Graphene Brain Implant Turns Thoughts Into Speech

More than 5 million people worldwide suffer annually from aphasia, an extremely invalidating condition in which patients lose the ability to comprehend and formulate language after brain damage or in the course of neurodegenerative disorders. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), enabled by forefront technologies and materials, are a promising approach to treat patients with aphasia. The principle of BCIs is to collect neural activity at its source and decode it by means of electrodes implanted directly in the brain. However, neurorehabilitation of higher cognitive functions such as language raises serious issues. The current challenge is to design neural implants that cover sufficiently large areas of the brain to allow for reliable decoding of detailed neuronal activity distributed in various brain regions that are key for language processing.


BrainCom is a FET Proactive project funded by the European Commission with 8.35M€ for the next 5 years. This interdisciplinary initiative involves 10 partners including technologists, engineers, biologists, clinicians, and ethics experts. They aim to develop a new generation of neuroprosthetic cortical devices enabling large-scale recordings and stimulation of cortical activity to study high level cognitive functions. Ultimately, the BraimCom project will seed a novel line of knowledge and technologies aimed at developing the future generation of speech neural prostheses. It will cover different levels of the value chain: from technology and engineering to basic and language neuroscience, and from preclinical research in animals to clinical studies in humans.

This recently funded project is coordinated by ICREA Prof. Jose A. Garrido, Group Leader of the Advanced Electronic Materials and Devices Group at the Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – ICN2) and deputy leader of the Biomedical Technologies Work Package presented last year in Barcelona by the Graphene Flagship. The BrainCom Kick-Off meeting is held on January 12-13 at ICN2 and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB).

Recent developments show that it is possible to record cortical signals from a small region of the motor cortex and decode them to allow tetraplegic people to activate a robotic arm to perform everyday life actions. Brain-computer interfaces have also been successfully used to help tetraplegic patients unable to speak to communicate their thoughts by selecting letters on a computer screen using non-invasive electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings. The performance of such technologies can be dramatically increased using more detailed cortical neural information.

BrainCom project proposes a radically new electrocorticography technology taking advantage of unique mechanical and electrical properties of novel nanomaterials such as graphene, 2D materials and organic semiconductors.  The consortium members will fabricate ultra-flexible cortical and intracortical implants, which will be placed right on the surface of the brain, enabling high density recording and stimulation sites over a large area. This approach will allow the parallel stimulation and decoding of cortical activity with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution.

These technologies will help to advance the basic understanding of cortical speech networks and to develop rehabilitation solutions to restore speech using innovative brain-computer paradigms. The technology innovations developed in the project will also find applications in the study of other high cognitive functions of the brain such as learning and memory, as well as other clinical applications such as epilepsy monitoring.


Nanotechnology: A Treasure Trove With 1000 New 2D Materials

2D materials, which consist of a few layers of atoms, may well be the future of nanotechnology. They offer potential new applications and could be used in small, higher-performance and more energy-efficient devices. 2D materials were first discovered almost 15 years ago, but only a few dozen of them have been synthesized so far. Now, thanks to an approach developed by researchers from EPFL‘s Theory and Simulation of Materials Laboratory (THEOS) and from NCCR-MARVEL for Computational Design and Discovey of Novel Materials, many more promising 2D materials may now be identified. Their work was recently published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, and even got a mention on the cover page.

The first 2D material to be isolated was graphene, in 2004, earning the researchers who discovered it a Nobel Prize in 2010. This marked the start of a whole new era in electronics, as graphene is light, transparent and resilient and, above all, a good conductor of electricity. It paved the way to new applications in numerous fields such as photovoltaics and optoelectronics.

A team from EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) and NCCR Marvel in Switzerland has identified more than 1,000 materials with a particularly interesting 2D structure. Their research, which made the cover page of Nature Nanotechnology, paves the way for groundbreaking technological applications.

To find other materials with similar properties, we focused on the feasibility of exfoliation,” explains Nicolas Mounet, a researcher in the THEOS lab and lead author of the study. “But instead of placing adhesive strips on graphite to see if the layers peeled off, like the Nobel Prize winners did, we used a digital method.”


How To Convert CO2 In Energy

Imagine if carbon dioxide (CO2) could easily be converted into usable energy. Every time you breathe or drive a motor vehicle, you would produce a key ingredient for generating fuels. Like photosynthesis in plants, we could turn CO2 into molecules that are essential for day-to-day life. Now, scientists are one step closer. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory are part of a scientific collaboration that has identified a new electrocatalyst that efficiently converts CO2 to carbon monoxide (CO), a highly energetic molecule. Their findings have been published  in Energy & Environmental Science.

Brookhaven scientists are pictured at NSLS-II beamline 8-ID, where they used ultra-bright x-ray light to “see” the chemical complexity of a new catalytic material. 

There are many ways to use CO,” said Eli Stavitski, a scientist at Brookhaven and an author on the paper. “You can react it with water to produce energy-rich hydrogen gas, or with hydrogen to produce useful chemicals, such as hydrocarbons or alcohols. If there were a sustainable, cost-efficient route to transform CO2 to CO, it would benefit society greatly.

Scientists have long sought a way to convert CO2 to CO, but traditional electrocatalysts cannot effectively initiate the reaction. That’s because a competing reaction, called the hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) or “water splitting,” takes precedence over the CO2 conversion reaction. A few noble metals, such as gold and platinum, can avoid HER and convert CO2 to CO; however, these metals are relatively rare and too expensive to serve as cost-efficient catalysts. So, to convert CO2 to CO in a cost-effective way, scientists used an entirely new form of catalyst. Instead of noble metal nanoparticles, they used single atoms of nickel.

Nickel metal, in bulk, has rarely been selected as a promising candidate for converting CO2 to CO,” said Haotian Wang, a Rowland Fellow at Harvard University and the corresponding author on the paper. “One reason is that it performs HER very well, and brings down the CO2 reduction selectivity dramatically. Another reason is because its surface can be easily poisoned by CO molecules if any are produced.”

Single atoms of nickel, however, produce a different result. “Single atoms prefer to produce CO, rather than performing the competing HER, because the surface of a bulk metal is very different from individual atoms,” Stavitski said. Klaus Attenkofer, also a Brookhaven scientist and a co-author on the paper, added, “The surface of a metal has one energy potential—it is uniform. Whereas on a single atom, every place on the surface has a different kind of energy.”

In addition to the unique energetic properties of single atoms, the CO2 conversion reaction was facilitated by the interaction of the nickel atoms with a surrounding sheet of graphene. Anchoring the atoms to graphene enabled the scientists to tune the catalyst and suppress HER.


TriboElectricity, The Green Energy Source

Researchers from Clemson’s Nanomaterials Institute (CNI) are one step closer to wirelessly powering the world using triboelectricity, a green energy source. In March 2017, a group of physicists at CNI invented the ultra-simple triboelectric nanogenerator or U-TENG, a small device made of plastic and tape that generates electricity from motion and vibrations. When the two materials are brought together — through such actions as clapping the hands or tapping feet — they generate voltage that is detected by a wired, external circuit. Electrical energy, by way of the circuit, is then stored in a capacitor or a battery until it’s needed.

Nine months later, in a paper published in the journal Advanced Energy Materials, the researchers reported that they had created a wireless TENG, called the W-TENG, which greatly expands the applications of the technology. The W-TENG was engineered under the same premise as the U-TENG using materials that are so opposite in their affinity for electrons that they generate a voltage when brought in contact with each other.

In the W-TENG, plastic was swapped for a multipart fiber made of graphene — a single layer of graphite, or pencil lead — and a biodegradable polymer known as polylactic acid (PLA). PLA on its own is great for separating positive and negative charges, but not so great at conducting electricity, which is why the researchers paired it with graphene. Kapton tape, the electron-grabbing material of the U-TENG, was replaced with Teflon, a compound known for coating nonstick cooking pans.

After assembling the graphene-PLA fiber, the researchers pulled it into a 3-D printer and the W-TENG was born. The end result is a device that generates a maximum of 3,000 volts — enough to power 25 standard electrical outlets or, on a grander scale, smart-tinted windows or a liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor. Because the voltage is so high, the W-TENG generates an electric field around itself that can be sensed wirelessly. Its electrical energy, too, can be stored wirelessly in capacitors and batteries.

It cannot only give you energy, but you can use the electric field also as an actuated remote. For example, you can tap the W-TENG and use its electric field as a ‘button’ to open your garage door, or you could activate a security system — all without a battery, passively and wirelessly,” said Sai Sunil Mallineni, the first author of the study and a Ph.D. student in physics and astronomy.


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.


Adding Graphene To Silicon Electrodes Double Lithium Batteries Life

New research led by WMG (academic department), at the University of Warwick (UK) has found an effective approach to replacing graphite in the anodes of lithium-ion batteries using silicon, by reinforcing the anode’s structure with graphene girders. This could more than double the life of rechargeable lithium-ion based batteries by greatly extending the operating lifetime of the electrode, and also increase the capacity delivered by those batteries.

Graphite has been the default choice of active material for anodes in lithium—ion batteries since their original launch by Sony but researchers and manufacturers have long sought a way to replace graphite with silicon, as it is an abundantly available element with ten times the gravimetric energy density of graphite. Unfortunately, silicon has several other performance issues that continue to limit its commercial exploitation.

Due to its volume expansion upon lithiation silicon particles can electrochemically agglomerate in ways that impede further charge-discharge efficiency over time. Silicon is also not intrinsically elastic enough to cope with the strain of lithiation when it is repeatedly charged, leading to cracking, pulverisation and rapid physical degradation of the anode’s composite microstructure. This contributes significantly to capacity fade, along with degradation events that occur on the counter electrode – the cathode. To use the mobile phones as an example, this is why we have to charge our phones for a longer and longer time, and it is also why they don’t hold their charge for as long as when they are new.

However new research, led by Dr Melanie Loveridge in WMG at the University of Warwick, has discovered, and tested, a new anode mixture of silicon and a form of chemically modified graphene which could resolve these issues and create viable silicon anode lithium-ion batteries. Such an approach could be practically manufactured on an industrial scale and without the need to resort to nano sizing of silicon and its associated problems.

The new research has been published in Nature Scientific Reports.


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.


How To Trap DNA molecules With Your Smartphone

Researchers from the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering have found yet another remarkable use for the wonder material graphenetiny electronictweezers” that can grab biomolecules floating in water with incredible efficiency. This capability could lead to a revolutionary handheld disease diagnostic system that could be run on a smart phoneGraphene, a material made of a single layer of carbon atoms, was discovered more than a decade ago and has enthralled researchers with its range of amazing properties that have found uses in many new applications from microelectronics to solar cells. The graphene tweezers developed at the University of Minnesota are vastly more effective at trapping particles compared to other techniques used in the past due to the fact that graphene is a single atom thick, less than 1 billionth of a meter.

The physical principle of tweezing or trapping nanometer-scale objects, known as dielectrophoresis, has been known for a long time and is typically practiced by using a pair of metal electrodes. From the viewpoint of grabbing molecules, however, metal electrodes are very blunt. They simply lack the “sharpness” to pick up and control nanometer-scale objects.

Graphene is the thinnest material ever discovered, and it is this property that allows us to make these tweezers so efficient. No other material can come close,” said research team leader Sang-Hyun Oh, a Professor at the University of Minnesota. “To build efficient electronic tweezers to grab biomolecules, basically we need to create miniaturized lightning rods and concentrate huge amount of electrical flux on the sharp tip. The edges of graphene are the sharpest lightning rods.

The team also showed that the graphene tweezers could be used for a wide range of physical and biological applications by trapping semiconductor nanocrystals, nanodiamond particles, and even DNA molecules. Normally this type of trapping would require high voltages, restricting it to a laboratory environment, but graphene tweezers can trap small DNA molecules at around 1 Volt, meaning that this could work on portable devices such as mobile phones.

The research study has been published  in Nature Communications.


Graphene Ripples, Clean And Limitless Energy Source

Graphene is a seemingly impossible material. For years, scientists had theorized that lifting a single layer of carbon atoms from a chunk of graphite could produce the first two-dimensional material, which they called graphene. Finally, in 2004, this was accomplished by two physicists at the University of Manchester, who earned the Nobel Prize in Physics for this breakthrough. There was a problem, however: two dimensional materials violate the laws of physics. Without the support of a substrate, physics predicts they would tear apart or melt, even at a temperature of absolute zero. Physicists had to find a loophole to explain their existence.

That loophole turned out to be related to a phenomenon known as Brownian motion, small random fluctuations of the carbon atoms that make up graphene. This causes the material to ripple into the third dimension, similar to waves moving across the surface of the ocean. These movements in and out of the flat surface allow graphene to stay comfortably within the laws of physics.

Ever since Robert Brown discovered Brownian motion in 1827, scientists have wondered whether they could harvest this motion as a source of energy. The research of Paul Thibado, professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, provides strong evidence that the motion of graphene could indeed be used as a source of clean, limitless energy. Other researchers have theorized that temperature-induced curvature inversion in graphene could be used as an energy source, and even predicted the amount of energy they could produce. What sets Thibado’s work apart is his discovery that graphene has naturally occurring ripples that invert their curvature as the atoms vibrate in response to the ambient temperature.

This is the key to using the motion of 2D materials as a source of harvestable energy,” Thibado said. Unlike atoms in a liquid, which move in a random directions, atoms connected in a sheet of graphene move together. This means their energy can be collected using existing nanotechnology.

These results have been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.


How To Charge Lithium Batteries 20 Times Faster

A touch of asphalt may be the secret to high-capacity lithium metal batteries that charge 10 to 20 times faster than commercial lithium-ion batteries, according to Rice University scientists. The Rice lab of chemist James Tour developed anodes comprising porous carbon made from asphalt that showed exceptional stability after more than 500 charge-discharge cycles. A high-current density of 20 milliamps per square centimeter demonstrated the material’s promise for use in rapid charge and discharge devices that require high-power density.

Scanning electron microscope images show an anode of asphalt, graphene nanoribbons and lithium at left and the same material without lithium at right. The material was developed at Rice University and shows promise for high-capacity lithium batteries that charge 20 times faster than commercial lithium-ion batteries

The capacity of these batteries is enormous, but what is equally remarkable is that we can bring them from zero charge to full charge in five minutes, rather than the typical two hours or more needed with other batteries,” Tour said.

The Tour lab previously used a derivative of asphalt — specifically, untreated gilsonite, the same type used for the battery — to capture greenhouse gases from natural gas. This time, the researchers mixed asphalt with conductive graphene nanoribbons and coated the composite with lithium metal through electrochemical deposition. The lab combined the anode with a sulfurized-carbon cathode to make full batteries for testing. The batteries showed a high-power density of 1,322 watts per kilogram and high-energy density of 943 watt-hours per kilogram.

Testing revealed another significant benefit: The carbon mitigated the formation of lithium dendrites. These mossy deposits invade a battery’s electrolyte. If they extend far enough, they short-circuit the anode and cathode and can cause the battery to fail, catch fire or explode. But the asphalt-derived carbon prevents any dendrite formation.

The finding is reported in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano.


How To Forge Graphene In 3D Shape

The wonder material graphene gets many of its handy quirks from the fact that it exists in two dimensions, as a sheet of carbon only one atom thick. But to actually make use of it in practical applications, it usually needs to be converted into a 3D form. Now, researchers have developed a new and relatively simple way to do just that, using lasers to “forge” a three-dimensional pyramid out of graphene.

This isn’t the first time graphene has been given an extra dimension. In 2015, researchers from the University of Illinois molded graphene into 3D structures by layering it onto shaped substrates, and early this year MIT scientists found that tubes of the stuff could be shaped into 3D coral-like structures 10 times stronger than steel but just five percent as dense. Rice University researchers have also recently made graphene foam and reinforced it with carbon nanotubes.

But this new technique, developed by researchers in Finland and Taiwan, might be an easier and faster method to make 3D graphene. By focusing a laser onto a fine point on a 2D graphene lattice, the graphene at that spot is irradiated and bulges outwards. A variety of three-dimensional shapes can be made by writing patterns with the laser spot, with the height of the shape controlled by adjusting the irradiation dose at each particular point.

The team illustrated that technique by deforming a sheet of graphene into a 3D pyramid, standing 60 nm high. That sounds pretty tiny, but it’s 200 times taller than the graphene sheet itself.

We call this technique optical forging, since the process resembles forging metals into 3D shapes with a hammer,” says Mika Pettersson, co-author of the study. “In our case, a laser beam is the hammer that forges graphene into 3D shapes. The beauty of the technique is that it’s fast and easy to use; it doesn’t require any additional chemicals or processing. Despite the simplicity of the technique, we were very surprised initially when we observed that the laser beam induced such substantial changes on graphene. It took a while to understand what was happening.”

The researchers initially assumed that the laser had “doped” the graphene, introducing impurities into the material, but after further examination they found that wasn’t the case.

When we first examined the irradiated graphene, we were expecting to find traces of chemical species incorporated into the graphene, but we couldn’t find any,” comments Wei Yen Woon, co-author of the study. “After some more careful inspections, we concluded that it must be purely structural defects, rather than chemical doping, that are responsible for such dramatic changes on graphene.

The scientists explain that the optically forged graphene is structurally sound, highlighting its potential for building 3D architectures out of the material for a wide range of applications. In this form, the graphene has different electronic and optical properties from its 2D counterpart.

The research was published in the journal Nano Letters.

Source: Academy of Finland

Graphene, Not Glass, Is The Key To Better Optics

A lens just a billionth of a metre thick could transform phone cameras. Researchers at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, have created ultra-thin lenses that cap an optical fibre, and can produce images with the quality and sharpness of much larger glass lenses.

Compared with current lenses, our graphene lens only needs one film to achieve the same resolution,” says Professor Baohua Jia, a research leader at Swinburne’s Centre for Micro-Photonics. “In the future, mobile phones could be much thinner, without having to sacrifice the quality of their cameras. Our lens also allows infrared light to pass through, which glass lenses don’t.”

Producing graphene can be costly and challenging, so Baohua and her colleagues used a laser to pattern layers of graphene oxide (graphene combined with oxygen). By then removing the oxygen, they produced low-cost, patterned films of graphene, a thousand times thinner than a human hair. “By patterning the graphene oxide film in this way, its optical and electrical properties can be altered, which allowed us to place them in different devices,” she says.

Warm objects give off infrared light, so mobile phones with graphene lenses could be used to scan for hotspots in the human body and help in the early identification of diseases like breast cancer. By attaching the lens to a fibre optic tip, endoscopes — instruments that are currently several millimetres wide—could be made a million times smaller. The team is also investigating graphene’s amazing properties for their potential use as supercapacitors, capable of storing very large amounts of energy, which could replace conventional batteries.

Baohua’s work on graphene lenses was published in Nature Communications.