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Polymer Nanofibers Could Beat the Heat in Chips

Back in 2001, Patrick P. Gelsinger, at the time the chief technology officer at Intel Corp., suggested that if the trend towards hotter and hotter chips continued—which thankfully it did not—microprocessors would generate heat equivalent to the temperature found on the surface of the sun within a decade (the time that we currently inhabit).

In order to overcome this thermal management issue, researchers have, for the past decade, been researching and using different nanomaterials and nanostructures to beat the heat.

Now researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a polymer with aligned arrays of nanofibers that acts as a thermal interface for electronics. This alignment, they report, makes it 20 times better at conducting heat than the original polymer.

The research, which was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology (“High thermal conductivity of chain-oriented amorphous polythiophene”), produced the new polymer from a conjugated polymer, polythiophene, in which aligned polymer chains in nanofibers facilitate the transfer of phonons—but without the brittleness associated with crystalline structures. Phonons are vibrations in a crystal lattice that carry heat.

The researchers believe that the resulting polymer could be used to draw heat away from electronic devices in servers, automobiles, high-brightness LEDs and some mobile devices.

“Thermal management schemes can get more complicated as devices get smaller,” said Baratunde Cola, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in a press release. “A material like this, which could also offer higher reliability, could be attractive for addressing thermal management issues. This material could ultimately allow us to design electronic systems in different ways.”

While most thermal management systems for computers have relied on fans as a solution, the real hurdle has been getting heat from the chip to the heat sink. This particular issue has been addressed by solder, which is liable to fail after a few thousand cycles of heat-induced expansion and contraction.  This new polymer, which adheres well to devices, would be fabricated on heat sinks and heat spreaders, replacing the solder.

“Polymers aren’t typically thought of for these applications because they normally degrade at such a low temperature,” Cola said in the release. “But these conjugated polymers are already used in solar cells and electronic devices, and can also work as thermal materials. We are taking advantage of the fact that they have a higher thermal stability because the bonding is stronger than in typical polymers.”

The polymer is produced in an electrochemical polymerization process in which an alumina template with tiny pores is covered with an electrolyte containing monomer precursors. An electrical potential is applied to the template that causes electrodes at the base of each to attract the monomers in the electrolyte, forming the hollow nanofibers. The nanofibers are cross-linked through electropolymerization and the template is then removed. The resulting material is applied to the electronic devices using water or some other solvent that spreads the fibers through capillary action and van der Waal forces, the repulsive or attractive forces between molecules.

While the researchers don’t fully understand this fabrication technique theoretically, they are confident that it could be scaled up for commercialization. “There are some challenges with our solution, but the process is inherently scalable in a fashion similar to electroplating,” said Cola in the release. “This material is well known for its other applications, but ours is a different use.”


Gold Nanoparticles and Near-infrared Light Kill Cancer Cells With Heat

Nanoparticles have been suggested as a way to kill cancer cells in a multitude of ways. Recent research has suggested a method for surrounding gold nanoparticles with nanobubbles that would rip open small pores in cancer cell membranes. This would allow drugs present outside the cells to get in. Another cancer killing treatment is tricking lymphoma cells into eating gold nanoparticles. Once ingested, the nanoparticles make it impossible for the cancer cells to eat anything else, dooming them to death by starvation.

You may have noticed the recurring use of gold nanoparticles in cancer research. Following that tradition, researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland have demonstrated that gold nanoparticles, in combination with near-infrared light, can turn up the heat on cancer cells enough to kill tumors.

While gold nanoparticles are well tolerated by the human body, they are not too good at absorbing long-wavelength red light, which is able to penetrate human tissue better than short-wavelength blue light. The nanoparticles that are effective at this are known as plasmonic nanoparticles. Plasmonics is a field in which free electrons in a metal can be excited by the electric component of light so that there are collective oscillations in the material with heat generation being one effect.

The ETH Zurich researchers knew that if they molded the gold nanoparticles into a particular shape, such as a rod or a shell, they could give it the plasmonic property for absorbing near-infrared light it otherwise lacked. The problem with this approach is that is complex and expensive.

In research published the journal Advanced Functional Materials ("Photothermal Killing of Cancer Cells by the Controlled Plasmonic Coupling of Silica-Coated Au/Fe2O3 Nanoaggregates"), the Swiss researchers devised a way to make sphere-shaped gold nanoparticles aggregate into a light-absorbing design. To do this, each particle was coated with a silicon dioxide layer that serves as a buffer between the individual spheres in the aggregate. Maintaining precise spacing between each nanoparticle makes the configuration absorb the near-infrared light.

“The silicon dioxide shell has another advantage”, explains Georgios Sotiriou, lead author on the study, in a press release. “It prevents the particles from deforming when they heat up.” This is a critical feature since the particles' near-infrared light absorbing qualities are dependent upon them maintaining their spherical shape.

That’s great, but how do they reach the cancer cells so they kill the tumor when they heat up? The trick the researchers developed was adding superparamagnetic iron oxide particles in with the gold particles; the iron makes the nanoparticles steerable via magnetic fields so that they accumulate next to the cancer cells.

While issues still need to be addressed such as how the particles are removed from the body, the nanoparticles do lend themselves to being used as a contrast agent in magnetic resonance imaging.

“You could even couple the particles with temperature-responsive drug carriers, which would then allow the drug release if a certain temperature were exceeded,” explains Sotiriou in the release.


Living Materials Respond to the Environment and Communicate With Each Other

Nearly four decades ago, researchers managed to coax the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) into producing a protein. Now researchers at MIT have devised a way to combine a living E. coli cell with inanimate building blocks, like gold nanoparticles and quantum dots, to create a hybrid “living material.”

The MIT researchers have managed to get the bacterium to produce a biofilm that is able to attach to different nanoparticles, resulting in a hybrid living material that responds to its environment, produces complex biological molecules, and spans multiple length scales. The properties that these living materials take on include the ability to conduct electricity and emit light.

The research, which was published in the journal Nature Materials ("Synthesis and patterning of tunable multiscale materials with engineered cells"), is expected to serve as a demonstration of the new approach's potential to produce larger devices such as solar cells, self-healing materials, or diagnostic sensors.

“Our idea is to put the living and the nonliving worlds together to make hybrid materials that have living cells in them and are functional,” said Timothy Lu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering at MIT, in a press release. “It’s an interesting way of thinking about materials synthesis, which is very different from what people do now, which is usually a top-down approach.”

The researchers chose to use E. coli since it naturally produces a biofilm. This biofilm contains something dubbed “curli fibers,” which are amyloid proteins that help the bacteria attach to surfaces. The researchers modify the repeating protein chain of the curli fibers (called CsgA) by adding protein fragments called peptides. By modifying the curli fibers that attach to different substances, it’s possible to create a range of hybrid materials. They can create gold nanowires that behave like a conducting film or tiny crystals that exhibit quantum mechanical properties.

Perhaps the most significant property of these hybrid materials is that they can communicate with each other. “It’s a really simple system but what happens over time is you get curli that’s increasingly labeled by gold particles. It shows that indeed you can make cells that talk to each other and they can change the composition of the material over time,” Lu said in the release. “Ultimately, we hope to emulate how natural systems, like bone, form. No one tells bone what to do, but it generates a material in response to environmental signals,” said Lu.

Early application ideas for the hybrid materials include batteries and solar cells, but the researchers are also investigating the potential of coating the biofilms with enzymes to catalyze the breakdown of cellulose, which could be useful for converting agricultural waste to biofuel.


Rhenium Disulfide: A New 3-D Material That Has the Electronic Properties of a 2-D Material

Earlier this year, “borophene” elbowed its way into the increasingly crowded world of two-dimensional (2-D) materials.  With rough counts estimating that there are over 100 layered materials that could potentially be stripped down to a monolayer to form a 2-D material, we are likely to see more of these in the coming years.

Researchers at the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) Berkeley Lab have added a new twist to the quest for 2-D materials by creating a 3-D material that behaves like a 2-D monolayer.  The material is called rhenium disulfide (ReS2) and unlike 2-D materials, such as molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), it maintains its direct bandgap even in a 3-D version. The direct bandgap means that unlike silicon it can emit and absorb light easily, making materials that have this property attractive for optoelectronic applications.

“Typically the monolayers in a semiconducting transition metal dichalcogenides, such as molybdenum disulfide, are relatively strongly coupled, but isolated monolayers show large changes in electronic structure and lattice vibration energies,” said Sefaattin Tongay, lead author of the research, in a press release. “The result is that in bulk these materials are indirect gap semiconductors and in the monolayer they are direct gap.”

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Carbon Nanotube Circuits Are Back in the Running as a Viable Material for Flexible Electronics

There was a time, not so long ago, when carbon nanotubes (CNTs) were the “wonder material” that everyone was talking about—of course, that was before graphene hit the scene.

But even before graphene, researchers had begun to doubt whether CNTs were actually well suited for electronics applications. There are two stubborn obstacles that stand in the way of applying carbon nanotubes to electronics: it’s tricky to get them to go where you want them and it's difficult to create CNTs that are homogeneous enough to ensure stable electrical responses.

In spite of these hurdles, one researcher, Zhenan Bao of Stanford University, has remained focused on applying CNTs to electronic applications. Bao addressed the homogeneity issue a few years back by developing a new sorting process for the CNTs that ensured conducting and semiconducting CNTs were separated.

Now Bao, along with Yi Cui an assistant professor at Stanford, has developed a process by which CNT circuits can tolerate power fluctuations in flexible electronic devices in much the same way that silicon circuitry manages the fluctuations.

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Graphene Gives You Infrared Vision in a Contact Lens

It sounds like something from a spy thriller movie: putting on a contact lens that gives you infrared vision without the need for a bulky contraption that covers your face. But now, thanks to research at the University of Michigan, such a contact lens is a real possibility.

The Michigan researchers turned to the optical capabilities of graphene to create their infrared contact lens. IBM last year demonstrated some of the photoconductivity mechanisms of graphene that make it an attractive infrared detector.

Graphene is capable of detecting the entire infrared spectrum, with visible and ultraviolet light thrown in. But where graphene giveth, it also taketh away. Because graphene is only one-atom thick, it can absorb only 2.3 percent of the light that hits it. This is not enough to generate an electrical signal, and without a signal it can’t operate as a infrared sensor.

"The challenge for the current generation of graphene-based detectors is that their sensitivity is typically very poor," said Zhaohui Zhong, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, in a press release. "It's a hundred to a thousand times lower than what a commercial device would require."

In research that was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology ("Graphene photodetectors with ultra-broadband and high responsivity at room temperature"), the Michigan researchers devised a new method for generating the electrical signal. Instead of trying to measure the electrons that are released when the light strikes the material, they amplified an electrical current that is near the electrical signals generated by the incoming light.

To achieve this amplification, the researchers started by sandwiching an insulator between two sheets of graphene. The bottom sheet has an electrical current running through it. When light hits the top sheet, electrons are freed and positively charged electron holes are generated. The electrons are able to perform a quantum tunneling effect through the insulator layer, which would be impenetrable in classical physics.

The electron holes that are left behind in the top layer generate an electric field that impacts the way electricity flows through the bottom layer. By measuring this change in the flow of current in the bottom layer, the researchers could derive just how much light hit the top layer.

This device has very nearly the same sensitivity as cooled mid-infrared detectors, but achieves it at room temperature. The researchers have already been able to produce infrared sensors the size of a pinky nail, or a standard contact lens.

"If we integrate it with a contact lens or other wearable electronics, it expands your vision," Zhong said in the release. "It provides you another way of interacting with your environment."

Most of us are familiar with the military applications of infrared vision, which allows the soldiers to see in the dark. But the technology also has medical applications such as letting doctors monitor blood flow.

Whether the ability to see in the infrared is an attractive feature for the rest of us remains to be seen. But that may become a possibility since the fundamental mechanism underlying the technology could become a mechanism for other material and device platforms. Is infrared vision mode for Google Glass in the offing?


Nanoscale Metamaterial Optical Switches Operate at Terahertz Speeds

A team of researchers from Vanderbilt University, University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed an ultra-small and ultra-fast optical switch made from vanadium oxide (VO2). With the device's ability to switch at terahertz speeds, it is much faster than similar switches developed by electronic giants that operate at gigahertz speeds, the researchers say.

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Graphene Origami Boxes Exceed Hydrogen Storage Targets

Researchers at the University of Maryland have demonstrated through computer modeling that graphene can be triggered by an electric field to fold itself into a nifty three-dimensional box that can serve as a container for hydrogen storage and then unfold itself.

The way in which the graphene folds up into a box has been dubbed hydrogenation-assisted graphene origami (HAGO) and involves cutting the graphene into a pattern and then functionalizing it by atomically attaching hydrogen to the carbon atoms of the graphene. The electric field that is used does not trigger the graphene to perform its origami but is used to unfold the structure and then repeat the trick.

“First, a suitably functionalized and patterned graphene can spontaneously fold into a 3-D nanostructure.... No external electric field is needed,” explained Teng Li, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at University of Maryland in an e-mail to Nanoclast. “Second, an electric field can cause the polarization of the graphene, effectively reducing the graphene inter-layer adhesion, which causes the folded nanostructure to unfold. Upon turning off the electric field, the graphene folds up into a box spontaneously again. Such a process can be repeated many times.”

In the research, which was published in the journal ACS Nano (“Hydrogenation-Assisted Graphene Origami and Its Application in Programmable Molecular Mass Uptake, Storage, and Release”), the graphene origami boxes demonstrated remarkable hydrogen storage capabilities. The researchers calculate that graphene origami boxes have a hydrogen storage capacity of 9.7 percent by weight, far exceeding targets set by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) —5.5 percent by 2017 and 7.5 percent by 2020.

It would seem that nanomaterials are exceeding DOE targets for fuel cells on a pretty regular basis now. However, nanomaterials have a somewhat checkered past with hydrogen storage. At one time, carbon nanotubes were touted as the next big thing in that field, with claims of greater than 50-percent storage capacity. But it is now generally accepted that the figure is really closer to 1-percent. The problem was that the structures of both carbon nanotubes and fullerenes did not remain stable.

This instability has not proven to be a problem with the HAGO boxes. “Much effort has been dedicated in this research to demonstrate the promising feasibility of the HAGO process, including its robustness to possible manufacturing defects and stability at room temperature,” wrote Li. “We will actively pursue collaborations with experimentalists to actually demonstrate.”


Tungsten Diselenide Is New 2-D Optoelectronic Wonder Material

Researchers at the University of WashingtonMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Vienna University of Technology (TU) in Austria  have all shown interesting optoelectronics results with a new two-dimensional (2-D) material called tungsten diselenide (WSe2).

The main page of the journal Nature Nanotechnology this week looks almost as though some mistake had been made with three of the top four stories highlighting “2D crystals.” But it was no mistake and foretells of a near future in which new 2-D materials are developed that will show either improved or complementary properties to that of graphene, the granddad of 2-D materials.

Tungsten diselenide belongs to a larger group of transition metal dichalcogenides that also includes molybdenum disulfide (MoS2). This family consists of materials that combine one of 15 transition metals with one of three members of the chalcogen family: sulfur, selenium, or tellurium. With only a few of these transition metals having been experimented upon, it’s likely we should see more coming down the pike.

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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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