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UK's National Graphene Institute in Revolt After Foreign Tech Grab

A technology that, a year ago, was being lauded as the “first commercially viable consumer product” using graphene now appears to be caught up in an imbroglio over who owns its intellectual property rights. The resulting controversy has left the research institute behind the technology in a bit of a public relations quagmire.

The venerable UK publication The Sunday Times reported this week on what appeared to be a mutiny occurring at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) located at the University of Manchester. Researchers at the NGI had reportedly stayed away from working at the institute’s gleaming new $71 million research facility over fears that their research was going to end up in the hands of foreign companies, in particular a Taiwan-based company called BGT Materials.

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Chemoelectronics: Nanoparticle Diodes and Devices That Work When Wet

Whether they’re for sensors in artificial skin that demands flexibility or for wearable electronics where the circuits must withstand our sweat, silicon-based chips aren’t always up to the task.

Now, an international research team has developed a way to fabricate flexible, water-loving logic circuits and sensors without the need of semiconductors. Instead, what the researchers have done is coat gold nanoparticles with charged organic molecules to create a system that they’ve dubbed a “chemoelectronic circuit”.

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Reconfigurable Nanopatterning Technique Promises New Generation of Metamaterials

Metamaterials are moving on from being merely laboratory curiosities in which objects can be made invisible. They are now reaching the commercial-applications stage—in one example, as the basis of new antenna technologies for mobile phones that are much smaller than earlier generations, but still provide the same signal coverage.

There is a subset of metamaterials known as magnetic metamaterials; these exploit the propagation of electromagnetic radiation, surface plasmons, and spin waves, all of which are properties critical to a new generation of electronics. The development of these materials has been somewhat limited by the fact that the magnetic nanopatterns on them must be fabricated through conventional lithography or ion radiation processes, both of which are irreversible.

Now an international research team led by researchers from the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) in New York City, and the Politecnico of Milan, in Italy, has developed a new process for fabricating these magnetic nanopatterns that allows them to be reconfigured so that their properties can be programmed and reprogrammed on demand.

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Researchers Seek Source of Frequency Fluctuations in Nanoresonators

The expectation has been that nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) will replace its technological predecessor microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) in the varied range of applications for which MEMS are currently used. However, the emergence of the usurper technology has not been without some struggles.

There have been durability issues with NEMS devices and there has also been the nagging issue that they never seem to perform quite up to their theoretical limits.

Now in joint research between the Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique (the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission or CEA) and the University of Grenbole-Alpes, researchers have taken on the challenge of addressing this shortfall in performance for NEMS devices—in particular nanoresonators—by looking for better ways to measure their performance.

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New Measurement Technique Tests Nanomaterials During Production

The addition of nanomaterials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes to polymers and other materials in order to impart conductivity or mechanical strength is fairly commonplace at this point. It is now possible to buy a nanomaterial for a specific application and know the kind of functionalization that the nanomaterial needs, as well all the dispersion parameters required to extract the full effect of the nanomaterial’s properties in the polymer.

While the growing maturity of this value chain would seem to indicate that all is clear to start churning out materials that are either conductive or super strong or both (and in large part it is), it has still remained difficult to perform non-destructive testing of these materials during production operations such as roll-to-roll processing.

Now researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a non-destructive measurement technique to ensure that nano-enabled materials are reaching their specified technical properties while being mass-produced in a roll-to-roll process.

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Graphene and Quantum Dots Turn a Mobile Device Into a Heart-Rate Monitor

The Mobile World Congress (MWC) held in Barcelona, Spain, last week hosted a Graphene Pavilion that included a number of research institutes operating under the umbrella of the Graphene Flagship, the European Commission’s €1 billion ($1.1 billion) investment aimed at centralizing graphene research throughout Europe. There were some other companies at the event that are not directly tied to the Graphene Flagship, such as Haydale and Zap&Go. (I visited both booths and posted videos that described their technologies.)

Another booth I visited while at the MWC was that of the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, Spain. While this blog has covered a fair amount of the research coming out of ICFO over the years, our coverage has mostly followed the more long-range research projects that have attempted to leverage two-dimensional materials and plasmonics for the creation of a new generation of integrated circuits based around photons rather than electrons.

The prospect of integrated photonic circuits based on plasmonics remains firmly in the future. But ICFO was demonstrating what it has been able to fabricate based on its work with graphene and quantum dots. Essentially, what researchers there have built and demonstrated (see the video, below) is a transparent and flexible photodetector.

Last year, we reported on other research out of ICFO in which they developed a graphene-based photodetector that was capable of converting absorbed light into an electrical voltage in less than 50 femtoseconds, bringing switching to the brink of terahertz speeds. And, four years ago, we covered ICFO’s work in combining graphene and quantum dots, which, at the time, they believed would be ideal for automotive night-vision technologies.

We can only speculate on how this latest technology ties into that previous research. When asked if a description of the underlying technology had been published anywhere, the researchers explained that it hadn’t and that they could not provide any further details until it has. 

Nonetheless, the demonstration of the technology did capture the imagination of many folks visiting the booth. One of the applications that ICFO has devised for the transparent, flexible photodetector was as a heart rate monitor. You can see the demonstration of the technology in the video.

Basically what happens is that when a finger is placed on the photodetector, the digit acts as an optical modulator, changing the amount of light hitting the photodetector as your heart beats and sends blood through your fingertip. This change in signal is what generates a pulse rate on the screen of the mobile device.

It was a nifty application of the technology and certainly inspired a lot of gee-whizzes from those who saw it. However, the ICFO researchers didn’t really envision this as a shot at a viable commercial technology, but more of a demonstration of what is possible. I wasn’t quite so sure that they should have been so dismissive. It seemed to me like it would be cool little technology to have on one’s mobile device. We’ll have to see what they publish, maybe they envision a better application potential.

Scanning Probe Thermometry: A New Tool That Can Take the Temperature of Nanoelectronics

If you were to point to one invention that triggered what has come to be known as the field of nanotechnology, then you would be on pretty safe ground to cite the work of IBM Zurich scientists in creating first the scanning tunneling microscope (STM)  and later the atomic force microscope (AFM).  Both of these were the first tools to give us the capabilities to investigate, characterize and manipulate matter on the nanoscale.

Now, once again, scientists at IBM Zurich have provided us with a new tool to see the nanoscale world: They’ve developed a technique that uses an AFM to measure the temperature of an object on the nanoscale. The resulting device could provide a greater understanding of the capabilities of nanoscale devices, such as a new generation of transistors based on nanomaterials.

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New 2-D Material Hits the Goldilocks "Just Right" Button

Most of the so-called flatlands, the universe of two-dimensional (2-D) materials, is reminiscent of the beds and bowls of porridge sampled by Goldilocks during her short stay at the home of the three bears. Some 2-D materials, like silicene, are unable to remain two-dimensional for very long. Others, like graphene or boron nitride, remain stable but can’t be pressed into service as anything other than metallic conductors or insulators. (Another group of materials tick the stability box and behave as semiconductors, but are not one-atom-thick.)

Now researchers at the University of Kentucky, in collaboration with scientists from Daimler in Germany and the Institute for Electronic Structure and Laser (IESL) in Greece, may have found a formulation that is just right: a 2-D material that is both stable at high temperatures and under mechanical stress and easily fashioned into a semiconductor.

In research described in the journal Physical Review B, Rapid Communications, the researchers discovered that a combination of silicon, boron and nitrogen—all of which are cheap and abundant elements—led to the formation of an extremely stable one-atom-thick material.

In a phone interview, Madhu Menon, the physicist at the University of Kentucky who led the research, said that the stability was created by the fact that silicon and nitrogen form strong double bonds in 2-D form. This stands in contrast to silicene, the two-dimensional form of silicon.

“Silicene is not stable because the silicon atoms do not like to stay as a two-dimensional system,” Menon told IEEE Spectrum. “Silicon likes to have more than three neighbors, so that is why the surface gets puckered. And if you wait long enough, it will go into its 3-D silicon form.”

He added: “This proposed material is quite unique. The double bond between the silicon and nitrogen that leads to its stability in 2-D form was quite a revelation for me. This is unusual for this to happen.”

In the video below, Menon describes the new material and its potential electronic applications.

This new material is like graphene in that it too is a metallic conductor and must be functionalized in order to behave as a semiconductor. However, because its surface is made up of silicon atoms, it’s possible to functionalize the surface to gain a band gap. But with graphene, you cannot easily dope the surface but only the edges—a more complicated and expensive process.

One of the more interesting properties of the proposed silicon-boron-nitrogen material, according to Menon, is that when it is made into nanotubes it always acts as a metallic conductor. Nanotubes made from graphene can be semiconductors or metallic conductors. The prospect of having a material that will consistently form microscopic one-dimensional conductors is very attractive for electronic applications that depend on the availability of conducting channels.

Menon and his colleagues are eager to make the material in the lab, but they will need additional funding to proceed with that work. In the meantime, Menon will continue to characterize the material in simulations, examining its thermal properties and figuring out whether it can form n-type or p-type semiconductors.

Piezoelectric Graphene Ink Enables Thin-Film Pressure Sensors of Any Size

UK-based Haydale Graphene Industries Plc has established itself over the years as one of the go-to companies if you wanted graphene to have just the right properties for the device you were aiming to develop. If you wanted the graphene to have high conductivity, or maybe conductivity was not as critical as its thermal properties, Haydale was the place you would go to get graphene that did exactly what you wanted.

The task of functionalizing and dispersing graphene so that it bonds with the resin or polymer matrix in which it is being used has proven trickier than many companies had initially thought. Scores of novices have tried mixing batches of graphene into their products, only to have it make the products worse rather than better.

The backbone of Haydale’s business has been providing expertise on how to extract graphene’s attractive properties. But now the company is moving up the value chain, offering its own device based on its functionalized graphene.

Through a development agreement with the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (WCPC) at Swansea University, Haydale has taken what it has learned about using graphene to impart electrical conductivity and, together with WCPC, developed a material that, when used in a pressure sensitive sheet, conducts electricity only when pressure is applied. In the video below, Rob Haslett, the Sector Manager of Functional Inks at Haydale, explains how the sensor was developed and how Haydale expects the technology to be applied.

The thin plastic sheet has conductive silver tracks oriented vertically on one side, and silver tracks oriented horizontally on the other side. In between these tracks is a graphene-based conductive ink that is responsive to pressure, making it possible to measure the pressure at any point across the film’s surface.

When the sheet is attached to a computer or intelligent device, it can deliver a readout indicating not only where the pressure is occurring on the film, but also how strong that pressure is. This difference in pressure is shown through different shades of color: Lighter shades mean light pressure and darker shades indicate heavier pressure. This makes it possible to map pressure the way a cartographer would.

The beauty of the sensor is that it is relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture, according to Haslett. Further, the piezoelectric ink based sensor can be made to any size and shape. So it’s conceivable that you could cover an entire floor with it. Haslett also suggests that the sheet could be shaped into a glove or an insert for a shoe, offering potential applications as a “smart” shoe for sports or medical rehabilitation. Haslett and his colleagues have also considered a number of other applications, including security systems that could detect when something has been moved. 

Haydale says it is looking for partners to work with in developing the sensor for some applications that they might have overlooked.

The Zap&Go graphene supercapacitor charger

Zap&Go's Graphene Supercapacitor Powers Portable Charger

At long last, there is a company that is about to launch a commercially available product based on a graphene-enabled supercapacitor. A UK-based startup called Zap&Go has found a way to exploit the attractive properties of graphene for supercapactiors to fabricate a portable charger and expects to make it available to consumers this year.

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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
New York City
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