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Nanosubmarines Promise a Fast Drug Delivery Device

Let’s just get this out of the way from the outset: this technology has absolutely nothing to do with the miniature submarine from the sixties sci-fi classic “Fantastic Voyage”.

Now that that’s clear, research out of Rice University led by James Tour has accomplished something perhaps even more impressive because it’s real. Tour and his team have designed and fabricated a molecule consisting of 244 atoms that can move within a liquid environment using a tail-like propeller powered by ultraviolet light.

What is really impressive about the nanoscale submarines is their speed. One wag of its tail can move it 18 nanometers. Not impressed? Consider that the tail can wag a million revolutions per minute (RPM), which translates to propelling the molecule about 2.5 centimeters per second. In nano-scale terms that’s really fast.

In research published in the journal ACS Nano, the speed of the 10-nanometer scale submersibles are fast enough that they can work their way through a solution containing molecules of the same size without being slowed down.

"This is akin to a person walking across a basketball court with 1,000 people throwing basketballs at him," Tour said in a press release.

The operation of the motor resembles the movement of a bacterium’s flagellum. The process involves four steps. In the first, when light hits the double bond that holds the rotor to the main body, it becomes a single bond. This removal of a single bond allows the rotor to turn a quarter rotation. This motor is seeking to get to a lower energy state, which leads it to jump to the next adjacent atom. This causes the rotor to turn another quarter step, and so goes the process while the light shines on it.

The longer-term aim of such a submarine would be to serve as a cargo delivery device with drug delivery being the most likely possibility.

Victor García-López, lead author and Rice graduate student, added: "This is the first step, and we've proven the concept. Now we need to explore opportunities and potential applications."


Quantum Dots Made From Fool's Gold Could Lead to a New Generation of Batteries

Quantum dots have developed quite a reputation for themselves, in next-generation displays and photovoltaics. However, in the field of battery technology, they’re less heralded. 

Nonetheless, research has shown that if you add quantum dots, which are semiconducting metal nanoparticles, to a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery, it’s then possible to charge the battery completely in 30 seconds. While that sounds great, it turns out that this fast-charging trick can be executed for only a couple of cycles before the quantum dots start to interact with the electrolyte and it stops working.

Now researchers at Vanderbilt University have discovered a way to forestall that interaction by making the quantum dots out of iron pyrite, otherwise known as “fool’s gold”.

In research published in the journal ACS Nano, the Vanderbilt researchers added iron pyrite quantum dots of varying sizes to standard Li-ion button batteries like those used in watches. The results showed that they could achieve those fast recharging times with no negative effect on performance after dozens of cycles.

It turns out that fool’s gold is a material with a few tricks up it sleeve. Unlike other materials, iron pyrite changes its form, becoming an iron and a lithium-sulfur (or sodium sulfur) compound when it’s time to store energy.

“This is a different mechanism from how commercial lithium-ion batteries store charge,” said Anna Douglas, graduate student and co-author of the ACS Nano paper, in a press release. “Lithium inserts into a material during charging and is extracted while discharging—all the while leaving the material that stores the lithium mostly unchanged,” she explained.

Cary Pint, a professor of mechanical engineering, describes this unique mechanism using a pastry-based metaphor: “You can think of it like vanilla cake. Storing lithium or sodium in conventional battery materials is like pushing chocolate chips into the cake and then pulling the intact chips back out. With the interesting materials we’re studying, you put chocolate chips into vanilla cake and it changes into a chocolate cake with vanilla chips.”

Iron pyrite does not behave this way in its bulk form; it’s only possible on the nanoscale—ideally in nanoparticles 4.5 nanometers in size. The reason for this is that in the bulk form, the iron diffuses too slowly. However, if you shrink the size of the iron pyrite down to the nanoscale, the iron is closer to the surface and diffuses more quickly. With the iron rapidly diffused, the sulfur in the iron pyrite can more easily interact with the lithium or the sodium as the case may be.

“The batteries of tomorrow that can charge in seconds and discharge in days will not just use nanotechnology,” said Pint. “They will benefit from the development of new tools that will allow us to design nanostructures that can stand up to tens of thousands of cycles and possess energy storage capacities rivaling that of gasoline.” Pint and his colleagues feel that their breakthrough is a significant step in that direction.


Molybdenum Disulfide Outperforms Graphene in Water Desalination

When the World Economic Forum published its Global Risks Report this year, it identified the number one greatest risk facing the world as the looming water shortage. While there are both new and old technology solutions for desalinating water that could address this water shortfall,  they have remained highly energy intensive, rendering many of them out of reach for most regions outside of the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Scientists have been looking to graphene in the search for ways of easing the energy demands of water desalination. Here the material acts a porous membrane that allows water through but blocks the flow of salt ions—a pressure-driven process called reverse osmosis. Researchers at the University of Illinois recently took a look at that material’s two-dimensional cousin molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) in that role and believe that it may remove salt much better.

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Graphene Coating Protects Nanowires for Displays

Silver nanowires have become the all-purpose solution for various display technologies, including flexible displays and OLEDs. But silver nanowires still have a bit of an Achilles Heel: they can be easily damaged by strong UV radiation and harsh environmental conditions.

Now researchers at Purdue University have turned to the other all-purpose nanomaterial—graphene—to use as a barrier layer on the outside of silver nanowires to protect them from UV radiation.

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High Magnetic Fields Can't Stop These Superconducting Transistors

Scientists have created superconducting transistors that remain superconducting even under powerful magnetic fields that normally destroys the effect.

These findings could lead to more robust quantum computers and to ultra-sensitive magnetic sensors that can operate even in extremely high magnetic fields, researchers say.

Superconductors conduct electricity without dissipating energy. Superconductivity depends on electrons not repelling each other as they do in ordinary materials, but instead forming weakly bonded duos known as Cooper pairs, which can flow with zero resistance.

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Nanoscale Fasteners Strengthen Cost-Effective Membranes in Fuel Cells

The role of nanotechnology in next-generation fuel cells has a bit of a shaky past. There were initial thrills nearly a decade ago, when carbon nanotubes appeared to store hydrogen at an enormous ratio of 50 percent of their total weight, which, unfortunately, was later reduced to the rather sobering ratio of 1%wt in practical applications. And, of course, lest we forget, there was NEC’s promise, over a decade-and-a-half ago, of a fuel-cell-powered laptop enabled by nanomaterials. It’s not a spoiler to say it never came to fruition.

Since then, the hype around nanomaterials has largely moved on from improvements in the fuel cell itself, to efforts to achieve artificial photosynthesis for producing hydrogen.

Now researchers at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have bucked that trend and gone back to trying to exploit nanotechnology to make a better fuel cell. The Korean researchers have devised a way to make the more cost-effective hydrocarbon membranes used in today’s proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells even stronger and longer lasting.

PEM fuel cells are attractive for use in vehicles because they operate at low temperatures. However, they do have weaknesses. The KAIST researchers made the breakthrough while attempting to address one of these weaknesses. In the PEM fuel cell, the the permeable catalyst membrane that separates the two chemical compartments serves as a kind of electrolyte. One side of it is bonded to the positive electrode, and the other side, to a negative one.

The problem is that the membrane can be made from either a perfluorosulfonic acid–based polymer, which is very expensive, or from a hydrocarbon that is less expensive but doesn’t last very long.

The KAIST researchers set out to strengthen the less expensive hydrocarbon membranes. To that end, the KAIST researchers have developed nanoscale fasteners that bond the membrane to the electrodes mechanically rather than chemically.

“This physically fastened bond is almost five times stronger and harder to separate than current bonds between the same layers,” said Professor Hee-Tak Kim of KAIST, in a press release.

The nanoscale fasteners were fabricated by creating a mold for tiny pillars on the surface of the hydrocarbon membrane. When the interface between the membrane and the electrodes begins to heat up, the pillars begin to push into the softened surface of the electrode. When the interface cools and absorbs water, the connection between the pillars and the electrodes begin to set and the mechanical bond is established.

While this production method provides a much sought after way to fabricate fuel cells that are less expensive, more efficient, and easier to manufacture, it may have applications beyond fuel cells. The researchers envision this approach being useful for any application that employs hydrocarbon membranes, such as rechargeable “redox flow” batteries.


Hydrogen Treatment of Graphene Makes for Super Li-ion Batteries

There is a growing litany of research efforts aimed at improving the ubiquitous lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery with nanomaterials, and graphene is increasingly taking up the Li-ion’s share of those efforts.

However, one of the issues with exotic nanomaterials trying to take the place of graphite as the storage material for these batteries’ electrodes is cost. Whatever benefit may be derived from using nanomaterials seems to be offset by their rather steep comparative cost.

Now researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have discovered that if they use a graphene produced in a low-temperature process that is full of defects, they can still make it a highly effective electrode material simply by treating it with hydrogen.

In research published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the LLNL researchers found that the hydrogen interacts with defects in the graphene in a way that opens up gaps that make it easier for the lithium to penetrate the material and thereby improves its transport. Further, the hydrogen goes to the edges of the electrodes; this improves the lithium binding in these areas and ends up boosting storage capacity.

The positive role of hydrogen in this research is a bit unusual since it usually is regarded as an unwanted byproduct of the chemical production of graphene.

“We found a drastically improved rate capacity in graphene nanofoam electrodes after hydrogen treatment,” said LLNL scientist Brandon Wood, one of the co-authors of the paper, in a press release. “By combining the experimental results with detailed simulations, we were able to trace the improvements to subtle interactions between defects and dissociated hydrogen. This results in some small changes to the graphene chemistry and morphology that turn out to have a surprisingly huge effect on performance.”

The researchers believe this research shows that controlled hydrogen treatment could be a way forward to optimize lithium transport as well as improve the storage capacity in other graphene-based anode materials.

“The performance improvement we’ve seen in the electrodes is a breakthrough that has real world applications,” said Jianchao Ye, the lead author of the paper, in the press release.


Graphene Paper Transforms Into Tiny Origami Robots

A tiny sheet of graphene “paper” smaller than a human fingernail can behave like an origami robot that folds and walks on command. The inspired work by Chinese researchers could pave the way for such self-folding devices as tiny robots and artificial muscles, or even help with biological tissue engineering on the smallest scales.

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Researchers Develop Fastest and Most Flexible Silicon Phototransistor Ever

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) have developed a flexible phototransistor based on single-crystalline silicon nanomembranes (Si NM). They claim that this phototransistor is the fastest and most flexible one ever produced. 

The flexible phototransistor could be incorporated into a wide range of applications. In a digital camera, for example, it could result in a thinner lens that would capture images faster and yield higher quality still photos and videos.

In research published in the journal Advanced Optical Materials, the silicon nanomembrane is used as the top layer of the phototransistor; it enables full exposure of the active region of the device to any light. The researchers used a technique known as  “flip-transfer” in which they essentially flip the nanomembrane onto a reflective metal layer.

This arrangement allowed the researchers to boost the light absorption capabilities of the phototransistor without the need of an external amplifier. They simply placed electrodes under the nanomembrane layer; both the electrodes and the metal layer serve as reflectors.

“In this structure—unlike other photodetectors—light absorption in an ultrathin silicon layer can be much more efficient because light is not blocked by any metal layers or other materials,” said Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma, a professor at UW-Madison, in a press release.

It is the combination of the device’s high sensitivity and flexibility that are unique in a phototransistor.

“This demonstration shows great potential in high-performance and flexible photodetection systems,” said Ma, in the press release. “It shows the capabilities of high-sensitivity photodetection and stable performance under bending conditions, which have never been achieved at the same time.”

The upshot, say the researchers is that the flexibility allows the photodetector to better mimic mammalian vision by curving to fit the  shape of the camera’s optical system. “Currently, there's no easy way to do that,” says Ma.



IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY
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