Monthly Archives: May 2019

Chen Qiufan, garbage, and Chinese science fiction stories

Garbage has been dominating Canadian news headlines for a few weeks now. First, it was Canadian garbage in the Philippines and now it’s Canadian garbage in Malaysia. Interestingly, we’re also having problems with China, since December 2018, when we detained a top executive from Huawe, a China-based international telecommunicatons company, in accordance with an official request from the US government and, in accordance, with what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the ‘rule of law’. All of this provides an interesting backdrop (for Canadians anyway) on the topic of China, garbage, and science fiction.

A May 16, 2019 article by Anjie Zheng for Fast Company explores some of the latest and greatest from China’s science fiction writing community,

Like any good millennial, I think about my smartphone, to the extent that I do at all, in terms of what it does for me. It lets me message friends, buy stuff quickly, and amass likes. I hardly ever think about what it actually is—a mass of copper wires, aluminum alloys, and lithium battery encased in glass—or where it goes when I upgrade.

Chen Qiufan wants us to think about that. His debut novel, Waste Tide, is set in a lightly fictionalized version of Guiyu, the world’s largest electronic waste disposal. First published in Chinese in 2013, the book was recently released in the U.S. with a very readable translation into English by Ken Liu.

Chen, who has been called “China’s William Gibson,” is part of a younger generation of sci-fi writers who have achieved international acclaim in recent years. Liu Cixin became the first Chinese to win the prestigious Hugo Award for his Three Body Problem in 2015. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Liu, became China’s first science-fiction blockbuster when it was released in 2018. It was the highest-grossing film in the fastest-growing film market in the world last year and was recently scooped up by Netflix.

Aynne Kokas in a March 13, 2019 article for the Washington Post describes how the hit film, The Wandering Earth, fits into an overall Chinese-led movie industry focused on the future and Hollywood-like, i. e. like US movie industry, domination,

“The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo, takes place in a future where the people of Earth must flee their sun as it swells into a red giant. Thousands of engines — the first of them constructed in Hangzhou, one of China’s tech hubs — propel the entire planet toward a new solar system, while everyone takes refuge from the cold in massive underground cities. On the surface, the only visible reminders of the past are markers of China’s might. The Shanghai Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower and a stadium for the Shanghai 2044 Olympics all thrust out of the ice, having apparently survived the journey’s tsunamis, deep freeze and cliff-collapsing earthquakes.

The movie is China’s first big-budget sci-fi epic, and its production was ambitious, involving some 7,000 workers and 10,000 specially-built props. Audience excitement was correspondingly huge: Nearly half a million people wrote reviews of the film on Chinese social network site Douban. Having earned over $600 million in domestic sales, “The Wandering Earth” marks a major achievement for the country’s film industry.

It is also a major achievement for the Chinese government.

Since opening up the country’s film market in 2001, the Chinese government has aspired to learn from Hollywood how to make commercially appealing films, as I detail in my book “Hollywood Made in China.” From initial private offerings for state media companies, to foreign investment in films, studios and theme parks, the government allowed outside capital and expertise to grow the domestic commercial film industry — but not at the expense of government oversight. This policy’s underlying aim was to expand China’s cultural clout and political influence.

Until recently, Hollywood films dominated the country’s growing box office. That finally changed in 2015, with the release of major local blockbusters “Monster Hunt” and “Lost in Hong Kong.” The proliferation of homegrown hits signaled that the Chinese box office profits no longer depend on Hollywood studio films — sending an important message to foreign trade negotiators and studios.

Kokas provides some insight into how the Chinese movie industry is designed to further the Chinese government’s vision of the future. As a Canadian, I don’t see that much difference between the US and China industry’s vision. Both tout themselves as the answer to everything, both target various geographic regions for the ‘bad guys’, and both tout their national moral superiority in their films. I suppose the same can be said for most countries’ film industries but both China and the US can back themselves with economic might.

Zheng’s article delves deeper into garbage, and Chen Qiufan’s science fiction while illuminating the process of changing a ‘good guy’ into a ‘bad guy’,

Chen, 37, grew up a few miles from the real Guiyu. Mountains of scrap electronics are shipped there every year from around the world. Thousands of human workers sort through the junk for whatever can be reduced to reusable precious metals. They strip wires and disassemble circuit boards, soaking them in acid baths for bits of copper, tin, platinum, and gold. Whatever can’t be processed is burned. The water in Guiyu has been so contaminated it is undrinkable; the air is toxic. The workers, migrants from poor rural areas in China, have an abnormally high rate of respiratory diseases and cancer.

For the decades China was revving its economic engine, authorities were content to turn a blind eye to the human costs of the recycling business. It was an economic win-win. For developed countries like the U.S., it’s cheaper to ship waste to places like China than trying to recycle it themselves. And these shipments create jobs and profits for the Chinese.

In recent years, however, steps have been taken to protect workers and the environment in China. …

Waste Tide highlights the danger of “throw-away culture,” says Chen, also known in English as Stanley Chan. When our personal electronics stop serving us, whether because they break or our lust for the newest specs get the better of us, we toss them. Hopefully we’re conscientious enough to bring them to local recyclers that claim they’ll dispose of them properly. But that’s likely the end of our engagement with the trash. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fiction, and science fiction in particular, is an apt medium for Chen to probe the consequences of this arrangement. “It’s not journalism,” he says. Instead, the story is an imaginative, action-packed tale of power imbalances, and the individual characters that think they’re doing good. Waste Tide culminates, expectedly, in an insurgency of the workers against their exploitative overlords.

Guiyu has been fictionalized in Waste Tide as “Silicon Isle.” (A homophone of the Chinese character “gui” translates to “Silicon,” and “yu” is an island). The waste hell is ruled by three ruthless family clans, dominated by the Luo clan. They treat workers as slaves and derisively call them “waste people.”

Technology in the near-future has literally become extensions of selves and only exacerbates class inequality. Prosthetic inner ears improve balance; prosthetic limbs respond to mental directives; helmets heighten natural senses. The rich “switch body parts as easily as people used to switch phones.” Those with fewer means hack discarded prosthetics to get the same kick. When they’re no longer needed, synthetic body parts contaminated with blood and bodily fluids are added to the detritus.

At the center of the story is Mimi, a migrant worker who dreams of earning enough money to return home and live a quiet life. She strikes up a relationship with Kaizong, a Chinese-American college graduate trying to rediscover his roots. But the good times are short-lived. The boss of the Luo clan becomes convinced that Mimi holds the key to rousing his son from his coma and soon kidnaps the hapless girl.

For all the advanced science, there is a backwards superstition that animates Silicon Isle. [emphasis mine] The clan bosses subscribe to “a simple form of animism.” They pray to the wind and sea for ample supplies of waste. They sacrifice animals (and some humans) to bring them luck, and use local witches to exorcise evil spirits. Boss Luo has Mimi kidnapped and tortured in an effort to appease the gods in the hopes of waking up his comatose son. The torture of Mimi infects her with a mysterious disease that splits her consciousness. The waste people are enraged by her violation, which eventually sparks a war against the ruling clans. [emphasis mine]

A parallel narrative involves an American, Scott Brandle, who works for an environmental company. While in town trying to set up a recycling facility, he stumbles onto the truth about the virus that may have infected Mimi: a chemical weapon developed and used by the U.S. [emphasis mine] years earlier. Invented by a Japanese researcher [emphasis mine] working in the U.S., the drug is capable of causing mass hallucinations and terror. When Brandle learns that Mimi may have been infected with this virus, he wants a piece of her [emphasis mine] too, so that scientists back home can study its effects.

Despite portraying the future of China in a less-than-positive light, [emphasis mine] Waste Tide has not been banned–a common result for works that displease Beijing; instead, the book won China’s prestigious Nebula award for science fiction, and is about to be reprinted on the mainland. …

An interview with Chen (it’s worthwhile to read his take on what he’s doing) follows the plot description in this intriguing and what seems to be a sometimes disingenuous article.

The animism and the war against the ruling class? It reminds me a little of the tales told about old Chine and Mao’s campaign to overthrow the ruling classes who had kept control of the proletariat, in part, by encouraging ‘superstitious religious belief’.

As far as I’m concerned the interpretation can go either or both ways: a critique of the current government’s policies and where they might lead in the future and/or a reference back to the glorious rising of China’s communist government. Good fiction always contains ambiguity; it’s what fuels courses in literature.

Also, the bad guys are from the US and Japan, countries which have long been allied with each other and with which China has some serious conflicts.

Interesting, non? And, it’s not that different from what you’ll see in US (or any other country’s for that matter) science fiction wiring and movies, except that the heroes are Chinese.

Getting back to the garbage in the Philippines, there are 69 containers on their way back to Canada as of May 30, 2019. As for why all this furor about Canadian garbage in the Philippines and Malaysia, it’s hard to believe that Canada is the only sinner. Of course, we are in China’s bad books due to the Huawei executive’s detention here (she is living in her home in Vancouver and goes out and about as she wishes, albeit under surveillance).

Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if indirect pressure is being exerted by China or if the Philippines and Malaysia have been incentivized in some way by China. The timing has certainly been interesting.

Political speculation aside, it’s probably a good thing that countries are refusing to take our garbage. As I’m sure more than one environmentalist would be happy to point out, it’s about time we took care of our own mess.

Two approaches to memristors

Within one day of each other in October 2018, two different teams working on memristors with applications to neuroprosthetics and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing) announced their results.

Russian team

An October 15, 2018 (?) Lobachevsky University press release (also published on October 15, 2018 on EurekAlert) describes a new approach to memristors,

Biological neurons are coupled unidirectionally through a special junction called a synapse. An electrical signal is transmitted along a neuron after some biochemical reactions initiate a chemical release to activate an adjacent neuron. These junctions are crucial for cognitive functions, such as perception, learning and memory.

A group of researchers from Lobachevsky University in Nizhny Novgorod investigates the dynamics of an individual memristive device when it receives a neuron-like signal as well as the dynamics of a network of analog electronic neurons connected by means of a memristive device. According to Svetlana Gerasimova, junior researcher at the Physics and Technology Research Institute and at the Neurotechnology Department of Lobachevsky University, this system simulates the interaction between synaptically coupled brain neurons while the memristive device imitates a neuron axon.

A memristive device is a physical model of Chua’s [Dr. Leon Chua, University of California at Berkeley; see my May 9, 2008 posting for a brief description Dr. Chua’s theory] memristor, which is an electric circuit element capable of changing its resistance depending on the electric signal received at the input. The device based on a Au/ZrO2(Y)/TiN/Ti structure demonstrates reproducible bipolar switching between the low and high resistance states. Resistive switching is determined by the oxidation and reduction of segments of conducting channels (filaments) in the oxide film when voltage with different polarity is applied to it. In the context of the present work, the ability of a memristive device to change conductivity under the action of pulsed signals makes it an almost ideal electronic analog of a synapse.

Lobachevsky University scientists and engineers supported by the Russian Science Foundation (project No.16-19-00144) have experimentally implemented and theoretically described the synaptic connection of neuron-like generators using the memristive interface and investigated the characteristics of this connection.

“Each neuron is implemented in the form of a pulse signal generator based on the FitzHugh-Nagumo model. This model provides a qualitative description of the main neurons’ characteristics: the presence of the excitation threshold, the presence of excitable and self-oscillatory regimes with the possibility of a changeover. At the initial time moment, the master generator is in the self-oscillatory mode, the slave generator is in the excitable mode, and the memristive device is used as a synapse. The signal from the master generator is conveyed to the input of the memristive device, the signal from the output of the memristive device is transmitted to the input of the slave generator via the loading resistance. When the memristive device switches from a high resistance to a low resistance state, the connection between the two neuron-like generators is established. The master generator goes into the oscillatory mode and the signals of the generators are synchronized. Different signal modulation mode synchronizations were demonstrated for the Au/ZrO2(Y)/TiN/Ti memristive device,” – says Svetlana Gerasimova.

UNN researchers believe that the next important stage in the development of neuromorphic systems based on memristive devices is to apply such systems in neuroprosthetics. Memristive systems will provide a highly efficient imitation of synaptic connection due to the stochastic nature of the memristive phenomenon and can be used to increase the flexibility of the connections for neuroprosthetic purposes. Lobachevsky University scientists have vast experience in the development of neurohybrid systems. In particular, a series of experiments was performed with the aim of connecting the FitzHugh-Nagumo oscillator with a biological object, a rat brain hippocampal slice. The signal from the electronic neuron generator was transmitted through the optic fiber communication channel to the bipolar electrode which stimulated Schaffer collaterals (axons of pyramidal neurons in the CA3 field) in the hippocampal slices. “We are going to combine our efforts in the design of artificial neuromorphic systems and our experience of working with living cells to improve flexibility of prosthetics,” concludes S. Gerasimova.

The results of this research were presented at the 38th International Conference on Nonlinear Dynamics (Dynamics Days Europe) at Loughborough University (Great Britain).

This diagram illustrates an aspect of the work,

Caption: Schematic of electronic neurons coupling via a memristive device. Credit: Lobachevsky University

US team

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) announced the publication of a ‘memristor paper’ by a team from the University of Southern California (USC) in an October 16, 2018 news item on phys.org,

Just like their biological counterparts, hardware that mimics the neural circuitry of the brain requires building blocks that can adjust how they synapse, with some connections strengthening at the expense of others. One such approach, called memristors, uses current resistance to store this information. New work looks to overcome reliability issues in these devices by scaling memristors to the atomic level.

An October 16, 2018 AIP news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the particulars of this particular piece of memristor research,

A group of researchers demonstrated a new type of compound synapse that can achieve synaptic weight programming and conduct vector-matrix multiplication with significant advances over the current state of the art. Publishing its work in the Journal of Applied Physics, from AIP Publishing, the group’s compound synapse is constructed with atomically thin boron nitride memristors running in parallel to ensure efficiency and accuracy.

The article appears in a special topic section of the journal devoted to “New Physics and Materials for Neuromorphic Computation,” which highlights new developments in physical and materials science research that hold promise for developing the very large-scale, integrated “neuromorphic” systems of tomorrow that will carry computation beyond the limitations of current semiconductors today.

“There’s a lot of interest in using new types of materials for memristors,” said Ivan Sanchez Esqueda, an author on the paper. “What we’re showing is that filamentary devices can work well for neuromorphic computing applications, when constructed in new clever ways.”

Current memristor technology suffers from a wide variation in how signals are stored and read across devices, both for different types of memristors as well as different runs of the same memristor. To overcome this, the researchers ran several memristors in parallel. The combined output can achieve accuracies up to five times those of conventional devices, an advantage that compounds as devices become more complex.

The choice to go to the subnanometer level, Sanchez said, was born out of an interest to keep all of these parallel memristors energy-efficient. An array of the group’s memristors were found to be 10,000 times more energy-efficient than memristors currently available.

“It turns out if you start to increase the number of devices in parallel, you can see large benefits in accuracy while still conserving power,” Sanchez said. Sanchez said the team next looks to further showcase the potential of the compound synapses by demonstrating their use completing increasingly complex tasks, such as image and pattern recognition.

Here’s an image illustrating the parallel artificial synapses,

Caption: Hardware that mimics the neural circuitry of the brain requires building blocks that can adjust how they synapse. One such approach, called memristors, uses current resistance to store this information. New work looks to overcome reliability issues in these devices by scaling memristors to the atomic level. Researchers demonstrated a new type of compound synapse that can achieve synaptic weight programming and conduct vector-matrix multiplication with significant advances over the current state of the art. They discuss their work in this week’s Journal of Applied Physics. This image shows a conceptual schematic of the 3D implementation of compound synapses constructed with boron nitride oxide (BNOx) binary memristors, and the crossbar array with compound BNOx synapses for neuromorphic computing applications. Credit: Ivan Sanchez Esqueda

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

Efficient learning and crossbar operations with atomically-thin 2-D material compound synapses by Ivan Sanchez Esqueda, Huan Zhao and Han Wang. The article will appear in the Journal of Applied Physics Oct. 16, 2018 (DOI: 10.1063/1.5042468).

This paper is behind a paywall.

*Title corrected from ‘Two approaches to memristors featuring’ to ‘Two approaches to memristors’ on May 31, 2019 at 1455 hours PDT.

Unusual appetite for gold

This bacterium (bacteria being the plural) loves gold, which is lucky for anyone trying to develop artificial photosynthesis.From an October 9, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

A bacterium named Moorella thermoacetica won’t work for free. But UC Berkeley [University of California at Berkeley] researchers have figured out it has an appetite for gold. And in exchange for this special treat, the bacterium has revealed a more efficient path to producing solar fuels through artificial photosynthesis.

An October 5, 2018 UC Berkeley news release by Theresa Duque (also on EurekAlert but published on October 9, 2018), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

M. thermoacetica first made its debut as the first non-photosensitive bacterium to carry out artificial photosynthesis (link is external) in a study led by Peidong Yang, a professor in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. By attaching light-absorbing nanoparticles made of cadmium sulfide (CdS) to the bacterial membrane exterior, the researchers turned M. thermoacetica into a tiny photosynthesis machine, converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into useful chemicals.

Now Yang and his team of researchers have found a better way to entice this CO2-hungry bacterium into being even more productive. By placing light-absorbing gold nanoclusters inside the bacterium, they have created a biohybrid system that produces a higher yield of chemical products than previously demonstrated. The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was published on Oct. 1 in Nature Nanotechnology (link is external).

For the first hybrid model, M. thermoacetica-CdS, the researchers chose cadmium sulfide as the semiconductor for its ability to absorb visible light. But because cadmium sulfide is toxic to bacteria, the nanoparticles had to be attached to the cell membrane “extracellularly,” or outside the M. thermoacetica-CdS system. Sunlight excites each cadmium-sulfide nanoparticle into generating a charged particle known as an electron. As these light-generated electrons travel through the bacterium, they interact with multiple enzymes in a process known as “CO2 reduction,” triggering a cascade of reactions that eventually turns CO2 into acetate, a valuable chemical for making solar fuels.

But within the extracellular model, the electrons end up interacting with other chemicals that have no part in turning CO2 into acetate. And as a result, some electrons are lost and never reach the enzymes. So to improve what’s known as “quantum efficiency,” or the bacterium’s ability to produce acetate each time it gains an electron, the researchers found another semiconductor: nanoclusters made of 22 gold atoms (Au22), a material that M. thermoacetica took a surprising shine to.

A single nanocluster of 22 gold atoms

Figure: A single nanocluster of 22 gold atoms – Au22 – is only 1 nanometer in diameter, allowing it to easily slip through the bacterial cell wall.

“We selected Au22 because it’s ideal for absorbing visible light and has the potential for driving the CO2 reduction process, but we weren’t sure whether it would be compatible with the bacteria,” Yang said. “When we inspected them under the microscope, we discovered that the bacteria were loaded with these Au22 clusters – and were still happily alive.”

Imaging of the M. thermoacetica-Au22 system was done at UC Berkeley’s Molecular Imaging Center (link is external).

The researchers also selected Au22 ­– dubbed by the researchers as “magic” gold nanoclusters – for its ultrasmall size: A single Au22nanocluster is only 1 nanometer in diameter, allowing each nanocluster to easily slip through the bacterial cell wall.

“By feeding bacteria with Au22 nanoclusters, we’ve effectively streamlined the electron transfer process for the CO2 reduction pathway inside the bacteria, as evidenced by a 2.86 percent quantum efficiency – or 33 percent more acetate produced within the M. thermoacetica-Au22 system than the CdS model,” Yang said.

The magic gold nanocluster is the latest discovery coming out of Yang’s lab, which for the past six years has focused on using biohybrid nanostructures to convert CO2 into useful chemicals as part of an ongoing effort to find affordable, abundant resources for renewable fuels, and potential solutions to thwart the effects of climate change.

“Next, we’d like to find a way to reduce costs, improve the lifetimes for these biohybrid systems, and improve quantum efficiency,” Yang said. “By continuing to look at the fundamental aspect of how gold nanoclusters are being photoactivated, and by following the electron transfer process within the CO2 reduction pathway, we hope to find even better solutions.”

Co-authors with Yang are UC Berkeley graduate student Hao Zhang and former postdoctoral fellow Hao Liu, now at Donghua University in Shanghai, China.

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

Bacteria photosensitized by intracellular gold nanoclusters for solar fuel production by Hao Zhang, Hao Liu, Zhiquan Tian, Dylan Lu, Yi Yu, Stefano Cestellos-Blanco, Kelsey K. Sakimoto, & Peidong Yang. Nature Nanotechnologyvolume 13, pages900–905 (2018). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-018-0267-z Published: 01 October 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

For lovers of animation, the folks at UC Berkeley have produced this piece about the ‘gold-loving’ bacterium,

Frugal science, foldable microscopes, and curiosity: a talk on June 3, 2019 at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, Canada) … it’s in Metro Vancouver

This is the second frugal science item* I’m publishing today (May 29, 2019) which means that I’ve gone from complete ignorance on the topic to collecting news items about it. Manu Prakash, the developer behind a usable paper microscope than can be folded and kept in your pocket, is going to be giving a talk locally according to a May 28, 2019 announcement (received via email) from Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Faculty of Science,

On June 3rd [2019], at 7:30 pmManu Prakash from Stanford University will give the Herzberg Public Lecture in conjunction with this year’s Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) conference that the department is hosting. Dr. Prakash’s lecture is entitled “Frugal Science in the Age of Curiosity”. Tickets are free and can be obtained through Eventbrite: https://t.co/WNrPh9fop5 . 

This presentation will be held at the Shrum Science Centre Chemistry C9001 Lecture Theatre, Burnaby campus (instead of the Diamond Family Auditorium).

There’s a synopsis of the talk on the Herzbergy Public Lecture: Frugal Science in the Age of Curiosity webpage,

Science faces an accessibility challenge. Although information/knowledge is fast becoming available to everyone around the world, the experience of science is significantly limited. One approach to solving this challenge is to democratize access to scientific tools. Manu Prakash believes this can be achieved via “Frugal science”; a philosophy that inspires design, development, and deployment of ultra-affordable yet powerful scientific tools for the masses. Using examples from his own work (Foldscope: one-dollar origami microscope, Paperfuge: a twenty-cent high-speed centrifuge), Dr. Prakash will describe the process of identifying challenges, designing solutions, and deploying these tools globally to enable open ended scientific curiosity/inquiries in communities around the world. By connecting the dots between science education, global health and environmental monitoring, he will explore the role of “simple” tools in advancing access to better human and planetary health in a resource limited world.

If you’re curious there is a Foldscope website where you can find out more and/or get a Foldscope for yourself.

In addition to the talk, there is a day-long workshop for teachers (as part of the 2019 CAP Congress) with Dr. Donna Strickland the University of Waterloo researcher who won the 2018 Nobel Prize for physics. If you want to learn how to make a Foldscope, t here is also a one hour session for which you can register separately from the day-long event,. (I featured Strickland and her win in an October 3, 2018 posting.)

Getting back to the main event. Dr. Prakash’s evening talk, you can register here.

*ETA May 29, 2019 at 1120 hours PDT: My first posting on frugal science is Frugal science: ancient toys for state-of-the-art science. It’s about a 3D printable centrifuge based on a toy known (in English) as a whirligig.

Frugal science: ancient toys for state-of-the-art science

A toy that’s been a plaything for 5,000 years and known as a whirligig (in English, anyway) has inspired a scientific tool for use by field biologists and students interested in creating state-of-the-art experiments. Exciting stuff, eh?

A May 23, 2019 Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology) news release (also on EurekAlert but published on May 22, 2019) announces this development in ‘frugal science’,

A 5,000-year-old toy still enjoyed by kids today has inspired an inexpensive, hand-powered scientific tool that could not only impact how field biologists conduct their research but also allow high-school students and others with limited resources to realize their own state-of-the-art experiments.

The device, a portable centrifuge for preparing scientific samples including DNA, is reported May 21 [2019] in the journal PLOS Biology. The co-first author of the paper is Gaurav Byagathvalli, a senior at Lambert High School in Georgia. His colleagues are M. Saad Bhamla, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Soham Sinha, a Georgia Tech undergraduate; Janet Standeven, Byagathvalli’s biology teacher at Lambert; and Aaron F. Pomerantz, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I am exceptionally proud of this paper and will remember it 10, 20, 30 years from now because of the uniquely diverse team we put together,” said Bhamla, who is an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

From a Rainforest to a High School

Together the team demonstrated the device, dubbed the 3D-Fuge because it is created through 3D printing, in two separate applications. In a rainforest in Peru the 3D-Fuge was an integral part of a “lab in a backpack” used to identify four previously-unknown plants and insects by sequencing their DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]. Back in the United States, a slightly different design enabled a new approach to creating living bacterial sensors for the potential detection of disease. That work was conducted at Lambert High School for a synthetic biology competition.

Thanks to social media and a preprint of the PLOS Biology paper on BioRxiv, the 3D-Fuge has already generated interest from around the world, including emails from high-school teachers in Zambia and Kenya. “It’s awesome to see research not just remain isolated to one location but see it spread,” said Byagathvalli. “Through this, we’ve realized how much of an impact simple yet effective tools can have, and hope this technology motivates others to continue along the same path and innovate new solutions to global issues.”

To better share the work, the team has posted the 3D-Fuge designs, videos, and photos online available to anyone.

Frugal Science

One focus of Bhamla’s lab at Georgia Tech is the development of tools for frugal science, or real research that just about anyone can afford. The tools behind state-of-the-art science often cost thousands of dollars that make them inaccessible to those without serious resources.

Centrifuges are a good example.  A small benchtop unit costs between $3,000 and $5,000; larger units cost many times that. Yet the devices are necessary to produce concentrated amounts of, say, genomic materials like DNA. By rapidly spinning samples, they separate materials of interest from biological debris.

The Bhamla team found that the 3D-Fuge works as well as its more expensive cousins, but costs less than $1.

An Ancient Toy

The 3D-Fuge is based on earlier work by Bhamla and colleagues at Stanford University on a simple centrifuge made of paper. The “paperfuge,” in turn, was inspired by a toy composed of string and a button that Bhamla played with as a child. He later discovered that these toys, known as whirligigs, have existed for some 5,000 years.

They consist of a disk – like a button – with two holes, through which is threaded a length of flexible cord whose ends are knotted to create a single loop with the disk in the middle. That simple contraption is then swung with two hands until the button is spinning and whirring at very fast speeds.

The earlier paperfuge uses a disk of paper. To that disk Bhamla glued small plastic tubes filled with a sample. He and colleagues reported that the device did indeed create high-quality samples.

In late 2017 Bhamla was separately approached by the Lambert High team and Pomerantz to see if the paperfuge could be adapted for the larger samples they needed (the paperfuge is limited to small samples of ~1 microliter—or one drop of blood).

Together they came up with the 3D-Fuge, which includes cavities for tubes that can hold some 100 times more of a sample than the paperfuge. The team developed two equally effective designs: one for field biology (led by Pomerantz) and the other for the high-school’s synthetic biology project (led by Byagathvalli).

Bhamla notes that the 3D-Fuge has some limitations. For example, it can only process a few samples at a time (some applications require thousands of samples). Further, because it’s 10 times heavier than the paperfuge, it can’t reach the same speeds or produce the same forces of that device. That said, it still weighs only 20 grams, slightly less than a AA battery.

“But it works,” said Bhamla. “All you need is an [appropriate] application and some creativity.”

Here are a couple of images showing the 3D-Fuge in action,

Using the 3D-Fuge Courtesy: Georgia Tech
Sample vial in 3D-Fuge Courtesy: Georgia Tech

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

A 3D-printed hand-powered centrifuge for molecular biology by Gaurav Byagathvalli, Aaron Pomerantz, Soham Sinha, Janet Standeven, M. Saad Bhamla. PLOS Biology DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000251 Published: May 21, 2019

As always with a Public Library of Science (PLOS) publication, this paper is open access.

Fake graphene

Michael Berger’s October 9, 2018 Nanowerk Spotlight article about graphene brings to light a problem, which in hindsight seems obvious, fake graphene (Note: Links have been removed),

Peter Bøggild over at DTU [Technical University of Denmark] just published an interesting opinion piece in Nature titled “The war on fake graphene”.

The piece refers to a paper published in Advanced Materials (“The Worldwide Graphene Flake Production”) that studied graphene purchased from 60 producers around the world.

The study’s [“The Worldwide Graphene Flake Production”] findings show unequivocally “that the quality of the graphene produced in the world today is rather poor, not optimal for most applications, and most companies are producing graphite microplatelets. This is possibly the main reason for the slow development of graphene applications, which usually require a customized solution in terms of graphene properties.”

A conclusion that sounds even more damming is that “our extensive studies of graphene production worldwide indicate that there is almost no high quality graphene, as defined by ISO [International Organization for Standardization], in the market yet.”

The team also points out that a large number of the samples on the market labelled as graphene are actually graphene oxide and reduced graphene oxide. Furthermore, carbon content analysis shows that in many cases there is substantial contamination of the samples and a large number of companies produce material a with low carbon content. Contamination has many possible sources but most likely, it arises from the chemicals used in the processes.

Peter Bøggild’s October 8, 2018 opinion piece in Nature

Graphite is composed of layers of carbon atoms just a single atom in thickness, known as graphene sheets, to which it owes many of its remarkable properties. When the thickness of graphite flakes is reduced to just a few graphene layers, some of the material’s technologically most important characteristics are greatly enhanced — such as the total surface area per gram, and the mechanical flexibility of the individual flakes. In other words, graphene is more than just thin graphite. Unfortunately, it seems that many graphene producers either do not know or do not care about this. …

Imagine a world in which antibiotics could be sold by anybody, and were not subject to quality standards and regulations. Many people would be afraid to use them because of the potential side effects, or because they had no faith that they would work, with potentially fatal consequences. For emerging nanomaterials such as graphene, a lack of standards is creating a situation that, although not deadly, is similarly unacceptable.

It seems that the high-profile scientific discoveries, technical breakthroughs and heavy investment in graphene have created a Wild West for business opportunists: the study shows that some producers are labelling black powders that mostly contain cheap graphite as graphene, and selling them for top dollar. The problem is exacerbated because the entry barrier to becoming a graphene provider is exceptionally low — anyone can buy bulk graphite, grind it to powder and make a website to sell it on.

Nevertheless, the work [“The Worldwide Graphene Flake Production”] is a timely and ambitious example of the rigorous mindset needed to make rapid progress, not just in graphene research, but in work on any nanomaterial entering the market. To put it bluntly, there can be no quality without quality control.

Here are links to and citations for the study providing the basis for both Berger’s Spotlight article and Bøggild’s opinion piece,

The Worldwide Graphene Flake Production by Alan P. Kauling, Andressa T. Seefeldt, Diego P. Pisoni, Roshini C. Pradeep, Ricardo Bentini, Ricardo V. B. Oliveira, Konstantin S. Novoselov [emphasis mine], Antonio H. Castro Neto. Advanced Materials Volume 30, Issue 44 November 2, 2018 1803784 https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201803784

The study which includes Konstantin Novoselov, a Nobel prize winner for his and Andre Geim’s work at the University of Manchester where they first isolated graphene, is behind a paywall.

Electron quantum materials, a new field in nanotechnology?

Physicists name and codify new field in nanotechnology: ‘electron quantum metamaterials’

UC Riverside’s Nathaniel Gabor and colleague formulate a vision for the field in a perspective article

Courtesy: University of California at Riverside

Bravo to whomever put the image of a field together together with a subhead that includes the phrases ‘vision for a field’ and ‘perspective article’. It’s even better if you go to the November 5, 2018 University of California at Riverside (UCR) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Iqbal Pittalwala to see the original format,

When two atomically thin two-dimensional layers are stacked on top of each other and one layer is made to rotate against the second layer, they begin to produce patterns — the familiar moiré patterns — that neither layer can generate on its own and that facilitate the passage of light and electrons, allowing for materials that exhibit unusual phenomena. For example, when two graphene layers are overlaid and the angle between them is 1.1 degrees, the material becomes a superconductor.

“It’s a bit like driving past a vineyard and looking out the window at the vineyard rows. Every now and then, you see no rows because you’re looking directly along a row,” said Nathaniel Gabor, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside. “This is akin to what happens when two atomic layers are stacked on top of each other. At certain angles of twist, everything is energetically allowed. It adds up just right to allow for interesting possibilities of energy transfer.”

This is the future of new materials being synthesized by twisting and stacking atomically thin layers, and is still in the “alchemy” stage, Gabor added. To bring it all under one roof, he and physicist Justin C. W. Song of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, have proposed this field of research be called “electron quantum metamaterials” and have just published a perspective article in Nature Nanotechnology.

“We highlight the potential of engineering synthetic periodic arrays with feature sizes below the wavelength of an electron. Such engineering allows the electrons to be manipulated in unusual ways, resulting in a new range of synthetic quantum metamaterials with unconventional responses,” Gabor said.

Metamaterials are a class of material engineered to produce properties that do not occur naturally. Examples include optical cloaking devices and super-lenses akin to the Fresnel lens that lighthouses use. Nature, too, has adopted such techniques – for example, in the unique coloring of butterfly wings – to manipulate photons as they move through nanoscale structures.

“Unlike photons that scarcely interact with each other, however, electrons in subwavelength structured metamaterials are charged, and they strongly interact,” Gabor said. “The result is an enormous variety of emergent phenomena and radically new classes of interacting quantum metamaterials.”

Gabor and Song were invited by Nature Nanotechnology to write a review paper. But the pair chose to delve deeper and lay out the fundamental physics that may explain much of the research in electron quantum metamaterials. They wrote a perspective paper instead that envisions the current status of the field and discusses its future.

“Researchers, including in our own labs, were exploring a variety of metamaterials but no one had given the field even a name,” said Gabor, who directs the Quantum Materials Optoelectronics lab at UCR. “That was our intent in writing the perspective. We are the first to codify the underlying physics. In a way, we are expressing the periodic table of this new and exciting field. It has been a herculean task to codify all the work that has been done so far and to present a unifying picture. The ideas and experiments have matured, and the literature shows there has been rapid progress in creating quantum materials for electrons. It was time to rein it all in under one umbrella and offer a road map to researchers for categorizing future work.”

In the perspective, Gabor and Song collect early examples in electron metamaterials and distil emerging design strategies for electronic control from them. They write that one of the most promising aspects of the new field occurs when electrons in subwavelength-structure samples interact to exhibit unexpected emergent behavior.

“The behavior of superconductivity in twisted bilayer graphene that emerged was a surprise,” Gabor said. “It shows, remarkably, how electron interactions and subwavelength features could be made to work together in quantum metamaterials to produce radically new phenomena. It is examples like this that paint an exciting future for electronic metamaterials. Thus far, we have only set the stage for a lot of new work to come.”

Gabor, a recipient of a Cottrell Scholar Award and a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Azrieli Global Scholar Award, was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program and a National Science Foundation Division of Materials Research CAREER award.

There is a video illustrating the ideas which is embedded in a November 5, 2018 news item on phys.oirg,


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

Electron quantum metamaterials in van der Waals heterostructures by Justin C. W. Song & Nathaniel M. Gabor. Nature Nanotechnology, volume 13, pages986–993 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-018-0294-9 Published: 05 November 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

A Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) May 28, 2019 talk ‘Getting to the heart of Mars with insight’ and an update on Baba Brinkman (former Vancouverite) and his science raps

It’s been a while since I’ve received any notices about upcoming talks from the local Café Scientifique crowd but on May 22, 2019 there was this announcement in an email,

Dear Café Scientifiquers,

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY, MAY 28TH [2019] at 7:30PM in the back room at YAGGER’S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be DR. CATHERINE JOHNSON from the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC [University of British Columbia] .

GETTING TO THE HEART OF MARS WITH INSIGHT

Catherine Johnson is a professor of geophysics in the Dept of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC Vancouver [campus], and a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson.  She is a Co-Investigator on the InSight mission to Mars, the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu and was previously a Participating Scientist on the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

We hope to see you there!

I did some digging and found two articles about Johnson, the InSight mission, and Mars. The first one is an October 21, 2012 article by James Keller on the Huffington Post Canada website,

As NASA’s Curiosity rover beams back photos of the rocky surface of Mars, another group of scientists, including one from British Columbia, is preparing the next mission to uncover what’s underneath.

Prof. Catherine Johnson, of the University of British Columbia, is among the scientists whose project, named Insight, was selected by NASA this week as part of the U.S. space agency’s Discovery program, which invites proposals from within the scientific community.

Insight will send a stationary robotic lander to Mars in 2016, drilling down several metres into the surface as it uses a combination of temperature readings and seismic measurements to help scientists on this planet learn more about the Martian core.

The second one is a May 6, 2018 article (I gather it took them longer to get to Mars than they anticipated in 2012) by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail newspaper website,

Thanks to a thick bank of predawn fog, Catherine Johnson couldn’t see the rocket when it blasted off early Saturday morning at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – but she could hear the roar as NASA’s InSight mission set off on its 6½-month journey to Mars.

“It was really impressive,” said Dr. Johnson, a planetary scientist at the University of British Columbia and a member of the mission’s science team. Describing the mood at the launch as a mixture of relief and joy, Dr. Johnson added that “the spacecraft is finally en route to do what we have worked toward for many years.”

But while InSight’s mission is just getting under way, it also marks the last stage in a particularly fruitful period for the U.S. space agency’s Mars program. In the past two decades, multiple, complementary spacecraft tackled different aspects of Mars science.

Unlike the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars nearly six years ago and is in the process of climbing a mountain in the middle of an ancient crater, InSight is designed to stay in one place after it touches down Nov. 26 [2018]. Its purpose is to open a new direction in Mars exploration – one that leads straight down as the spacecraft deploys a unique set of instruments to spy on the planet’s interior.

“What we will learn … will help us understand the earliest history of rocky planets, including Earth,” Dr. Johnson said.

It has been a prolonged voyage to the red planet. In 2015, technical problems forced program managers to postpone InSight’s launch for 2½ years. Now, scientists are hoping for smooth sailing to Mars and an uneventful landing a few hundred kilometres north of Curiosity, at a site that Dr. Johnson cheerfully describes as “boring.”

Does the timing of this talk mean you’ll be getting the latest news since InSight landed on Mars roughly six months ago? One can only hope. Finally, Johnson’s UBC bio webpage is here.

Baba Brinkman brings us up-to-date

Here’s most of a May 22, 2019 newsletter update (received via email) from former Vancouverite and current rapper, playwright, and science communicator, Baba Brinkman,

… Over the past five years I have been collaborating frequently with a company in California called SpectorDance, after the artistic director Fran Spector Atkins invited me to write and perform a rap soundtrack to one of her dance productions. Well, a few weeks ago we played our biggest venue yet with our latest collaborative show, Ocean Trilogy, which is all about the impact of human activities including climate change on marine ecosystems. The show was developed in collaboration with scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and for the first time there’s now a full video of the production online. Have you ever seen scientifically-informed eco rap music combined in live performance with ballet and modern dance? Enjoy.

Speaking of “Science is Everywhere”, about a year ago I got to perform my song “Can’t Stop” about the neurobiology of free will for a sold-out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music alongside physicist Brian Greene, comedian Chuck Nice, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The song is half scripted and half freestyle (can you tell which part is which?) They just released the video.

Over the past few months I’ve been performing Rap Guide to Evolution, Consciousness, and Climate Chaos off-Broadway 2-3 times per week, which has been a roller coaster. Some nights I have 80 people and it’s rocking, other nights I step on stage and play to 15 people and it takes effort to keep it lively. But since this is New York, occasionally when there’s only 15 people one of them will turn out to be a former Obama Administration Energy Advisor or will publish a five star review, which keeps it exciting.

Tonight I fly to the UK where I’ll be performing all next week, including the premiere of my newest show Rap Guide to Culture, with upcoming shows in Brighton, followed by off-Broadway previews in June, followed by a full run at the Edinburgh Fringe in August (plus encores of my other shows), followed by… well I can’t really see any further than August at the moment, but the next few months promise to be action-packed.

What’s Rap Guide to Culture about? Cultural evolution and the psychology of norms of course. I recently attended a conference at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, TN where I performed a sneak preview and did a “Rap Up” of the various conference talks, summarizing the scientific content at the end of the day, check out the video.

Okay, time to get back to packing and hit the road. More to come soon, and wish me luck continuing to dominate my lonely genre.

Brinkman has been featured here many times (just use his name as the term in the blog’s search engine). While he lives in New York City these days, he does retain a connection to Vancouver in that his mother Joyce Murray is the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Quadra and, currently, the president of the Treasury Board.

Bendable phones that are partially organic

It’s been about nine  or 10 years since I first heard about bendable phones (my September 29, 2010 posting). The concept keeps popping up from time to time (my April 25, 2017 posting) and this time, we have Australian scientists to thank for this latest work described in an October 5, 2018 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Engineers at ANU [Australian National University] have invented a semiconductor with organic and inorganic materials that can convert electricity into light very efficiently, and it is thin and flexible enough to help make devices such as mobile phones bendable (Advanced Materials, “Efficient and Layer-Dependent Exciton Pumping across Atomically Thin Organic–Inorganic Type-I Heterostructures”).

The invention also opens the door to a new generation of high-performance electronic devices made with organic materials that will be biodegradable or that can be easily recycled, promising to help substantially reduce e-waste.

An October 5, 2018 ANU press release (also on EurekAlert but published October 4, 2018) expands on the theme,

The huge volumes of e-waste generated by discarded electronic devices around the world is causing irreversible damage to the environment. Australia produces 200,000 tonnes of e-waste every year – only four per cent of this waste is recycled.

The organic component has the thickness of just one atom – made from just carbon and hydrogen – and forms part of the semiconductor that the ANU team developed. The inorganic component has the thickness of around two atoms. The hybrid structure can convert electricity into light efficiently for displays on mobile phones, televisions and other electronic devices.

Lead senior researcher Associate Professor Larry Lu said the invention was a major breakthrough in the field.

“For the first time, we have developed an ultra-thin electronics component with excellent semiconducting properties that is an organic-inorganic hybrid structure and thin and flexible enough for future technologies, such as bendable mobile phones and display screens,” said Associate Professor Lu from the ANU Research School of Engineering.

PhD researcher Ankur Sharma, who recently won the ANU 3-Minute Thesis competition, said experiments demonstrated the performance of their semiconductor would be much more efficient than conventional semiconductors made with inorganic materials such as silicon.

“We have the potential with this semiconductor to make mobile phones as powerful as today’s supercomputers,” said Mr Sharma from the ANU Research School of Engineering.

“The light emission from our semiconducting structure is very sharp, so it can be used for high-resolution displays and, since the materials are ultra-thin, they have the flexibility to be made into bendable screens and mobile phones in the near future.”

The team grew the organic semiconductor component molecule by molecule, in a similar way to 3D printing. The process is called chemical vapour deposition.

“We characterised the opto-electronic and electrical properties of our invention to confirm the tremendous potential of it to be used as a future semiconductor component,” Associate Professor Lu said.

“We are working on growing our semiconductor component on a large scale, so it can be commercialised in collaboration with prospective industry partners.”

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

Efficient and Layer‐Dependent Exciton Pumping across Atomically Thin Organic–Inorganic Type‐I Heterostructures by Linglong Zhang, Ankur Sharma, Yi Zhu, Yuhan Zhang, Bowen Wang, Miheng Dong, Hieu T. Nguyen, Zhu Wang, Bo Wen, Yujie Cao, Boqing Liu, Xueqian Sun, Jiong Yang, Ziyuan Li. Advanced Materials Volume30, Issue 40 1803986 (October 4, 2018) DOI:https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201803986 First published [onliine]: 30 August 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Wearable electronic textiles from the UK, India, and Canada: two different carbon materials

It seems wearable electronic textiles may be getting nearer to the marketplace. I have three research items (two teams working with graphene and one working with carbon nanotubes) that appeared on my various feeds within two days of each other.

UK/China

This research study is the result of a collaboration between UK and Chinese scientists. From a May 15, 2019 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),


Wearable electronic components incorporated directly into fabrics have been developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge. The devices could be used for flexible circuits, healthcare monitoring, energy conversion, and other applications.

The Cambridge researchers, working in collaboration with colleagues at Jiangnan University in China, have shown how graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – and other related materials can be directly incorporated into fabrics to produce charge storage elements such as capacitors, paving the way to textile-based power supplies which are washable, flexible and comfortable to wear.

The research, published in the journal Nanoscale, demonstrates that graphene inks can be used in textiles able to store electrical charge and release it when required. The new textile electronic devices are based on low-cost, sustainable and scalable dyeing of polyester fabric. The inks are produced by standard solution processing techniques.

Building on previous work by the same team, the researchers designed inks which can be directly coated onto a polyester fabric in a simple dyeing process. The versatility of the process allows various types of electronic components to be incorporated into the fabric.

Schematic of the textile-based capacitor integrating GNP/polyesters as electrodes and h-BN/polyesters as dielectrics. Credit: Felice Torrisi

A May 16, 2019 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, probes further,

Most other wearable electronics rely on rigid electronic components mounted on plastic or textiles. These offer limited compatibility with the skin in many circumstances, are damaged when washed and are uncomfortable to wear because they are not breathable.

“Other techniques to incorporate electronic components directly into textiles are expensive to produce and usually require toxic solvents, which makes them unsuitable to be worn,” said Dr Felice Torrisi from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, and the paper’s corresponding author. “Our inks are cheap, safe and environmentally-friendly, and can be combined to create electronic circuits by simply overlaying different fabrics made of two-dimensional materials on the fabric.”

The researchers suspended individual graphene sheets in a low boiling point solvent, which is easily removed after deposition on the fabric, resulting in a thin and uniform conducting network made up of multiple graphene sheets. The subsequent overlay of several graphene and hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN) fabrics creates an active region, which enables charge storage. This sort of ‘battery’ on fabric is bendable and can withstand washing cycles in a normal washing machine.

“Textile dyeing has been around for centuries using simple pigments, but our result demonstrates for the first time that inks based on graphene and related materials can be used to produce textiles that could store and release energy,” said co-author Professor Chaoxia Wang from Jiangnan University in China. “Our process is scalable and there are no fundamental obstacles to the technological development of wearable electronic devices both in terms of their complexity and performance.”

The work done by the Cambridge researchers opens a number of commercial opportunities for ink based on two-dimensional materials, ranging from personal health and well-being technology, to wearable energy and data storage, military garments, wearable computing and fashion.

“Turning textiles into functional energy storage elements can open up an entirely new set of applications, from body-energy harvesting and storage to the Internet of Things,” said Torrisi “In the future our clothes could incorporate these textile-based charge storage elements and power wearable textile devices.”

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

Wearable solid-state capacitors based on two-dimensional material all-textile heterostructures by Siyu Qiang, Tian Carey, Adrees Arbab, Weihua Song, Chaoxia Wang and Felice Torris. Nanoscale, 2019, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C9NR00463G First published on 18 Apr 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

India

Prior to graphene’s reign as the ‘it’ carbon material, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) ruled. It’s been quieter on the CNT front since graphene took over but a May 15, 2019 Nanowerk Spotlight article by Michael Berger highlights some of the latest CNT research coming out of India,


The most important technical challenge is to blend the chemical nature of raw materials with fabrication techniques and processability, all of which are diametrically conflicting for textiles and conventional energy storage devices. A team from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay has come out with a comprehensive approach involving simple and facile steps to fabricate a wearable energy storage device. Several scientific and technological challenges were overcome during this process.

First, to achieve user-comfort and computability with clothing, the scaffold employed was the the same as what a regular fabric is made up of – cellulose fibers. However, cotton yarns are electrical insulators and therefore practically useless for any electronics. Therefore, the yarns are coated with single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWNTs).

SWNTs are hollow, cylindrical allotropes of carbon and combine excellent mechanical strength with electrical conductivity and surface area. Such a coating converts the electrical insulating cotton yarn to a metallic conductor with high specific surface area. At the same time, using carbon-based materials ensures that the final material remains light-weight and does not cause user discomfort that can arise from metallic wires such as copper and gold. This CNT-coated cotton yarn (CNT-wires) forms the electrode for the energy storage device.

Next, the electrolyte is composed of solid-state electrolyte sheets since no liquid-state electrolytes can be used for this purpose. However, solid state electrolytes suffer from poor ionic conductivity – a major disadvantage for energy storage applications. Therefore, a steam-based infiltration approach that enhances the ionic conductivity of the electrolyte is adopted. Such enhancement of humidity significantly increases the energy storage capacity of the device.


The integration of the CNT-wire electrode with the electrolyte sheet was carried out by a simple and elegant approach of interweaving the CNT-wire through the electrolyte (see Figure 1). This resulted in cross-intersections which are actually junctions where the electrical energy can be stored. Each such junction is now an energy storage unit, referred to as sewcap.

The advantage of this process is that several 100s and 1000s of sewcaps can be made in a small area and integrated to increase the total amount of energy stored in the system. This scalability is unique and critical aspect of this work and stems from the approach of interweaving.

Further, this process is completely adaptable with current processes used in textile industries. Hence, a proportionately large energy-storage is achieved by creating sewcap-junctions in various combinations.

All components of the final sewcap device are flexible. However, they need to be protected from environmental effects such as temperature, humidity and sweat while retaining the mechanical flexibility. This is achieved by laminating the entire device between polymer sheets. The process is exactly similar to the one used for protecting documents and ID cards.

The laminated sewcap can be integrated easily on clothing and fabrics while retaining the flexibility and sturdiness. This is demonstrated by the unchanged performance of the device during extreme and harsh mechanical testing such as striking repeatedly with a hammer, complete flexing, bending and rolling and washing in a laundry machine.

In fact, this is the first device that has been proven to be stable under rigorous washing conditions in the presence of hot water, detergents and high torque (spinning action of washing machine). This provides the device with comprehensive mechanical stability.


CNTs have high surface area and electrical conductivity. The CNT-wire combines these properties of CNTs with stability and porosity of cellulose yarns. The junction created by interweaving is essentially comprised of two such CNT-wires that are sandwiching an electrolyte. Application of potential difference leads to polarization of the electrolyte thus enabling energy storage similar to the way in which a conventional capacitor acts.

“We use the advantage of the interweaving process and create several such junctions. So, with each junction being able to store a certain amount of electrical energy, all the junctions synchronized are able to store a large amount of energy. This provides high energy density to the device,” Prof. C. Subramaniam, Department of Chemistry, IIT Bombay and corresponding author of the paper points out.

The device has also been employed for lighting up an LED [light-emitting diode]. This can be potentially scaled to provide electrical energy demanded by the application.

This image accompanies the paper written by Prof. C. Subramaniam and his team,

Courtesy: IACS Applied Materials Interfaces

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

Interwoven Carbon Nanotube Wires for High-Performing, Mechanically Robust, Washable, and Wearable Supercapacitors by Mihir Kumar Jha, Kenji Hata, and Chandramouli Subramaniam. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsami.8b22233 Publication Date (Web): April 29, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canada

A research team from the University of British Columbia (UBC at the Okanagan Campus) joined the pack with a May 16, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

Forget the smart watch. Bring on the smart shirt.

Researchers at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering have developed a low-cost sensor that can be interlaced into textiles and composite materials. While the research is still new, the sensor may pave the way for smart clothing that can monitor human movement.

A May 16, 2019 UBC news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,


“Microscopic sensors are changing the way we monitor machines and humans,” says Hoorfar, lead researcher at the Advanced Thermo-Fluidic Lab at UBC’s Okanagan campus. “Combining the shrinking of technology along with improved accuracy, the future is very bright in this area.”

This ‘shrinking technology’ uses a phenomenon called piezo-resistivity—an electromechanical response of a material when it is under strain. These tiny sensors have shown a great promise in detecting human movements and can be used for heart rate monitoring or temperature control, explains Hoorfar.

Her research, conducted in partnership with UBC Okanagan’s Materials and Manufacturing Research Institute, shows the potential of a low-cost, sensitive and stretchable yarn sensor. The sensor can be woven into spandex material and then wrapped into a stretchable silicone sheath. This sheath protects the conductive layer against harsh conditions and allows for the creation of washable wearable sensors.

While the idea of smart clothing—fabrics that can tell the user when to hydrate, or when to rest—may change the athletics industry, UBC Professor Abbas Milani says the sensor has other uses. It can monitor deformations in fibre-reinforced composite fabrics currently used in advanced industries such as automotive, aerospace and marine manufacturing.

The low-cost stretchable composite sensor has also shown a high sensitivity and can detect small deformations such as yarn stretching as well as out-of-plane deformations at inaccessible places within composite laminates, says Milani, director of the UBC Materials and Manufacturing Research Institute.

The testing indicates that further improvements in its accuracy could be achieved by fine-tuning the sensor’s material blend and improving its electrical conductivity and sensitivity This can eventually make it able to capture major flaws like “fibre wrinkling” during the manufacturing of advanced composite structures such as those currently used in airplanes or car bodies.

“Advanced textile composite materials make the most of combining the strengths of different reinforcement materials and patterns with different resin options,” he says. “Integrating sensor technologies like piezo-resistive sensors made of flexible materials compatible with the host textile reinforcement is becoming a real game-changer in the emerging era of smart manufacturing and current automated industry trends.”

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

Graphene‐Coated Spandex Sensors Embedded into Silicone Sheath for Composites Health Monitoring and Wearable Applications by Hossein Montazerian, Armin Rashidi, Arash Dalili, Homayoun Najjaran, Abbas S. Milani, Mina Hoorfar. Small Volume15, Issue17 April 26, 2019 1804991 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201804991 First published: 28 March 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Will there be one winner or will they find CNTs better for one type of wearable tech textile while graphene excels for another type of wearable tech textile?