Articles from November 2013

Zoom And Observe Atoms Moving

A new microscope invented at Michigan State University (MSU) allows scientists to zoom in on the movements of atoms and molecules. Electron microscopes allow scientists to see the structure of microorganisms, cells, metals, crystals and other tiny structures that weren’t visible with light microscopes. But while these images have allowed scientists to make great discoveries, the relationship between structure and function could only be estimated because of static images. In the 1990s, researchers added a fourth dimension time – by using a laser to capture images of gaseous molecules as they were reacting.
Now scientists from MSU has brought these “molecular movies” down to the nanoscale level, where the properties of materials begin to change. The work has applications in nanoelectronic technologies and in clean-energy industries.

Michigan MicroscopeA new microscope invented at MSU allows scientists to zoom in on the movements of atoms and molecules
Implementing such a technology within an electron microscope setup allows one to examine crucial functions in nanoscale devices,” Chong-Yu Ruan, MSU associate professor of physics and astronomy said. “The goal is to explore the limits where specific physical, chemical and biological transformations can occur.”
Research team from MSU is one of the few in the world actively developing electron-based imaging technology on the femtosecond timescale. One femtosecond is one-millionth of a billionth of a second – a fundamental timescale that atoms take to perform specific tasks, such as mediating the traffic of electrical charges or participating in the chemical reactions.


Cancer: Pills To Replace Injections

Researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have developed a new type of nanoparticle that can be delivered orally and absorbed through the digestive tract, allowing patients to simply take a pill instead of receiving injections. Drugs delivered by nanoparticles hold promise for targeted treatment of many diseases, including cancer. However, the particles have to be injected into patients, which has limited their usefulness so far.

If you were a patient and you had a choice, there’s just no question: Patients would always prefer drugs they can take orally,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT.

The scientists used the particles to demonstrate oral delivery of insulin in mice, but they say the particles could be used to carry any kind of drug that can be encapsulated in a nanoparticle.
The resarch has been pusblished in the online edition of Science Translational Medicine.

Diabetics: Ultrasound To Avoid the Needle

A new nanotechnology-based technique for regulating blood sugar in diabetics may give patients the ability to release insulin painlessly using a small ultrasound device, allowing them to go days between injections – rather than using needles to give themselves multiple insulin injections each day. The technique was developed by researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ultrasound to cure diabetics

New technique allows diabetics to control insulin release with an injectable nano-network and portable ultrasound device

This is hopefully a big step toward giving diabetics a more painless method of maintaining healthy blood sugar levels,” says Dr. Zhen Gu, senior author of a paper on the research and an assistant professor in the joint biomedical engineering program at NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Copper, The Cheap Material For Solar Energy

Copper adorns the Statue of Liberty, makes sturdy, affordable wiring, and helps our bodies absorb iron. Now, researchers at Duke University would like to use copper to transform sunlight and water into a chemical fuel. Converting solar energy into storable fuel remains one of the greatest challenges of modern chemistry. One of the ways chemists have tried to capture the power of the sun is through water splitting, in which the atoms of H2O are broken apart so the hydrogen may be collected and used as fuel. Plants do this naturally through photosynthesis, and for half a century, scientists have tried to recreate that process by tinkering with chemical catalysts jumpstarted by sunlight. Indium tin oxide (ITO) is one material they’ve commonly tried to use. Researchers prefer it for its transparency — which allows sunlight to pass through and trigger the water-splitting reactions — and its ability to conduct electricity. But ITO is far from an ideal material.
Copper Nanowire

Indium is not very abundant,” said Ben Wiley, assistant professor of chemistry at Duke University. “It is similar in abundance to silver in the earth’s crust.” As a result, solar fuel cells using ITO will likely remain expensive and uncompetitive with conventional energy sources like coal and natural gas“, he said. Copper is 1000 times more plentiful and 100 times less expensive than indium. Copper nanowire catalysts also cost less to produce than their ITO counterparts because they can be “printed” on pieces of glass or plastic in a liquid ink form, using a machine that functions much like a printing press. ITO production, by contrast, requires large, sequential chambers of pumps and vacuums that deposit a thin layer of indium atoms at a far slower rate.


300-Mile Range Electric Car Using Lithium-Sulfur Battery

Holistic Cell Design by Berkeley Lab Scientists Leads to High-Performance, Long Cycle-Life Lithium-Sulfur Battery. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have demonstrated in the laboratory a lithium-sulfur (Li/S) battery that has more than twice the specific energy of lithium-ion batteries, and that lasts for more than 1,500 cycles of charge-discharge with minimal decay of the battery‘s capacity. This is longest cycle life reported so far for any lithium-sulfur battery. For electric vehicles to have a 300-mile range, the battery should provide a cell-level specific energy of 350 to 400 Watt-hours/kilogram (Wh/kg). This would require almost double the specific energy (about 200 Wh/kg) of current lithium-ion batteries. The batteries would also need to have at least 1,000, and preferably 1,500 charge-discharge cycles without showing a noticeable power or energy storage capacity loss.


Our cells may provide a substantial opportunity for the development of zero-emission vehicles with a driving range similar to that of gasoline vehicles.” says Elton Cairns, of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD) of the Berkeley Lab.
The results were reported in the journal Nano Letters.

How To Cool Fusion In Nuclear Reactors

Particles suspended in cooling water could prevent hotspots in nuclear plant cooling systems and electronics. Cooling systems generally rely on water pumped through pipes to remove unwanted heat. Now, researchers at MIT and in Australia have found a way of enhancing heat transfer in such systems by using magnetic fields, a method that could prevent hotspots that can lead to system failures. The system could also be applied to cooling everything from electronic devices to advanced fusion reactors, they say. Hu, associate director of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, says the new results are the culmination of several years of research on nanofluids — nanoparticles dissolved in water.

“The magnets attract the particles closer to the heated surface” of the tube, greatly enhancing the transfer of heat from the fluid, through the walls of the tube, and into the outside air, says Hu.

Without the magnets in place, the fluid behaves just like water, with no change in its cooling properties. But with the magnets, the heat transfer coefficient is higher, she says — in the best case, about 300 percent better than with plain water. “We were very surprised” by the magnitude of the improvement, Hu says.
The system, which relies on a slurry of tiny particles of magnetite, a form of iron oxide, is described in the International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer, in a paper co-authored by MIT researchers Jacopo Buongiorno and Lin-Wen Hu, and four others.

Low Cost Water Splitter For Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Stanford University scientists have created a silicon-based water splitter that is both low-cost and corrosion-free. The novel device – a silicon semiconductor coated in an ultrathin layer of nickel – could help pave the way for large-scale production of clean hydrogen fuel from sunlight, according to the scientists.

splitting waterThis image shows two electrodes connected via an external voltage source splitting water into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). The illuminated silicon electrode (left) uses light energy to assist in the water-splitting process and is protected from the surrounding electrolyte by a 2-nm film of nickel

Solar cells only work when the sun is shining,” said study co-author Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “When there’s no sunlight, utilities often have to rely on electricity from conventional power plants that run on coal or natural gas.”
A greener solution, Dai explained, is to supplement the solar cells with hydrogen-powered fuel cells that generate electricity at night or when demand is especially high.
The results are published in the Nov. 15 issue of the journal Science.

A Step Towards Pancreatic Cancer Healing

Researchers at UCLA‘s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center have developed a new technique for fighting deadly and hard-to-treat pancreatic cancer that uses two different types of nanoparticles, the first type clearing a path into tumor cells for the second, which delivers chemotherapy drugs. Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, or pancreatic cancer, is a deadly disease that is nearly impossible to detect until it is in the advanced stage. Treatment options are limited and have low success rates. The need for innovative and improved treatment of pancreatic cancer cannot be overstated, the researchers said, as a pancreatic cancer diagnosis has often been synonymous with a death sentence. Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma tumors are made up of cancer cells that are surrounded by other structural elements called stroma. The stroma can be made of many substances, including connective tissue and pericyte cells, which block standard chemotherapy drugs in tumor blood vessels from efficiently reaching the cancer cells, reducing the effectiveness of treatment.
The dual-wave nanotherapy method employed by Dr Andre Nel and Huang Meng from UCLA uses two different kinds of nanoparticles injected intravenously in a rapid succession. The first wave of nanoparticles carries a substance that removes the pericytes‘ vascular gates, opening up access to the pancreatic cancer cells; the second wave carries the chemotherapy drug that kills the cancer cells.
The research team, led by Dr. Andre Nel, a UCLA professor of nanomedicine and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, and Dr. Huan Meng, a UCLA adjunct assistant professor of nanomedicine, has shown that this new drug-delivery technique is effective in treating pancreatic cancer in a mouse model.

The results of the study are published online in the journal ACS Nano and will be featured in the November 2013 print issue.

How To Improve Electric Cars Batteries

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering have redesigned the component materials of the battery in an environmentally friendly way. By creating nanoparticles with a controlled shape, they believe smaller, more powerful and energy efficient batteries can be built. By modifying the size and shape of battery components, they aim to reduce charge times as well.
This is a critical, fundamental step in improving the efficiency of these batteries,” said David Kisailus, an associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering and lead researcher on the project. The initial findings are outlined in a just published paper called “Solvothermal Synthesis, Development and Performance of LiFePO4 Nanostructures” in the journal Crystal Growth & Design.
Kisailus, who is also the Winston Chung Endowed Professor in Energy Innovation, and Jianxin Zhu, a Ph.D. student working with Kisailus, were the lead authors of the paper.


Portable Breathalyzer Detects Diabetes

A novel hand-held, noninvasive monitoring device that uses multilayer nanotechnology to detect acetone has been shown to correlate with blood-glucose levels in the breath of diabetics. Ronny Priefer, Ph.D., of Western New England University – Springfield, USA -, created the multilayer technology using nanometer-thick films consisting of two polymers that react with acetone. This crosslinks the polymers and alters the physicochemical nature of the film, which provides a quantification of the acetone and thus the blood-glucose levels.

Breathalyzers are a growing field of study because of their potential to have a significant positive impact on patients’ quality of life and compliance with diabetes monitoring. What makes our technology different is that it only accounts for acetone and doesn’t react with other components in the breath,” said Priefer. “The breathalyzer we currently have is about the size of a book, but we’re working with an engineer, Dr. Michael Rust at Western New England University, to make it smaller, more similar to the size of a breathalyzer typically used to detect blood alcohol content levels.

Terrorists Attack Nano Scientists

Nanotechnology scientists in Mexico have been targeted in terrorist attacks by shadowy ‘anarcho-primitivists’. A chain of terrorist attacks has struck scientists: Mexico since 2011, but similar actions were taken in Switzerland in 2010 and in Italy in 2012. The Mexican attacks have been claimed by a group called Individuals Tending Towards Savagery (ITS). Their texts are littered with references to Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and expressions including “fire on nanotechnological development and on those that support it”. Nanotechnology is portrayed as the cause of a future ecological catastrophe, generated by the self-replication of lethal nano-robots.
Why are anarcho-primitivists specifically targeting nanotechnology? The inspiration is to be found in a 1985 book, Engines of Creation, written by the engineer Eric Drexler. This text forecasts an almost infinite potential for nanotechnology, including steering human biology artificially – a utopian idea known as trans-humanism. But it envisages also a possible “grey-goo” scenario, in which self-replicating robots take over nature and society, consuming everything as they go, turning it all into a grey mush.


Viruses Boost Electric Car Batteries

MIT researchers find a way to boost lithium-air battery performance, with the help of modified viruses. Lithium-air batteries have become a hot research area in recent years: They hold the promise of drastically increasing power per battery weight, which could lead, for example, to electric cars with a much greater driving range. But bringing that promise to reality has faced a number of challenges, including the need to develop better, more durable materials for the batteries’ electrodes and improving the number of charging-discharging cycles the batteries can withstand. Now, MIT researchers have found that adding genetically modified viruses to the production of nanowires — wires that are about the width of a red blood cell, and which can serve as one of a battery’s electrodes — could help solve some of these problems.
viruses for electric batteries
Professor Angela Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, explains that this process of biosynthesis is “really similar to how an abalone grows its shell”. Belcher emphasizes that this is early-stage research, and much more work is needed to produce a lithium-air battery that’s viable for commercial production. This work only looked at the production of one component, the cathode; other essential parts, including the electrolyte — the ion conductor that lithium ions traverse from one of the battery’s electrodes to the other — require further research to find reliable, durable materials. Also, while this material was successfully tested through 50 cycles of charging and discharging, for practical use a battery must be capable of withstanding thousands of these cycles.
The findings have been published in the journal Nature Communications, co-authored by graduate student Dahyun Oh, professors Angela Belcher and Yang Shao-Horn, and three others