Category Archives: energy

Glass-like wood windows protect against UV rays and insulate heat

Engineers at the University of Maryland designed a transparent ceiling made of wood that highlights the natural woodgrain pattern. Credit: A. James Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland [downloaded from https://phys.org/news/2020-08-glass-like-wood-insulates-tough-blocks.html]

An August 7, 2020 news item by Martha Hell on phys.org announces the latest research (links to previous posts about this research at the end of this post) on ‘transparent’ wood from the University of Maryland,

Need light but want privacy? A new type of wood that’s transparent, tough, and beautiful could be the solution. This nature-inspired building material allows light to come through (at about 80%) to fill the room but the material itself is naturally hazy (93%), preventing others from seeing inside.

An August 16, 2020 University of Maryland news release (also on EurekAlert) describes the work in more detail,

Engineers at the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland (UMD) demonstrate in a new study that windows made of transparent wood could provide more even and consistent natural lighting and better energy efficiency than glass

In a paper just published [July 31, 20202] in the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Energy Materials [this seems to be an incorrectly cited journal; I believe it should be Nature Communications as indicated in the phys.org news item], the team, headed by Liangbing Hu of UMD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Energy Research Center lay out research showing that their transparent wood provides better thermal insulation and lets in nearly as much light as glass, while eliminating glare and providing uniform and consistent indoor lighting. The findings advance earlier published work on their development of transparent wood.

The transparent wood lets through just a little bit less light than glass, but a lot less heat, said Tian Li, the lead author of the new study. “It is very transparent, but still allows for a little bit of privacy because it is not completely see-through. We also learned that the channels in the wood transmit light with wavelengths around the range of the wavelengths of visible light, but that it blocks the wavelengths that carry mostly heat,” said Li.

The team’s findings were derived, in part, from tests on tiny model house with a transparent wood panel in the ceiling that the team built. The tests showed that the light was more evenly distributed around a space with a transparent wood roof than a glass roof.

The channels in the wood direct visible light straight through the material, but the cell structure that still remains bounces the light around just a little bit, a property called haze. This means the light does not shine directly into your eyes, making it more comfortable to look at. The team photographed the transparent wood’s cell structure in the University of Maryland’s Advanced Imaging and Microscopy (AIM) Lab.

Transparent wood still has all the cell structures that comprised the original piece of wood. The wood is cut against the grain, so that the channels that drew water and nutrients up from the roots lie along the shortest dimension of the window. The new transparent wood uses theses natural channels in wood to guide the sunlight through the wood.

As the sun passes over a house with glass windows, the angle at which light shines through the glass changes as the sun moves. With windows or panels made of transparent wood instead of glass, as the sun moves across the sky, the channels in the wood direct the sunlight in the same way every time.

“This means your cat would not have to get up out of its nice patch of sunlight every few minutes and move over,” Li said. “The sunlight would stay in the same place. Also, the room would be more equally lighted at all times.”

Working with transparent wood is similar to working with natural wood, the researchers said. However, their transparent wood is waterproof due to its polymer component. It also is much less breakable than glass because the cell structure inside resists shattering.

The research team has recently patented their process for making transparent wood. The process starts with bleaching from the wood all of the lignin, which is a component in the wood that makes it both brown and strong. The wood is then soaked in epoxy, which adds strength back in and also makes the wood clearer. The team has used tiny squares of linden wood about 2 cm x 2 cm, but the wood can be any size, the researchers said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the July 31, 2020 paper,

Scalable aesthetic transparent wood for energy efficient buildings by Ruiyu Mi, Chaoji Chen, Tobias Keplinger, Yong Pei, Shuaiming He, Dapeng Liu, Jianguo Li, Jiaqi Dai, Emily Hitz, Bao Yang, Ingo Burgert & Liangbing Hu. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3836 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17513-w Published 31 July 2020

This paper is open access.

There were two previous posts about this work at the University of Maryland,

University of Maryland looks into transparent wood May 11, 2016 posting

Transparent wood more efficient than glass in windows? Sept, 8, 2016 posting

I also have this posting, which is also from 2016 but features work in Sweden,

Transparent wood instead of glass for window panes? April 1, 2016 posting

I seem to have stumbled across a number of transparent wood stories in 2016. Hmm I think I need to spend more time searching previous titles for my postings so I didn’t end up with too many that sound similar.

Spray-on coatings for cheaper smart windows

An August 6, 2020 RMIT University (Australia) press release (also on EurekAlert but published August 5, 2020) by Gosia Kaszubska announces a coating that makes windows ‘smart’,

A simple method for making clear coatings that can block heat and conduct electricity could radically cut the cost of energy-saving smart windows and heat-repelling glass [electrochromic windows?].

The spray-on coatings developed by researchers at RMIT are ultra-thin, cost-effective and rival the performance of current industry standards for transparent electrodes.

Combining the best properties of glass and metals in a single component, a transparent electrode is a highly conductive clear coating that allows visible light through.

The coatings – key components of technologies including smart windows, touchscreen displays, LED lighting and solar panels – are currently made through time-consuming processes that rely on expensive raw materials.

The new spray-on method is fast, scalable and based on cheaper materials that are readily available.

The method could simplify the fabrication of smart windows, which can be both energy-saving and dimmable, as well as low-emissivity glass, where a conventional glass panel is coated with a special layer to minimise ultraviolet and infrared light.

Lead investigator Dr Enrico Della Gaspera said the pioneering approach could be used to substantially bring down the cost of energy-saving windows and potentially make them a standard part of new builds and retrofits.

“Smart windows and low-E glass can help regulate temperatures inside a building, delivering major environmental benefits and financial savings, but they remain expensive and challenging to manufacture,” said Della Gaspera, a senior lecturer and Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at RMIT.

“We’re keen to collaborate with industry to further develop this innovative type of coating.

“The ultimate aim is to make smart windows much more widely accessible, cutting energy costs and reducing the carbon footprint of new and retrofitted buildings.”

The new method can also be precisely optimised to produce coatings tailored to the transparency and conductivity requirements of the many different applications of transparent electrodes.

Global demand for smart glazing

The global market size for smart glass and smart windows is expected to reach $6.9 billion by 2022, while the global low-E glass market is set to reach an estimated $39.4 billion by 2024.

New York’s Empire State Building reported energy savings of $US2.4 million and cut carbon emissions by 4,000 metric tonnes after installing smart glass windows.

Eureka Tower in Melbourne features a dramatic use of smart glass in its “Edge” tourist attraction, a glass cube that projects 3m out of the building and suspends visitors 300m over the city. The glass is opaque as the cube moves out over the edge of the building and becomes clear once fully extended.

First author Jaewon Kim, a PhD researcher in Applied Chemistry at RMIT,  said the next steps in the research were developing precursors that will decompose at lower temperatures, allowing the coatings to be deposited on plastics and used in flexible electronics, as well as producing larger prototypes by scaling up the deposition.

“The spray coater we use can be automatically controlled and programmed, so fabricating bigger proof-of-concept panels will be relatively simple,” he said.

Caption: The ultra-thin clear coatings are made with a new spray-on method that is fast, cost-effective and scalable. Credit: RMIT University

That is an impressive level of transparency. As per usual, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper (should you wish to explore further),

Ultrasonic Spray Pyrolysis of Antimony‐Doped Tin Oxide Transparent Conductive Coatings by Jaewon Kim, Billy J. Murdoch, James G. Partridge, Kaijian Xing, Dong‐Chen Qi, Josh Lipton‐Duffin, Christopher F. McConville, Joel van Embden, Enrico Della Gaspera. Advanced Materials Interfaces DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/admi.202000655 First published: 05 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Converting carbon dioxide into fuel with blinking nanocrystals

A July 16, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces some work from Rutgers University (New Jersey, US) where carbon dioxide could one day be converted into fuel or perhaps be used in quantum computers,

Imagine tiny crystals that “blink” like fireflies and can convert carbon dioxide, a key cause of climate change, into fuels.

A Rutgers-led team has created ultra-small titanium dioxide crystals that exhibit unusual “blinking” behavior and may help to produce methane and other fuels, according to a study in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“A Blinking Mesoporous TiO2-x Composed of Nanosized Anatase with Unusually Long-Lived Trapped Charge Carriers”).

The crystals, also known as nanoparticles, stay charged for a long time and could benefit efforts to develop quantum computers.

I don’t think I have the imagination necessary for this image, which illustrates the work according to the researchers,

The arrows point to titanium dioxide nanocrystals lighting up and blinking (left) and then fading (right). Images: Tewodros Asefa and Eliska Mikmekova

A July 16, 2020 Rutgers University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the topic,

“Our findings are quite important and intriguing in a number of ways, and more research is needed to understand how these exotic crystals work and to fulfill their potential,” said senior author Tewodros (Teddy) Asefa, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick [in New Jersey]. He’s also a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering in the School of Engineering.

More than 10 million metric tons of titanium dioxide are produced annually, making it one of the most widely used materials, the study notes. It is used in sunscreens, paints, cosmetics and varnishes, for example. It’s also used in the paper and pulp, plastic, fiber, rubber, food, glass and ceramic industries.

The team of scientists and engineers discovered a new way to make extremely small titanium dioxide crystals. While it’s still unclear why the engineered crystals blink and research is ongoing, the “blinking” is believed to arise from single electrons trapped on titanium dioxide nanoparticles. At room temperature, electrons – surprisingly – stay trapped on nanoparticles for tens of seconds before escaping and then become trapped again and again in a continuous cycle.

The crystals, which blink when exposed to a beam of electrons, could be useful for environmental cleanups, sensors, electronic devices and solar cells, and the research team will further explore their capabilities.

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

A Blinking Mesoporous TiO2−x Composed of Nanosized Anatase with Unusually Long‐Lived Trapped Charge Carriers by Dr. Tao Zhang, Dr. Jingxiang Low, Prof. Jiaguo Yu, Dr. Alexei M. Tyryshkin, Dr. Eliška Mikmeková, Prof. Tewodros Asefa. Angewandte Chemie DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.202005143 First published [online]: 22 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Keep your building cool with super paint

As temperatures rise and the Arctic melts, scientists are searching for ways to keep us and our buildings cool without adding unduly to our current problems. A July 8, 2020 University of California at Los Angeles news release (also on EurekAlert) announces a new paint,

A research team led by UCLA materials scientists has demonstrated ways to make super white paint that reflects as much as 98% of incoming heat from the sun. The advance shows practical pathways for designing paints that, if used on rooftops and other parts of a building, could significantly reduce cooling costs, beyond what standard white ‘cool-roof’ paints can achieve.

The findings, published online in Joule, are a major and practical step towards keeping buildings cooler by passive daytime radiative cooling — a spontaneous process in which a surface reflects sunlight and radiates heat into space, cooling down to potentially sub-ambient temperatures. This can lower indoor temperatures and help cut down on air conditioner use and associated carbon dioxide emissions.

“When you wear a white T-shirt on a hot sunny day, you feel cooler than if you wore one that’s darker in color — that’s because the white shirt reflects more sunlight and it’s the same concept for buildings,” said Aaswath Raman, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, and the principal investigator on the study. “A roof painted white will be cooler inside than one in a darker shade. But those paints also do something else: they reject heat at infrared wavelengths, which we humans cannot see with our eyes. This could allow buildings to cool down even more by radiative cooling.”

The best performing white paints currently available typically reflect around 85% of incoming solar radiation. The remainder is absorbed by the chemical makeup of the paint. The researchers showed that simple modifications in a paint’s ingredients could offer a significant jump, reflecting as much as 98% of incoming radiation.

Current white paints with high solar reflectance use titanium oxide. While the compound is very reflective of most visible and near-infrared light, it also absorbs ultraviolet and violet light. The compound’s UV absorption qualities make it useful in sunscreen lotions, but they also lead to heating under sunlight – which gets in the way of keeping a building as cool as possible.

The researchers examined replacing titanium oxide with inexpensive and readily available ingredients such as barite, which is an artist’s pigment, and pow[d]ered polytetrafluoroethylene, better known as Teflon. These ingredients help paints reflect UV light. The team also made further refinements to the paint’s formula, including reducing the concentration of polymer binders, which also absorb heat.

“The potential cooling benefits this can yield may be realized in the near future because the modifications we propose are within the capabilities of the paint and coatings industry,” said UCLA postdoctoral scholar Jyotirmoy Mandal, a Schmidt Science Fellow working in Raman’s research group and the co-corresponding author on the research.

Beyond the advance, the authors suggested several long-term implications for further study, including mapping where such paints could make a difference, studying the effect of pollution on radiative cooling technologies, and on a global scale, if they could make a dent on the earth’s own ability to reflect heat from the sun.

The researchers also noted that many municipalities and governments, including the state of California and New York City, have started to encourage cool-roof technologies for new buildings.

“We hope that the work will spur future initiatives in super-white coatings for not only energy savings in buildings, but also mitigating the heat island effects of cities, and perhaps even showing a practical way that, if applied on a massive, global scale could affect climate change,” said Mandal, who has studied cooling paint technologies for several years. “This would require a collaboration among experts in diverse fields like optics, materials science and meteorology, and experts from the industry and policy sectors.”

Here’s a link (also in the news release) to and a citation for the paper,

Paints as a Scalable and Effective Radiative Cooling Technology for Buildings by Jyotirmoy Mandal, Yuan Yang, Nanfang Yu, Aaswath P. Raman. Joule DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2020.04.010 Published: May 29, 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

New capacitor for better wearable electronics?

Supercapacitors are a predictable source of scientific interest and excitement. The latest entry in the ‘supercapacitor stakes’ is from a Russian/Finnish/US team according to a June 11, 2020 Skoltech (Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology) press release (also on EurekAlert),

Researchers from Skoltech [Russia], Aalto University [Finland] and Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT; US] have designed a high-performance, low-cost, environmentally friendly, and stretchable supercapacitor that can potentially be used in wearable electronics. The paper was published in the Journal of Energy Storage.

Supercapacitors, with their high power density, fast charge-discharge rates, long cycle life, and cost-effectiveness, are a promising power source for everything from mobile and wearable electronics to electric vehicles. However, combining high energy density, safety, and eco-friendliness in one supercapacitor suitable for small devices has been rather challenging.

“Usually, organic solvents are used to increase the energy density. These are hazardous, not environmentally friendly, and they reduce the power density compared to aqueous electrolytes with higher conductivity,” says Professor Tanja Kallio from Aalto University, a co-author of the paper.

The researchers proposed a new design for a “green” and simple-to-fabricate supercapacitor. It consists of a solid-state material based on nitrogen-doped graphene flake electrodes distributed in the NaCl-containing hydrogel electrolyte. This structure is sandwiched between two single-walled carbon nanotube film current collectors, which provides stretchability. Hydrogel in the supercapacitor design enables compact packing and high energy density and allows them to use the environmentally friendly electrolyte.

The scientists managed to improve the volumetric capacitive performance, high energy density and power density for the prototype over analogous supercapacitors described in previous research. “We fabricated a prototype with unchanged performance under the 50% strain after a thousand stretching cycles. To ensure lower cost and better environmental performance, we used a NaCl-based electrolyte. Still the fabrication cost can be lowered down by implementation of 3D printing or other advanced fabrication techniques,” concluded Skoltech professor Albert Nasibulin.

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

Superior environmentally friendly stretchable supercapacitor based on nitrogen-doped graphene/hydrogel and single-walled carbon nanotubes by Evgeniia Gilshtein, Cristina Flox, Farhan S.M. Ali, Bahareh Mehrabimatin, Fedor S.Fedorov, Shaoting Lin, Xuanhe Zhao, Albert G. Nasibulin, Tanja Kallio. Journal of Energy Storage Volume 30, August 2020, 101505 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.est.2020.101505

This paper is behind a paywall.

I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever before seen a material that combines graphene and single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs). Anyway, here’s an image the researchers are using illustrate their work,

Caption: This is an outline of the new supercapacitor. Credit: Pavel Odinev / Skoltech

Energy-efficient artificial synapse

This is the second neuromorphic computing chip story from MIT this summer in what has turned out to be a bumper crop of research announcements in this field. The first MIT synapse story was featured in a June 16, 2020 posting. Now, there’s a second and completely different team announcing results for their artificial brain synapse work in a June 19, 2020 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Teams around the world are building ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence systems of a type called neural networks, designed in some ways to mimic the wiring of the brain, for carrying out tasks such as computer vision and natural language processing.

Using state-of-the-art semiconductor circuits to simulate neural networks requires large amounts of memory and high power consumption. Now, an MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] team has made strides toward an alternative system, which uses physical, analog devices that can much more efficiently mimic brain processes.

The findings are described in the journal Nature Communications (“Protonic solid-state electrochemical synapse for physical neural networks”), in a paper by MIT professors Bilge Yildiz, Ju Li, and Jesús del Alamo, and nine others at MIT and Brookhaven National Laboratory. The first author of the paper is Xiahui Yao, a former MIT postdoc now working on energy storage at GRU Energy Lab.

That description of the work is one pretty much every team working on developing memristive (neuromorphic) chips could use.

On other fronts, the team has produced a very attractive illustration accompanying this research (aside: Is it my imagination or has there been a serious investment in the colour pink and other pastels for science illustrations?),

A new system developed at MIT and Brookhaven National Lab could provide a faster, more reliable and much more energy efficient approach to physical neural networks, by using analog ionic-electronic devices to mimic synapses.. Courtesy of the researchers

A June 19, 2020 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides more insight into this specific piece of research (hint: it’s about energy use and repeatability),

Neural networks attempt to simulate the way learning takes place in the brain, which is based on the gradual strengthening or weakening of the connections between neurons, known as synapses. The core component of this physical neural network is the resistive switch, whose electronic conductance can be controlled electrically. This control, or modulation, emulates the strengthening and weakening of synapses in the brain.

In neural networks using conventional silicon microchip technology, the simulation of these synapses is a very energy-intensive process. To improve efficiency and enable more ambitious neural network goals, researchers in recent years have been exploring a number of physical devices that could more directly mimic the way synapses gradually strengthen and weaken during learning and forgetting.

Most candidate analog resistive devices so far for such simulated synapses have either been very inefficient, in terms of energy use, or performed inconsistently from one device to another or one cycle to the next. The new system, the researchers say, overcomes both of these challenges. “We’re addressing not only the energy challenge, but also the repeatability-related challenge that is pervasive in some of the existing concepts out there,” says Yildiz, who is a professor of nuclear science and engineering and of materials science and engineering.

“I think the bottleneck today for building [neural network] applications is energy efficiency. It just takes too much energy to train these systems, particularly for applications on the edge, like autonomous cars,” says del Alamo, who is the Donner Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Many such demanding applications are simply not feasible with today’s technology, he adds.

The resistive switch in this work is an electrochemical device, which is made of tungsten trioxide (WO3) and works in a way similar to the charging and discharging of batteries. Ions, in this case protons, can migrate into or out of the crystalline lattice of the material,  explains Yildiz, depending on the polarity and strength of an applied voltage. These changes remain in place until altered by a reverse applied voltage — just as the strengthening or weakening of synapses does.

The mechanism is similar to the doping of semiconductors,” says Li, who is also a professor of nuclear science and engineering and of materials science and engineering. In that process, the conductivity of silicon can be changed by many orders of magnitude by introducing foreign ions into the silicon lattice. “Traditionally those ions were implanted at the factory,” he says, but with the new device, the ions are pumped in and out of the lattice in a dynamic, ongoing process. The researchers can control how much of the “dopant” ions go in or out by controlling the voltage, and “we’ve demonstrated a very good repeatability and energy efficiency,” he says.

Yildiz adds that this process is “very similar to how the synapses of the biological brain work. There, we’re not working with protons, but with other ions such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, etc., and by moving those ions you actually change the resistance of the synapses, and that is an element of learning.” The process taking place in the tungsten trioxide in their device is similar to the resistance modulation taking place in biological synapses, she says.

“What we have demonstrated here,” Yildiz says, “even though it’s not an optimized device, gets to the order of energy consumption per unit area per unit change in conductance that’s close to that in the brain.” Trying to accomplish the same task with conventional CMOS type semiconductors would take a million times more energy, she says.

The materials used in the demonstration of the new device were chosen for their compatibility with present semiconductor manufacturing systems, according to Li. But they include a polymer material that limits the device’s tolerance for heat, so the team is still searching for other variations of the device’s proton-conducting membrane and better ways of encapsulating its hydrogen source for long-term operations.

“There’s a lot of fundamental research to be done at the materials level for this device,” Yildiz says. Ongoing research will include “work on how to integrate these devices with existing CMOS transistors” adds del Alamo. “All that takes time,” he says, “and it presents tremendous opportunities for innovation, great opportunities for our students to launch their careers.”

Coincidentally or not a University of Massachusetts at Amherst team announced memristor voltage use comparable to human brain voltage use (see my June 15, 2020 posting), plus, there’s a team at Stanford University touting their low-energy biohybrid synapse in a XXX posting. (June 2020 has been a particularly busy month here for ‘artificial brain’ or ‘memristor’ stories.)

Getting back to this latest MIT research, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Protonic solid-state electrochemical synapse for physical neural networks by Xiahui Yao, Konstantin Klyukin, Wenjie Lu, Murat Onen, Seungchan Ryu, Dongha Kim, Nicolas Emond, Iradwikanari Waluyo, Adrian Hunt, Jesús A. del Alamo, Ju Li & Bilge Yildiz. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3134 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16866-6 Published: 19 June 2020

This paper is open access.

Nanocellulose films made with liquid-phase fabrication method

I always appreciate a reference to Star Trek and three-dimensional chess was one of my favourite concepts. You’ll find that and more in a May 19, 2020 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers at The Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research at Osaka University [Japan] introduced a new liquid-phase fabrication method for producing nanocellulose films with multiple axes of alignment. Using 3D-printing methods for increased control, this work may lead to cheaper and more environmentally friendly optical and thermal devices.

Ever since appearing on the original Star Trek TV show in the 1960s, the game of “three-dimensional chess” has been used as a metaphor for sophisticated thinking. Now, researchers at Osaka University can say that they have added their own version, with potential applications in advanced optics and inexpensive smartphone displays.

It’s not exactly three-dimensional chess but this nanocellulose film was produced by 3D printing methods,

Caption: Developed multiaxis nanocellulose-oriented film. Credit: Osaka University

A May 20, 2020 Osaka University press release (also on EurekAlert but dated May 19, 2020), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Many existing optical devices, including liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) found in older flat-screen televisions, rely on long needle-shaped molecules aligned in the same direction. However, getting fibers to line up in multiple directions on the same device is much more difficult. Having a method that can reliably and cheaply produce optical fibers would accelerate the manufacture of low-cost displays or even “paper electronics”–computers that could be printed from biodegradable materials on demand.

Cellulose, the primary component of cotton and wood, is an abundant renewable resource made of long molecules. Nanocelluloses are nanofibers made of uniaxially aligned cellulose molecular chains that have different optical and heat conduction properties along one direction compared to the another.

In newly published research from the Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research at Osaka University, nanocellulose was harvested from sea pineapples, a kind of sea squirt. They then used liquid-phase 3D-pattering, which combined the wet spinning of nanofibers with the precision of 3D-printing. A custom-made triaxial robot dispensed a nanocellulose aqueous suspension into an acetone coagulation bath.

“We developed this liquid-phase three-dimensional patterning technique to allow for nanocellulose alignment along any preferred axis,” says first author Kojiro Uetani. The direction of the patterns could be programmed so that it formed an alternating checkerboard pattern of vertically- and horizontally-aligned fibers.

To demonstrate the method, a film was sandwiched between two orthogonal polarizing films. Under the proper viewing conditions, a birefringent checkerboard pattern appeared. They also measured the thermal transfer and optical retardation properties.

“Our findings could aid in the development of next-generation optical materials and paper electronics,” says senior author Masaya Nogi. “This could be the start of bottom-up techniques for building sophisticated and energy-efficient optical and thermal materials.”

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

Checkered Films of Multiaxis Oriented Nanocelluloses by Liquid-Phase Three-Dimensional Patterning by Kojiro Uetani, Hirotaka Koga and Masaya Nogi. Nanomaterials 2020, 10(5), 958; DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/nano10050958 Published: 18 May 2020

This is an open access paper.

Smart film lets windows switch autonomously

This work from Korean research scientists gives me some hope that smart windows will one day be the norm. From a June 2, 2020 Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) press release (also on EurekAlert),

Researchers have developed a new easy-to-use smart optical film technology that allows smart window devices to autonomously switch between transparent and opaque states in response to the surrounding light conditions.

The proposed 3D hybrid nanocomposite film with a highly periodic network structure has empirically demonstrated its high speed and performance, enabling the smart window to quantify and self-regulate its high-contrast optical transmittance. As a proof of concept, a mobile-app-enabled smart window device for Internet of Things (IoT) applications has been realized using the proposed smart optical film with successful expansion to the 3-by-3-inch scale. This energy-efficient and cost-effective technology holds great promise for future use in various applications that require active optical transmission modulation.

Flexible optical transmission modulation technologies for smart applications including privacy-protection windows, zero-energy buildings, and beam projection screens have been in the spotlight in recent years. Conventional technologies that used external stimuli such as electricity, heat, or light to modulate optical transmission had only limited applications due to their slow response speeds, unnecessary color switching, and low durability, stability, and safety.

The optical transmission modulation contrast achieved by controlling the light scattering interfaces on non-periodic 2D surface structures that often have low optical density such as cracks, wrinkles, and pillars is also generally low. In addition, since the light scattering interfaces are exposed and not subject to any passivation, they can be vulnerable to external damage and may lose optical transmission modulation functions. Furthermore, in-plane scattering interfaces that randomly exist on the surface make large-area modulation with uniformity difficult.

Inspired by these limitations, a KAIST research team led by Professor Seokwoo Jeon from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Professor Jung-Wuk Hong of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department used proximity-field nanopatterning (PnP) technology that effectively produces highly periodic 3D hybrid nanostructures, and an atomic layer deposition (ALD) technique that allows the precise control of oxide deposition and the high-quality fabrication of semiconductor devices.

The team then successfully produced a large-scale smart optical film with a size of 3 by 3 inches in which ultrathin alumina nanoshells are inserted between the elastomers in a periodic 3D nanonetwork.

This “mechano-responsive” 3D hybrid nanocomposite film with a highly periodic network structure is the largest smart optical transmission modulation film that exists. The film has been shown to have state-of-the-art optical transmission modulation of up to 74% at visible wavelengths from 90% initial transmission to 16% in the scattering state under strain. Its durability and stability were proved by more than 10,000 tests of harsh mechanical deformation including stretching, releasing, bending, and being placed under high temperatures of up to 70°C. When this film was used, the transmittance of the smart window device was adjusted promptly and automatically within one second in response to the surrounding light conditions. Through these experiments, the underlying physics of optical scattering phenomena occurring in the heterogeneous interfaces were identified. Their findings were reported in the online edition of Advanced Science on April 26 [2020]. KAIST Professor Jong-Hwa Shin’s group and Professor Young-Seok Shim at Silla University also collaborated on this project.

Donghwi Cho, a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering at KAIST and co-lead author of the study, said, “Our smart optical film technology can better control high-contrast optical transmittance by relatively simple operating principles and with low energy consumption and costs.”

“When this technology is applied by simply attaching the film to a conventional smart window glass surface without replacing the existing window system, fast switching and uniform tinting are possible while also securing durability, stability, and safety. In addition, its wide range of applications for stretchable or rollable devices such as wall-type displays for a beam projection screen will also fulfill aesthetic needs,” he added.

Here’s an image illustrating how the composite scatters light (I think),

Caption: Design concept of and fabrication procedures for the 3D scatterer. Credit: KAIST

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

High‐Contrast Optical Modulation from Strain‐Induced Nanogaps at 3D Heterogeneous Interfaces by Donghwi Cho, Prof. Young‐Seok Shim, Dr. Jae‐Wook Jung, Sang‐Hyeon Nam, Seokhwan Min, Dr. Sang‐Eon Lee, Youngjin Ham, Prof. Kwangjae Lee, Prof. Junyong Park, Prof. Jonghwa Shin, Prof. Jung‐Wuk Hong, and Prof. Seokwoo Jeon. Advanced Science DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/advs.201903708 First published: 26 April 2020

This paper is open access.

Neuromorphic computing with voltage usage comparable to human brains

Part of neuromorphic computing’s appeal is the promise of using less energy because, as it turns out, the human brain uses small amounts of energy very efficiently. A team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have developed function in the same range of voltages as the human brain. From an April 20, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

Only 10 years ago, scientists working on what they hoped would open a new frontier of neuromorphic computing could only dream of a device using miniature tools called memristors that would function/operate like real brain synapses.

But now a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has discovered, while on their way to better understanding protein nanowires, how to use these biological, electricity conducting filaments to make a neuromorphic memristor, or “memory transistor,” device. It runs extremely efficiently on very low power, as brains do, to carry signals between neurons. Details are in Nature Communications.

An April 20, 2020 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news items, dives into detail about how these researchers were able to achieve bio-voltages,

As first author Tianda Fu, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering, explains, one of the biggest hurdles to neuromorphic computing, and one that made it seem unreachable, is that most conventional computers operate at over 1 volt, while the brain sends signals called action potentials between neurons at around 80 millivolts – many times lower. Today, a decade after early experiments, memristor voltage has been achieved in the range similar to conventional computer, but getting below that seemed improbable, he adds.

Fu reports that using protein nanowires developed at UMass Amherst from the bacterium Geobacter by microbiologist and co-author Derek Lovely, he has now conducted experiments where memristors have reached neurological voltages. Those tests were carried out in the lab of electrical and computer engineering researcher and co-author Jun Yao.

Yao says, “This is the first time that a device can function at the same voltage level as the brain. People probably didn’t even dare to hope that we could create a device that is as power-efficient as the biological counterparts in a brain, but now we have realistic evidence of ultra-low power computing capabilities. It’s a concept breakthrough and we think it’s going to cause a lot of exploration in electronics that work in the biological voltage regime.”

Lovely points out that Geobacter’s electrically conductive protein nanowires offer many advantages over expensive silicon nanowires, which require toxic chemicals and high-energy processes to produce. Protein nanowires also are more stable in water or bodily fluids, an important feature for biomedical applications. For this work, the researchers shear nanowires off the bacteria so only the conductive protein is used, he adds.

Fu says that he and Yao had set out to put the purified nanowires through their paces, to see what they are capable of at different voltages, for example. They experimented with a pulsing on-off pattern of positive-negative charge sent through a tiny metal thread in a memristor, which creates an electrical switch.

They used a metal thread because protein nanowires facilitate metal reduction, changing metal ion reactivity and electron transfer properties. Lovely says this microbial ability is not surprising, because wild bacterial nanowires breathe and chemically reduce metals to get their energy the way we breathe oxygen.

As the on-off pulses create changes in the metal filaments, new branching and connections are created in the tiny device, which is 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, Yao explains. It creates an effect similar to learning – new connections – in a real brain. He adds, “You can modulate the conductivity, or the plasticity of the nanowire-memristor synapse so it can emulate biological components for brain-inspired computing. Compared to a conventional computer, this device has a learning capability that is not software-based.”

Fu recalls, “In the first experiments we did, the nanowire performance was not satisfying, but it was enough for us to keep going.” Over two years, he saw improvement until one fateful day when his and Yao’s eyes were riveted by voltage measurements appearing on a computer screen.

“I remember the day we saw this great performance. We watched the computer as current voltage sweep was being measured. It kept doing down and down and we said to each other, ‘Wow, it’s working.’ It was very surprising and very encouraging.”

Fu, Yao, Lovely and colleagues plan to follow up this discovery with more research on mechanisms, and to “fully explore the chemistry, biology and electronics” of protein nanowires in memristors, Fu says, plus possible applications, which might include a device to monitor heart rate, for example. Yao adds, “This offers hope in the feasibility that one day this device can talk to actual neurons in biological systems.”

That last comment has me wondering about why you would want to have your device talk to actual neurons. For neuroprosthetics perhaps?

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

Bioinspired bio-voltage memristors by Tianda Fu, Xiaomeng Liu, Hongyan Gao, Joy E. Ward, Xiaorong Liu, Bing Yin, Zhongrui Wang, Ye Zhuo, David J. F. Walker, J. Joshua Yang, Jianhan Chen, Derek R. Lovley & Jun Yao. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 1861 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15759-y Published: 20 April 2020

This paper is open access.

There is an illustration of the work

Caption: A graphic depiction of protein nanowires (green) harvested from microbe Geobacter (orange) facilitate the electronic memristor device (silver) to function with biological voltages, emulating the neuronal components (blue junctions) in a brain. Credit: UMass Amherst/Yao lab

Plants as a source of usable electricity

A friend sent me a link to this interview with Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University talking about some new research into plants and electricity. From a June 8, 2020 article by Omer Kabir for Calcalist (CTech) on the Algemeiner website,

For years, scientists have been trying to understand the evolutionary capabilities of plants to produce energy and have had only partial success. But a recent Tel Aviv University [TAU] study seems to make the impossible possible, proving that any plant can be transformed into an electrical source, producing a variety of materials that can revolutionize the global economy — from using hydrogen as fuel to clean ammonia to replace the pollutants in the agriculture industry.

“People are unaware that their plant pots have an electric current for everything,” Iftach Yacoby, head of the Laboratory of Renewable Energy Studies at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Life Sciences said in a recent interview with Calcalist.

“Our study opens the door to a new field of agriculture, equivalent to wheat or corn production for food security — generating energy,” he said. However, Yacoby makes it clear that it will take at least a decade before the research findings can be transferred to the commercial level.

At the heart of the research is the understanding that plants have particularly efficient capacities when it comes to electricity generation. “Anything green that is not dollars, but rather leaves, grass, and seaweed for example, contains solar panels that are completely identical to the panels the entire country is now building,” Yacoby explained. “They know how to take in solar radiation and make electrons flow out of it. That’s the essence of photosynthesis. Most people think of oxygen and food production, but the most basic phase of photosynthesis is the same as silicon panels in the Negev and on rooftops — taking in sunlight and generating electric current.”

… “At home, an electric current can be wired to many devices. Just plug the device into a power outlet. But when you want to do it in plants, it’s about the order of nanometers. We have no idea where to plug the plugs. That’s what we did in this study. In plant cells, we found they can be used as a socket for anything, at just a nanometer size. We have an enzyme, which is equivalent to a biological machine that can produce hydrogen. We took this enzyme, put it together so that it sits in the socket in the plant cell, which was previously only hypothetical. When he started to produce hydrogen, we proved that we had a socket for everything, though nanotermically-sized. Now we can take any plant or kelp and engineer it so that their electrical outlet can be used for production purposes,” Yacoby explained.

“If you attach an enzyme that produces hydrogen you get hydrogen, it’s the cleanest fuel that can be,” he said. “There are already electric cars and bicycles with a range of 150 km that travel on hydrogen. There are many types of enzymes in nature that produce valuable substances, such as ammonia needed for the fertilizer industry and today is still produced by a very toxic and harmful method that consumes a lot of energy. We can provide a plant-based alternative for the production of materials that are made in chemical manufacturing facilities. It’s an electric platform inside a living plant cell.”

You might find it helpful to read Kabir’s article in its entirety before moving on to the news release about the work. The work was conducted with researchers from Arizona State University (ASU;US) and a researcher from Yogi Vemana University (India), as well as, Yacoby. There’s a May 7, 2020 ASU news release (also on EurekAlert but published on May 6, 2020) detailing the work,

Hydrogen is an essential commodity with over 60 million tons produced globally every year. However over 95 percent of it is made by steam reformation of fossil fuels, a process that is energy intensive and produces carbon dioxide. If we could replace even a part of that with algal biohydrogen that is made via light and water, it would have a substantial impact.

This is essentially what has just been achieved in the lab of Kevin Redding, professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis. Their research, entitled Rewiring photosynthesis: a Photosystem I -hydrogenase chimera that makes hydrogen in vivo was published very recently in the high impact journal Energy and Environmental Science.

“What we have done is to show that it is possible to intercept the high energy electrons from photosynthesis and use them to drive alternate chemistry, in a living cell” explained Redding. “We have used hydrogen production here as an example.”

“Kevin Redding and his group have made a true breakthrough in re-engineering the Photosystem I complex,” explained Ian Gould, interim director of the School of Molecular Sciences, which is part of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They didn’t just find a way to redirect a complex protein structure that nature designed for one purpose to perform a different, but equally critical process, but they found the best way to do it at the molecular level.”

It is common knowledge that plants and algae, as well as cyanobacteria, use photosynthesis to produce oxygen and “fuels,” the latter being oxidizable substances like carbohydrates and hydrogen. There are two pigment-protein complexes that orchestrate the primary reactions of light in oxygenic photosynthesis: Photosystem I (PSI) and Photosystem II (PSII).

Algae (in this work the single-celled green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, or ‘Chlamy’ for short) possess an enzyme called hydrogenase that uses electrons it gets from the protein ferredoxin, which is normally used to ferry electrons from PSI to various destinations. A problem is that the algal hydrogenase is rapidly and irreversibly inactivated by oxygen that is constantly produced by PSII.

In this study, doctoral student and first author Andrey Kanygin has created a genetic chimera of PSI and the hydrogenase such that they co-assemble and are active in vivo. This new assembly redirects electrons away from carbon dioxide fixation to the production of biohydrogen.

“We thought that some radically different approaches needed to be taken — thus, our crazy idea of hooking up the hydrogenase enzyme directly to Photosystem I in order to divert a large fraction of the electrons from water splitting (by Photosystem II) to make molecular hydrogen,” explained Redding.

Cells expressing the new photosystem (PSI-hydrogenase) make hydrogen at high rates in a light dependent fashion, for several days.

This important result will also be featured in an upcoming article in Chemistry World – a monthly chemistry news magazine published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The magazine addresses current developments in the world of chemistry including research, international business news and government policy as it affects the chemical science community.

The NSF grant funding this research is part of the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF). In this arrangement, a U.S. scientist and Israeli scientist join forces to form a joint project. The U.S. partner submits a grant on the joint project to the NSF, and the Israeli partner submits the same grant to the ISF (Israel Science Foundation). Both agencies must agree to fund the project in order to obtain the BSF funding. Professor Iftach Yacoby of Tel Aviv University, Redding’s partner on the BSF project, is a young scientist who first started at TAU about eight years ago and has focused on different ways to increase algal biohydrogen production.

In summary, re-engineering the fundamental processes of photosynthetic microorganisms offers a cheap and renewable platform for creating bio-factories capable of driving difficult electron reactions, powered only by the sun and using water as the electron source.

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

Rewiring photosynthesis: a photosystem I-hydrogenase chimera that makes H2in vivo by Andrey Kanygin, Yuval Milrad, Chandrasekhar Thummala, Kiera Reifschneider, Patricia Baker, Pini Marco, Iftach Yacoby and Kevin E. Redding. Energy Environ. Sci., 2020, Advance DOI: https://doi.org/10.1039/C9EE03859K First published: 17 Apr 2020

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This image was used to illustrate the research,

A model of Photosystem 1 core subunits Courtesy: ASU