Tag Archives: University of Colorado Boulder

Desalination with nanowood

A new treatment for wood could make renewable salt-separating membranes. Courtesy: University of Maryland

An August 6, 2019 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company describes a ‘wooden’approach to water desalinization (also known as desalination),

“We are trying to develop a new type of membrane material that is nature-based,” says Z. Jason Ren, an engineering professor at Princeton University and one of the coauthors of a new paper in Science Advances about that material, which is made from wood. It’s designed for use in a process called membrane distillation, which heats up saltwater and uses pressure to force the water vapor through a membrane, leaving the salt behind and creating pure water. The membranes are usually made from a type of plastic. Using “nanowood” membranes instead can both improve the energy efficiency of the process and avoid the environmental problems of plastic.

An August 2, 2019 University of Maryland (UMD) news release provides more detail about the research,

A membrane made of a sliver of wood could be the answer to renewably sourced water cleaning. Most membranes that are currently used to distill fresh water from salty are made of polymers based on fossil fuels.

Inspired by the intricate system of water circulating in a tree, a research team from the University of Maryland, Princeton University, and the University of Colorado Boulder have figured out how to use a thin slice of wood as a membrane through which water vapor can evaporate, leaving behind salt or other contaminants.

“This work demonstrates another exciting energy/water application of nanostructured wood, as a high-performance membrane material,” said Liangbing Hu, a professor of materials science and engineering at UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, who co-led the study.

The team chemically treated the wood to become hydrophobic, so that it more efficiently allows water vapor through, driven by a heat source like solar energy.

“This study discovered a new way of using wood materials’ unique properties as both an excellent insulator and water vapor transporter,” said Z. Jason Ren, a professor in environmental engineering who recently moved from CU Boulder to Princeton, and the other co-leader of the team that performed the study.

The researchers treat the wood so that it loses its lignin, the part of the wood that makes it brown and rigid, and its hemicellulose, which weaves in and out between cellulose to hold it in place. The resulting “nanowood” is treated with silane, a compound used to make silicon for computer chips. The semiconducting nature of the compound maintains the wood’s natural nanostructures of cellulose, and clings less to water vapor molecules as they pass through. Silane is also used in solar cell manufacturing.

The membrane looks like a thin piece of wood, seemingly bleached white, that is suspended above a source of water vapor. As the water heats and passes into the gas phase, the molecules are small enough to fit through the tiny channels lining the walls of the leftover cell structure. Water collected on the other side is now free of large contaminants like salt.
To test it, the researchers distilled water through it and found that it performed 1.2 times better than a conventional membrane.

“The wood membrane has very high porosity, which promotes water vapor transport and prevents heat loss,” said first author Dianxun Hou, who was a student at CU Boulder.
Inventwood, a UMD spinoff company of Hu’s research group, is working on commercializing wood based nanotechnologies.

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

Hydrophobic nanostructured wood membrane for thermally efficient distillation by Dianxun Hou, Tian Li, Xi Chen, Shuaiming He, Jiaqi Dai, Sohrab A. Mofid, Deyin Hou, Arpita Iddya, David Jassby, Ronggui Yang, Liangbing Hu, and Zhiyong Jason Ren. Science Advances 02 Aug 2019: Vol. 5, no. 8, eaaw3203 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw3203

This paper appears to be open access.

In my brief survey of the paper, I noticed that the researchers were working with cellulose nanofibrils (CNF), a term which should be familiar for anyone following the nanocellulose story, such as it.

Low-cost carbon sequestration and eco-friendly manufacturing for chemicals with nanobio hybrid organisms

Years ago I was asked about carbon sequestration and nanotechnology and could not come up with any examples. At last I have something for the next time the question is asked. From a June 11, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

University of Colorado Boulder researchers have developed nanobio-hybrid organisms capable of using airborne carbon dioxide and nitrogen to produce a variety of plastics and fuels, a promising first step toward low-cost carbon sequestration and eco-friendly manufacturing for chemicals.

By using light-activated quantum dots to fire particular enzymes within microbial cells, the researchers were able to create “living factories” that eat harmful CO2 and convert it into useful products such as biodegradable plastic, gasoline, ammonia and biodiesel.

A June 11, 2019 University of Colorado at Boulder news release (also on EurekAlert) by Trent Knoss, which originated the news item, provides a deeper dive into the research,

“The innovation is a testament to the power of biochemical processes,” said Prashant Nagpal, lead author of the research and an assistant professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “We’re looking at a technique that could improve CO2 capture to combat climate change and one day even potentially replace carbon-intensive manufacturing for plastics and fuels.”

The project began in 2013, when Nagpal and his colleagues began exploring the broad potential of nanoscopic quantum dots, which are tiny semiconductors similar to those used in television sets. Quantum dots can be injected into cells passively and are designed to attach and self-assemble to desired enzymes and then activate these enzymes on command using specific wavelengths of light.

Nagpal wanted to see if quantum dots could act as a spark plug to fire particular enzymes within microbial cells that have the means to convert airborne CO2 and nitrogen, but do not do so naturally due to a lack of photosynthesis.

By diffusing the specially-tailored dots into the cells of common microbial species found in soil, Nagpal and his colleagues bridged the gap. Now, exposure to even small amounts of indirect sunlight would activate the microbes’ CO2 appetite, without a need for any source of energy or food to carry out the energy-intensive biochemical conversions.

“Each cell is making millions of these chemicals and we showed they could exceed their natural yield by close to 200 percent,” Nagpal said.

The microbes, which lie dormant in water, release their resulting product to the surface, where it can be skimmed off and harvested for manufacturing. Different combinations of dots and light produce different products: Green wavelengths cause the bacteria to consume nitrogen and produce ammonia while redder wavelengths make the microbes feast on CO2 to produce plastic instead.

The process also shows promising signs of being able to operate at scale. The study found that even when the microbial factories were activated consistently for hours at a time, they showed few signs of exhaustion or depletion, indicating that the cells can regenerate and thus limit the need for rotation.

“We were very surprised that it worked as elegantly as it did,” Nagpal said. “We’re just getting started with the synthetic applications.”

The ideal futuristic scenario, Nagpal said, would be to have single-family homes and businesses pipe their CO2 emissions directly to a nearby holding pond, where microbes would convert them to a bioplastic. The owners would be able to sell the resulting product for a small profit while essentially offsetting their own carbon footprint.

“Even if the margins are low and it can’t compete with petrochemicals on a pure cost basis, there is still societal benefit to doing this,” Nagpal said. “If we could convert even a small fraction of local ditch ponds, it would have a sizeable impact on the carbon output of towns. It wouldn’t be asking much for people to implement. Many already make beer at home, for example, and this is no more complicated.”

The focus now, he said, will shift to optimizing the conversion process and bringing on new undergraduate students. Nagpal is looking to convert the project into an undergraduate lab experiment in the fall semester, funded by a CU Boulder Engineering Excellence Fund grant. Nagpal credits his current students with sticking with the project over the course of many years.

“It has been a long journey and their work has been invaluable,” he said. “I think these results show that it was worth it.”

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

Nanorg Microbial Factories: Light-Driven Renewable Biochemical Synthesis Using Quantum Dot-Bacteria Nanobiohybrids by Yuchen Ding, John R. Bertram, Carrie Eckert, Rajesh Reddy Bommareddy, Rajan Patel, Alex Conradie, Samantha Bryan, Prashant Nagpal. J. Am. Chem. Soc.2019XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/jacs.9b02549 Publication Date:June 7, 2019
Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Solar cells and ‘tinkertoys’

A Nov. 3, 2014 news item on Nanowerk features a project researchers hope will improve photovoltaic efficiency and make solar cells competitive with other sources of energy,

 Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have received a $1.2 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to develop a technique that they believe will significantly improve the efficiencies of photovoltaic materials and help make solar electricity cost-competitive with other sources of energy.

The work builds on Sandia’s recent successes with metal-organic framework (MOF) materials by combining them with dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC).

“A lot of people are working with DSSCs, but we think our expertise with MOFs gives us a tool that others don’t have,” said Sandia’s Erik Spoerke, a materials scientist with a long history of solar cell exploration at the labs.

A Nov. 3, 2014 Sandia National Laboratories news release, which originated the news item, describes the project and the technology in more detail,

Sandia’s project is funded through SunShot’s Next Generation Photovoltaic Technologies III program, which sponsors projects that apply promising basic materials science that has been proven at the materials properties level to demonstrate photovoltaic conversion improvements to address or exceed SunShot goals.

The SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation with the aim of making solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, the Energy Department supports efforts by private companies, universities and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

DSSCs provide basis for future advancements in solar electricity production

Dye-sensitized solar cells, invented in the 1980s, use dyes designed to efficiently absorb light in the solar spectrum. The dye is mated with a semiconductor, typically titanium dioxide, that facilitates conversion of the energy in the optically excited dye into usable electrical current.

DSSCs are considered a significant advancement in photovoltaic technology since they separate the various processes of generating current from a solar cell. Michael Grätzel, a professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, was awarded the 2010 Millennium Technology Prize for inventing the first high-efficiency DSSC.

“If you don’t have everything in the DSSC dependent on everything else, it’s a lot easier to optimize your photovoltaic device in the most flexible and effective way,” explained Sandia senior scientist Mark Allendorf. DSSCs, for example, can capture more of the sun’s energy than silicon-based solar cells by using varied or multiple dyes and also can use different molecular systems, Allendorf said.

“It becomes almost modular in terms of the cell’s components, all of which contribute to making electricity out of sunlight more efficiently,” said Spoerke.

MOFs’ structure, versatility and porosity help overcome DSSC limitations

Though a source of optimism for the solar research community, DSSCs possess certain challenges that the Sandia research team thinks can be overcome by combining them with MOFs.

Allendorf said researchers hope to use the ordered structure and versatile chemistry of MOFs to help the dyes in DSSCs absorb more solar light, which he says is a fundamental limit on their efficiency.

“Our hypothesis is that we can put a thin layer of MOF on top of the titanium dioxide, thus enabling us to order the dye in exactly the way we want it,” Allendorf explained. That, he said, should avoid the efficiency-decreasing problem of dye aggregation, since the dye would then be locked into the MOF’s crystalline structure.

MOFs are highly-ordered materials that also offer high levels of porosity, said Allendorf, a MOF expert and 29-year veteran of Sandia. He calls the materials “Tinkertoys for chemists” because of the ease with which new structures can be envisioned and assembled. [emphasis mine]

Allendorf said the unique porosity of MOFs will allow researchers to add a second dye, placed into the pores of the MOF, that will cover additional parts of the solar spectrum that weren’t covered with the initial dye. Finally, he and Spoerke are convinced that MOFs can help improve the overall electron charge and flow of the solar cell, which currently faces instability issues.

“Essentially, we believe MOFs can help to more effectively organize the electronic and nano-structure of the molecules in the solar cell,” said Spoerke. “This can go a long way toward improving the efficiency and stability of these assembled devices.”

In addition to the Sandia team, the project includes researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder, particularly Steve George, an expert in a thin film technology known as atomic layer deposition.

The technique, said Spoerke, is important in that it offers a pathway for highly controlled materials chemistry with potentially low-cost manufacturing of the DSSC/MOF process.

“With the combination of MOFs, dye-sensitized solar cells and atomic layer deposition, we think we can figure out how to control all of the key cell interfaces and material elements in a way that’s never been done before,” said Spoerke. “That’s what makes this project exciting.”

Here’s a picture showing an early Tinkertoy set,

Original Tinkertoy, Giant Engineer #155. Questor Education Products Co., c.1950 [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinkertoy#mediaviewer/File:Tinkertoy_300126232168.JPG]

Original Tinkertoy, Giant Engineer #155. Questor Education Products Co., c.1950 [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinkertoy#mediaviewer/File:Tinkertoy_300126232168.JPG]

The Tinkertoy entry on Wikipedia has this,

The Tinkertoy Construction Set is a toy construction set for children. It was created in 1914—six years after the Frank Hornby’s Meccano sets—by Charles H. Pajeau and Robert Pettit and Gordon Tinker in Evanston, Illinois. Pajeau, a stonemason, designed the toy after seeing children play with sticks and empty spools of thread. He and Pettit set out to market a toy that would allow and inspire children to use their imaginations. At first, this did not go well, but after a year or two over a million were sold.

Shrinky Dinks, tinkertoys, Lego have all been mentioned here in conjunction with lab work. I’m always delighted to see scientists working with or using children’s toys as inspiration of one type or another.

Swarming robot droplets

The robot droplets are a bit bigger than you might expect, the size of ping pong balls, but the idea is intriguing and for those who’ve read Michael Crichton’s book, Prey, it could seem quite disturbing (from the University of Colorado Boulder multimedia page for ‘tiny robots’),

For anyone unfamiliar with Crichton’s Prey, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about the book which features nanobots operating as a swarm,

… As a result, hazardous elements such as the assemblers, the bacteria, and the nanobots were blown into the desert, evolving and eventually forming autonomous swarms. These swarms appear to be solar-powered and self-sufficient, reproducing and evolving rapidly. The swarms exhibit predatory behavior, attacking and killing animals in the wild, using code that Jack himself worked on. Most alarmingly, the swarms seem to possess rudimentary intelligence, the ability to quickly learn and to innovate. The swarms tend to wander around the fab plant during the day but quickly leave when strong winds blow or night falls.

The Dec. 14, 2012 posting by Alan on the Science Business website describes,

A computer science lab at University of Colorado in Boulder is building a miniature, limited-function robot designed to work in a swarm of similar devices. Computer science professor Nikolaus Correll and colleagues are building these small devices that they call droplets as building blocks for increasingly complex systems.

A University of Colorado Boulder Dec. 14, 2012 news release provides more details,

Correll and his computer science research team, including research associate Dustin Reishus and professional research assistant Nick Farrow, have developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems.

Recently the team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a pingpong ball, which they call “droplets.” When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a “liquid that thinks.”

To accelerate the pace of innovation, he has created a lab where students can explore and develop new applications of robotics with basic, inexpensive tools.

Similar to the fictional “nanomorphs” depicted in the “Terminator” films, large swarms of intelligent robotic devices could be used for a range of tasks. Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space, Correll said.

Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks.

Correll hopes to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviors such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

There’s also talk about creating gardens in space,

He [Correll] also is continuing work on robotic garden technology he developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009. Correll has been working with Joseph Tanner in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department to further develop the technology, involving autonomous sensors and robots that can tend gardens, in conjunction with a model of a long-term space habitat being built by students.

Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” he said. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”

The scientists don’t seem to harbour any trepidations, I guess they’re leaving that to the writers.