The memristor rises; commercialization and academic research in the US; carbon nanotubes could be made safer than we thought

In 2008, two memristor papers were published in Nature and Nature Nanotechnology, respectively. In the first (Nature, May 2008 [article still behind a paywall], a team at HP Labs claimed they had proved the existence of memristors (a fourth member of electrical engineering’s ‘Holy Trinity of the capacitor, resistor, and inductor’). In the second paper (Nature Nanotechnology, July 2008 [article still behind a paywall]) the team reported that they had achieved engineering control.

I mention this because (a) there’s some new excitement about memristors and (b) I love the story (you can read my summary of the 2008 story here on the Nanotech Mysteries wiki).

Unbeknownst to me in 2008, there was another team, located in Japan, whose work  on slime mould inspired research by a group at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego)  which confirmed theorist Leon Chua’s (he first suggested memristors existed in 1971) intuition that biological organisms used memristive systems to learn. From an article (Synapse on a Chip) by Surf daddy Orca on the HPlus magazine site,

Experiments with slime molds in 2008 by Tetsu Saisuga at Hokkaido University in Sapporo sparked additional research at the University of California, San Diego by Max Di Ventra. Di Ventra was familiar with Chua’s work and built a memristive circuit that was able to learn and predict future signals. This ability turns out to be similar to the electrical activity involved in the ebb and flow of potassium and sodium ions across cellular membranes: synapses altering their response according to the frequency and strength of signals. New Scientist reports that Di Ventra’s work confirmed Chua’s suspicions that “synapses were memristors.” “The ion channel was the missing circuit element I was looking for,” says Chua, “and it already existed in nature.”

Fast forward to 2010 and a team at the University of Michigan led by Dr. Wei Lu showing how synapses behave like memristors (published in Nano Letters, DOI: 10.1021/nl904092h [article behind paywall]). (Fromthe  HPlus site article)

Scientific American describes a US military-funded project that is trying to use the memristor “to make neural computing a reality.” DARPA’s Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics Program (SyNAPSE) is funded to create “electronic neuromorphic machine technology that is scalable to biological levels.”

I’m not sure if the research in Michigan and elsewhere is being funded by DARPA (the US Dept. of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) although it seems likely.

In the short term, scientists talk about energy savings (no need to reboot your computer when you turn it back on). In the longer term, they talk about hardware being able to learn. (Thanks to the Foresight Institute for the latest update on the memristor story and the pointer to HPlus.) Do visit the HPlus site as there are some videos of scientists talking about memristors and additional information (there’s yet another team working on research that is tangentially related).

Commercializing academic research in US

Thanks to Dave Bruggeman at the Pasco Phronesis blog who’s posted some information about a White House Request for Information (RFI) on commercializing academic research. This is of particular interest not just because of the discussion about innovation in Canada but also because the US National Nanotechnology Initiative’s report to PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, my comments about the webcast of the proceedings here). From the Pasco Phronesis posting about the NNI report,

While the report notes that the U.S. continues to have a strong nanotechnology sector and corresponding support from the government. However, as with most other economic and research sectors, the rest of the world is catching up, or spending enough to try and catch up to the United States.

According to the report, more attention needs to be paid to commercialization efforts (a concern not unique to nanotechnology).

I don’t know how long the White House’s RFI has been under development but it was made public at the end of March 2010 just weeks after the latest series of reports to PCAST. As for the RFI itself, from the Pasco Phronesis posting about it,

The RFI questions are organized around two basic concerns:

  • Seeking ideas for supporting the commercialization and diffusion of university research. This would include best practices, useful models, metrics (with evidence of their success), and suggested changes in federal policy and/or research funding. In addition, the RFI is interested in how commercialization ecosystems can be developed where none exist.
  • Collecting data on private proof of concept centers (POCCs). These entities seek to help get research over the so-called “Valley of Death” between demonstrable research idea and final commercial product. The RFI is looking for similar kinds of information as for commercialization in general: best practices, metrics, underlying conditions that facilitate such centers.

I find the news of this RFI a little surprising since I had the impression that commercialization of academic research in the US is far more advanced than it is here in Canada. Mind you, that impression is based on a conversation I had with a researcher a year ago who commented that his mentor at a US university rolled out more than 1 start up company every year. As I understand it researchers in Canada may start up one or two companies in their career but never a series of them.

Carbon nanotubes, is exposure ok?

There’s some new research which suggests that carbon nanotubes can be broken down by an enzyme. From the news item on Nanowerk,

A team of Swedish and American scientists has shown for the first time that carbon nanotubes can be broken down by an enzyme – myeloperoxidase (MPO) – found in white blood cells. Their discoveries are presented in Nature Nanotechnology (“Carbon nanotubes degraded by neutrophil myeloperoxidase induce less pulmonary inflammation”) and contradict what was previously believed, that carbon nanotubes are not broken down in the body or in nature. The scientists hope that this new understanding of how MPO converts carbon nanotubes into water and carbon dioxide can be of significance to medicine.

“Previous studies have shown that carbon nanotubes could be used for introducing drugs or other substances into human cells,” says Bengt Fadeel, associate professor at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet. “The problem has been not knowing how to control the breakdown of the nanotubes, which can caused unwanted toxicity and tissue damage. Our study now shows how they can be broken down biologically into harmless components.”

I believe they tested single-walled carbon nanotubes (CNTs) only as the person who wrote the news release seems unaware that mutil-walled CNTs also exist. In any event, this could be very exciting if this research holds up under more testing.

14 thoughts on “The memristor rises; commercialization and academic research in the US; carbon nanotubes could be made safer than we thought

  1. David Bruggeman

    My sense is that the U.S. has been working on commercializing academic research a lot longer than Canada, and has had more success based on more years of experience and sheer difference of volume.

    Nanotechnology is still not a mature industrial sector (at least in the U.S.), so issues that may have been resolved in biotechnology or agricultural technology have yet to be handled in nanotech.

  2. admin

    Hi Dave! I do agree with your sense of the situation. And, this suggests to me that where nanotechnology is concerned Canadians are either in for a doublewhammy or will be able to piggyback onto the US’s pioneering efforts at nano commercialization. Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Forrest Bennett

    I agree that memristors are interesting and and have great potential. However you should stop passing around the incorrect idea that they are the “4th circuit element”.

    1. R, L, and C all have their own units: ohm, henry, farad. But the memristor has the same units as the resistor. A true 4th circuit element would require new units.

    2. If you look at the work on memcapacitors and meminductors, it becomes clear that memristors are the non-linear *generalization* of resistors, not a 4th class of device.

    3. If you read Chua’s paper, “Nonlinear circuit foundations for nanodevices”, Proc IEEE, Nov 2003, you will see that indeed Chua defines 4 fundamental classes of devices. However, the memristor and the resistor are in the *same* class.

    This “4th circuit element” business is marketing spin from HP, and detracts from the actual results in this area.

  4. admin

    Hi! and thank you for the clarification. I always appreciate getting to understand these developments better. However, I will mourn losing the “the fourth member of the ‘Holy Trinity’.” Thank you for taking the time to drop by.

  5. Forrest Bennett

    Well, yes it is sad. The whole “4th member” thing was fun. However, I encourage people to check out that Chua 2003 paper, because it’s even more amazing that a 4th member. It’s a whole infinite periodic table of circuit elements!

  6. admin

    An infinite periodic table of circuit elements? That does sound exciting. I look forward to reading it. Thank you.

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  9. Karan Behar

    Dear Admin

    Greetings. Cna you point me out to the Part II of Chua’s paper, “Nonlinear circuit foundations for nanodevices”, Proc IEEE, Nov 2003 paper.
    Thank you.



  10. admin

    Dear Karan, I’ve been asking myself the same question. Despite my best efforts I have not been able to locate part II. I will try to find the answer and post it here by the end of this week. Cheers, Maryse

  11. admin

    Dear Karan, I followed up with one more fruitless search and then I contacted Dr. Chua. Here’s his reply:
    “Just read your email as I am going out of town. Here’s a quick answer :
    Part 2 has not yet been written ! I had very little feedback from Part 1
    that I thought there is little interest–until the hp paper. Ever since I have
    been bombarded with when it will be written. I will try to find some time
    next year. ” So there you have it. Thanks for the question and for reading my blog. Cheers, Maryse

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