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The Artificial Skin That Could Deliver the Sense of Touch Directly to the Brain

Zhenan Bao at Stanford University has invested a lot of her research into building flexible circuits out of carbon nanotubes.

Her team’s latest feat is an “artificial skin” that’s capable of providing the sense of touch directly into the brain cells of mice and is initially aimed for use in prosthetic limbs to give the users the full sense of touch.

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Graphene-Coated Fabric Makes for a Wearable Gas Sensor

One of graphene’s key properties is its surface area—as a two-dimensional material it really is just all surface. This has advantages in a number of applications, one of which is sensors.

Now researchers at the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute and Konkuk University in South Korea have found that if they coat fabrics with graphene, they can detect dangerous gases and alert the wearer of their presence by triggering an LED light.

In research published in Scientific Reports, the Korean researchers coated commercially available yarn with reduced graphene oxide (RGO)—which refers to graphene oxide being stripped of most of its oxide to make graphene—using electrostatic self assembly and molecular glue to produce a bendable and washable electronic textile (e-textile) gas sensor.

“This sensor can bring a significant change to our daily life since it was developed with flexible and widely used fibers, unlike the gas sensors invariably developed with the existing solid substrates,” said Dr. Hyung-Kun Lee, who led this research initiative, in a press release.

The researchers discovered that the graphene-coated yarn was extremely sensitive to nitrogen dioxide, which is produced through the burning of fossil fuels. The sensor operates by the nitrogen oxide molecules changing  the electrical resistance of the graphene, which in turn triggers an LED light to turn on.

Within 30 minutes of exposure to 0.25 parts per million of nitrogen dioxide (just under five times above the acceptable standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), the sensor detected the toxic gas.

While this fabric-based sensor compares favorably with previous RGO sensors prepared on a flat material, and offers three times the sensitivity to nitrogen oxide, it’s not clear why we would want clothing made from such a fabric. Wearable sensors have all sorts of potentially useful purposes, but this one seems somewhat obscure.

Nonetheless, the research does demonstrate that responsive gas sensors need not be fabricated on a solid substrate.

Memristors Don't Work the Way We Thought

What’s going to replace flash? The R&D arms of several companies including Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Samsung think the answer might be memristors (also called resistive RAM, ReRAM, or RRAM). These devices have a chance at unseating the non-volatile memory champion because, they use little energy, are very fast, and retain data without requiring power. However, new research indicates that they don’t work in quite the way we thought they do.

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Developments in Magnetic Skyrmions Come in Bunches

About two years ago, researchers in Germany introduced a new alternative in the world of magnetic storage media: skyrmions. A short description of skyrmions is that they are tiny, swirling magnetic spin patterns in thin films.  What makes them important is that they could change the face of data storage, hugely increasing the storage capacity over today’s hard disk drives.

Now, within a span of week, three separate research teams, one at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the United States, another at KTH The Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and still another at the RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science in Japan have all announced breakthroughs that may bring these magnetic spin patterns one step closer to being the basis of real-world data storage applications.

In most magnetic materials, the magnetic force of each atom—known as the magnetic moment—lines up in the same direction as those of all the others. However, some magnetic materials such as manganese silicon (MnSi), when under extreme conditions, can develop areas where the magnetic moments curve and twist; these areas are known as magnetic skyrmions. Once skyrmions are formed, they are pretty resilient to outside influence, which makes them an ideal storage medium because they are not easily corrupted.

The extreme conditions are the key. To first form skyrmions, some of the researchers exposed the magnetic material to extremely low temperatures. But generally speaking, the conditions for forming skyrmions involve either magnetic, thermal, or electrical stimuli.

All three research teams published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.  The NIST researchers demonstrated that they could produce skyrmions by patterning asymmetric magnetic nanodots in a controlled circle on top of a thin film made of cobalt and palladium. The NIST researchers were able to create their skyrmions not only at room temperature, but also without an external magnetic field.

The Riken team out of Japan demonstrated that a new stimuli could create skyrmions, namely a mechanical forceWhile this method still involves creating the skyrmions in extremely low temperatures, it does offer the potential of both creating and deleting skyrmions with a small push. This, they say, could lead to new, low-cost memory devices that consume very little energy. 

The KTH researchers demonstrated not only a novel way to produce the swirling magnetic regions, but also presented a way to maintain their stability. The Swedish group formed its skyrmions under a nanocontact in which a spin-polarized current had been injected into the magnetic thin film. This provided a so-called spin torque to the film’s  magnetic moments so that the skyrmions remains more stable.

Observed as a group, this latest flurry of research suggests that skyrmions will become a mainstay of spintronics research for data storage. However, we may have a bit of a wait before we see this become the basis for magnetic data storage in our devices.

The First Two-Qubit Logic Gate in Silicon

Qubits come in several flavors: atoms suspended by laser beams, photons trapped in microwave cavities, superconducting rings in which currents can run in two directions simultaneously.  David DiVincenzo (a theoretical physicist at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, recently interviewed by Spectrum) and Daniel Loss proposed in 1998 using the spin state of electrons trapped in quantum dots to store quantum bits, and many view this as the most promising approach to quantum computing

Last week researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sidney, Australia, reported in the journal Nature that such trapped electrons can be integrated with existing CMOS technology, and that it might be possible to create quantum computer chips that could store thousands, even millions of qubits on a single silicon processor chip.

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Nanoscale Photodetector Promises Next Generation Photonic Circuits

Last year, we covered joint research between the University of Rochester and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in which a primitive circuit consisting of a silver nanowire and single-layer flake of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) was developed that could guide both electricity and light along the same wire.

Now researchers at the University of Rochester are continuing their work with nanowires and MoS2 to create a nanoscale photodetector that the researchers believe could be a step towards a new type of photonic circuit.

"Our devices are a step towards miniaturization below the diffraction limit," said Kenneth Goodfellow, a graduate student at the University of Rochester, in a press release. "It is a step towards using light to drive, or, at least complement electronic circuitry for faster information transfer."

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Disappearing Circuits Move From Spy Thrillers to Reality

Generally speaking, the issue that most electronic circuit research is aimed at is making them smaller yet still functional. It would seem that creating circuits that change over time, or even disappear entirely, is an endeavor that has been largely neglected, outside of a TV spy show from the 1960s that gets periodically rebooted into films.

Now researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have taken up the challenge of creating circuits than change over time, and may have come up with a technology that could have some attractive biomedical applications.

In research published in the journal Nanoscale, the Georgia Tech researchers deposited carbon atoms onto graphene using a focused electron beam process to create patterns that evolve over time on the graphene.

“We will now be able to draw electronic circuits that evolve over time,” said Andrei Fedorov, a professor at Georgia Tech, in a press release. “You could design a circuit that operates one way now, but after waiting a day for the carbon to diffuse over the graphene surface, you would no longer have an electronic device. Today the device would do one thing; tomorrow it would do something entirely different.”

Providing further evidence that intentionally setting out to create disappearing circuits is rare at best, the Georgia Tech researchers admit that they were initially just trying to see how they could remove hydrocarbon contaminants from graphene.

What they soon discovered was that when they deposited the carbon atoms on the graphene, they could create patterns and these patterns served to create negatively charged areas in the graphene.

But what really grabbed their attention was the discovery that these patterns would change over time as the carbon atoms moved around the surface of the graphene until they were spread uniformly across the entire surface. This change, which occurs over tens of hours, converts positively charged (p-doped) surface regions into surfaces with a uniformly negative charge (n-doped). It also manages to form an intermediate p-n junction domain during this transformation.

“The electronic structures continuously change over time,” Fedorov explained. “That gives you a reconfigurable device, especially since our carbon deposition is done not using bulk films, but rather an electron beam that is used to draw where you want a negatively-doped domain to exist.”

While the security applications for such a capability have been demonstrated vividly in the TV and movie series Mission: Impossible, the researchers have suggested that such a capability could prove useful in biomedicine.

“Perhaps there could be certain activated, triggered processes that could benefit from this type of behavior in which the electronic state changes continuously over time,” said Fedorov in the press release.

In further research, the Georgia Tech team will be aiming to find an application that could not be achievable without this capability.

Novel Nanostructures Could Usher in Touchless Displays

In a world where the “swipe” has become a dominant computer interface method along with moving and clicking the mouse, the question becomes what’s next? For researchers at Stuttgart’s Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research and LMU Munich, Germany, the answer continues to be a swipe, but one in which you don’t actually need to touch the screen with your finger. Researchers call these no-contact computer screens touchless positioning interfaces (TPI).

In research published in the journal Advanced Materials, the Germany-based researchers have developed nanostructures capable of changing their electrical and optical properties when a finger passes by them. The resulting device could usher in a new generation of touchless displays.

While touchless displays raise the question of whether every finger that passes by a display’s surface is really intended to interface with the computer, the researchers believe this new interface will address the problems of mechanical wear suffered by today’s touch screens over time, as well as concerns over screens, especially at ATMs, being transmission vectors for viruses and bacteria.

Computer hardware analysts aren’t completely sold on whether touchless displays are really next step in computer interfaces. That debate notwithstanding, the technology that enables this approach is impressive. The researchers have developed what amounts to a humidity sensor that reacts to the minute amount of sweat on a finger and converts it to an electrical signal or a change in color of the nanostructured material.

The nanostructured material is made up of something called phosphatoantimonic acid, which takes up water molecules and swells considerably in the process. Not only does the material swell, but its electrical conductivity increases with each water molecule it absorbs.

While this clearly makes for a pretty dependable humidity sensor, the researchers were not looking to create just another moisture gauge, but a new approach to computer interfaces.

“Because these sensors react in a very local manner to any increase in moisture, it is quite conceivable that this sort of material with moisture-dependent properties could also be used for touchless displays and monitors,” said Pirmin Ganter, doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute and the Chemistry Department, in a press release.

To get the material to be more than just react to humidity, they took nanosheets of the material and combined them with a photonic nanostructure that reacts to the water by changing color. If this material were to be used in a display, the change in color would let the user know that the screen is recognizing the finger and its movement.

“The color of the nanostructure turns from blue to red when a finger gets near, for example. In this way, the color can be tuned through the whole of the visible spectrum depending on the amount of water vapor taken up,” explained Bettina Lotsch, one of the researchers, in the press release..

You can see how the color of the material changes as a finger passes near it in the video below.

While the color change is a helpful indicator that the user is, in fact, interacting with the display, the real merit of this technology over others like it is how quickly it reacts. Previous touchless interfaces could take seconds to respond to the near-miss finger swipe, but this technology responds in mere milliseconds.

The researchers are continuing to look at how they can improve the process for producing the material in order to bring down its costs. They’re also looking for a way to give it a protective coating to reduce wear that will occur because of incidental contact, while still maintaining its special properties.

IBM Solves Nanotube Transistor's Big Shrinking Problem

Carbon nanotubes could allow transistors on computer chips to shrink beyond the physical limits of today’s silicon switches. But to get there, nanotube transistors would need to get past a major hurdle, the resistance between the nanotube and the metal contacts that inject current into them. Now IBM researchers have broken through that barrier, paving the way to devices that could be the heart the next decade’s chips.

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Optical Rectenna Could Double Solar Cell Efficiency

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a first of its kind: an optical rectenna, which combines the qualities of an antenna with a rectifier diode. If further refined, the researchers believe the device could lead to a new generation of highly efficient solar cells.

While rectennas have been around since the 1960s, they have not been able to operate at optical wavelengths. The challenge in achieving this goal was to make the antenna portion of the devices small enough as well as fabricating some kind of rectifier into them.

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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
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY
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