Posts belonging to Category molecular electronics

Hydrogen Economy Closer

Washington State University (WSU) researchers have found a way to more efficiently generate hydrogen from water — an important key to making clean energy more viable. Using inexpensive nickel and iron, the researchers developed a very simple, five-minute method to create large amounts of a high-quality catalyst required for the chemical reaction to split water.

Energy conversion and storage is a key to the clean energy economy. Because solar and wind sources produce power only intermittently, there is a critical need for ways to store and save the electricity they create. One of the most promising ideas for storing renewable energy is to use the excess electricity generated from renewables to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen has myriad uses in industry and could be used to power hydrogen fuel-cell carsIndustries have not widely used the water splitting process, however, because of the prohibitive cost of the precious metal catalysts that are required – usually platinum or ruthenium. Many of the methods to split water also require too much energy, or the required catalyst materials break down too quickly.

In their work, the researchers, led by professor Yuehe Lin in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, used two abundantly available and cheap metals to create a porous nanofoam that worked better than most catalysts that currently are used, including those made from the precious metals. The catalyst they created looks like a tiny sponge. With its unique atomic structure and many exposed surfaces throughout the material, the nanofoam can catalyze the important reaction with less energy than other catalysts. The catalyst showed very little loss in activity in a 12-hour stability test.

We took a very simple approach that could be used easily in large-scale production,” said Shaofang Fu, a WSU Ph.D. student who synthesized the catalyst and did most of the activity testing. “The advanced materials characterization facility at the national laboratories provided the deep understanding of the composition and structures of the catalysts,” comments Junhua Song, another WSU Ph.D. student who worked on the catalyst characterization.

The findings are described in the journal Nano Energy.


Flexible, Low-Cost, Water-Repellent Gaphene Circuits

New graphene printing technology can produce electronic circuits that are low-cost, flexible, highly conductive and water repellent. The nanotechnology “would lend enormous value to self-cleaning wearable/washable electronics that are resistant to stains, or ice and biofilm formation,” according to a recent paper describing the discovery.

“We’re taking low-cost, inkjet-printed graphene and tuning it with a laser to make functional materials,” said Jonathan Claussen, an Iowa State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s and the corresponding author of the paper recently featured on the cover of the journal Nanoscale. The paper describes how Claussen and the nanoengineers in his research group use to create electric circuits on flexible materials. In this case, the ink is flakes of graphene – the wonder material can be a great conductor of electricity and heat, plus it’s strong, stable and biocompatible.

And now they’ve found another application of their laser processing technology: taking graphene-printed circuits that can hold water droplets (they’re hydrophilic) and turning them into circuits that repel water (they’re superhydrophobic).

We’re micro-patterning the surface of the inkjet-printed graphene,” Claussen said. “The laser aligns the graphene flakes vertically – like little pyramids stacking up. And that’s what induces the hydrophobicity.” Claussen said the energy density of the laser processing can be adjusted to tune the degree of hydrophobicity and conductivity of the printed graphene circuits. And that opens up all kinds of possibilities for new electronics and sensors, according to the paper. “One of the things we’d be interested in developing is anti-biofouling materials,” said Loreen Stromberg, a paper co-author and an Iowa State postdoctoral research associate in mechanical engineering and for the Virtual Reality Applications Center. “This could eliminate the buildup of biological materials on the surface that would inhibit the optimal performance of devices such as chemical or biological sensors.”

The technology could also have applications in flexible electronics, washable sensors in textiles, microfluidic technologies, drag reduction, de-icing, electrochemical sensors and technology that uses graphene structures and electrical simulation to produce stem cells for nerve regeneration. The researchers wrote that further studies should be done to better understand how the nano– and microsurfaces of the printed graphene creates the water-repelling capabilities. .

The Iowa State University Research Foundation is working to patent the technology and has optioned it to an Ames-based startup, NanoSpy Inc., for possible commercialization. NanoSpy, located at the Iowa State University Research Park, is developing sensors to detect salmonella and other pathogens in food processing plants. Claussen and Stromberg are part of the company.


Making Fuel Cells for a Fraction of the Cost

It is the third announcement in less than one week for a major improvment in the making of fuel cells.

In the competition between Lithium-Ion batteries (e.g. Tesla cars), and hydrogen fuel cells (see picture of Nexo from Hyundai) that power electric cars, it is difficult to predict which one will be the winner at the end.

Fuel cells have the potential to be a clean and efficient way to run cars, computers, and power stations, but the cost of producing them is limiting their use. That’s because a key component of the most common fuel cells is a catalyst made from the precious metal platinum.

In a paper published in Small, researchers at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), describe the development of an inexpensive, efficient catalyst material for a type of fuel cell called a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (PEMFC), which turns the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity and is among the most promising fuel cell types to power cars and electronics.

The catalyst developed at UCR is made of porous carbon nanofibers embedded with a compound made from a relatively abundant metal such as cobalt, which is more than 100 times less expensive than platinum. The research was led by David Kisailus, the Winston Chung Endowed Professor in Energy Innovation in UCR’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering.

Fuel cells, which are already being used by some carmakers, offer advantages over conventional combustion technologies, including higher efficiency, quieter operation and lower emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells emit only water.

Like batteries, fuel cells are electrochemical devices that comprise a positive and negative electrode sandwiching an electrolyte. When a hydrogen fuel is injected onto the anode, a catalyst separates the hydrogen molecules into positively charged particles called protons and negatively charged particles called electrons. The electrons are directed through an external circuit, where they do useful work, such as powering an electric motor, before rejoining the positively charged hydrogen ions and oxygen to form water.

A critical barrier to fuel cell adoption is the cost of platinum, making the development of alternative catalyst materials a key driver for their mass implementation.

Using a technique called electrospinning, the UCR researchers made paper-thin sheets of carbon nanofibers that contained metal ions — either cobalt, iron or nickel. Kisailus and his team, collaborating with scientists at Stanford University, determined that the new materials performed as good as the industry standard platinum-carbon systems, but at a fraction of the cost. “The key to the high performance of the materials we created is the combination of the chemistry and fiber processing conditions,” Kisailus said


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.


Fabric Made Of Nanofibers With Embedded OLED

In South Korea, Professor Kyung Cheol Choi from the School of Electrical Engineering (KAIST)  and his team succeeded in fabricating highly efficient Organic Light-Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) on an ultra-thin fiber. The team expects the technology, which produces high-efficiency, long-lasting OLEDs, can be widely utilized in wearable displays. Existing fiber-based wearable displays’ OLEDs show much lower performance compared to those fabricated on planar substrates. This low performance caused a limitation for applying it to actual wearable displays.

In order to solve this problem, the team designed a structure of OLEDs compatible to fiber and used a dip-coating method in a three-dimensional structure of fibers. Through this method, the team successfully developed efficient OLEDs that are designed to last a lifetime and are still equivalent to those on planar substrates.
The team identified that solution process planar OLEDs can be applied to fibers without any reduction in performance through the technology. This fiber OLEDs exhibited luminance and current efficiency values of over 10,000 cd/m^2(candela/square meter) and 11 cd/A (candela/ampere).
The team also verified that the fiber OLEDs withstood tensile strains of up to 4.3% while retaining more than 90% of their current efficiency. In addition, they could be woven into textiles and knitted clothes without causing any problems.Moreover, the technology allows for fabricating OLEDs on fibers with diameters ranging from 300㎛ down to 90㎛, thinner than a human hair, which attests to the scalability of the proposed fabrication scheme.
Noting that every process is carried out at a low temperature (~105℃), fibers vulnerable to high temperatures can also employ this fabrication scheme.
Professor Choi said, “Existing fiber-based wearable displays had limitations for applicability due to their low performance. However, this technology can fabricate OLEDs with high performance on fibers. This simple, low-cost process opens a way to commercialize fiber-based wearable displays.”

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”.


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.


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.


The Smell Of Death

Scientists in Korea have developed a bioelectronicnose’ that can specifically detect a key compound produced in decaying substances. When food begins to rot, the smell that we find repulsive comes from a compound known as cadaverine. That is also the substance responsible for the stench of rotting bodies, or cadavers—hence the name. The compound is the result of a bacterial reaction involving lysine, which is an amino acid commonly found in various food products. A previous study has shown that a receptor in zebrafish has an affinity for cadaverine. To make this receptor in the laboratory, scientists have turned to Escherichia coli bacteria as a host cell because it can easily produce large quantities of proteins. However, the production of this receptor in E. coli has been a challenge because it needs to be embedded in a membrane.

In this study, a team of researchers led by Associate Professor Hong Seunghun at Seoul National University packaged the cadaverine receptor from the zebrafish into nanodiscs, which are water friendly, membrane-like structures. The researchers then placed the receptor-containing nanodiscs in a special orientation on a carbon nanotube transistor, completing the bioelectronic nose. During testing with purified test compounds and real-world salmon and beef samples, the nose was selective and sensitive for cadaverine, even at low levels. The researchers suggest that the detector could someday prove useful in natural disaster scenarios, to recover corpses for identification.

The findings have been published in the journal ACS Nano.