Tag Archives: US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Device with brainlike plasticity

A September 1, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily announces a new type of memristor from Texas A&M University (Texas A&M or TAMU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS)

In a discovery published in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers has described a novel molecular device with exceptional computing prowess.

Reminiscent of the plasticity of connections in the human brain, the device can be reconfigured on the fly for different computational tasks by simply changing applied voltages. Furthermore, like nerve cells can store memories, the same device can also retain information for future retrieval and processing.

Two of the universities involved in the research have issued news/press releases. I’m going to start with the September 1, 2021 Texas A&M University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item on ScienceDaily,

“The brain has the remarkable ability to change its wiring around by making and breaking connections between nerve cells. Achieving something comparable in a physical system has been extremely challenging,” said Dr. R. Stanley Williams [emphasis mine], professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University. “We have now created a molecular device with dramatic reconfigurability, which is achieved not by changing physical connections like in the brain, but by reprogramming its logic.”

Dr. T. Venkatesan, director of the Center for Quantum Research and Technology (CQRT) at the University of Oklahoma, Scientific Affiliate at National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, and adjunct professor of electrical and computer engineering at the National University of Singapore, added that their molecular device might in the future help design next-generation processing chips with enhanced computational power and speed, but consuming significantly reduced energy.

Whether it is the familiar laptop or a sophisticated supercomputer, digital technologies face a common nemesis, the von Neumann bottleneck. This delay in computational processing is a consequence of current computer architectures, wherein the memory, containing data and programs, is physically separated from the processor. As a result, computers spend a significant amount of time shuttling information between the two systems, causing the bottleneck. Also, despite extremely fast processor speeds, these units can be idling for extended amounts of time during periods of information exchange.

As an alternative to conventional electronic parts used for designing memory units and processors, devices called memristors offer a way to circumvent the von Neumann bottleneck. Memristors, such as those made of niobium dioxide and vanadium dioxide, transition from being an insulator to a conductor at a set temperature. This property gives these types of memristors the ability to perform computations and store data.

However, despite their many advantages, these metal oxide memristors are made of rare-earth elements and can operate only in restrictive temperature regimes. Hence, there has been an ongoing search for promising organic molecules that can perform a comparable memristive function, said Williams.

Dr. Sreebrata Goswami, a professor at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, designed the material used in this work. The compound has a central metal atom (iron) bound to three phenyl azo pyridine organic molecules called ligands.

“This behaves like an electron sponge that can absorb as many as six electrons reversibly, resulting in seven different redox states,” said Sreebrata. “The interconnectivity between these states is the key behind the reconfigurability shown in this work.”

Dr. Sreetosh Goswami, a researcher at the National University of Singapore, devised this project by creating a tiny electrical circuit consisting of a 40-nanometer layer of molecular film sandwiched between a layer of gold on top and gold-infused nanodisc and indium tin oxide at the bottom.

On applying a negative voltage on the device, Sreetosh witnessed a current-voltage profile that was nothing like anyone had seen before. Unlike metal-oxide memristors that can switch from metal to insulator at only one fixed voltage, the organic molecular devices could switch back and forth from insulator to conductor at several discrete sequential voltages.

“So, if you think of the device as an on-off switch, as we were sweeping the voltage more negative, the device first switched from on to off, then off to on, then on to off and then back to on. I’ll say that we were just blown out of our seat,” said Venkatesan. “We had to convince ourselves that what we were seeing was real.”

Sreetosh and Sreebrata investigated the molecular mechanisms underlying the curious switching behavior using an imaging technique called Raman spectroscopy. In particular, they looked for spectral signatures in the vibrational motion of the organic molecule that could explain the multiple transitions. Their investigation revealed that sweeping the voltage negative triggered the ligands on the molecule to undergo a series of reduction, or electron-gaining, events that caused the molecule to transition between off state and on states.

Next, to describe the extremely complex current-voltage profile of the molecular device mathematically, Williams deviated from the conventional approach of basic physics-based equations. Instead, he described the behavior of the molecules using a decision tree algorithm with “if-then-else” statements, a commonplace line of code in several computer programs, particularly digital games.

“Video games have a structure where you have a character that does something, and then something occurs as a result. And so, if you write that out in a computer algorithm, they are if-then-else statements,” said Williams. “Here, the molecule is switching from on to off as a consequence of applied voltage, and that’s when I had the eureka moment to use decision trees to describe these devices, and it worked very well.” 

But the researchers went a step further to exploit these molecular devices to run programs for different real-world computational tasks. Sreetosh showed experimentally that their devices could perform fairly complex computations in a single time step and then be reprogrammed to perform another task in the next instant.

“It was quite extraordinary; our device was doing something like what the brain does, but in a very different way,” said Sreetosh. “When you’re learning something new or when you’re deciding, the brain can actually reconfigure and change physical wiring around. Similarly, we can logically reprogram or reconfigure our devices by giving them a different voltage pulse then they’ve seen before.” 

Venkatesan noted that it would take thousands of transistors to perform the same computational functions as one of their molecular devices with its different decision trees. Hence, he said their technology might first be used in handheld devices, like cell phones and sensors, and other applications where power is limited.

Other contributors to the research include Dr. Abhijeet Patra and Dr. Ariando from the National University of Singapore; Dr. Rajib Pramanick and Dr. Santi Prasad Rath from the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science; Dr. Martin Foltin from Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Colorado; and Dr. Damien Thompson from the University of Limerick, Ireland.

Venkatesan said that this research is indicative of the future discoveries from this collaborative team, which will include the center of nanoscience and engineering at the Indian Institute of Science and the Microsystems and Nanotechnology Division at the NIST.

I’ve highlighted R. Stanley Williams because he and his team at HP [Hewlett Packard] Labs helped to kick off current memristor research in 2008 with the publication of two papers as per my April 5, 2010 posting,

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.

The novel memory device is based on a molecular system that can transition between on and off states at several discrete sequential voltages Courtesy: National University of Singapore

There is more technical detail in the September 2, 2022 NUS press release (also on EurekAlert),

Many electronic devices today are dependent on semiconductor logic circuits based on switches hard-wired to perform predefined logic functions. Physicists from the National University of Singapore (NUS), together with an international team of researchers, have developed a novel molecular memristor, or an electronic memory device, that has exceptional memory reconfigurability. 

Unlike hard-wired standard circuits, the molecular device can be reconfigured using voltage to embed different computational tasks. The energy-efficient new technology, which is capable of enhanced computational power and speed, can potentially be used in edge computing, as well as handheld devices and applications with limited power resource.

“This work is a significant breakthrough in our quest to design low-energy computing. The idea of using multiple switching in a single element draws inspiration from how the brain works and fundamentally reimagines the design strategy of a logic circuit,” said Associate Professor Ariando from the NUS Department of Physics who led the research.

The research was first published in the journal Nature on 1 September 2021, and carried out in collaboration with the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the University of Limerick, the University of Oklahoma, and Texas A&M University.

Brain-inspired technology

“This new discovery can contribute to developments in edge computing as a sophisticated in-memory computing approach to overcome the von Neumann bottleneck, a delay in computational processing seen in many digital technologies due to the physical separation of memory storage from a device’s processor,” said Assoc Prof Ariando. The new molecular device also has the potential to contribute to designing next generation processing chips with enhanced computational power and speed.

“Similar to the flexibility and adaptability of connections in the human brain, our memory device can be reconfigured on the fly for different computational tasks by simply changing applied voltages. Furthermore, like how nerve cells can store memories, the same device can also retain information for future retrieval and processing,” said first author Dr Sreetosh Goswami, Research Fellow from the Department of Physics at NUS.

Research team member Dr Sreebrata Goswami, who was a Senior Research Scientist at NUS and previously Professor at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, conceptualised and designed a molecular system belonging to the chemical family of phenyl azo pyridines that have a central metal atom bound to organic molecules called ligands. “These molecules are like electron sponges that can offer as many as six electron transfers resulting in five different molecular states. The interconnectivity between these states is the key behind the device’s reconfigurability,” explained Dr Sreebrata Goswami.

Dr Sreetosh Goswami created a tiny electrical circuit consisting a 40-nanometer layer of molecular film sandwiched between a top layer of gold, and a bottom layer of gold-infused nanodisc and indium tin oxide. He observed an unprecedented current-voltage profile upon applying a negative voltage to the device. Unlike conventional metal-oxide memristors that are switched on and off at only one fixed voltage, these organic molecular devices could switch between on-off states at several discrete sequential voltages.

Using an imaging technique called Raman spectroscopy, spectral signatures in the vibrational motion of the organic molecule were observed to explain the multiple transitions. Dr Sreebrata Goswami explained, “Sweeping the negative voltage triggered the ligands on the molecule to undergo a series of reduction, or electron-gaining which caused the molecule to transition between off and on states.”

The researchers described the behavior of the molecules using a decision tree algorithm with “if-then-else” statements, which is used in the coding of several computer programs, particularly digital games, as compared to the conventional approach of using basic physics-based equations.

New possibilities for energy-efficient devices

Building on their research, the team used the molecular memory devices to run programs for different real-world computational tasks. As a proof of concept, the team demonstrated that their technology could perform complex computations in a single step, and could be reprogrammed to perform another task in the next instant. An individual molecular memory device could perform the same computational functions as thousands of transistors, making the technology a more powerful and energy-efficient memory option.

“The technology might first be used in handheld devices, like cell phones and sensors, and other applications where power is limited,” added Assoc Prof Ariando.

The team in the midst of building new electronic devices incorporating their innovation, and working with collaborators to conduct simulation and benchmarking relating to existing technologies.

Other contributors to the research paper include Abhijeet Patra and Santi Prasad Rath from NUS, Rajib Pramanick from the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Martin Foltin from Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Damien Thompson from the University of Limerick, T. Venkatesan from the University of Oklahoma, and R. Stanley Williams from Texas A&M University.

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

Decision trees within a molecular memristor by Sreetosh Goswami, Rajib Pramanick, Abhijeet Patra, Santi Prasad Rath, Martin Foltin, A. Ariando, Damien Thompson, T. Venkatesan, Sreebrata Goswami & R. Stanley Williams. Nature volume 597, pages 51–56 (2021) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03748-0 Published 01 September 2021 Issue Date 02 September 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cooling down your electronics

A September 20, 2021 news item on phys.org announces research investigating the heating of electronics at the nanoscale,

A team of physicists at CU Boulder [University of Colorado at Boulder] has solved the mystery behind a perplexing phenomenon in the nano realm: why some ultra-small heat sources cool down faster if you pack them closer together. The findings, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could one day help the tech industry design faster electronic devices that overheat less.

A September 20, 2021 UC Boulder news release (also on EurekAlert) by Daniel Strain, which originated the news item, delves further into the topic of heat and electronics (Note: Links have been removed),

“Often, heat is a challenging consideration in designing electronics. You build a device then discover that it’s heating up faster than desired,” said study co-author Joshua Knobloch, postdoctoral research associate at JILA, a joint research institute between CU Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “Our goal is to understand the fundamental physics involved so we can engineer future devices to efficiently manage the flow of heat.”

The research began with an unexplained observation: In 2015, researchers led by physicists Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn at JILA were experimenting with bars of metal that were many times thinner than the width of a human hair on a silicon base. When they heated those bars up with a laser, something strange occurred.

“They behaved very counterintuitively,” Knobloch said. “These nano-scale heat sources do not usually dissipate heat efficiently. But if you pack them close together, they cool down much more quickly.”

Now, the researchers know why it happens.

In the new study, they used computer-based simulations to track the passage of heat from their nano-sized bars. They discovered that when they placed the heat sources close together, the vibrations of energy they produced began to bounce off each other, scattering heat away and cooling the bars down.

The group’s results highlight a major challenge in designing the next generation of tiny devices, such as microprocessors or quantum computer chips: When you shrink down to very small scales, heat does not always behave the way you think it should.

Atom by atom

The transmission of heat in devices matters, the researchers added. Even minute defects in the design of electronics like computer chips can allow temperature to build up, adding wear and tear to a device. As tech companies strive to produce smaller and smaller electronics, they’ll need to pay more attention than ever before to phonons—vibrations of atoms that carry heat in solids.

“Heat flow involves very complex processes, making it hard to control,” Knobloch said. “But if we can understand how phonons behave on the small scale, then we can tailor their transport, allowing us to build more efficient devices.”

To do just that, Murnane and Kapteyn and their team of experimental physicists joined forces with a group of theorists led by Mahmoud Hussein, professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. His group specializes in simulating, or modeling, the motion of phonons.

“At the atomic scale, the very nature of heat transfer emerges in a new light,” said Hussein who also has a courtesy appointment in the Department of Physics.

The researchers, essentially, recreated their experiment from several years before, but this time, entirely on a computer. They modeled a series of silicon bars, laid side by side like the slats in a train track and heated them up.

The simulations were so detailed, Knobloch said, that the team could follow the behavior of each and every atom in the model—millions of them in all—from start to finish.

“We were really pushing the limits of memory of the Summit Supercomputer at CU Boulder,” he said.

Directing heat

The technique paid off. The researchers found, for example, that when they spaced their silicon bars far enough apart, heat tended to escape away from those materials in a predictable way. The energy leaked from the bars and into the material below them, dissipating in every direction.

When the bars got closer together, however, something else happened. As the heat from those sources scattered, it effectively forced that energy to flow more intensely away from the sources—like a crowd of people in a stadium jostling against each other and eventually leaping out of the exit. The team denoted this phenomenon “directional thermal channeling.”

“This phenomenon increases the transport of heat down into the substrate and away from the heat sources,” Knobloch said.

The researchers suspect that engineers could one day tap into this unusual behavior to gain a better handle on how heat flows in small electronics—directing that energy along a desired path, instead of letting it run wild and free.

For now, the researchers see the latest study as what scientists from different disciplines can do when they work together.

“This project was such an exciting collaboration between science and engineering—where advanced computational analysis methods developed by Mahmoud’s group were critical for understanding new materials behavior uncovered earlier by our group using new extreme ultraviolet quantum light sources,” said Murnane, also a professor of physics.

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

Directional thermal channeling: A phenomenon triggered by tight packing of heat sources by Hossein Honarvar, Joshua L. Knobloch, Travis D. Frazer, Begoña Abad, Brendan McBennett, Mahmoud I. Hussein, Henry C. Kapteyn, Margaret M. Murnane, and Jorge N. Hernandez-Charpak. PNAS October 5, 2021 118 (40) e2109056118; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2109056118

This paper is behind a paywall.

The coolest paint

It’s the ‘est’ of it all. The coolest, the whitest, the blackest … Scientists and artists are both pursuing the ‘est’. (More about the pursuit later in this posting.)

In this case, scientists have developed the coolest, whitest paint yet. From an April 16, 2021 news item on Nanowerk,

In an effort to curb global warming, Purdue University engineers have created the whitest paint yet. Coating buildings with this paint may one day cool them off enough to reduce the need for air conditioning, the researchers say.

In October [2020], the team created an ultra-white paint that pushed limits on how white paint can be. Now they’ve outdone that. The newer paint not only is whiter but also can keep surfaces cooler than the formulation that the researchers had previously demonstrated.

“If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses,” said Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering.

Caption: Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering, holds up his lab’s sample of the whitest paint on record. Credit: Purdue University/Jared Pike

This is nicely done. Researcher Xiulin Ruan is standing close to a structure that could be said to resemble the sun while in shirtsleeves and sunglasses and holding up a sample of his whitest paint in April (not usually a warm month in Indiana).

An April 15, 2021 Purdue University news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work and hints about its commercial applications both civilian and military,

The researchers believe that this white may be the closest equivalent of the blackest black, “Vantablack,” [emphasis mine; see comments later in this post] which absorbs up to 99.9% of visible light. The new whitest paint formulation reflects up to 98.1% of sunlight – compared with the 95.5% of sunlight reflected by the researchers’ previous ultra-white paint – and sends infrared heat away from a surface at the same time.

Typical commercial white paint gets warmer rather than cooler. Paints on the market that are designed to reject heat reflect only 80%-90% of sunlight and can’t make surfaces cooler than their surroundings.

The team’s research paper showing how the paint works publishes Thursday (April 15 [2021]) as the cover of the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

What makes the whitest paint so white

Two features give the paint its extreme whiteness. One is the paint’s very high concentration of a chemical compound called barium sulfate [emphasis mine] which is also used to make photo paper and cosmetics white.

“We looked at various commercial products, basically anything that’s white,” said Xiangyu Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on this project as a Purdue Ph.D. student in Ruan’s lab. “We found that using barium sulfate, you can theoretically make things really, really reflective, which means that they’re really, really white.”

The second feature is that the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes in the paint. How much each particle scatters light depends on its size, so a wider range of particle sizes allows the paint to scatter more of the light spectrum from the sun.

“A high concentration of particles that are also different sizes gives the paint the broadest spectral scattering, which contributes to the highest reflectance,” said Joseph Peoples, a Purdue Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering.

There is a little bit of room to make the paint whiter, but not much without compromising the paint.”Although a higher particle concentration is better for making something white, you can’t increase the concentration too much. The higher the concentration, the easier it is for the paint to break or peel off,” Li said.

How the whitest paint is also the coolest

The paint’s whiteness also means that the paint is the coolest on record. Using high-accuracy temperature reading equipment called thermocouples, the researchers demonstrated outdoors that the paint can keep surfaces 19 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than their ambient surroundings at night. It can also cool surfaces 8 degrees Fahrenheit below their surroundings under strong sunlight during noon hours.

The paint’s solar reflectance is so effective, it even worked in the middle of winter. During an outdoor test with an ambient temperature of 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the paint still managed to lower the sample temperature by 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

This white paint is the result of six years of research building on attempts going back to the 1970s to develop radiative cooling paint as a feasible alternative to traditional air conditioners.

Ruan’s lab had considered over 100 different materials, narrowed them down to 10 and tested about 50 different formulations for each material. Their previous whitest paint was a formulation made of calcium carbonate, an earth-abundant compound commonly found in rocks and seashells.

The researchers showed in their study that like commercial paint, their barium sulfate-based paint can potentially handle outdoor conditions. The technique that the researchers used to create the paint also is compatible with the commercial paint fabrication process.

Patent applications for this paint formulation have been filed through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. This research was supported by the Cooling Technologies Research Center at Purdue University and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research [emphasis mine] through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (Grant No.427 FA9550-17-1-0368). The research was performed at Purdue’s FLEX Lab and Ray W. Herrick Laboratories and the Birck Nanotechnology Center of Purdue’s Discovery Park.

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

Ultrawhite BaSO4 Paints and Films for Remarkable Daytime Subambient Radiative Cooling by Xiangyu Li, Joseph Peoples, Peiyan Yao, and Xiulin Ruan. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2021, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.1c02368 Publication Date:April 15, 2021 © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Vantablack and the ongoing ‘est’ of blackest

Vantablack’s 99.9% light absorption no longer qualifies it for the ‘blackest black’. A newer standard for the ‘blackest black’ was set by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology at 99.99% light absorption with its N.I.S.T. ultra-black in 2019, although that too seems to have been bested.

I have three postings covering the Vantablack and blackest black story,

The third posting (December 2019) provides a brief summary of the story along with what was the latest from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. There’s also a little bit about the ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ an art piece demonstrating the blackest black material from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which they state has 99.995% (at least) absorption of light.

From a science perspective, the blackest black would be useful for space exploration.

I am surprised there doesn’t seem to have been an artistic rush to work with the whitest white. That impression may be due to the fact that the feuds get more attention than quiet work.

Dark side to the whitest white?

Andrew Parnell, research fellow in physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield (UK), mentions a downside to obtaining the material needed to produce this cooling white paint in a June 10, 2021 essay on The Conversation (h/t Fast Company), Note: Links have been removed,

… this whiter-than-white paint has a darker side. The energy required to dig up raw barite ore to produce and process the barium sulphite that makes up nearly 60% of the paint means it has a huge carbon footprint. And using the paint widely would mean a dramatic increase in the mining of barium.

Parnell ends his essay with this (Note: Links have been removed),

Barium sulphite-based paint is just one way to improve the reflectivity of buildings. I’ve spent the last few years researching the colour white in the natural world, from white surfaces to white animals. Animal hairs, feathers and butterfly wings provide different examples of how nature regulates temperature within a structure. Mimicking these natural techniques could help to keep our cities cooler with less cost to the environment.

The wings of one intensely white beetle species called Lepidiota stigma appear a strikingly bright white thanks to nanostructures in their scales, which are very good at scattering incoming light. This natural light-scattering property can be used to design even better paints: for example, by using recycled plastic to create white paint containing similar nanostructures with a far lower carbon footprint. When it comes to taking inspiration from nature, the sky’s the limit.

Moon dust at the nanoscale

Before getting to the moon dust, it seems the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has undergone a communications strategy transformation. For example, there’s this whimsical video about the NIST’s latest on moon dust,

An April 28, 2021 news item on phys.org offers a little more whimsy and moon dust from the NIST,

Like a chameleon of the night sky, the moon often changes its appearance. It might look larger, brighter or redder, for example, due to its phases, its position in the solar system or smoke in Earth’s atmosphere. (It is not made of green cheese, however.)

Another factor in its appearance is the size and shape of moon dust particles, the small rock grains that cover the moon’s surface. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are now measuring tinier moon dust particles than ever before, a step toward more precisely explaining the moon’s apparent color and brightness. This in turn might help improve tracking of weather patterns and other phenomena by satellite cameras that use the moon as a calibration source.

An April 28, 2021US NIST news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

NIST researchers and collaborators have developed a complex method of measuring the exact three-dimensional shape of 25 particles of moon dust collected during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. The team includes researchers from the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Space Science Institute and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

These researchers have been studying moon dust for several years. But as described in a new journal paper, they now have X-ray nano computed tomography (XCT), which allowed them to examine the shape of particles as small as 400 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in length.

The research team developed a method for both measuring and computationally analyzing how the dust particle shapes scatter light. Follow-up studies will include many more particles, and more clearly link their shape to light scattering. Researchers are especially interested in a feature called “albedo,” moonspeak for how much light or radiation it reflects.

The recipe for measuring the Moon’s nano dust is complicated. First you need to mix it with something, as if making an omelet, and then turn it on a stick for hours like a rotisserie chicken. Straws and dressmakers’ pins are involved too.

“The procedure is elaborate because it is hard to get a small particle by itself, but one needs to measure many particles for good statistics, since they are randomly distributed in size and shape,” NIST Fellow Ed Garboczi said.

“Since they are so tiny and because they only come in powders, a single particle needs to be separated from all the others,” Garboczi continued. “They are too small to do that by hand, at least not in any quantity, so they must be carefully dispersed in a medium. The medium must also freeze their mechanical motion, in order to be able to get good XCT images. If there is any movement of the particles during the several hours of the XCT scan, then the images will be badly blurred and generally not usable. The final form of the sample must also be compatible with getting the X-ray source and camera close to the sample while it rotates, so a narrow, straight cylinder is best.”

The procedure involved stirring the Apollo 11 material into epoxy, which was then dripped over the outside of a tiny straw to get a thin layer. Small pieces of this layer were then removed from the straw and mounted on dressmakers’ pins, which were inserted into the XCT instrument.

The XCT machine generated X-ray images of the samples that were reconstructed by software into slices. NIST software stacked the slices into a 3D image and then converted it into a format that classified units of volume, or voxels, as either inside or outside the particles. The 3D particle shapes were identified computationally from these segmented images. The voxels making up each particle were saved in separate files that were forwarded to software for solving electromagnetic scattering problems in the visible to the infrared frequency range.

The results indicated that the color of light absorbed by a moon dust particle is highly sensitive to its shape and can be significantly different from that of spherical or ellipsoidal particles of the same size. That doesn’t mean too much to the researchers — yet.

“This is our first look at the influence of actual shapes of lunar particles on light scattering and focuses on some fundamental particle properties,” co-author Jay Goguen of the Space Science Institute said. “The models developed here form the basis of future calculations that could model observations of the spectrum, brightness and polarization of the moon’s surface and how those observed quantities change during the moon’s phases.”

The authors are now studying a wider range of moon dust shapes and sizes, including particles collected during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. The moon dust samples were loaned to NIST by NASA’s Curation and Analysis Planning Team for Extraterrestrial Materials program.

Here’s a (2nd) link to and a citation for the paper,

Optical Scattering Characteristics of 3-D Lunar Regolith Particles Measured Using X-Ray Nano Computed Tomography by Somen Baidya; Mikolas Melius; Ahmed M. Hassan; Andrew Sharits; Ann N. Chiaramonti; Thomas Lafarge; Jay D. Goguen; Edward J. Garboczi. IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Letters DOI: 10.1109/LGRS.2021.3073344 Published online April 27, 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

Beginner’s guide to folding DNA origami

I think this Aug. 6, 2010 post, Folding, origami, and shapeshifting and an article with over 50,000 authors is the first time I wrote about DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and origami (the Japanese art of paper folding).

Since then, the technique has become even more popular with the result that the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has produced a beginner’s guide, according to a Jan. 8, 2021 news item on Nanowerk,

In a technique known as DNA origami, researchers fold long strands of DNA over and over again to construct a variety of tiny 3D structures, including miniature biosensors and drug-delivery containers. Pioneered at the California Institute of Technology in 2006, DNA origami has attracted hundreds of new researchers over the past decade, eager to build receptacles and sensors that could detect and treat disease in the human body, assess the environmental impact of pollutants, and assist in a host of other biological applications.

Although the principles of DNA origami are straightforward, the technique’s tools and methods for designing new structures are not always easy to grasp and have not been well documented. In addition, scientists new to the method have had no single reference they could turn to for the most efficient way of building DNA structures and how to avoid pitfalls that could waste months or even years of research.

That’s why Jacob Majikes and Alex Liddle, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who have studied DNA origami for years, have compiled the first detailed tutorial on the technique. Their comprehensive report provides a step-by-step guide to designing DNA origami nanostructures, using state-of-the-art tools.

Here’s an image illustrating some of the techniques for DNA origami,

Caption: Collage shows some of the techniques and designs employed in DNA origami. Credit: K. Dill/NIST

A Jan. 8, 2021 US NIST news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provide more detail as to the authors’ motivations, objectives, and future plans for their beginner’s guide,

“We wanted to take all the tools that people have developed and put them all in one place, and to explain things that you can’t say in a traditional journal article,” said Majikes. “Review papers might tell you everything that everyone’s done, but they don’t tell you how the people did it. “

DNA origami relies on the ability of complementary base pairs of the DNA molecule to bind to each other. Among DNA’s four bases — adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T) — A binds with T and G with C. This means that a specific sequence of As, Ts, Cs and Gs will find and bind to its complement.

The binding enables short strands of DNA to act as “staples,” keeping sections of long strands folded or joining separate strands. A typical origami design may require 250 staples. In this way, the DNA can self-assemble into a variety of shapes, forming a nanoscale framework to which an assortment of nanoparticles — many useful in medical treatment, biological research and environmental monitoring — can attach.

The challenges in using DNA origami are twofold, said Majikes. First, researchers are fabricating 3D structures using a foreign language — the base pairs A, G, T and C. In addition, they’re using those base-pair staples to twist and untwist the familiar double helix of DNA molecules so that the strands bend into specific shapes. That can be difficult to design and visualize. Majikes and Liddle urge researchers to strengthen their design intuition by building 3D mock-ups, such as sculptures made with bar magnets, before they start fabrication. These models, which can reveal which aspects of the folding process are critical and which ones are less important, should then be “flattened” into 2D to be compatible with computer-aided design tools for DNA origami, which typically use two-dimensional representations.

DNA folding can be accomplished in a variety of ways, some less efficient than others, noted Majikes. Some strategies, in fact, may be doomed to failure.

“Pointing out things like ‘You could do this, but it’s not a good idea’ — that type of perspective isn’t in a traditional journal article, but because NIST is focused on driving the state of technology in the nation, we’re able to publish this work in the NIST journal,” Majikes said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else that would have given us the leeway and the time and the person hours to put all this together.”

Liddle and Majikes plan to follow up their work with several additional manuscripts detailing how to successfully fabricate nanoscale devices with DNA.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the beginner’s guide,

DNA Origami Design: A How-To Tutorial by Majikes, Jacob M. and Liddle, J. Alexander. Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Volume 126, Article No. 126001 (2021) Published online Jan. 8, 2021. DOI: 10.6028/jres.126.001

This is open access and it include such gems as this,

1.2 Education or Skill Level

Readers of this tutorial should be familiar with the physical properties of B-DNA, single-stranded DNA (ssDNA), and crossover junctions. In addition, once ready to create a structure for a specific application, the designer should determine the full list of functional requirements. This list includes answers to the following questions: What should the structure do? What specific properties are critical to the system’s performance?

1.3 Prerequisites

The designer should have either sufficient paper for manual design (not recommended) or a design program such as cadnano [1] (all versions sufficient), nanoengineer®, ParaboninSēquio®, or equivalent.1 A registered account with three-dimensional (3D) structure prediction servers such as CanDo [2, 3] is also recommended.

1.4Tools or Equipment

Equipment includes desktop or laptop computer equipment, craft supplies for macroscale models, and DNA nanotechnology computer-aided design (CAD) software.

Feel free to go forth and fold!