big companies, who are increasingly betting that abundant, cheap, clean nuclear will be a multi-trillion dollar industry. Last year, investors like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos injected a record $3.4 billion into firms working on the technology, according to Pitchbook. One fusion firm, Seattle-based Helion, raised a record $500 million from Sam Altman and Peter Thiel. That money has certainly supercharged the nuclear sector: The Fusion Industry Association says that at least 33 different companies were now pursuing nuclear fusion, and predicted that fusion would be connected to the energy grid sometime in the 2030s.

… What’s not a joke is that we have about zero years to stop powering our civilization with earth-warming energy. The challenge with fusion is to achieve net energy gain, where the energy produced by a fusion reaction exceeds the energy used to make it. One milestone came quietly this month, when a team of researchers at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California announced that an experiment last year had yielded over 1.3 megajoules (MJ) of energy, setting a new world record for energy yield for a nuclear fusion experiment. The experiment also achieved scientific ignition for the first time in history: after applying enough heat using an arsenal of lasers, the plasma became self-heating. (Researchers have since been trying to replicate the result, so far without success.)

On a growing campus an hour outside of Boston, the MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems is building their first machine, SPARC, with a goal of producing power by 2025. “You’ll push a button,” CEO and cofounder Bob Mumgaard told the Khosla Ventures CEO Summit this summer, “and for the first time on earth you will make more power out than in from a fusion plasma. That’s about 200 million degrees—you know, cooling towers will have a bunch of steam go out of them—and you let your finger off the button and it will stop, and you push the button again and it will go.” With an explosion in funding from investors including Khosla, Bill Gates, George Soros, Emerson Collective and Google to name a few—they raised $1.8 billion last year alone—CFS hopes to start operating a prototype in 2025.

Like the three-decade-old ITER project in France, set for operation in 2025, Commonwealth and many other companies will try to reach net energy gain using a machine called a tokamak, a bagel-shaped device filled with super-hot plasma, heated to about 150 million degrees, within which hydrogen atoms can fuse and release energy. To control that hot plasma, you need to build a very powerful magnetic field. Commonwealth’s breakthrough was tape—specifically, a high-temperature-superconducting steel tape coated with a compound called yttrium-barium-copper oxide. When a prototype was first made commercially available in 2009, Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, ordered as much as he could. With Mumgaard and a team of students, his lab used coils of the stuff to build a new kind of superconducting magnet, and a prototype reactor named ARC, after Tony Stark’s energy source. Commonwealth was born in 2015.

Southern California-based TAE Technologies has raised a whopping $1.2 billion since it was founded in 1998, and $250 million in its latest round. The round, announced in July, was led by Chevron’s venture arm, Google, and Sumitomo, a Tokyo-based holding company that aims to deploy fusion power in the Asia-Pacific market. TAE’s approach, which involves creating a fusion reaction at incredibly high heat, has a key advantage. Whereas ITER uses the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, an extremely rare element that must be specially created from lithium—and that produces as a byproduct radioactive-free neutrons—TAE’s linear reactor is completely non-radioactive, because it relies on hydrogen and boron, two abundant, naturally-occurring elements that react to produce only helium.

General Atomics, of San Diego, California, has the largest tokamak in the U.S. Its powerful magnetic chamber, called the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, or just “D-three-D,” now features a Toroidal Field Reversing Switch, which allows for the redirection of 120,000 amps of the current that power the primary magnetic field. It’s the only tokamak in the world that allows researchers to switch directions of the magnetic fields in minutes rather than hours. Another new upgrade, a traveling-wave antenna, allows physicists to inject high-powered “helicon” radio waves into DIII-D plasmas so fusion reactions occur much more powerfully and efficiently.

“We’ve got new tools for flexibility and new tools to help us figure out how to make that fusion plasma just keep going,” Richard Buttery, director of the project, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in January. The company is also behind eight of the magnet modules at the heart of the ITER facility, including its wild Central Solenoid — the world’s most powerful magnet — in a kind of scaled up version of the California machine.

But like an awful lot in fusion, ITER has been hampered by cost overruns and delays, with “first plasma” not expected to occur in 2025 as previously expected due to global pandemic-related disruptions. Some have complained that the money going to ITER has distracted from other more practical energy projects—the latest price tag is $22 billion—and others doubt if the project can ever produce net energy gain.

Based in Canada, General Fusion is backed by Jeff Bezos and building on technology originally developed by the U.S. Navy and explored by Russian scientists for potential use in weapons. Inside the machine, molten metal is spun to create a cavity, and pumped with pistons that push the metal inward to form a sphere. Hydrogen, heated to super-hot temperatures and held in place by a magnetic field, fills the sphere to create the reaction. Heat transferred to the metal can be turned into steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity. As former CEO Christofer Mowry told Fast Company last year, “to re-create a piece of the sun on Earth, as you can imagine, is very, very challenging.” Like many fusion companies, GF depends on modern supercomputers and advanced modeling and computational techniques to understand the science of plasma physics, as well as modern manufacturing technologies and materials.

“That’s really opened the door not just to being able to make fusion work but to make it work in a practical way,” Mowry said. This has been difficult to make work, but with a demonstration center it announced last year in Culham, England, GF isn’t aiming to generate electricity but to gather the data needed to later build a commercial pilot plant that could—and to generate more interest in fusion.

Magneto-Intertial Fusion Technologies, or MIFTI, of Tustin, Calif., founded by researchers from the University of California, Irvine, is developing a reactor that uses what’s known as a Staged Z-Pinch approach. A Z-Pinch design heats, confines, and compresses plasma using an intense, pulsed electrical current to generate a magnetic field that could reduce instabilities in the plasma, allowing fusion to persist for longer periods of time. But only recently have MIFTI’s scientists been able to overcome the instability problems, the company says, thanks to software made available to them at UC-Irvine by the U.S. Air Force. …

Princeton Fusion Systems of Plainsboro, New Jersey, is a small business focused on developing small, clean fusion reactors for both terrestrial and space applications. A spinoff of Princeton Satellite Systems, which specializes in spacecraft control, the company’s Princeton FRC reactor is built upon 15 years of research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, funded primarily by the U.S. DOE and NASA, and is designed to eventually provide between 1 and 10 megawatts of power in off-grid locations and in modular power plants, “from remote industrial applications to emergency power after natural disasters to off-world bases on the moon or Mars.” The concept uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to generates and sustain a plasma formation called a Field-Reversed Configuration (FRC) inside a strong magnetic bottle. …

Tokamak Energy, a U.K.-based company named after the popular fusion device, announced in July that its ST-40 tokamak reactor had reached the 100 million Celsius threshold for commercially viable nuclear fusion. The achievement was made possible by a proprietary design built on a spherical, rather than donut, shape. This means that the magnets are closer to the plasma stream, allowing for smaller and cheaper magnets to create even stronger magnetic fields. …

Based in Pasadena, California, Helicity Space is developing a propulsion and power technology based on a specialized magneto inertial fusion concept. The system, a spin on what fellow fusion engineer, Seattle-based Helion is doing, appears to use twisted compression coils, like a braided rope, to achieve a known phenomenon called the Magnetic Helicity. … According to ZoomInfo and Linkedin, Helicity has over $4 million in funding and up to 10 employees, all aimed, the company says, at “enabling humanity’s access to the solar system, with a Helicity Drive-powered flight to Mars expected to take two months, without planetary alignment.”

ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), meaning “the way” or “the path” in Latin and mentioned in Pasternak’s article, dates its history with cold fusion back to about 1978. (You can read more here in the ITER Wikipedia entry.)

For more about the various approaches to fusion energy, read Pasternak’s August 17, 2022 article (The frontrunners in the trillion-dollar race for limitless fusion power) provides details. I wish there had been a little more about efforts in Japan and South Korea and other parts of the world. Pasternak’s singular focus on the US with a little of Canada and the UK seemingly thrown into the mix to provide an international flavour seems a little myopic.

Fusion rap

In an August 30, 2022 Baba Brinkman announcement (received via email) which gave an extensive update of Brinkman’s activities, there was this,

And the other new topic, which was surprisingly fun to explore, is cold fusion also known as “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions” which you may or may not have a strong opinion about, but if you do I imagine you probably think the technology is either bunk or destined to save the world.

That makes for an interesting topic to explore in rap songs! And fortunately last month I had the pleasure of performing for the cream of the LENR crop at the 24th International Conference on Cold Fusion, including rap ups and two new songs about the field, one very celebratory (for the insiders), and one cautiously optimistic (as an outreach tool).

You can watch “Cold Fusion Renaissance” and “You Must LENR” [L ow E nergy N uclear R eactions or sometimes L attice E nabled N anoscale R eactions or Cold Fusion or CANR (C hemically A ssisted N uclear R eactions)] for yourself to determine which video is which, and also enjoy this article in Infinite Energy Magazine which chronicles my whole cold fusion rap saga.

Here’s one of the rap videos mentioned in Brinkman’s email,

Enjoy!

Honey-based neuromorphic chips for brainlike computers?

Photo by Mariana Ibanez on Unsplash Courtesy Washington State University

An April 5, 2022 news item on Nanowerk explains the connection between honey and a neuromorphic (brainlike) computer chip, Note: Links have been removed,

Honey might be a sweet solution for developing environmentally friendly components for neuromorphic computers, systems designed to mimic the neurons and synapses found in the human brain.

Hailed by some as the future of computing, neuromorphic systems are much faster and use much less power than traditional computers. Washington State University engineers have demonstrated one way to make them more organic too.

In a study published in Journal of Physics D (“Memristive synaptic device based on a natural organic material—honey for spiking neural network in biodegradable neuromorphic systems”), the researchers show that honey can be used to make a memristor, a component similar to a transistor that can not only process but also store data in memory.

An April 5, 2022 Washington State University (WSU) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Sara Zaske, which originated the news item, describes the purpose for the work and details about making chips from honey,

“This is a very small device with a simple structure, but it has very similar functionalities to a human neuron,” said Feng Zhao, associate professor of WSU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science and corresponding author on the study.“This means if we can integrate millions or billions of these honey memristors together, then they can be made into a neuromorphic system that functions much like a human brain.”

For the study, Zhao and first author Brandon Sueoka, a WSU graduate student in Zhao’s lab, created memristors by processing honey into a solid form and sandwiching it between two metal electrodes, making a structure similar to a human synapse. They then tested the honey memristors’ ability to mimic the work of synapses with high switching on and off speeds of 100 and 500 nanoseconds respectively. The memristors also emulated the synapse functions known as spike-timing dependent plasticity and spike-rate dependent plasticity, which are responsible for learning processes in human brains and retaining new information in neurons.

The WSU engineers created the honey memristors on a micro-scale, so they are about the size of a human hair. The research team led by Zhao plans to develop them on a nanoscale, about 1/1000 of a human hair, and bundle many millions or even billions together to make a full neuromorphic computing system.

Currently, conventional computer systems are based on what’s called the von Neumann architecture. Named after its creator, this architecture involves an input, usually from a keyboard and mouse, and an output, such as the monitor. It also has a CPU, or central processing unit, and RAM, or memory storage. Transferring data through all these mechanisms from input to processing to memory to output takes a lot of power at least compared to the human brain, Zhao said. For instance, the Fugaku supercomputer uses upwards of 28 megawatts, roughly equivalent to 28 million watts, to run while the brain uses only around 10 to 20 watts.

The human brain has more than 100 billion neurons with more than 1,000 trillion synapses, or connections, among them. Each neuron can both process and store data, which makes the brain much more efficient than a traditional computer, and developers of neuromorphic computing systems aim to mimic that structure.

Several companies, including Intel and IBM, have released neuromorphic chips which have the equivalent of more than 100 million “neurons” per chip, but this is not yet near the number in the brain. Many developers are also still using the same nonrenewable and toxic materials that are currently used in conventional computer chips.

Many researchers, including Zhao’s team, are searching for biodegradable and renewable solutions for use in this promising new type of computing. Zhao is also leading investigations into using proteins and other sugars such as those found in Aloe vera leaves in this capacity, but he sees strong potential in honey.

“Honey does not spoil,” he said. “It has a very low moisture concentration, so bacteria cannot survive in it. This means these computer chips will be very stable and reliable for a very long time.”

The honey memristor chips developed at WSU should tolerate the lower levels of heat generated by neuromorphic systems which do not get as hot as traditional computers. The honey memristors will also cut down on electronic waste.

“When we want to dispose of devices using computer chips made of honey, we can easily dissolve them in water,” he said. “Because of these special properties, honey is very useful for creating renewable and biodegradable neuromorphic systems.”

This also means, Zhao cautioned, that just like conventional computers, users will still have to avoid spilling their coffee on them.

Nice note of humour at the end. There are a few questions, I wonder if the variety of honey (clover, orange blossom, blackberry, etc.) has an impact on the chip’s speed and/or longevity. Also, if someone spilled coffee and the chip melted and a child decided to lap it up, what would happen?

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

Memristive synaptic device based on a natural organic material—honey for spiking neural network in biodegradable neuromorphic systems. Brandon Sueoka and Feng Zhao. Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Volume 55, Number 22 (225105) Published 7 March 2022 • © 2022 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.

Save energy with neuromorphic (brainlike) hardware

It seems the appetite for computing power is bottomless, which presents a problem in a world where energy resources are increasingly constrained. A May 24, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into neuromorphic computing which hints the energy efficiency long promised by the technology may be realized in the foreseeable future,

For the first time TU Graz’s [Graz University of Technology; Austria] Institute of Theoretical Computer Science and Intel Labs demonstrated experimentally that a large neural network can process sequences such as sentences while consuming four to sixteen times less energy while running on neuromorphic hardware than non-neuromorphic hardware. The new research based on Intel Labs’ Loihi neuromorphic research chip that draws on insights from neuroscience to create chips that function similar to those in the biological brain.

Rich Uhlig, managing director of Intel Labs, holds one of Intel’s Nahuku boards, each of which contains 8 to 32 Intel Loihi neuromorphic chips. Intel’s latest neuromorphic system, Pohoiki Beach, is made up of multiple Nahuku boards and contains 64 Loihi chips. Pohoiki Beach was introduced in July 2019. (Credit: Tim Herman/Intel Corporation)

A May 24, 2022 Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research, Note: Links have been removed,

The research was funded by The Human Brain Project (HBP), one of the largest research projects in the world with more than 500 scientists and engineers across Europe studying the human brain. The results of the research are published in the research paper “Memory for AI Applications in Spike-based Neuromorphic Hardware” [sic] (DOI 10.1038/s42256-022-00480-w) which in published in Nature Machine Intelligence.  

Human brain as a role model

Smart machines and intelligent computers that can autonomously recognize and infer objects and relationships between different objects are the subjects of worldwide artificial intelligence (AI) research. Energy consumption is a major obstacle on the path to a broader application of such AI methods. It is hoped that neuromorphic technology will provide a push in the right direction. Neuromorphic technology is modelled after the human brain, which is highly efficient in using energy. To process information, its hundred billion neurons consume only about 20 watts, not much more energy than an average energy-saving light bulb.

In the research, the group focused on algorithms that work with temporal processes. For example, the system had to answer questions about a previously told story and grasp the relationships between objects or people from the context. The hardware tested consisted of 32 Loihi chips.

Loihi research chip: up to sixteen times more energy-efficient than non-neuromorphic hardware

“Our system is four to sixteen times more energy-efficient than other AI models on conventional hardware,” says Philipp Plank, a doctoral student at TU Graz’s Institute of Theoretical Computer Science. Plank expects further efficiency gains as these models are migrated to the next generation of Loihi hardware, which significantly improves the performance of chip-to-chip communication.

“Intel’s Loihi research chips promise to bring gains in AI, especially by lowering their high energy cost,“ said Mike Davies, director of Intel’s Neuromorphic Computing Lab. “Our work with TU Graz provides more evidence that neuromorphic technology can improve the energy efficiency of today’s deep learning workloads by re-thinking their implementation from the perspective of biology.”

Mimicking human short-term memory

In their neuromorphic network, the group reproduced a presumed memory mechanism of the brain, as Wolfgang Maass, Philipp Plank’s doctoral supervisor at the Institute of Theoretical Computer Science, explains: “Experimental studies have shown that the human brain can store information for a short period of time even without neural activity, namely in so-called ‘internal variables’ of neurons. Simulations suggest that a fatigue mechanism of a subset of neurons is essential for this short-term memory.”

Direct proof is lacking because these internal variables cannot yet be measured, but it does mean that the network only needs to test which neurons are currently fatigued to reconstruct what information it has previously processed. In other words, previous information is stored in the non-activity of neurons, and non-activity consumes the least energy.

Symbiosis of recurrent and feed-forward network

The researchers link two types of deep learning networks for this purpose. Feedback neural networks are responsible for “short-term memory.” Many such so-called recurrent modules filter out possible relevant information from the input signal and store it. A feed-forward network then determines which of the relationships found are very important for solving the task at hand. Meaningless relationships are screened out, the neurons only fire in those modules where relevant information has been found. This process ultimately leads to energy savings.

“Recurrent neural structures are expected to provide the greatest gains for applications running on neuromorphic hardware in the future,” said Davies. “Neuromorphic hardware like Loihi is uniquely suited to facilitate the fast, sparse and unpredictable patterns of network activity that we observe in the brain and need for the most energy efficient AI applications.”

This research was financially supported by Intel and the European Human Brain Project, which connects neuroscience, medicine, and brain-inspired technologies in the EU. For this purpose, the project is creating a permanent digital research infrastructure, EBRAINS. This research work is anchored in the Fields of Expertise Human and Biotechnology and Information, Communication & Computing, two of the five Fields of Expertise of TU Graz.

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

A Long Short-Term Memory for AI Applications in Spike-based Neuromorphic Hardware by Arjun Rao, Philipp Plank, Andreas Wild & Wolfgang Maass. Nature Machine Intelligence (2022) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-022-00480-w Published: 19 May 2022

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone interested in the EBRAINS project, here’s a description from their About page,

EBRAINS provides digital tools and services which can be used to address challenges in brain research and brain-inspired technology development. Its components are designed with, by, and for researchers. The tools assist scientists to collect, analyse, share, and integrate brain data, and to perform modelling and simulation of brain function.

EBRAINS’ goal is to accelerate the effort to understand human brain function and disease.

This EBRAINS research infrastructure is the entry point for researchers to discover EBRAINS services. The services are being developed and powered by the EU-funded Human Brain Project.

You can register to use the EBRAINS research infrastructure HERE

One last note, the Human Brain Project is a major European Union (EU)-funded science initiative (1B Euros) announced in 2013 and to be paid out over 10 years.

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: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202107768 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 https://www.hydrogeninmotion.com/products/]

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.

Characterization

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 Canada.com 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

Strengths

There are no known strengths for Hydrogen In Motion

Weaknesses

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 https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/stories-histoires/2019/CPTPP-hydrogen.aspx?lang=eng]

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 Techcouver.com 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: https://doi.org/10.1002/adom.202101332 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: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.1c03768 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 science.eus 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 phys.org 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: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2021.131033 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