Tag Archives: Zhejiang University

China’s neuromorphic chips: Darwin and Tianjic

I believe that China has more than two neuromorphic chips. The two being featured here are the ones for which I was easily able to find information.

The Darwin chip

The first information (that I stumbled across) about China and a neuromorphic chip (Darwin) was in a December 22, 2015 Science China Press news release on EurekAlert,

Artificial Neural Network (ANN) is a type of information processing system based on mimicking the principles of biological brains, and has been broadly applied in application domains such as pattern recognition, automatic control, signal processing, decision support system and artificial intelligence. Spiking Neural Network (SNN) is a type of biologically-inspired ANN that perform information processing based on discrete-time spikes. It is more biologically realistic than classic ANNs, and can potentially achieve much better performance-power ratio. Recently, researchers from Zhejiang University and Hangzhou Dianzi University in Hangzhou, China successfully developed the Darwin Neural Processing Unit (NPU), a neuromorphic hardware co-processor based on Spiking Neural Networks, fabricated by standard CMOS technology.

With the rapid development of the Internet-of-Things and intelligent hardware systems, a variety of intelligent devices are pervasive in today’s society, providing many services and convenience to people’s lives, but they also raise challenges of running complex intelligent algorithms on small devices. Sponsored by the college of Computer science of Zhejiang University, the research group led by Dr. De Ma from Hangzhou Dianzi university and Dr. Xiaolei Zhu from Zhejiang university has developed a co-processor named as Darwin.The Darwin NPU aims to provide hardware acceleration of intelligent algorithms, with target application domain of resource-constrained, low-power small embeddeddevices. It has been fabricated by 180nm standard CMOS process, supporting a maximum of 2048 neurons, more than 4 million synapses and 15 different possible synaptic delays. It is highly configurable, supporting reconfiguration of SNN topology and many parameters of neurons and synapses.Figure 1 shows photos of the die and the prototype development board, which supports input/output in the form of neural spike trains via USB port.

The successful development ofDarwin demonstrates the feasibility of real-time execution of Spiking Neural Networks in resource-constrained embedded systems. It supports flexible configuration of a multitude of parameters of the neural network, hence it can be used to implement different functionalities as configured by the user. Its potential applications include intelligent hardware systems, robotics, brain-computer interfaces, and others.Since it uses spikes for information processing and transmission,similar to biological neural networks, it may be suitable for analysis and processing of biological spiking neural signals, and building brain-computer interface systems by interfacing with animal or human brains. As a prototype application in Brain-Computer Interfaces, Figure 2 [not included here] describes an application example ofrecognizingthe user’s motor imagery intention via real-time decoding of EEG signals, i.e., whether he is thinking of left or right, and using it to control the movement direction of a basketball in the virtual environment. Different from conventional EEG signal analysis algorithms, the input and output to Darwin are both neural spikes: the input is spike trains that encode EEG signals; after processing by the neural network, the output neuron with the highest firing rate is chosen as the classification result.

The most recent development for this chip was announced in a September 2, 2019 Zhejiang University press release (Note: Links have been removed),

The second generation of the Darwin Neural Processing Unit (Darwin NPU 2) as well as its corresponding toolchain and micro-operating system was released in Hangzhou recently. This research was led by Zhejiang University, with Hangzhou Dianzi University and Huawei Central Research Institute participating in the development and algorisms of the chip. The Darwin NPU 2 can be primarily applied to smart Internet of Things (IoT). It can support up to 150,000 neurons and has achieved the largest-scale neurons on a nationwide basis.

The Darwin NPU 2 is fabricated by standard 55nm CMOS technology. Every “neuromorphic” chip is made up of 576 kernels, each of which can support 256 neurons. It contains over 10 million synapses which can construct a powerful brain-inspired computing system.

“A brain-inspired chip can work like the neurons inside a human brain and it is remarkably unique in image recognition, visual and audio comprehension and naturalistic language processing,” said MA De, an associate professor at the College of Computer Science and Technology on the research team.

“In comparison with traditional chips, brain-inspired chips are more adept at processing ambiguous data, say, perception tasks. Another prominent advantage is their low energy consumption. In the process of information transmission, only those neurons that receive and process spikes will be activated while other neurons will stay dormant. In this case, energy consumption can be extremely low,” said Dr. ZHU Xiaolei at the School of Microelectronics.

To cater to the demands for voice business, Huawei Central Research Institute designed an efficient spiking neural network algorithm in accordance with the defining feature of the Darwin NPU 2 architecture, thereby increasing computing speeds and improving recognition accuracy tremendously.

Scientists have developed a host of applications, including gesture recognition, image recognition, voice recognition and decoding of electroencephalogram (EEG) signals, on the Darwin NPU 2 and reduced energy consumption by at least two orders of magnitude.

In comparison with the first generation of the Darwin NPU which was developed in 2015, the Darwin NPU 2 has escalated the number of neurons by two orders of magnitude from 2048 neurons and augmented the flexibility and plasticity of the chip configuration, thus expanding the potential for applications appreciably. The improvement in the brain-inspired chip will bring in its wake the revolution of computer technology and artificial intelligence. At present, the brain-inspired chip adopts a relatively simplified neuron model, but neurons in a real brain are far more sophisticated and many biological mechanisms have yet to be explored by neuroscientists and biologists. It is expected that in the not-too-distant future, a fascinating improvement on the Darwin NPU 2 will come over the horizon.

I haven’t been able to find a recent (i.e., post 2017) research paper featuring Darwin but there is another chip and research on that one was published in July 2019. First, the news.

The Tianjic chip

A July 31, 2019 article in the New York Times by Cade Metz describes the research and offers what seems to be a jaundiced perspective about the field of neuromorphic computing (Note: A link has been removed),

As corporate giants like Ford, G.M. and Waymo struggle to get their self-driving cars on the road, a team of researchers in China is rethinking autonomous transportation using a souped-up bicycle.

This bike can roll over a bump on its own, staying perfectly upright. When the man walking just behind it says “left,” it turns left, angling back in the direction it came.

It also has eyes: It can follow someone jogging several yards ahead, turning each time the person turns. And if it encounters an obstacle, it can swerve to the side, keeping its balance and continuing its pursuit.

… Chinese researchers who built the bike believe it demonstrates the future of computer hardware. It navigates the world with help from what is called a neuromorphic chip, modeled after the human brain.

Here’s a video, released by the researchers, demonstrating the chip’s abilities,

Now back to back to Metz’s July 31, 2019 article (Note: A link has been removed),

The short video did not show the limitations of the bicycle (which presumably tips over occasionally), and even the researchers who built the bike admitted in an email to The Times that the skills on display could be duplicated with existing computer hardware. But in handling all these skills with a neuromorphic processor, the project highlighted the wider effort to achieve new levels of artificial intelligence with novel kinds of chips.

This effort spans myriad start-up companies and academic labs, as well as big-name tech companies like Google, Intel and IBM. And as the Nature paper demonstrates, the movement is gaining significant momentum in China, a country with little experience designing its own computer processors, but which has invested heavily in the idea of an “A.I. chip.”

If you can get past what seems to be a patronizing attitude, there are some good explanations and cogent criticisms in the piece (Metz’s July 31, 2019 article, Note: Links have been removed),

… it faces significant limitations.

A neural network doesn’t really learn on the fly. Engineers train a neural network for a particular task before sending it out into the real world, and it can’t learn without enormous numbers of examples. OpenAI, a San Francisco artificial intelligence lab, recently built a system that could beat the world’s best players at a complex video game called Dota 2. But the system first spent months playing the game against itself, burning through millions of dollars in computing power.

Researchers aim to build systems that can learn skills in a manner similar to the way people do. And that could require new kinds of computer hardware. Dozens of companies and academic labs are now developing chips specifically for training and operating A.I. systems. The most ambitious projects are the neuromorphic processors, including the Tianjic chip under development at Tsinghua University in China.

Such chips are designed to imitate the network of neurons in the brain, not unlike a neural network but with even greater fidelity, at least in theory.

Neuromorphic chips typically include hundreds of thousands of faux neurons, and rather than just processing 1s and 0s, these neurons operate by trading tiny bursts of electrical signals, “firing” or “spiking” only when input signals reach critical thresholds, as biological neurons do.

Tiernan Ray’s August 3, 2019 article about the chip for ZDNet.com offers some thoughtful criticism with a side dish of snark (Note: Links have been removed),

Nature magazine’s cover story [July 31, 2019] is about a Chinese chip [Tianjic chip]that can run traditional deep learning code and also perform “neuromorophic” operations in the same circuitry. The work’s value seems obscured by a lot of hype about “artificial general intelligence” that has no real justification.

The term “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI, doesn’t actually refer to anything, at this point, it is merely a placeholder, a kind of Rorschach Test for people to fill the void with whatever notions they have of what it would mean for a machine to “think” like a person.

Despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, AGI is an ideal marketing term to attach to a lot of efforts in machine learning. Case in point, a research paper featured on the cover of this week’s Nature magazine about a new kind of computer chip developed by researchers at China’s Tsinghua University that could “accelerate the development of AGI,” they claim.

The chip is a strange hybrid of approaches, and is intriguing, but the work leaves unanswered many questions about how it’s made, and how it achieves what researchers claim of it. And some longtime chip observers doubt the impact will be as great as suggested.

“This paper is an example of the good work that China is doing in AI,” says Linley Gwennap, longtime chip-industry observer and principal analyst with chip analysis firm The Linley Group. “But this particular idea isn’t going to take over the world.”

The premise of the paper, “Towards artificial general intelligence with hybrid Tianjic chip architecture,” is that to achieve AGI, computer chips need to change. That’s an idea supported by fervent activity these days in the land of computer chips, with lots of new chip designs being proposed specifically for machine learning.

The Tsinghua authors specifically propose that the mainstream machine learning of today needs to be merged in the same chip with what’s called “neuromorphic computing.” Neuromorphic computing, first conceived by Caltech professor Carver Mead in the early ’80s, has been an obsession for firms including IBM for years, with little practical result.

[Missing details about the chip] … For example, the part is said to have “reconfigurable” circuits, but how the circuits are to be reconfigured is never specified. It could be so-called “field programmable gate array,” or FPGA, technology or something else. Code for the project is not provided by the authors as it often is for such research; the authors offer to provide the code “on reasonable request.”

More important is the fact the chip may have a hard time stacking up to a lot of competing chips out there, says analyst Gwennap. …

What the paper calls ANN and SNN are two very different means of solving similar problems, kind of like rotating (helicopter) and fixed wing (airplane) are for aviation,” says Gwennap. “Ultimately, I expect ANN [?] and SNN [spiking neural network] to serve different end applications, but I don’t see a need to combine them in a single chip; you just end up with a chip that is OK for two things but not great for anything.”

But you also end up generating a lot of buzz, and given the tension between the U.S. and China over all things tech, and especially A.I., the notion China is stealing a march on the U.S. in artificial general intelligence — whatever that may be — is a summer sizzler of a headline.

ANN could be either artificial neural network or something mentioned earlier in Ray’s article, a shortened version of CANN [continuous attractor neural network].

Shelly Fan’s August 7, 2019 article for the SingularityHub is almost as enthusiastic about the work as the podcasters for Nature magazine  were (a little more about that later),

The study shows that China is readily nipping at the heels of Google, Facebook, NVIDIA, and other tech behemoths investing in developing new AI chip designs—hell, with billions in government investment it may have already had a head start. A sweeping AI plan from 2017 looks to catch up with the US on AI technology and application by 2020. By 2030, China’s aiming to be the global leader—and a champion for building general AI that matches humans in intellectual competence.

The country’s ambition is reflected in the team’s parting words.

“Our study is expected to stimulate AGI [artificial general intelligence] development by paving the way to more generalized hardware platforms,” said the authors, led by Dr. Luping Shi at Tsinghua University.

Using nanoscale fabrication, the team arranged 156 FCores, containing roughly 40,000 neurons and 10 million synapses, onto a chip less than a fifth of an inch in length and width. Initial tests showcased the chip’s versatility, in that it can run both SNNs and deep learning algorithms such as the popular convolutional neural network (CNNs) often used in machine vision.

Compared to IBM TrueNorth, the density of Tianjic’s cores increased by 20 percent, speeding up performance ten times and increasing bandwidth at least 100-fold, the team said. When pitted against GPUs, the current hardware darling of machine learning, the chip increased processing throughput up to 100 times, while using just a sliver (1/10,000) of energy.

BTW, Fan is a neuroscientist (from her SingularityHub profile page),

Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist-turned-science writer. She completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she developed novel treatments for neurodegeneration. While studying biological brains, she became fascinated with AI and all things biotech. Following graduation, she moved to UCSF [University of California at San Francisco] to study blood-based factors that rejuvenate aged brains. She is the co-founder of Vantastic Media, a media venture that explores science stories through text and video, and runs the award-winning blog NeuroFantastic.com. Her first book, “Will AI Replace Us?” (Thames & Hudson) will be out April 2019.

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

Towards artificial general intelligence with hybrid Tianjic chip architecture by Jing Pei, Lei Deng, Sen Song, Mingguo Zhao, Youhui Zhang, Shuang Wu, Guanrui Wang, Zhe Zou, Zhenzhi Wu, Wei He, Feng Chen, Ning Deng, Si Wu, Yu Wang, Yujie Wu, Zheyu Yang, Cheng Ma, Guoqi Li, Wentao Han, Huanglong Li, Huaqiang Wu, Rong Zhao, Yuan Xie & Luping Shi. Nature volume 572, pages106–111(2019) DOI: https//doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1424-8 Published: 31 July 2019 Issue Date: 01 August 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

The July 31, 2019 Nature podcast, which includes a segment about the Tianjic chip research from China, which is at the 9 mins. 13 secs. mark (AI hardware) or you can scroll down about 55% of the way to the transcript of the interview with Luke Fleet, the Nature editor who dealt with the paper.

Some thoughts

The pundits put me in mind of my own reaction when I heard about phones that could take pictures. I didn’t see the point but, as it turned out, there was a perfectly good reason for combining what had been two separate activities into one device. It was no longer just a telephone and I had completely missed the point.

This too may be the case with the Tianjic chip. I think it’s too early to say whether or not it represents a new type of chip or if it’s a dead end.

China is world leader in nanotechnology and in other fields too?

State of Chinese nanoscience/nanotechnology

China claims to be the world leader in the field in a white paper announced in an August 29, 2017 Springer Nature press release,

Springer Nature, the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology, China and the National Science Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) released in both Chinese and English a white paper entitled “Small Science in Big China: An overview of the state of Chinese nanoscience and technology” at NanoChina 2017, an international conference on nanoscience and technology held August 28 and 29 in Beijing. The white paper looks at the rapid growth of China’s nanoscience research into its current role as the world’s leader [emphasis mine], examines China’s strengths and challenges, and makes some suggestions for how its contribution to the field can continue to thrive.

The white paper points out that China has become a strong contributor to nanoscience research in the world, and is a powerhouse of nanotechnology R&D. Some of China’s basic research is leading the world. China’s applied nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnologies have also begun to take shape. These achievements are largely due to China’s strong investment in nanoscience and technology. China’s nanoscience research is also moving from quantitative increase to quality improvement and innovation, with greater emphasis on the applications of nanotechnologies.

“China took an initial step into nanoscience research some twenty years ago, and has since grown its commitment at an unprecedented rate, as it has for scientific research as a whole. Such a growth is reflected both in research quantity and, importantly, in quality. Therefore, I regard nanoscience as a window through which to observe the development of Chinese science, and through which we could analyze how that rapid growth has happened. Further, the experience China has gained in developing nanoscience and related technologies is a valuable resource for the other countries and other fields of research to dig deep into and draw on,” said Arnout Jacobs, President, Greater China, Springer Nature.

The white paper explores at China’s research output relative to the rest of the world in terms of research paper output, research contribution contained in the Nano database, and finally patents, providing insight into China’s strengths and expertise in nano research. The white paper also presents the results of a survey of experts from the community discussing the outlook for and challenges to the future of China’s nanoscience research.

China nano research output: strong rise in quantity and quality

In 1997, around 13,000 nanoscience-related papers were published globally. By 2016, this number had risen to more than 154,000 nano-related research papers. This corresponds to a compound annual growth rate of 14% per annum, almost four times the growth in publications across all areas of research of 3.7%. Over the same period of time, the nano-related output from China grew from 820 papers in 1997 to over 52,000 papers in 2016, a compound annual growth rate of 24%.

China’s contribution to the global total has been growing steadily. In 1997, Chinese researchers co-authored just 6% of the nano-related papers contained in the Science Citation Index (SCI). By 2010, this grew to match the output of the United States. They now contribute over a third of the world’s total nanoscience output — almost twice that of the United States.

Additionally, China’s share of the most cited nanoscience papers has kept increasing year on year, with a compound annual growth rate of 22% — more than three times the global rate. It overtook the United States in 2014 and its contribution is now many times greater than that of any other country in the world, manifesting an impressive progression in both quantity and quality.

The rapid growth of nanoscience in China has been enabled by consistent and strong financial support from the Chinese government. As early as 1990, the State Science and Technology Committee, the predecessor of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), launched the Climbing Up project on nanomaterial science. During the 1990s, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) also funded nearly 1,000 small-scale projects in nanoscience. In the National Guideline on Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development (for 2006−2020) issued in early 2006 by the Chinese central government, nanoscience was identified as one of four areas of basic research and received the largest proportion of research budget out of the four areas. The brain boomerang, with more and more foreign-trained Chinese researchers returning from overseas, is another contributor to China’s rapid rise in nanoscience.

The white paper clarifies the role of Chinese institutions, including CAS, in driving China’s rise to become the world’s leader in nanoscience. Currently, CAS is the world’s largest producer of high impact nano research, contributing more than twice as many papers in the 1% most-cited nanoscience literature than its closest competitors. In addition to CAS, five other Chinese institutions are ranked among the global top 20 in terms of output of top cited 1% nanoscience papers — Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Zhejiang University, University of Science and Technology of China and Peking University.

Nano database reveals advantages and focus of China’s nano research

The Nano database (http://nano.nature.com) is a comprehensive platform that has been recently developed by Nature Research – part of Springer Nature – which contains nanoscience-related papers published in 167 peer-reviewed journals including Advanced Materials, Nano Letters, Nature, Science and more. Analysis of the Nano database of nanomaterial-containing articles published in top 30 journals during 2014–2016 shows that Chinese scientists explore a wide range of nanomaterials, the five most common of which are nanostructured materials, nanoparticles, nanosheets, nanodevices and nanoporous materials.

In terms of the research of applications, China has a clear leading edge in catalysis research, which is the most popular area of the country’s quality nanoscience papers. Chinese nano researchers also contributed significantly to nanomedicine and energy-related applications. China is relatively weaker in nanomaterials for electronics applications, compared to other research powerhouses, but robotics and lasers are emerging applications areas of nanoscience in China, and nanoscience papers addressing photonics and data storage applications also see strong growth in China. Over 80% of research from China listed in the database explicitly mentions applications of the nanostructures and nanomaterials described, notably higher than from most other leading nations such as the United States, Germany, the UK, Japan and France.

Nano also reveals the extent of China’s international collaborations in nano research. China has seen the percentage of its internationally collaborated papers increasing from 36% in 2014 to 44% in 2016. This level of international collaboration, similar to that of South Korea, is still much lower than that of the western countries, and the rate of growth is also not as fast as those in the United States, France and Germany.

The United States is China’s biggest international collaborator, contributing to 55% of China’s internationally collaborated papers on nanoscience that are included in the top 30 journals in the Nano database. Germany, Australia and Japan follow in a descending order as China’s collaborators on nano-related quality papers.

China’s patent output: topping the world, mostly applied domestically

Analysis of the Derwent Innovation Index (DII) database of Clarivate Analytics shows that China’s accumulative total number of patent applications for the past 20 years, amounting to 209,344 applications, or 45% of the global total, is more than twice as many as that of the United States, the second largest contributor to nano-related patents. China surpassed the United States and ranked the top in the world since 2008.

Five Chinese institutions, including the CAS, Zhejiang University, Tsinghua University, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. and Tianjin University can be found among the global top 10 institutional contributors to nano-related patent applications. CAS has been at the top of the global rankings since 2008, with a total of 11,218 patent applications for the past 20 years. Interestingly, outside of China, most of the other big institutional contributors among the top 10 are commercial enterprises, while in China, research or academic institutions are leading in patent applications.

However, the number of nano-related patents China applied overseas is still very low, accounting for only 2.61% of its total patent applications for the last 20 years cumulatively, whereas the proportion in the United States is nearly 50%. In some European countries, including the UK and France, more than 70% of patent applications are filed overseas.

China has high numbers of patent applications in several popular technical areas for nanotechnology use, and is strongest in patents for polymer compositions and macromolecular compounds. In comparison, nano-related patent applications in the United States, South Korea and Japan are mainly for electronics or semiconductor devices, with the United States leading the world in the cumulative number of patents for semiconductor devices.

Outlook, opportunities and challenges

The white paper highlights that the rapid rise of China’s research output and patent applications has painted a rosy picture for the development of Chinese nanoscience, and in both the traditionally strong subjects and newly emerging areas, Chinese nanoscience shows great potential.

Several interviewed experts in the survey identify catalysis and catalytic nanomaterials as the most promising nanoscience area for China. The use of nanotechnology in the energy and medical sectors was also considered very promising.

Some of the interviewed experts commented that the industrial impact of China’s nanotechnology is limited and there is still a gap between nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnologies. Therefore, they recommended that the government invest more in applied research to drive the translation of nanoscience research and find ways to encourage enterprises to invest more in R&D.

As more and more young scientists enter the field, the competition for research funding is becoming more intense. However, this increasing competition for funding was not found to concern most interviewed young scientists, rather, they emphasized that the soft environment is more important. They recommended establishing channels that allow the suggestions or creative ideas of the young to be heard. Also, some interviewed young researchers commented that they felt that the current evaluation system was geared towards past achievements or favoured overseas experience, and recommended the development of an improved talent selection mechanism to ensure a sustainable growth of China’s nanoscience.

I have taken a look at the white paper and found it to be well written. It also provides a brief but thorough history of nanotechnology/nanoscience even adding a bit of historical information that was new to me. As for the rest of the white paper, it relies on bibliometrics (number of published papers and number of citations) and number of patents filed to lay the groundwork for claiming Chinese leadership in nanotechnology. As I’ve stated many times before, these are problematic measures but as far as I can determine they are almost the only ones we have. Frankly, as a Canadian, it doesn’t much matter to me since Canada no matter how you slice or dice it is always in a lower tier relative to science leadership in major fields. It’s the Americans who might feel inclined to debate leadership with regard to nanotechnology and other major fields and I leave it to to US commentators to take up the cudgels should they be inclined. The big bonuses here are the history, the glimpse into the Chinese perspective on the field of nanotechnology/nanoscience, and the analysis of weaknesses and strengths.

Coming up fast on Google and Amazon

A November 16, 2017 article by Christina Bonnington for Slate explores the possibility that a Chinese tech giant, Baidu,  will provide Google and Amazon serious competition in their quests to dominate world markets (Note: Links have been removed,

raven_h
The company took a playful approach to the form—but it has functional reasons for the design, too. Baidu

 

One of the most interesting companies in tech right now isn’t based in Palo Alto, or San Francisco, or Seattle. Baidu, a Chinese company with headquarters in Beijing, is taking on America’s biggest and most innovative tech titans—with style.

Baidu, a titan in its own right, leapt onto the scene as a competitor to Google in the search engine space. Since then, the company, largely underappreciated here in the U.S., has focused on beefing up its artificial intelligence efforts. Former AI chief Andrew Ng, upon leaving the company in March, credited Baidu’s CEO Robin Li on being one of the first technology leaders to fully appreciate the value of deep learning. Baidu now has a 1,300 person AI group, and that investment in AI has helped the company catch up to older, more established companies like Google and Amazon—both in emerging spaces, such as autonomous vehicles, and in consumer tech, as its latest announcement shows.

On Thursday [November 16, 2017], Baidu debuted its entrants to the popular virtual assistant space: a connected speaker and two robots. Baidu aims for the speaker to compete against options such as Amazon’s Echo line, Google Home, and Apple HomePod. Inside, the $256 device will utilize Baidu’s DuerOS conversational artificial intelligence platform, which is already used in more than 100 different smart home brands’ products. DuerOS will let you use your voice to do things like ask the speaker for information, play music, or hail a cab. Called the Raven H, the speaker includes high-end audio components from Tymphany and a unique design jointly created by acquired startup Raven Tech and Swedish consumer electronics company Teenage Engineering.

While the focus is on exciting new technology products from Baidu, the subtext, such as it is, suggests US companies had best keep an eye on its Chinese competitor(s).

Dutch/Chinese partnership to produce nanoparticles at the touch of a button

Now back to China and nanotechnology leadership and the production of nanoparticles. This announcement was made in a November 17, 2017 news item on Azonano,

Delft University of Technology [Netherlands] spin-off VSPARTICLE enters the booming Chinese market with a radical technology that allows researchers to produce nanoparticles at the push of a button. VSPARTICLE’s nanoparticle generator uses atoms, the worlds’ smallest building blocks, to provide a controllable source of nanoparticles. The start-up from Delft signed a distribution agreement with Bio-Sun to make their VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator available in China.

A November 16, 2017 VSPARTICLE press release, which originated the news item,

“We are honoured to cooperate with VSPARTICLE and bring the innovative VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator into the Chinese market. The VSP-G1 will create new possibilities for researchers in catalysis, aerosol, healthcare and electronics,” says Yinghui Cai, CEO of Bio-Sun.

With an exponential growth in nanoparticle research in the last decade, China is one of the leading countries in the field of nanotechnology and its applications. Vincent Laban, CFO of VSPARTICLE, explains: “Due to its immense investments in IOT, sensors, semiconductor technology, renewable energy and healthcare applications, China will eventually become one of our biggest markets. The collaboration with Bio-Sun offers a valuable opportunity to enter the Chinese market at exactly the right time.”

NANOPARTICLES ARE THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF THE FUTURE

Increasingly, scientists are focusing on nanoparticles as a key technology in enabling the transition to a sustainable future. Nanoparticles are used to make new types of sensors and smart electronics; provide new imaging and treatment possibilities in healthcare; and reduce harmful waste in chemical processes.

CURRENT RESEARCH TOOLKIT LACKS A FAST WAY FOR MAKING SPECIFIC BUILDING BLOCKS

With the latest tools in nanotechnology, researchers are exploring the possibilities of building novel materials. This is, however, a trial-and-error method. Getting the right nanoparticles often is a slow struggle, as most production methods take a substantial amount of effort and time to develop.

VSPARTICLE’S VSP-G1 NANOPARTICLE GENERATOR

With the VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator, VSPARTICLE makes the production of nanoparticles as easy as pushing a button. . Easy and fast iterations enable researchers to fast forward their research cycle, and verify their hypotheses.

VSPARTICLE

Born out of the research labs of Delft University of Technology, with over 20 years of experience in the synthesis of aerosol, VSPARTICLE believes there is a whole new world of possibilities and materials at the nanoscale. The company was founded in 2014 and has an international sales network in Europe, Japan and China.

BIO-SUN

Bio-Sun was founded in Beijing in 2010 and is a leader in promoting nanotechnology and biotechnology instruments in China. It serves many renowned customers in life science, drug discovery and material science. Bio-Sun has four branch offices in Qingdao, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan City, and a nationwide sale network.

That’s all folks!

4D printing, what is that?

According to an April 12, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, shapeshifting in response to environmental stimuli is the fourth dimension (I have a link to a posting about 4D printing with another fourth dimension),

A team of researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology and two other institutions has developed a new 3-D printing method to create objects that can permanently transform into a range of different shapes in response to heat.

The team, which included researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Xi’an Jiaotong University in China, created the objects by printing layers of shape memory polymers with each layer designed to respond differently when exposed to heat.

“This new approach significantly simplifies and increases the potential of 4-D printing by incorporating the mechanical programming post-processing step directly into the 3-D printing process,” said Jerry Qi, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. “This allows high-resolution 3-D printed components to be designed by computer simulation, 3-D printed, and then directly and rapidly transformed into new permanent configurations by simply heating.”

The research was reported April 12 [2017] in the journal Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The work is funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Singapore National Research Foundation through the SUTD DManD Centre.

An April 12, 2017 Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) press release on EurekAlert provides more detail,

4D printing is an emerging technology that allows a 3D-printed component to transform its structure by exposing it to heat, light, humidity, or other environmental stimuli. This technology extends the shape creation process beyond 3D printing, resulting in additional design flexibility that can lead to new types of products which can adjust its functionality in response to the environment, in a pre-programmed manner. However, 4D printing generally involves complex and time-consuming post-processing steps to mechanically programme the component. Furthermore, the materials are often limited to soft polymers, which limit their applicability in structural scenarios.

A group of researchers from the SUTD, Georgia Institute of Technology, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Zhejiang University has introduced an approach that significantly simplifies and increases the potential of 4D printing by incorporating the mechanical programming post-processing step directly into the 3D printing process. This allows high-resolution 3D-printed components to be designed by computer simulation, 3D printed, and then directly and rapidly transformed into new permanent configurations by using heat. This approach can help save printing time and materials used by up to 90%, while completely eliminating the time-consuming mechanical programming process from the design and manufacturing workflow.

“Our approach involves printing composite materials where at room temperature one material is soft but can be programmed to contain internal stress, and the other material is stiff,” said Dr. Zhen Ding of SUTD. “We use computational simulations to design composite components where the stiff material has a shape and size that prevents the release of the programmed internal stress from the soft material after 3D printing. Upon heating, the stiff material softens and allows the soft material to release its stress. This results in a change – often dramatic – in the product shape.” This new shape is fixed when the product is cooled, with good mechanical stiffness. The research demonstrated many interesting shape changing parts, including a lattice that can expand by almost 8 times when heated.

This new shape becomes permanent and the composite material will not return to its original 3D-printed shape, upon further heating or cooling. “This is because of the shape memory effect,” said Prof. H. Jerry Qi of Georgia Tech. “In the two-material composite design, the stiff material exhibits shape memory, which helps lock the transformed shape into a permanent one. Additionally, the printed structure also exhibits the shape memory effect, i.e. it can then be programmed into further arbitrary shapes that can always be recovered to its new permanent shape, but not its 3D-printed shape.”

Said SUTD’s Prof. Martin Dunn, “The key advance of this work, is a 4D printing method that is dramatically simplified and allows the creation of high-resolution complex 3D reprogrammable products; it promises to enable myriad applications across biomedical devices, 3D electronics, and consumer products. It even opens the door to a new paradigm in product design, where components are designed from the onset to inhabit multiple configurations during service.”

Here’s a video,


Uploaded on Apr 17, 2017

A research team led by the Singapore University of Technology and Design’s (SUTD) Associate Provost of Research, Professor Martin Dunn, has come up with a new and simplified 4D printing method that uses a 3D printer to rapidly create 3D objects, which can permanently transform into a range of different shapes in response to heat.

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

Direct 4D printing via active composite materials by Zhen Ding, Chao Yuan, Xirui Peng, Tiejun Wang, H. Jerry Qi, and Martin L. Dunn. Science Advances  12 Apr 2017: Vol. 3, no. 4, e1602890 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1602890

This paper is open access.

Here is a link to a post about another 4th dimension, time,

4D printing: a hydrogel orchid (Jan. 28, 2016)

Fish gets invisibility cloak first, cat waits patiently

An invisibility cloak devised by researchers in Singapore and China is receiving a high degree of interest online with a June 14, 2013 news item on Nanowerk, a June 11, 2013 article by Philip Ball for Nature, and a June 13, 2013 article by Sarah Gates for Huffington Post.

The research paper, Natural Light Cloaking for Aquatic and Terrestrial Creatures by Hongsheng Chen, Bin Zheng, Lian Shen, Huaping Wang, Xianmin Zhang, Nikolay Zheludev, Baile Zhang was submitted June 7, 2013 to arXiv.org (arXiv is an e-print service in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics. Submissions to arXiv must conform to Cornell University academic standards. arXiv is owned and operated by Cornell University, a private not-for-profit educational institution),

A cloak that can hide living creatures from sight is a common feature of mythology but still remains unrealized as a practical device. To preserve the phase of wave, the previous cloaking solution proposed by Pendry \emph{et al.} required transforming electromagnetic space around the hidden object in such a way that the rays bending around it have to travel much faster than those passing it by. The difficult phase preservation requirement is the main obstacle for building a broadband polarization insensitive cloak for large objects. Here, we suggest a simplifying version of Pendry’s cloak by abolishing the requirement for phase preservation as irrelevant for observation in incoherent natural light with human eyes that are phase and polarization insensitive. This allows the cloak design to be made in large scale using commonly available materials and we successfully report cloaking living creatures, a cat and a fish, in front of human eyes.

What they seem to be saying is that it’s possible to create an invisibility cloak perceptible to the human eye that is made of everyday materials.

I’ll show the fish video first. Pay attention as that fish darts behind its invisibility cloak almost as soon as the video starts (from the Nanowerk Youbube channel; June 14, 2013 Nanowerk news item),

Then, there’s the cat (also from the Nanowerk Youtube channel),


The June 11, 2013 article by Philip Ball for Nature describes the device which provides invisibility,

… This latest addition to the science of invisibility cloaks is one of the simplest implementations so far, but there’s no denying its striking impact.

The ‘box of invisibility’ has been designed by a team of researchers at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, led by Hongsheng Chen, and their coworkers. The box is basically a set of prisms made from high-quality optical glass that bend light around any object in the enclosure around which the prisms are arrayed, the researchers describe in a paper posted on the online repository arXiv.

Ball suggests that this latest invisibility cloak is very similar to a Victorian era music hall trick,

As such, the trick is arguably closer to ‘disappearances’ staged in Victorian music hall using arrangements of slanted mirrors than to the modern use of substances called metamaterials to achieve invisibility by guiding light rays in unnatural ways.

As far as I know, the ‘metamaterial’ invisibility cloaks require very sophisticated equipment for their production, are incredibly expensive, and aren’t all that practical.

Gates’s June 13, 2013 article for the Huffington Post provides an overview of some of the recent work on invisibility cloaks and metamaterials, as well as, previous work done by Dr. Hongsheng Chen, an electromagnetics professor at Zhejiang University (China), and Baile Zhang, an assistant physics professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University before they unveiled this latest invisibility cloak.

My most recent posting on the topic was a June 6, 2013 piece on a temporal invisibility cloak.

Nanowires, solar cells, McMaster University, Cleanfield Energy and partners

The Feb. 24, 2012 news item on Nanowerk offers an update on the solar cell project being undertaken by McMaster University (Ontario, Canada), Zhejiang University (China), Hyperion Shanghai Drive Technology Co. Ltd., and Cleanfield Energy (Ontario, Canada). From the news item,

[The four partners] were recently awarded an International Science and Technology Partnerships Program (ISTPP) grant, with an objective to further develop a new photovoltaic (PV) nanowire solar cell based on low cost substrates initially intended for the rapidly expanding concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) market.

The ISTPP funds will be used to develop a semiconductor nanowire, which will improve the efficiency and reduce fabrication costs of PV cells due to light trapping, enhanced carrier extraction, and the ability to use inexpensive substrates. This project will draw on the existing strengths of McMaster University in the fabrication of III-V compound semiconductor nanowires to advance the state-of-the-art PV and the Zhejiang University group, which have expertise in optoelectronic devices including electrode deposition and optical characterization of materials and devices.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s a description of the Canadian government’s International Science and Technology Partnerships Program (ISTPP), from their home page,

The International Science & Technology Partnerships Program (ISTPP) was announced by the Government of Canada in June 2005, to promote international collaborative research and development activities. The five-year, $20-million program will increase the international competitiveness and prosperity of Canada by building stronger science and technology relationships with Israel, India, China and Brazil. [emphasis mine]

The ISTPP will foster and support bilateral research projects which have the potential for commercialization between Canada and identified partner countries. It will also stimulate bilateral science and technology networking and matchmaking activities to further new partnerships and accelerate the commercialization of research and development. The ISTPP is a “seed fund”, meaning that various other public and private sector participants are also encouraged to bring S&T expertise and funds of their own to the bilateral relationship.

I see there’s no mention of Russia or South Africa, two members of a loose consortium of countries called the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

Here are a few more technical details about the nanowires and solar cells from the news item,

The cost of PV devices can be reduced by replacing the single crystal substrates with thin film technology. However, the poly-crystalline nature of these thin film technologies generally results in reduced PV efficiency. To overcome these limitations, a substantial body of recent work in PV is beginning to exploit intentionally engineered nano-scale structures and the physics of reduced dimensionality to increase device performance. One of the leading contenders in the area of nanotechnology-based PV devices is semiconductor nanowires. .. Nanowires are easily grown using the well-known vapour-liquid-solid (VLS) process. The rapid growth rate (up to 10 microns per hour) and lower material utilization of nanowires compared to thin film PV devices implies lower fabrication costs. In addition, nanowires can be grown on less expensive substrates as compared to the expensive germanium substrates used in current concentrator PV cells.

The partners are hoping this project will lead to greater adoption of solar cells that are cheaper while maintaining their efficiency.

You can find out more about Cleanfield Energy here.