Tag Archives: C. David Wright

Electronics begone! Enter: the light-based brainlike computing chip

At this point, it’s possible I’m wrong but I think this is the first ‘memristor’ type device (also called a neuromorphic chip) based on light rather than electronics that I’ve featured here on this blog. In other words, it’s not, technically speaking, a memristor but it does have the same properties so it is a neuromorphic chip.

Caption: The optical microchips that the researchers are working on developing are about the size of a one-cent piece. Credit: WWU Muenster – Peter Leßmann

A May 8, 2019 news item on Nanowerk announces this new approach to neuromorphic hardware (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from the Universities of Münster (Germany), Oxford and Exeter (both UK) have succeeded in developing a piece of hardware which could pave the way for creating computers which resemble the human brain.

The scientists produced a chip containing a network of artificial neurons that works with light and can imitate the behaviour of neurons and their synapses. The network is able to “learn” information and use this as a basis for computing and recognizing patterns. As the system functions solely with light and not with electrons, it can process data many times faster than traditional systems. …

A May 8, 2019 University of Münster press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, reveals the full story,

A technology that functions like a brain? In these times of artificial intelligence, this no longer seems so far-fetched – for example, when a mobile phone can recognise faces or languages. With more complex applications, however, computers still quickly come up against their own limitations. One of the reasons for this is that a computer traditionally has separate memory and processor units – the consequence of which is that all data have to be sent back and forth between the two. In this respect, the human brain is way ahead of even the most modern computers because it processes and stores information in the same place – in the synapses, or connections between neurons, of which there are a million-billion in the brain. An international team of researchers from the Universities of Münster (Germany), Oxford and Exeter (both UK) have now succeeded in developing a piece of hardware which could pave the way for creating computers which resemble the human brain. The scientists managed to produce a chip containing a network of artificial neurons that works with light and can imitate the behaviour of neurons and their synapses.

The researchers were able to demonstrate, that such an optical neurosynaptic network is able to “learn” information and use this as a basis for computing and recognizing patterns – just as a brain can. As the system functions solely with light and not with traditional electrons, it can process data many times faster. “This integrated photonic system is an experimental milestone,” says Prof. Wolfram Pernice from Münster University and lead partner in the study. “The approach could be used later in many different fields for evaluating patterns in large quantities of data, for example in medical diagnoses.” The study is published in the latest issue of the “Nature” journal.

The story in detail – background and method used

Most of the existing approaches relating to so-called neuromorphic networks are based on electronics, whereas optical systems – in which photons, i.e. light particles, are used – are still in their infancy. The principle which the German and British scientists have now presented works as follows: optical waveguides that can transmit light and can be fabricated into optical microchips are integrated with so-called phase-change materials – which are already found today on storage media such as re-writable DVDs. These phase-change materials are characterised by the fact that they change their optical properties dramatically, depending on whether they are crystalline – when their atoms arrange themselves in a regular fashion – or amorphous – when their atoms organise themselves in an irregular fashion. This phase-change can be triggered by light if a laser heats the material up. “Because the material reacts so strongly, and changes its properties dramatically, it is highly suitable for imitating synapses and the transfer of impulses between two neurons,” says lead author Johannes Feldmann, who carried out many of the experiments as part of his PhD thesis at the Münster University.

In their study, the scientists succeeded for the first time in merging many nanostructured phase-change materials into one neurosynaptic network. The researchers developed a chip with four artificial neurons and a total of 60 synapses. The structure of the chip – consisting of different layers – was based on the so-called wavelength division multiplex technology, which is a process in which light is transmitted on different channels within the optical nanocircuit.

In order to test the extent to which the system is able to recognise patterns, the researchers “fed” it with information in the form of light pulses, using two different algorithms of machine learning. In this process, an artificial system “learns” from examples and can, ultimately, generalise them. In the case of the two algorithms used – both in so-called supervised and in unsupervised learning – the artificial network was ultimately able, on the basis of given light patterns, to recognise a pattern being sought – one of which was four consecutive letters.

“Our system has enabled us to take an important step towards creating computer hardware which behaves similarly to neurons and synapses in the brain and which is also able to work on real-world tasks,” says Wolfram Pernice. “By working with photons instead of electrons we can exploit to the full the known potential of optical technologies – not only in order to transfer data, as has been the case so far, but also in order to process and store them in one place,” adds co-author Prof. Harish Bhaskaran from the University of Oxford.

A very specific example is that with the aid of such hardware cancer cells could be identified automatically. Further work will need to be done, however, before such applications become reality. The researchers need to increase the number of artificial neurons and synapses and increase the depth of neural networks. This can be done, for example, with optical chips manufactured using silicon technology. “This step is to be taken in the EU joint project ‘Fun-COMP’ by using foundry processing for the production of nanochips,” says co-author and leader of the Fun-COMP project, Prof. C. David Wright from the University of Exeter.

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

All-optical spiking neurosynaptic networks with self-learning capabilities by J. Feldmann, N. Youngblood, C. D. Wright, H. Bhaskaran & W. H. P. Pernice. Nature volume 569, pages208–214 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1157-8 Issue Date: 09 May 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the curious, I found a little more information about Fun-COMP (functionally-scaled computer technology). It’s a European Commission (EC) Horizon 2020 project coordinated through the University of Exeter. For information with details such as the total cost, contribution from the EC, the list of partnerships and more there is the Fun-COMP webpage on fabiodisconzi.com.

Gamechanging electronics with new ultrafast, flexible, and transparent electronics

There are two news bits about game-changing electronics, one from the UK and the other from the US.

United Kingdom (UK)

An April 3, 2017 news item on Azonano announces the possibility of a future golden age of electronics courtesy of the University of Exeter,

Engineering experts from the University of Exeter have come up with a breakthrough way to create the smallest, quickest, highest-capacity memories for transparent and flexible applications that could lead to a future golden age of electronics.

A March 31, 2017 University of Exeter press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Engineering experts from the University of Exeter have developed innovative new memory using a hybrid of graphene oxide and titanium oxide. Their devices are low cost and eco-friendly to produce, are also perfectly suited for use in flexible electronic devices such as ‘bendable’ mobile phone, computer and television screens, and even ‘intelligent’ clothing.

Crucially, these devices may also have the potential to offer a cheaper and more adaptable alternative to ‘flash memory’, which is currently used in many common devices such as memory cards, graphics cards and USB computer drives.

The research team insist that these innovative new devices have the potential to revolutionise not only how data is stored, but also take flexible electronics to a new age in terms of speed, efficiency and power.

Professor David Wright, an Electronic Engineering expert from the University of Exeter and lead author of the paper said: “Using graphene oxide to produce memory devices has been reported before, but they were typically very large, slow, and aimed at the ‘cheap and cheerful’ end of the electronics goods market.

“Our hybrid graphene oxide-titanium oxide memory is, in contrast, just 50 nanometres long and 8 nanometres thick and can be written to and read from in less than five nanoseconds – with one nanometre being one billionth of a metre and one nanosecond a billionth of a second.”

Professor Craciun, a co-author of the work, added: “Being able to improve data storage is the backbone of tomorrow’s knowledge economy, as well as industry on a global scale. Our work offers the opportunity to completely transform graphene-oxide memory technology, and the potential and possibilities it offers.”

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

Multilevel Ultrafast Flexible Nanoscale Nonvolatile Hybrid Graphene Oxide–Titanium Oxide Memories by V. Karthik Nagareddy, Matthew D. Barnes, Federico Zipoli, Khue T. Lai, Arseny M. Alexeev, Monica Felicia Craciun, and C. David Wright. ACS Nano, 2017, 11 (3), pp 3010–3021 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b08668 Publication Date (Web): February 21, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

United States (US)

Researchers from Stanford University have developed flexible, biodegradable electronics.

A newly developed flexible, biodegradable semiconductor developed by Stanford engineers shown on a human hair. (Image credit: Bao lab)

A human hair? That’s amazing and this May 3, 2017 news item on Nanowerk reveals more,

As electronics become increasingly pervasive in our lives – from smart phones to wearable sensors – so too does the ever rising amount of electronic waste they create. A United Nations Environment Program report found that almost 50 million tons of electronic waste were thrown out in 2017–more than 20 percent higher than waste in 2015.

Troubled by this mounting waste, Stanford engineer Zhenan Bao and her team are rethinking electronics. “In my group, we have been trying to mimic the function of human skin to think about how to develop future electronic devices,” Bao said. She described how skin is stretchable, self-healable and also biodegradable – an attractive list of characteristics for electronics. “We have achieved the first two [flexible and self-healing], so the biodegradability was something we wanted to tackle.”

The team created a flexible electronic device that can easily degrade just by adding a weak acid like vinegar. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (“Biocompatible and totally disintegrable semiconducting polymer for ultrathin and ultralightweight transient electronics”).

“This is the first example of a semiconductive polymer that can decompose,” said lead author Ting Lei, a postdoctoral fellow working with Bao.

A May 1, 2017 Stanford University news release by Sarah Derouin, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

In addition to the polymer – essentially a flexible, conductive plastic – the team developed a degradable electronic circuit and a new biodegradable substrate material for mounting the electrical components. This substrate supports the electrical components, flexing and molding to rough and smooth surfaces alike. When the electronic device is no longer needed, the whole thing can biodegrade into nontoxic components.

Biodegradable bits

Bao, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering, had previously created a stretchable electrode modeled on human skin. That material could bend and twist in a way that could allow it to interface with the skin or brain, but it couldn’t degrade. That limited its application for implantable devices and – important to Bao – contributed to waste.

Flexible, biodegradable semiconductor on an avacado

The flexible semiconductor can adhere to smooth or rough surfaces and biodegrade to nontoxic products. (Image credit: Bao lab)

Bao said that creating a robust material that is both a good electrical conductor and biodegradable was a challenge, considering traditional polymer chemistry. “We have been trying to think how we can achieve both great electronic property but also have the biodegradability,” Bao said.

Eventually, the team found that by tweaking the chemical structure of the flexible material it would break apart under mild stressors. “We came up with an idea of making these molecules using a special type of chemical linkage that can retain the ability for the electron to smoothly transport along the molecule,” Bao said. “But also this chemical bond is sensitive to weak acid – even weaker than pure vinegar.” The result was a material that could carry an electronic signal but break down without requiring extreme measures.

In addition to the biodegradable polymer, the team developed a new type of electrical component and a substrate material that attaches to the entire electronic component. Electronic components are usually made of gold. But for this device, the researchers crafted components from iron. Bao noted that iron is a very environmentally friendly product and is nontoxic to humans.

The researchers created the substrate, which carries the electronic circuit and the polymer, from cellulose. Cellulose is the same substance that makes up paper. But unlike paper, the team altered cellulose fibers so the “paper” is transparent and flexible, while still breaking down easily. The thin film substrate allows the electronics to be worn on the skin or even implanted inside the body.

From implants to plants

The combination of a biodegradable conductive polymer and substrate makes the electronic device useful in a plethora of settings – from wearable electronics to large-scale environmental surveys with sensor dusts.

“We envision these soft patches that are very thin and conformable to the skin that can measure blood pressure, glucose value, sweat content,” Bao said. A person could wear a specifically designed patch for a day or week, then download the data. According to Bao, this short-term use of disposable electronics seems a perfect fit for a degradable, flexible design.

And it’s not just for skin surveys: the biodegradable substrate, polymers and iron electrodes make the entire component compatible with insertion into the human body. The polymer breaks down to product concentrations much lower than the published acceptable levels found in drinking water. Although the polymer was found to be biocompatible, Bao said that more studies would need to be done before implants are a regular occurrence.

Biodegradable electronics have the potential to go far beyond collecting heart disease and glucose data. These components could be used in places where surveys cover large areas in remote locations. Lei described a research scenario where biodegradable electronics are dropped by airplane over a forest to survey the landscape. “It’s a very large area and very hard for people to spread the sensors,” he said. “Also, if you spread the sensors, it’s very hard to gather them back. You don’t want to contaminate the environment so we need something that can be decomposed.” Instead of plastic littering the forest floor, the sensors would biodegrade away.

As the number of electronics increase, biodegradability will become more important. Lei is excited by their advancements and wants to keep improving performance of biodegradable electronics. “We currently have computers and cell phones and we generate millions and billions of cell phones, and it’s hard to decompose,” he said. “We hope we can develop some materials that can be decomposed so there is less waste.”

Other authors on the study include Ming Guan, Jia Liu, Hung-Cheng Lin, Raphael Pfattner, Leo Shaw, Allister McGuire, and Jeffrey Tok of Stanford University; Tsung-Ching Huang of Hewlett Packard Enterprise; and Lei-Lai Shao and Kwang-Ting Cheng of University of California, Santa Barbara.

The research was funded by the Air Force Office for Scientific Research; BASF; Marie Curie Cofund; Beatriu de Pinós fellowship; and the Kodak Graduate Fellowship.

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

Biocompatible and totally disintegrable semiconducting polymer for ultrathin and ultralightweight transient electronics by Ting Lei, Ming Guan, Jia Liu, Hung-Cheng Lin, Raphael Pfattner, Leo Shaw, Allister F. McGuire, Tsung-Ching Huang, Leilai Shao, Kwang-Ting Cheng, Jeffrey B.-H. Tok, and Zhenan Bao. PNAS 2017 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1701478114 published ahead of print May 1, 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

The mention of cellulose in the second item piqued my interest so I checked to see if they’d used nanocellulose. No, they did not. Microcrystalline cellulose powder was used to constitute a cellulose film but they found a way to render this film at the nanoscale. From the Stanford paper (Note: Links have been removed),

… Moreover, cellulose films have been previously used as biodegradable substrates in electronics (28⇓–30). However, these cellulose films are typically made with thicknesses well over 10 μm and thus cannot be used to fabricate ultrathin electronics with substrate thicknesses below 1–2 μm (7, 18, 19). To the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports on ultrathin (1–2 μm) biodegradable substrates for electronics. Thus, to realize them, we subsequently developed a method described herein to obtain ultrathin (800 nm) cellulose films (Fig. 1B and SI Appendix, Fig. S8). First, microcrystalline cellulose powders were dissolved in LiCl/N,N-dimethylacetamide (DMAc) and reacted with hexamethyldisilazane (HMDS) (31, 32), providing trimethylsilyl-functionalized cellulose (TMSC) (Fig. 1B). To fabricate films or devices, TMSC in chlorobenzene (CB) (70 mg/mL) was spin-coated on a thin dextran sacrificial layer. The TMSC film was measured to be 1.2 μm. After hydrolyzing the film in 95% acetic acid vapor for 2 h, the trimethylsilyl groups were removed, giving a 400-nm-thick cellulose film. The film thickness significantly decreased to one-third of the original film thickness, largely due to the removal of the bulky trimethylsilyl groups. The hydrolyzed cellulose film is insoluble in most organic solvents, for example, toluene, THF, chloroform, CB, and water. Thus, we can sequentially repeat the above steps to obtain an 800-nm-thick film, which is robust enough for further device fabrication and peel-off. By soaking the device in water, the dextran layer is dissolved, starting from the edges of the device to the center. This process ultimately releases the ultrathin substrate and leaves it floating on water surface (Fig. 3A, Inset).

Finally, I don’t have any grand thoughts; it’s just interesting to see different approaches to flexible electronics.

The age of the ‘nano-pixel’

As mentioned here before, ‘The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’, a 1985 novel by Neal Stephenson featured in its opening chapter a flexible, bendable, rollable, newspaper screen. It’s one of those devices promised by ‘nano evangelists’ that never quite seems to come into existence. However, ‘hope springs eternally’ as they say and a team from the University of Oxford claims to be bringing us one step closer.

From a July 10, 2014 University of Oxford press release (also on EurekAlert but dated July 9, 2014 and on Azoanano as a July 10, 2014 news item),

A new discovery will make it possible to create pixels just a few hundred nanometres across that could pave the way for extremely high-resolution and low-energy thin, flexible displays for applications such as ‘smart’ glasses, synthetic retinas, and foldable screens.

A team led by Oxford University scientists explored the link between the electrical and optical properties of phase change materials (materials that can change from an amorphous to a crystalline state). They found that by sandwiching a seven nanometre thick layer of a phase change material (GST) between two layers of a transparent electrode they could use a tiny current to ‘draw’ images within the sandwich ‘stack’.

Here’s a series of images the researchers have created using this technology,

Still images drawn with the technology: at around 70 micrometres across each image is smaller than the width of a human hair.  Courtesy University of Oxford

Still images drawn with the technology: at around 70 micrometres across each image is smaller than the width of a human hair. Courtesy University of Oxford

The press release offers a technical description,

Initially still images were created using an atomic force microscope but the team went on to demonstrate that such tiny ‘stacks’ can be turned into prototype pixel-like devices. These ‘nano-pixels’ – just 300 by 300 nanometres in size – can be electrically switched ‘on and off’ at will, creating the coloured dots that would form the building blocks of an extremely high-resolution display technology.

‘We didn’t set out to invent a new kind of display,’ said Professor Harish Bhaskaran of Oxford University’s Department of Materials, who led the research. ‘We were exploring the relationship between the electrical and optical properties of phase change materials and then had the idea of creating this GST ‘sandwich’ made up of layers just a few nanometres thick. We found that not only were we able to create images in the stack but, to our surprise, thinner layers of GST actually gave us better contrast. We also discovered that altering the size of the bottom electrode layer enabled us to change the colour of the image.’

The layers of the GST sandwich are created using a sputtering technique where a target is bombarded with high energy particles so that atoms from the target are deposited onto another material as a thin film.

‘Because the layers that make up our devices can be deposited as thin films they can be incorporated into very thin flexible materials – we have already demonstrated that the technique works on flexible Mylar sheets around 200 nanometres thick,’ said Professor Bhaskaran. ‘This makes them potentially useful for ‘smart’ glasses, foldable screens, windshield displays, and even synthetic retinas that mimic the abilities of photoreceptor cells in the human eye.’

Peiman Hosseini of Oxford University’s Department of Materials, first author of the paper, said: ‘Our models are so good at predicting the experiment that we can tune our prototype ‘pixels’ to create any colour we want – including the primary colours needed for a display. One of the advantages of our design is that, unlike most conventional LCD screens, there would be no need to constantly refresh all pixels, you would only have to refresh those pixels that actually change (static pixels remain as they were). This means that any display based on this technology would have extremely low energy consumption.’

The research suggests that flexible paper-thin displays based on the technology could have the capacity to switch between a power-saving ‘colour e-reader mode’, and a backlit display capable of showing video. Such displays could be created using cheap materials and, because they would be solid-state, promise to be reliable and easy to manufacture. The tiny ‘nano-pixels’ make it ideal for applications, such as smart glasses, where an image would be projected at a larger size as, even enlarged, they would offer very high-resolution.

Professor David Wright of the Department of Engineering at the University of Exeter, co-author of the paper, said: ‘Along with many other researchers around the world we have been looking into the use of these GST materials for memory applications for many years, but no one before thought of combining their electrical and optical functionality to provide entirely new kinds of non-volatile, high-resolution, electronic colour displays – so our work is a real breakthrough.’

The phase change material used was the alloy Ge2Sb2Te5 (Germanium-Antimony-Tellurium or GST) sandwiched between electrode layers made of indium tin oxide (ITO).

I gather the researchers are looking for investors (from the press release),

Whilst the work is still in its early stages, realising its potential, the Oxford team has filed a patent on the discovery with the help of Isis Innovation, Oxford University’s technology commercialisation company. Isis is now discussing the displays with companies who are interested in assessing the technology, and with investors.

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

An optoelectronic framework enabled by low-dimensional phase-change films by Peiman Hosseini, C. David Wright, & Harish Bhaskaran. Nature 511, 206–211 (10 July 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13487 Published online 09 July 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.