Posts belonging to Category Materials

Europe: 17 Organizations United To Produce Li-Ion Batteries

Energy storage has emerged as a central building block of the EU’s objectives in low emission electric transport and replacing electricity generated by fossil fuels with renewables. The realisation that batteries are of such strategic importance has come as a wake-up call, with Europe finding itself lagging in commercialising research in the field, and for now, completely dependent on manufacturers outside the EU for battery supplies. Public and private funders in Europe that have put €555 million into developing new energy storage technologies since 2008 have little to show for it in terms of commercial outputs.

While a number of start-ups, such as France’s NAWA Technology are working on various approaches to increasing energy density and speeding up recharging of electric vehicle batteries, none are in production. As yet, Europe has no factories producing electric vehicle batteries, though LG Chem of South Korea is currently constructing a manufacturing plant in Poland, which is due to open later this year. Another Korean manufacturer, SK Innovation, whose major customer is Mercedes-Benz, has announced it will invest $777 million to build a battery plant with capacity of 7.5 GW/year in Hungary

A European company, Northvolt is planning to build a plant in Skelleftea, northern Sweden, with construction due to start in the second half of 2018. Meanwhile, Frankfurt-based TerraE announced earlier in January that it has formed a consortium of 17 companies and research institutions to handle the planning for two large-scale lithium-ion battery cell manufacturing facilities in Germany. TerraE will build and operate the factories, where customers can have batteries produced to their own specifications.


Efficient, Low-Cost Catalyst To Produce Hydrogen

A nanostructured composite material developed at UC Santa Cruz has shown impressive performance as a catalyst for the electrochemical splitting of water to produce hydrogen. An efficient, low-cost catalyst is essential for realizing the promise of hydrogen as a clean, environmentally friendly fuel.

Researchers led by Shaowei Chen, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz, have been investigating the use of carbon-based nanostructured materials as catalysts for the reaction that generates hydrogen from water. In one recent study, they obtained good results by incorporating ruthenium ions into a sheet-like nanostructure composed of carbon nitride. Performance was further improved by combining the ruthenium-doped carbon nitride with graphene, a sheet-like form of carbon, to form a layered composite.

The bonding chemistry of ruthenium with nitrogen in these nanostructured materials plays a key role in the high catalytic performance,” Chen said. “We also showed that the stability of the catalyst is very good.”

Currently, the most efficient catalysts for the electrochemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water are based on platinum, which is scarce and expensive. Carbon-based materials have shown promise, but their performance has not come close to that of platinum-based catalysts.

In the new composite material developed by Chen’s lab, the ruthenium ions embedded in the carbon nitride nanosheets change the distribution of electrons in the matrix, creating more active sites for the binding of protons to generate hydrogen. Adding graphene to the structure further enhances the redistribution of electrons.

The new findings were published in ChemSusChem.


Thin And Highly Insulating Walls Lower Heating Costs

Better thermal insulation means lower heating costs – but this should not be at the expense of exciting architecture. A new type of brick filled with aerogel could make thin and highly insulating walls possible in the future – without any additional insulation layer.

The calculation is simple: the better a building is insulated, the less heat is lost in winter – and the less energy is needed to achieve a comfortable room temperature. No wonder, then, that the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) regularly raises the requirements for building insulation.

In order to achieve the same insulation values as a 165 mm thick wall of aerobricks, a wall of perlite bricks must be 263 mm thick – and a wall of non-insulating bricks even more than one meter!

Traditionally, the insulating layers are applied to the finished walls. Increasingly, however, self-insulating bricks are being used – saving both work steps and costs and opening up new architectural possibilities. Insulating bricks offer a workable compromise between mechanical and thermal properties and are also suited for multi-storey buildings. They are already available on the market in numerous models: some have multiple air-filled chambers, others have larger cavities filled with insulating materials such as pearlite, mineral wool or polystyrene. Their thermal conductivity values differ depending on the structure and filling material. In order to reach the insulation values of walls with seperate insulating layers, the insulating bricks are usually considerably thicker than normal bricks.

Empa researchers have now replaced Perlite in insulating bricks with Aerogel: a highly porous solid with very high thermal insulation properties that can withstand temperatures of up to 300°C (see box). It is not a novel material for the researchers: they have already used it to develop a high-performance insulating plaster which, among other things, allows historical buildings to be renovated energetically without affecting their appearance.

Together with his colleagues, Empa researcher Jannis Wernery from the research department «Building Energy Materials and Components» has developed a paste-like mixture of aerogel particles to be used as filler material for the brick. «The material can easily be filled into the cavities and then joins with the clay of the bricks», says Wernery. «The aerogel stays in the bricks – you can work with them as usual.» The «Aerobrick» was born.


Memristors Retain Data 10 Years Without Power

The internet of things ( IoT) is coming, that much we know. But still it won’t; not until we have components and chips that can handle the explosion of data that comes with IoT. In 2020, there will already be 50 billion industrial internet sensors in place all around us. A single autonomous device – a smart watch, a cleaning robot, or a driverless car – can produce gigabytes of data each day, whereas an airbus may have over 10 000 sensors in one wing alone.

Two hurdles need to be overcome. First, current transistors in computer chips must be miniaturized to the size of only few nanometres; the problem is they won’t work anymore then. Second, analysing and storing unprecedented amounts of data will require equally huge amounts of energy. Sayani Majumdar, Academy Fellow at Aalto University (Finland), along with her colleagues, is designing technology to tackle both issues.

Majumdar has with her colleagues designed and fabricated the basic building blocks of future components in what are called “neuromorphiccomputers inspired by the human brain. It’s a field of research on which the largest ICT companies in the world and also the EU are investing heavily. Still, no one has yet come up with a nano-scale hardware architecture that could be scaled to industrial manufacture and use.

The probe-station device (the full instrument, left, and a closer view of the device connection, right) which measures the electrical responses of the basic components for computers mimicking the human brain. The tunnel junctions are on a thin film on the substrate plate.

The technology and design of neuromorphic computing is advancing more rapidly than its rival revolution, quantum computing. There is already wide speculation both in academia and company R&D about ways to inscribe heavy computing capabilities in the hardware of smart phones, tablets and laptops. The key is to achieve the extreme energy-efficiency of a biological brain and mimic the way neural networks process information through electric impulses,” explains Majumdar.

In their recent article in Advanced Functional Materials, Majumdar and her team show how they have fabricated a new breed of “ferroelectric tunnel junctions”, that is, few-nanometre-thick ferroelectric thin films sandwiched between two electrodes. They have abilities beyond existing technologies and bode well for energy-efficient and stable neuromorphic computing.

The junctions work in low voltages of less than five volts and with a variety of electrode materials – including silicon used in chips in most of our electronics. They also can retain data for more than 10 years without power and be manufactured in normal conditions.

Tunnel junctions have up to this point mostly been made of metal oxides and require 700 degree Celsius temperatures and high vacuums to manufacture. Ferroelectric materials also contain lead which makes them – and all our computers – a serious environmental hazard.

Our junctions are made out of organic hydro-carbon materials and they would reduce the amount of toxic heavy metal waste in electronics. We can also make thousands of junctions a day in room temperature without them suffering from the water or oxygen in the air”, explains Majumdar.

What makes ferroelectric thin film components great for neuromorphic computers is their ability to switch between not only binary states – 0 and 1 – but a large number of intermediate states as well. This allows them to ‘memoriseinformation not unlike the brain: to store it for a long time with minute amounts of energy and to retain the information they have once received – even after being switched off and on again.

We are no longer talking of transistors, but ‘memristors’. They are ideal for computation similar to that in biological brains.  Take for example the Mars 2020 Rover about to go chart the composition of another planet. For the Rover to work and process data on its own using only a single solar panel as an energy source, the unsupervised algorithms in it will need to use an artificial brain in the hardware.

What we are striving for now, is to integrate millions of our tunnel junction memristors into a network on a one square centimetre area. We can expect to pack so many in such a small space because we have now achieved a record-high difference in the current between on and off-states in the junctions and that provides functional stability. The memristors could then perform complex tasks like image and pattern recognition and make decisions autonomously,” says Majumdar.


Flat Lens Boost Virtual Reality

Metalensesflat surfaces that use nanostructures to focus light — promise to revolutionize optics by replacing the bulky, curved lenses currently used in optical devices with a simple, flat surface.  But, these metalenses have remained limited in the spectrum of light they can focus well Now a team of researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has developed the first single lens that can focus the entire visible spectrum of light — including white light — in the same spot and in high resolution. This has only ever been achieved in conventional lenses by stacking multiple lenses.

Focusing the entire visible spectrum and white light – combination of all the colors of the spectrum — is so challenging because each wavelength moves through materials at different speeds. Red wavelengths, for example, will move through glass faster than the blue, so the two colors will reach the same location at different times resulting in different foci. This creates image distortions known as chromatic aberrations.

Cameras and optical instruments use multiple curved lenses of different thicknesses and materials to correct these aberrations, which, of course, adds to the bulk of the device.

Metalenses have advantages over traditional lenses,” says Federico Capasso, Professor of Applied Physics at SEAS and senior author of the research. “Metalenses are thin, easy to fabricate and cost effective. This breakthrough extends those advantages across the whole visible range of light. This is the next big step. Using our achromatic lens, we are able to perform high quality, white light imaging. This brings us one step closer to the goal of incorporating them into common optical devices such as cameras“.

The research is published in Nature Nanotechnology.


Nano-based Chip Detects Explosives

Technical University of Denmark (DTU) is ready with a prototype for a chemical “sniffer system” for the detection of criminal substances like narcotics and explosivesDogs have an eminent sense of smell. Their snouts use a specific sniffing technique which almost grabs hold of scents. Elephants’ snouts are even better than those of dogs, but obviously these are attached to elephants which are difficult to carry around. Consequently, today dogs are employed to track narcotics, money and explosives. Sometimes dogs are able to sense explosives in very small doses, however, they are not always 100 percent reliable as they are also sensitive to changes in their surroundings. A technological solution is therefore to be preferred in the tracking of stocks of narcotics or explosive materials.

Researchers at DTU have developed the prototype of a chip able to sniff molecular structures from a number of known substances. A special camera visualises the results from the chip (with 24 megapixels per 15 second) and newly developed software interprets these images according to changes in colour (i.e. the difference between two pictures), caused by the impact of the scents in the air.

We have conducted experiments by sucking air from smaller containers like e.g. handbags or pieces of luggage and from large industrial sized containers typically used for smuggling. In both cases, we arrived at promising results”, says Mogens Havsteen Jakobsen, Senior Researcher at DTU Nanotech.

By using the so-called colorimetric sensing technique, the artificial nose is able to detect different substances like explosives, narcotics, the ripeness of cheese, rotten meat and fish, the quality of wine and coffee or bad indoor climate of a room.

The project has specifically targeted explosives which are a growing safety risk in our society. The Chemical Division of the Danish Emergency Management Agency has been an important collaborator because they are authorised to produce and handle explosives. “We have test laboratories which have been made available during the course of the project”, says Jesper Mogensen, civil engineer and analysis chemist at the Chemical Division and therefore used to handling explosives.

There will be some evident advantages in using a technology such as CRIM-TRACK, compared to the instruments available today,” Jesper Mogensen says. “Firstly, the preparation time is short in that what you largely need to do is switch on the tracker and use it. This is valuable time saved. Secondly and perhaps the most important advantage is the fact that the EOD (the Explosive Ordnance Disposal) does not need to collect a sample. Today when we are called to a ransacking if e.g. a kilo of white powder has been found and we have to analyse its chemistry by way of GC-MS (i.e. gas chromatography-mass spectrometry), a sample of the substance must be collected on a fibre. In other words, it is necessary to collect physically a sample with all the risks this entails. With DTU’s sniffer system, it is possible to collect samples in the air. It sniffs for the drug much like a dog and indicates whether there are any explosives or not. This will increase the safety of our EOD”.


How To Detect Cancer With a Urine Test

Researchers centered at Nagoya University (Japan) develop a nanowire device able to detect microscopic levels of urinary markers potentially implicated in cancerCells communicate with each other through a number of different mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms are well-known: in animals, for example, predatory threats can drive the release of norepinephrine, a hormone that travels through the bloodstream and triggers heart and muscle cells to initiate a “fight-or-flight” response. A far less familiar mode of cellular transport is the extracellular vesicle (EV). EVs can be thought of as small “chunks” of a cell that are able to pinch off and circulate throughout the body to deliver messenger cargo to other cells. These messengers have become increasingly recognized as crucial mediators of cell-to-cell communication.

In a new study reported in Science Advances, researchers centered at Nagoya University have developed a novel medical device that can efficiently capture these EVs, and potentially use them to screen for cancer.


EVs are potentially useful as clinical markers. The composition of the molecules contained in an EV may provide a diagnostic signature for certain diseases,” lead author Takao Yasui explains. “The ongoing challenge for physicians in any field is to find a non-invasive diagnostic tool that allows them to monitor their patients on a regular basis–for example, a simple urine test.”

Among the many molecules EVs have been found to harbor are microRNAs, which are short pieces of ribonucleic acid that play diverse roles in normal cellular biology. Critically, the presence of certain microRNAs in urine might serve as a red flag for serious conditions such as bladder and prostate cancer. While this important cargo could therefore theoretically aid physicians in cancer diagnoses, there are still many technological hurdles that need to be overcome. One such hurdle: finding a feasible method to capture EVs in sufficient quantities to analyze them in a routine clinical setting.

The content of EVs in urine is extremely low, at less than 0.01% of the total fluid volume. This is a major barrier to their diagnostic utility,” Yasui notes. “Our solution was to embed zinc oxide nanowires into a specialized polymer to create a material that we believed would be highly efficient at capturing these vesicles. Our findings suggest that the device is indeed quite efficient. We obtained a collection rate of over 99%, surpassing ultracentrifugation as well as other methods that are currently being used in the field.


In 2025 Humanity Could Benefit From A Major New Source Of Clean Power

An international project to generate energy from nuclear fusion has reached a key milestone, with half of the infrastructure required now built. Bernard Bigot, the director-general of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter), the main facility of which is based in southern France, said the completion of half of the project meant the effort was back on track, after a series of difficulties. This would mean that power could be produced from the experimental site from 2025.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two atoms combine to form a new atom and a neutron. The atoms are fired into a plasma where extreme temperatures overcome their repulsion and forces them together. The fusion releases about four times the energy produced when an atom is split in conventional nuclear fission

The effort to bring nuclear fusion power closer to operation is backed by some of the world’s biggest developed and emerging economies, including the EU, the US, China, India, Japan, Korea and Russia. However, a review of the long-running project in 2013 found problems with its running and organisation. This led to the appointment of Bigot, and a reorganisation that subsequent reviews have broadly endorsed.

Fusion power is one of the most sought-after technological goals in the pursuit of clean energy. Nuclear fusion is the natural phenomenon that powers the sun, converting hydrogen into helium atoms through a process that occurs at extreme temperatures.

Replicating that process on earth at sufficient scale could unleash more energy than is likely to be needed by humanity, but the problem is creating the extreme conditions necessary for such reactions to occur, harnessing the resulting energy in a useful way, and controlling the reactions once they have been induced.

The Iter project aims to use hydrogen fusion, controlled by large superconducting magnets, to produce massive heat energy which would drive turbines – in a similar way to the coal-fired and gas-fired power stations of today – that would produce electricity. This would produce power free from carbon emissions, and potentially at low cost, if the technology can be made to work at a large scale.

For instance, according to Iter scientists, an amount of hydrogen the size of a pineapple could be used to produce as much energy as 10,000 tonnes of coal.


How To Store Solar Energy In A Non-Electric Battery

Materials chemists have been trying for years to make a new type of battery that can store solar or other light-sourced energy in chemical bonds rather than electrons, one that will release the energy on demand as heat instead of electricity–addressing the need for long-term, stable, efficient storage of solar power.

Now a group of materials chemists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst led by Dhandapani Venkataraman, with Ph.D. student and first author Seung Pyo Jeong, Ph.D. students Larry Renna, Connor Boyle and others, report that they have solved one of the major hurdles in the field by developing a polymer-based system. It can yield energy storage density – the amount of energy stored – more than two times higher than previous polymer systems. Details appear in the current issue of Scientific Reports.

Venkataraman and Boyle say that previous high energy storage density achieved in a polymeric system was in the range of 200 Joules per gram, while their new system is able to reach an average of 510 Joules per gram, with a maximum of 690. Venkataraman says, “Theory says that we should be able to achieve 800 Joules per gram, but nobody could do it. This paper reports that we’ve reached one of the highest energy densities stored per gram in a polymeric system, and how we did it.”


Thermoelectric Power Generation

Thermoelectric (TE) materials could play a key role in future technologies. Although the applications of these remarkable compounds have long been explored, they are mostly limited to high-temperature devices. Recently, researchers at Osaka University, in collaboration with Hitachi, Ltd., developed a new TE material with an improved power factor at room temperature. Their study, published in Physica Status Solidi RRL, could help bring these materials out of the high-temperature niche and into the mainstream.

TE materials display the thermoelectric effect: apply heat on one side, and an electric current starts to flow. Conversely, run an external current through the device, and a  temperature gradient forms; i.e., one side becomes hotter than the other. By interconverting heat and electricity, TE materials can be used as either power generators (given a heat source) or refrigerators (given a power supply).

The ideal TE material combines high electrical conductivity, allowing the current to flow, with low thermal conductivity, which prevents the temperature gradient from evening out. The power generation performance mainly depends on the “power factor,” which is proportional to both electrical conductivity and a term called the Seebeck coefficient.

Unfortunately, most TE materials are often based on rare or toxic elements,” according to study co-author Sora-at Tanusilp. “To address this, we combined silicon – which is common in TE materials – with ytterbium, to create ytterbium silicide [YbSi2]. We chose ytterbium over other metals for several reasons. First, its compounds are good electrical conductors. Second, YbSi2 is non-toxic. Moreover, this compound has a specific property called valence fluctuation that make it a good TE material at low temperatures.


Virgin Hyperloop One’s System Over 240 mph (387 km/h)

In a recent test, Virgin Hyperloop One‘s system beat all previous speed records, hitting nearly 387 kilometers per hour (240 miles per hour). With Richard Branson now in their corner, the company could dominate the future of hyperloop transportation. On December 18, Virgin Hyperloop One announced the completion of third phase testing on the DevLoop, the world’s first full-scale hyperloop test site. During these tests, the system clocked a lightning-fast speed of nearly 387 kmh (240 mph), breaking the 355 kmh (220 mph) hyperloop speed record set by Elon Musk’s hyperloop in August.

During this phase of testing, the company experimented with using a new airlock that helps test pods transition between atmospheric and vacuum conditions. By combining magnetic levitation, extremely low aerodynamic drag, and the level of air pressure experienced at 200,000 feet above sea level, the system proved that it is capable of reaching airline speeds over long distances.


The recent phase three testing continues to prove the incredible persistence and determination of our DevLoop team — the close to 200 engineers, machinists, welders, and fabricators who collaborated to make hyperloop a reality today,” Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop One’s co-founder and chief technology officer, stated in a press release announcing the new hyperloop speed record.


Gilded fuel cells boost electric car efficiency

To make modern-day fuel cells less expensive and more powerful, a team led by Johns Hopkins chemical engineers has drawn inspiration from the ancient Egyptian tradition of gilding. Egyptian artists at the time of King Tutankhamun often covered cheaper metals (copper, for instance) with a thin layer of a gleaming precious metal such as gold to create extravagant masks and jewelry. In a modern-day twist, the Johns Hopkins-led researchers have applied a tiny coating of costly platinum just one nanometer thick—100,000 times thinner than a human hair—to a core of much cheaper cobalt. This microscopic marriage could become a crucial catalyst in new fuel cells that generate electric current to power cars and other machines.

The new fuel cell design would save money because it would require far less platinum, a very rare and expensive metal that is commonly used as a catalyst in present-day fuel-cell electric cars. The researchers, who published their work earlier this year in Nano Letters, say that by making electric cars more affordable, this innovation could curb the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from gasoline– or diesel-powered vehicles.

This technique could accelerate our launch out of the fossil fuel era,” said Chao Wang, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and senior author of the study. “It will not only reduce the cost of fuel cells. It will also improve the energy efficiency and power performance of clean electric vehicles powered by hydrogen.”

In their journal article, the authors tipped their hats to the ancient Egyptian artisans who used a similar plating technique to give copper masks and other metallic works of art a lustrous final coat of silver or gold.The idea,” Wang said, “is to put a little bit of the precious treasure on top of the cheap stuff.”

He pointed out that platinum, frequently used in jewelry, also is a critical material in modern industry. It catalyzes essential reactions in activities including petroleum processing, petrochemical synthesis, and emission control in combustion vehicles, and is used in fuel cells. But, he said, platinum’s high cost and limited availability have made its use in clean energy technologies largely impractical—until now.