How To Draw Electricity from the Bloodstream

Men build dams and huge turbines to turn the energy of waterfalls and tides into electricity. To produce hydropower on a much smaller scale, Chinese scientists have now developed a lightweight power generator based on carbon nanotube fibers suitable to convert even the energy of flowing blood in blood vessels into electricity.

For thousands of years, people have used the energy of flowing or falling water for their purposes, first to power mechanical engines such as watermills, then to generate electricity by exploiting height differences in the landscape or sea tides. Using naturally flowing water as a sustainable power source has the advantage that there are (almost) no dependencies on weather or daylight. Even flexible, minute power generators that make use of the flow of biological fluids are conceivable. How such a system could work is explained by a research team from Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Huisheng Peng and his co-workers have developed a fiber with a thickness of less than a millimeter that generates electrical power when surrounded by flowing saline solution—in a thin tube or even in a blood vessel.

The construction principle of the fiber is quite simple. An ordered array of carbon nanotubes was continuously wrapped around a polymeric core. Carbon nanotubes are well known to be electroactive and mechanically stable; they can be spun and aligned in sheets. In the as-prepared electroactive threads, the carbon nanotube sheets coated the fiber core with a thickness of less than half a micron. For power generation, the thread or “fiber-shaped fluidic nanogenerator” (FFNG), as the authors call it, was connected to electrodes and immersed into flowing water or simply repeatedly dipped into a saline solution. “The electricity was derived from the relative movement between the FFNG and the solution,” the scientists explained. According to the theory, an electrical double layer is created around the fiber, and then the flowing solution distorts the symmetrical charge distribution, generating an electricity gradient along the long axis.

The power output efficiency of this system was high. Compared with other types of miniature energy-harvesting devices, the FFNG was reported to show a superior power conversion efficiency of more than 20%. Other advantages are elasticity, tunability, lightweight, and one-dimensionality, thus offering prospects of exciting technological applications. The FFNG can be made stretchable just by spinning the sheets around an elastic fiber substrate. If woven into fabrics, wearable electronics become thus a very interesting option for FFNG application. Another exciting application is the harvesting of electrical energy from the bloodstream for medical applications. First tests with frog nerves proved to be successful.

The findings are published in  the journal Angewandte Chemie.


China, Global Leader In NanoScience

Mobile phones, computers, cosmetics, bicyclesnanoscience is hiding in so many everyday items, wielding a huge influence on our lives at a microscale level. Scientists and engineers from around the world exchanged new findings and perceptions on nanotechnology at the recent 7th International Conference on Nanoscience and Technology (ChinaNANO 2017) in Beijing last week. China has become a nanotechnology powerhouse, according to a report released at the conference. China’s applied nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnology have been developing steadily, with the number of nano-related patent applications ranking among the top in the world.

According to Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), China faces new opportunities for nanoscience research and development as it builds the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology  (NCNST) and globally influential national science centers.

We will strengthen the strategic landscape and top-down design for developing nanoscience, which will contribute greatly to the country’s economy and society,” said Bai.

Nanoscience can be defined as the study of the interaction, composition, properties and manufacturing methods of materials at a nanometer scale. At such tiny scales, the physical, chemical and biological properties of materials are different from those at larger scales — often profoundly so.

For example, alloys that are weak or brittle become strong and ductile; compounds that are chemically inert become powerful catalysts. It is estimated that there are more than 1,600 nanotechnology-based consumer products on the market, including lightweight but sturdy tennis rackets, bicycles, suitcases, automobile parts and rechargeable batteries. Nanomaterials are used in hairdryers or straighteners to make them lighter and more durable. The secret of how sunscreens protect skin from sunburn lies in the nanometer-scale titanium dioxide or zinc oxide they contain.

In 2016, the world’s first one-nanometer transistor was created. It was made from carbon nanotubes and molybdenum disulphide, rather than silicon.
Carbon nanotubes or silver nanowires enable touch screens on computers and televisions to be flexible, said Zhu Xing, chief scientist (CNST). Nanotechnology is also having an increasing impact on healthcare, with progress in drug delivery, biomaterials, imaging, diagnostics, active implants and other therapeutic applications. The biggest current concern is the health threats of nanoparticles, which can easily enter body via airways or skin. Construction workers exposed to nanopollutants face increased health risks.

The report was co-produced by Springer Nature, National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST) and the National Science Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).


Nano-based Yarns Generate Electricity

An international research team led by scientists at The University of Texas at Dallas and Hanyang University in South Korea has developed high-tech yarns that generate electricity when they are stretched or twisted.

In a study published in the journal Science, researchers describe “twistronyarns and their possible applications, such as harvesting energy from the motion of ocean waves or from temperature fluctuations. When sewn into a shirt, these yarns served as a self-powered breathing monitor.

The easiest way to think of twistron harvesters is, you have a piece of yarn, you stretch it, and out comes electricity,” said Dr. Carter Haines BS’11, PhD’15, associate research professor in the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at UT Dallas and co-lead author of the article. The article also includes researchers from South Korea, Virginia Tech, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and China.

Coiled carbon nanotube yarns, created at The University of Texas at Dallas and imaged here with a scanning electron microscope, generate electrical energy when stretched or twisted.
The yarns are constructed from carbon nanotubes, which are hollow cylinders of carbon 10,000 times smaller in diameter than a human hair. The researchers first twist-spun the nanotubes into high-strength, lightweight yarns. To make the yarns highly elastic, they introduced so much twist that the yarns coiled like an over-twisted rubber band.

In order to generate electricity, the yarns must be either submerged in or coated with an ionically conducting material, or electrolyte, which can be as simple as a mixture of ordinary table salt and water.

Fundamentally, these yarns are supercapacitors,” said Dr. Na Li, a research scientist at the NanoTech Institute and co-lead author of the study. “In a normal capacitor, you use energy — like from a battery — to add charges to the capacitor. But in our case, when you insert the carbon nanotube yarn into an electrolyte bath, the yarns are charged by the electrolyte itself. No external battery, or voltage, is needed.

When a harvester yarn is twisted or stretched, the volume of the carbon nanotube yarn decreases, bringing the electric charges on the yarn closer together and increasing their energy, Haines said. This increases the voltage associated with the charge stored in the yarn, enabling the harvesting of electricity.


How To Strengthen 3-D Printed Parts

From aerospace and defense to digital dentistry and medical devices, 3-D printed parts are used in a variety of industries. Currently, 3-D printed parts are very fragile and traditionally used in the prototyping phase of materials or as a toy for display. A doctoral student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University has pioneered a countermeasure to transform the landscape of 3-D printing today.

Brandon Sweeney and his advisor Dr. Micah Green, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, discovered a way to make 3-D printed parts stronger and immediately useful in real-world applications. Sweeney and Green applied the traditional welding concepts to bond the submillimeter layers in a 3-D printed part together, while in a microwave.

I was able to see the amazing potential of the technology, such as the way it sped up our manufacturing times and enabled our CAD designs to come to life in a matter of hours,” Sweeney said. “Unfortunately, we always knew those parts were not really strong enough to survive in a real-world application.

3-D printed objects are comprised of many thin layers of materials, plastics in this case, deposited on top of each other to form a desired shape. These layers are prone to fracturing, causing issues with the durability and reliability of the part when used in a real-world application, for example a custom printed medical device. “I knew that nearly the entire industry was facing this problem,” Sweeney said. “Currently, prototype parts can be 3-D printed to see if something will fit in a certain design, but they cannot actually be used for a purpose beyond that.”

When Sweeney started his doctorate, he was working with Green in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas Tech University. Green had been collaborating with Dr. Mohammad Saed, assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at Texas Tech, on a project to detect carbon nanotubes using microwaves. The trio crafted an idea to use carbon nanotubes in 3-D printed parts, coupled with microwave energy to weld the layers of parts together.

The basic idea is that a 3-D part cannot simply be stuck into an oven to weld it together because it is plastic and will melt,” Sweeney said. “We realized that we needed to borrow from the concepts that are traditionally used for welding parts together where you’d use a point source of heat, like a torch or a TIG welder to join the interface of the parts together. You’re not melting the entire part, just putting the heat where you need it.” The technology is patent-pending and licensed with a local company, Essentium Materials.

The team recently published a paper “Welding of 3-D Printed Carbon Nanotube-Polymer Composites by Locally Induced Microwave Heating,” in Science Advances.


How To Repair Connections Between Nerve Cells

Carbon nanotubes exhibit interesting characteristics rendering them particularly suited to the construction of special hybrid devices – consisting of biological tissue and synthetic material – planned to re-establish connections between nerve cells, for instance at spinal level, lost on account of lesions or trauma. This is the result of a piece of research published on the scientific journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine conducted by a multi-disciplinary team comprising SISSA (International School for Advanced Studies), the University of Trieste, ELETTRA Sincrotrone and two Spanish institutions, Basque Foundation for Science and CIC BiomaGUNE. More specifically, researchers have investigated the possible effects on neurons of the interaction with carbon nanotubes. Scientists have proven that these nanomaterials may regulate the formation of synapses, specialized structures through which the nerve cells communicate, and modulate biological mechanisms, such as the growth of neurons, as part of a self-regulating process. This result, which shows the extent to which the integration between nerve cells and these synthetic structures is stable and efficient, highlights the great potentialities of carbon nanotubes as innovative materials capable of facilitating neuronal regeneration or in order to create a kind of artificial bridge between groups of neurons whose connection has been interrupted. In vivo testing has actually already begun.

Scientists have proven that these nanomaterials may regulate the formation of synapses, specialized structures through which the nerve cells communicate, and modulate biological mechanisms, such as the growth of neurons, as part of a self-regulating process

Interface systems, or, more in general, neuronal prostheses, that enable an effective re-establishment of these connections are under active investigation” explain Laura Ballerini (SISSA) and Maurizio Prato (UniTSCIC BiomaGUNE), coordinating the research project. “The perfect material to build these neural interfaces does not exist, yet the carbon nanotubes we are working on have already proved to have great potentialities. After all, nanomaterials currently represent our best hope for developing innovative strategies in the treatment of spinal cord injuries“. These nanomaterials are used both as scaffolds, a supportive framework for nerve cells, and as means of interfaces releasing those signals that empower nerve cells to communicate with each other.


Carbon Nanotubes Self-Assemble Into Tiny Transistors

Carbon nanotubes can be used to make very small electronic devices, but they are difficult to handle. University of Groningen (Netherlands) scientists, together with colleagues from the University of Wuppertal and IBM Zurich, have developed a method to select semiconducting nanotubes from a solution and make them self-assemble on a circuit of gold electrodes. The results look deceptively simple: a self-assembled transistor with nearly 100 percent purity and very high electron mobility. But it took ten years to get there. University of Groningen Professor of Photophysics and Optoelectronics Maria Antonietta Loi designed polymers which wrap themselves around specific carbon nanotubes in a solution of mixed tubes. Thiol side chains on the polymer bind the tubes to the gold electrodes, creating the resultant transistor.

polymer wrapped nanotube

In our previous work, we learned a lot about how polymers attach to specific carbon nanotubes, Loi explains. These nanotubes can be depicted as a rolled sheet of graphene, the two-dimensional form of carbon. ‘Depending on the way the sheets are rolled up, they have properties ranging from semiconductor to semi-metallic to metallic.’ Only the semiconductor tubes can be used to fabricate transistors, but the production process always results in a mixture.

We had the idea of using polymers with thiol side chains some time ago‘, says Loi. The idea was that as sulphur binds to metals, it will direct polymer-wrapped nanotubes towards gold electrodes. While Loi was working on the problem, IBM even patented the concept. ‘But there was a big problem in the IBM work: the polymers with thiols also attached to metallic nanotubes and included them in the transistors, which ruined them.’

Loi’s solution was to reduce the thiol content of the polymers, with the assistance of polymer chemists from the University of Wuppertal. ‘What we have now shown is that this concept of bottom-up assembly works: by using polymers with a low concentration of thiols, we can selectively bring semiconducting nanotubes from a solution onto a circuit.’ The sulphur-gold bond is strong, so the nanotubes are firmly fixed: enough even to stay there after sonication of the transistor in organic solvents.

Over the last years, we have created a library of polymers that select semiconducting nanotubes and developed a better understanding of how the structure and composition of the polymers influences which carbon nanotubes they select’, says Loi. The result is a cheap and scalable production method for nanotube electronics. So what is the future for this technology? Loi: ‘It is difficult to predict whether the industry will develop this idea, but we are working on improvements, and this will eventually bring the idea closer to the market.’

The results were published in the journal Advanced Materials on 5 April.

Stem Cells Boost Bones Repair

A recent study, affiliated with UNIST (South Korea) has developed a new method of repairing injured bone using stem cells from human bone marrow and a carbon material with photocatalytic properties, which could lead to powerful treatments for skeletal system injuries, such as fractures or periodontal disease. In the study, the research team reported that the use of human bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells (hBMSCs) has been tried successfully in fracture treatment due to their potential to regenerate bone in patients who have lost large areas of bone from either disease or trauma. Recently, many attempts have been made to enhance the function of stem cells using carbon nanotubes, graphenes, and nano-oxides.

Professor Kim and Professor Suh (UNIST) examined the C₃N₄sheets. They discovered that this material absorbs red light and then emits fluorescence, which can be used to speed up bone regeneration. Professor Suh conducted a biomedical application of this material. After two days of testing, the material showed no cytotoxicity, making it useful as biomaterials.

bone-repairUpper left) Chemical bonding and physical structure of C₃N₄4 sheets. (Lower left) In a liquid state, red light is transmitted at a maximum of 450nm and emitted at a wavelength of 635 nm. (Right) After 4 weeks of loading C₃N₄4 sheets into the skull-damaged mice, the skull was regenerated by more than 90%.

This research has opened up the possibility of developing a new medicine that effectively treats skeletal injuries, such as fractures and osteoporosis,” said Professor Young-Kyo Seo. “It will be a very useful tool for making artificial joints and teeth with the use of 3D printing. This is an important milestone in the analysis of biomechanical functions needed for the development of biomaterials, including adjuvants for hard tissues such as damaged bones and teeth.”

This research has been jointly conducted by Professor Youngkyo Seo of Life Sciences and Dr. Jitendra N. Tiwari of Chemistry in collaboration with Professor Kwang S. Kim of Natural Science, Professor Pann-Ghill Suh of Life Sciences, and seven other researchers from UNIST.  The results of the study has been published in the January issue of ACS Nano journal.


3D Printing and Nanotechnology To Detect Toxic Liquids

Carbon nanotubes have made headlines in scientific journals for a long time, as has 3D printing. But when both combine with the right polymer, in this case a thermoplastic, something special occurs: electrical conductivity increases and makes it possible to monitor liquids in real time. This is a breakthrough for Polytechnique Montréal.

In practical terms, the result of this research, led by  Professor Daniel Therriault, looks like a cloth; but as soon as a liquid comes into contact with it, said cloth is able to identify its nature. In this case, it is ethanol, but it might have been another liquid. Such a process would be a terrific advantage to heavy industry, which uses countless toxic liquids.

carbon nanotubes

While deceptively simple, the recipe is so efficient that Professor Therriault protected it with a patent. In fact, a U.S. company is already looking at commercializing this material printable in 3D, which is highly conductive and has various potential applications. The first step: take a thermoplastic and, with a solvent, transform it into a solution so that it becomes a liquid. Second step: as a result of the porousness of this thermoplastic solution, carbon nanotubes can be incorporated into it like never before, somewhat like adding sugar into a cake mix. The result: a kind of black ink that’s fairly viscous and whose very high conductivity approximates that of some metals. Third step: this black ink, which is in fact a nanocomposite, can now move on to 3D printing. As soon as it comes out of the printing nozzle, the solvent evaporates and the ink solidifies. It takes the form of filaments slightly bigger than a hair. The manufacturing work can then begin.

Findings are described in the journal Small.


“Liquid Biopsy” Chip Detects Metastatic Cancer Cells in a Drop of Blood

A chip developed by mechanical engineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) can trap and identify metastatic cancer cells in a small amount of blood drawn from a cancer patient. The breakthrough technology uses a simple mechanical method that has been shown to be more effective in trapping cancer cells than the microfluidic approach employed in many existing devices.


The chip is tested in the lab. The electrodes detect electrical changes that occur when cancer cells are captured (click on the image to enjoy the video)

The WPI device uses antibodies attached to an array of carbon nanotubes at the bottom of a tiny well. Cancer cells settle to the bottom of the well, where they selectively bind to the antibodies based on their surface markers (unlike other devices, the chip can also trap tiny structures called exosomes produced by cancers cells). This “liquid biopsy,”  could become the basis of a simple lab test that could quickly detect early signs of metastasis and help physicians select treatments targeted at the specific cancer cells identified.

Metastasis is the process by which a cancer can spread from one organ to other parts of the body, typically by entering the bloodstream. Different types of tumors show a preference for specific organs and tissues; circulating breast cancer cells, for example, are likely to take root in bones, lungs, and the brain. The prognosis for metastatic cancer (also called stage IV cancer) is generally poor, so a technique that could detect these circulating tumor cells before they have a chance to form new colonies of tumors at distant sites could greatly increase a patient’s survival odds.

The focus on capturing circulating tumor cells is quite new,” said Balaji Panchapakesan, associate professor of mechanical engineering at WPI and director of the Small Systems Laboratory. “It is a very difficult challenge, not unlike looking for a needle in a haystack. There are billions of red blood cells, tens of thousands of white blood cells, and, perhaps, only a small number of tumor cells floating among them. We’ve shown how those cells can be captured with high precision.

The findings have been described in  the journal Nanotechnology,


Adhesive Holds From Extreme Cold To Extreme Heat

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University, Dayton Air Force Research Laboratory and China have developed a new dry adhesive that bonds in extreme temperatures—a quality that could make the product ideal for space exploration and beyond.

The gecko-inspired adhesive loses no traction in temperatures as cold as liquid nitrogen or as hot as molten silver, and actually gets stickier as heat increases, the researchers report.

The research, which builds on earlier development of a single-sided dry adhesive tape based on vertically aligned carbon nanotubes, is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Liming Dai, professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve and an author of the study teamed with Ming Xu, a senior research associate at Case School of Engineering and visiting scholar from Huazhong University of Science and Technology.


Ming Xu, senior research associate at Case Western Reserve, hangs from two wooden blocks held to a painted wall with six small pieces of the double-sided adhesive.

Vertically aligned carbon nanotubes with tops bundled into nodes replicate the microscopic hairs on the foot of the wall-walking reptile and remain stable from -320 degrees Fahrenheit to 1,832 degrees, the scientists say.

When you have aligned nanotubes with bundled tops penetrating into the cavities of the surface, you generate sufficient van der Waal’s forces to hold,” Xu said. “The dry adhesive doesn’t lose adhesion as it cools because the surface doesn’t change. But when you heat the surface, the surface becomes rougher, physically locking the nanotubes in place, leading to stronger adhesion as temperatures increase.”

Because the adhesive remains useful over such a wide range of temperatures, the inventors say it is ideally suited for use in space, where the shade can be frigid and exposure to the sun blazing hot.

In addition to range, the bonding agent offers properties that could add to its utility. The adhesive conducts heat and electricity, and these properties also increase with temperature. “When applied as a double-sided sticky tape, the adhesive can be used to link electrical components together and also for electrical and thermal management,”said Ajit Roy, of the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory.

This adhesive can thus be used as connecting materials to enhance the performance of electronics at high temperatures,” Dai comments. “At room temperature, the double-sided carbon nanotube tape held as strongly as commercial tape on various rough surfaces, including paper, wood, plastic films and painted walls, showing potential use as conducting adhesives in home appliances and wall-climbing robots.”


Diamond NanoThread, The New Wonder Material

Would you dress in diamond nanothreads? It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. And you’ll have a Brisbane-based carbon chemist and engineer to thank for it. QUT’s Dr Haifei Zhan is leading a global effort to work out how many ways humanity can use a newly-invented material with enormous potential – diamond nanothread (DNT). First created by Pennsylvania State University last year, one-dimensional DNT is similar to carbon nanotubes, hollow cylindrical tubes 10,000 times smaller than human hair, stronger than steel – but brittle.


DNT, by comparison, is even thinner, incorporating kinks of hydrogen in the carbon’s hollow structure, called Stone-Wale (SW) transformation defects, which I’ve discovered reduces brittleness and adds flexibility,” said Dr Zhan, from QUT’s School of Chemistry, Physics and Mechanical Engineering.

That structure makes DNT a great candidate for a range of uses. It’s possible DNT may become as ubiquitous a plastic in the future, used in everything from clothing to cars.

DNT does not look like a rock diamond. Rather, its name refers to the way the carbon atoms are packed together, similar to diamond, giving it its phenomenal strength. Dr Zhan has been modelling the properties of DNT since it was invented, using large-scale molecular dynamics simulations and high-performance computing. He was the first to realise the SW defects were the key to DNT’s versatility.

While both carbon nanotubes and DNT have great potential, the more I model DNT properties, the more it looks to be a superior material,” Dr Zhan said. “The SW defects give DNT a flexibility that rigid carbon nanotubes can’t replicate – think of it as the difference between sewing with uncooked spaghetti and cooked spaghetti. “My simulations have shown that the SW defects act like hinges, connecting straight sections of DNT. And by changing the spacing of those defects, we can a change – or tune – the flexibility of the DNT.

That research is published in the peer-reviewed publication Nanoscale.


How To Turn Plants Into Bomb-Sniffing Machines

Spinach is no longer just a superfood: By embedding leaves with carbon nanotubes, MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone. This is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants, an approach that the researchers call “plant nanobionics”.


The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.

In this case, the plants were designed to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals is present in the groundwater sampled naturally by the plant, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera. The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user.

This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” says Strano, who believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.

Strano is the senior author of a paper describing the nanobionic plants in  Nature Materials. The paper’s lead authors are Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student who has started a company called Plantea to further develop this technology, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.

Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, says this approach holds great potential for engineering not only sensors but many other kinds of bionic plants that might receive radio signals or change color. “When you have manmade materials infiltrated into a living organism, you can have plants do things that plants don’t ordinarily do,” says McAlpine, who was not involved in the research. “Once you start to think of living organisms like plants as biomaterials that can be combined with electronic materials, this is all possible.”

In the 2014 plant nanobionics study, Strano’s lab worked with a common laboratory plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana. However, the researchers wanted to use common spinach plants for the latest study, to demonstrate the versatility of this technique. “You can apply these techniques with any living plant,” Strano says. So far, the researchers have also engineered spinach plants that can detect dopamine, which influences plant root growth, and they are now working on additional sensors, including some that track the chemicals plants use to convey information within their own tissues. “Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Strano says. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

These sensors could also help botanists learn more about the inner workings of plants, monitor plant health, and maximize the yield of rare compounds synthesized by plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle, which produces drugs used to treat cancer. “These sensors give real-time information from the plant. It is almost like having the plant talk to us about the environment they are in,” Wong says. “In the case of precision agriculture, having such information can directly affect yield and margins.”