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Chong Liu of Stanford University

Nanostructures Move From Water Purification to Uranium Extraction

Last August, we reported on work out of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University in which the nanomaterial molybdenum disulfide was used to kill 99.999 percent of bacteria in water within just 20 minutes—a process that would otherwise take up to two days if only the ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun were used as a disinfectant.

In a meeting last week with Chong Liu, the post-doc in Yi Cui’s lab at Stanford who was the lead author of that research, it appears water purification is just the start for the capabilities of this line of research that has had a number of incarnations.

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In a proof-of concept experiment the researchers attached a CS-FET chip with H2 sensors to a drone, creating an aerial chemical sensing probe.

Nanochip Gas Sensors Promise Personal Air Quality Monitors in Our Pockets

An international team of researchers has developed a low-power gas sensor chip that can operate at room temperature, making possible the development of personal air-quality monitoring devices that we could carry around with us.

In research described in the journal Science Advances, the team of researchers fabricated a chemical-sensitive field-effect transistor (CS-FET) platform based on 3.5-nanometer-thin silicon channel transistors. The platform, which is highly sensitive but consumes a small amount of power, can detect a wide range of different gases.

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Solution of quantum dots glows bright red when in absorbs light from a UV lamp underneath.

Flying Saucer Quantum Dots: The Secret to Better, Brighter Lasers

Ted Sargent and his team at the University of Toronto have done many things with quantum dots: boost solar cell efficiency, invent infrared imagers, optoelectronics you can apply with a paint brush. Now Sargent and his team have added a new spice to their recipe for colloidal quantum dots that promises to change the struggling prospects of quantum dot-based lasers. If the new approach lives up to its promise, it could lead to brighter, less expensive, and tunable lasers for video projectors and medical imaging among other applications.

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A reconstruction of the wiring and transistors of an Intel G3260 processor

X-rays Map the 3D Interior of Integrated Circuits

A team of researchers based in Switzerland is on the way to laying bare much of the secret technology inside commercial processors. They pointed a beam of X-rays at a piece of an Intel processor and were able to reconstruct the chip’s warren of transistors and wiring in three dimensions. In the future, the team says, this imaging technique could be extended to create high-resolution, large-scale images of the interiors of chips. 

The technique is a significant departure from the way the chip industry currently looks inside finished chips, in order to reverse engineer them or check that their own intellectual property hasn’t been misused. Today, reverse engineering outfits progressively remove layers of a processor and take electron microscope images of one small patch of the chip at a time.

But “all it takes is a few more years of this kind of work, and you'll pop in your chip and out comes the schematic,” says Anthony Levi of the University of Southern California. “Total transparency in chip manufacturing is on the horizon. This is going to force a rethink of what computing is”, he says, and what it means for a company to add value in the computing industry.

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Symbolic image of light interacting with a gold surface with 4-fold symmetric Archimedean spirals: Plasmons with orbital angular momentum are excited and swirl towards the center.

Combining Twisted Light and Plasmons Could Supercharge Data Storage

Research that started out with the humble aim of growing an atomically flat, single crystalline gold surface, ultimately morphed into a team of German and Israeli scientists using the gold surface they came up with for a novel form of data storage.

In research published in the journal Science, a team of scientists from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the German universities of Stuttgart, Duisburg-Essen, and Kaiserslautern and the University of Dublin in Ireland has developed a way to exploit the orbital angular momentum of light in a confined device using plasmonics.

Prior to this work, some scientists suggested using the orbital angular momentum of photons as a means for data storage in the open air or in optical fibers. This latest research makes it possible to envision it being used in confined, chip-scale devices.

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Molecules self assembling

The Nobelists and Their Molecular Machines

While the prospects of molecular nanotechnology—the catch-all term for molecular manufacturing in which nanoscale machines are programmed to build macroscale objects from the bottom up—has remained mostly in the realm of science fiction, the awarding of last year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry to a trio of scientists who pioneered the development of nanomachines has buoyed hope that at least we should begin to see more research in the field.

More of this research is already trickling in since the Nobel Prize announcement. Two teams of researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) in Spain have cited this most recent Nobel Prize as a context for their work in developing self-assembling materials based on peptides (compounds consisting of two or more amino acids linked together in a chain) that can stack themselves on top of each other to form nanotubes.

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Dr. Christopher Lutz of IBM Research - Almaden in San Jose, Calif. with IBM Research's Nobel-prize winning microscope he used to store data on a single atom magnet.

Single Atom Serves as World's Smallest Magnet and Data Storage Device

An international team of researchers have produced the world’s smallest magnet and demonstrated that it’s possible to use that magnet—an individual atom—to store a single bit of data.

Until this latest research, led by teams at IBM Research Almaden and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, molecules were the smallest-ever data storage units. To put this advance in context, think about it like this: With one bit per atom, it would be conceivable to store an entire iTunes library of 35 million songs on a device no bigger than a credit card.

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New Microscopy Tech Offers a Kind of “Nano-GPS” for Measuring Magnetism of Atoms

Researchers at IBM Research Alamaden have developed a new approach to measuring the magnetic field of individual atoms that for the first time gives scientists the ability to put the sensor exactly next to the atom they want to measure, providing them with a strong and direct signal of the magnetic field. The energy resolution that the new technology provides is more than 1000 times higher than other microscopic techniques, according to its inventors.

The technique involves purposely placing a "sensor" atom near the “target” atom to measure the latter’s magnetic field.  These sensor atoms—also known as electron spin resonance (ESR) sensors—were first developed by IBM back in 2015 and are used inside of scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs). STMs—which detect the tunneling of electrons between the an ultra-sharp probe as it’s scanned across a surface—allow atom-by-atom engineering, so that the positions of both the sensor and the target atoms can be imaged to locate them with atomic precision.

This latest advance in STMs with ESR technology described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology marks a distinct change from how the magnetic fields of atoms have previously been measured.

“We have shown in the paper how to perform a kind of ‘nano-GPS’ imaging, to detect where other magnetic atoms were located purely by the spin resonance signal on several fixed sensor atoms,” says Christopher Lutz, a staff scientist at IBM Research Almaden. “We intend to use this to image where magnetic centers are in molecules and nanostructures on the surface.”

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DNA double helix

Sudoku Hints at New Encoding Strategy for DNA Data Storage

Researchers affiliated with Columbia University and the New York Genome Center have reported a new encoding method that makes it possible to come close to the theoretical maximum for DNA data storage.

In research published in the journal Science, the team says its encoding method achieved a 60% increase in storage capacity over previously reported efforts, resulting in a jaw-dropping storage density of 215 petabytes per gram of DNA. For perspective, one petabyte is equivalent to 13.3 years worth of HD video.

Last year, Microsoft announced that its researchers had set the DNA data-storage record of 200 megabytesWhile that was a good indication of how far DNA data storage had come, it remained pretty short on detail, with the announcement coming only in blog post on the Microsoft website. A peer-reviewed paper seemed to be sorely lacking to those in the field.

“Our work is the first one in the literature to show that you can get very close to the theoretical capacity of DNA storage architecture,” said Yaniv Erlich, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Columbia and Core Member of the NY Genome Center, in an interview with IEEE Spectrum. In fact, Erlich and his co-author Dina Zielinski of the New York Genome Center report coming within 14% of the theoretical limit.

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On an insulating polymide tape, the deposited patterned crystal violet spots

Mass Spectrometry Gets a New Power Source and a New Life

Mass spectrometry is a chemical analysis and detection tool that has been around for 130 years. In that time there have been so many tweaks and improvements that observers have become a bit blasé about the next big leap in its development.

But the latest improvement out of the Georgia Institute of Technology may be the biggest yet for the venerable old analytical tool. In research described in Nature Nanotechnology, the Georgia Tech researchers have managed to make mass spectrometry more sensitive than ever before, more portable, cheaper, and even safer. All of these advancements were accomplished by replacing the direct current power source typically used as a power source with triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs). You can see a demonstration of the technology at work in the video below.

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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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