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A123 Introduces New Battery Technology Amid Recent Financial Troubles


You have to hand it to A123 Systems. After experiencing an embarrassing and costly manufacturing snafu this past March that required a recall costing the company US $55 million, then having to report a first quarter loss of $125 million in May, one might have expected the company to retrench in order to sort out how its revenues last quarter had decreased by 40 percent from the same quarter in 2011. But A123 didn’t do that. Instead the company announced an update to its Nanophosphate® lithium iron phosphate battery technology.

This would be an understandable approach to managing dwindling fortunes, especially if the company had suddenly devised a Li-ion battery that could compete head to head with internal combustion engines. As U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu once declared, "a rechargeable battery that can last for 5000 deep discharges, [and offer] 6 or 7 times as much storage capacity (3.6 Mj/kg = 1,000 Wh) at [one-third of today's costs] will be competitive with internal combustion engines (400-500 mile range).”  A press release proclaiming that would certainly change the conversation and forever alter the company's market fortunes.

However, we didn’t get that. Instead, we got A123's same battery technology, but updated so that it can operate at extreme temperatures. "We believe Nanophosphate EXT is a game-changing breakthrough that overcomes one of the key limitations of lead acid, standard lithium-ion, and other advanced batteries. By delivering high power, energy, and cycle life capabilities over a wider temperature range, we believe Nanophosphate EXT can reduce or even eliminate the need for costly thermal management systems, which we expect will dramatically enhance the business case for deploying A123's lithium ion battery solutions for a significant number of applications," said David Vieau, the company's CEO, in a press release.

Will removing or just reducing the need for cooling systems be a game changer for both the transportation and telecommunications markets? Both applications will certainly benefit, but I imagine it will make more of a difference in the telecommunications market, where it will be used to power cell tower sites built off-grid or in regions with unstable power. After all, it’s hard to see how this brings Li-ion battery technology any closer to propelling a car for 800 kilometers on a single charge while lowering the price of the battery system by a factor of three. I am not sure this changes the conversation, never mind the game.



“Plastic Paint” Magnetic Field Sensor Based on Spintronics Takes Aim at Consumer Electronics


Ever since researchers discovered that magnetic field sensors could be produced on organic thin-film materials, there has been the hope the discovery would lead to inexpensive sensors on flexible substrates. If you could get it right, there was huge potential simply due to the ubiquity of magnetic field sensors in consumer electronics.

There were just a couple of rather large problems. A very narrow magnetic field range limited these sensors usefulness and they required continuous calibration to compensate for changes in temperature and the degradation of the material.

Now researchers at the University of Utah have developed a “spintronic” organic thin-film semiconductor that serves as an inexpensive magnetic field sensor capable of detecting intermediate to strong magnetic fields and never needs to be calibrated.

The magnetic sensing film, which is described in the June 12th edition of the journal Nature Communications,  also resists heat and degradation and operates at room temperatures. The thin film is an organic semiconductor polymer called MEH-PPV.

Christoph Boehme, Associate Professor at the University of Utah, and one of the named authors of the Nature paper, describes the thin film in the Institute of Physics’ website story linked to above as an orange-colored "electrically conducting, magnetic field-sensing plastic paint that is dirt cheap. We measure magnetic fields highly accurately with a drop of plastic paint, which costs just as little as drop of regular paint."

The researchers are so enthusiastic about their discovery that they are considering launching a spinoff company to commercialize the technology. The commercial applications for magnetic-field sensors are quite broad, so let’s hope the scientists get some good business advice on which application space to target their technology. Further, they should refrain from three-year projections to having devices on the market, managing investors’ expectations is often the key to success.

Does the Effect of Nanoparticles on Amino Acids Translate into a Risk for Consumers?

I am sure for the next few days—if not weeks and even years—research out of Trinity College Dublin will be portrayed in the press and among some NGOs as "nanotechnology causes arthritis."

Unfortunately, the story of the research—which was published in the journal Nanomedicine— is a bit more complicated than that and the details will likely get lost in the furor that the initial headlines will generate. Basically, the researchers examined whether proteins when exposed to certain nanoparticles can change the amino acid arginine into the amino acid citrulline. This process known as post-translational citrullination of proteins has been linked to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

So maybe to avoid some confusion, it might be best to say from the outset that this research does not establish the risk of nanoparticles but only their potential hazard under very controlled (but unusual) circumstances. Further, despite what the press release may claim, I don’t see how they have established much in the way of safety implications for the “use and ultimate disposal of nanotechnology products and materials.”

Whenever I see a story about nanoparticles and toxicity, I immediately drag out my formula for understanding risk: Hazard x Exposure = Risk. When you consider that the researchers did not expose human cells from the lining of the airway passages to a freshly minted carbon nanotube bicycle, you start to wonder how they have established that “nanotechnology products” are a threat to our safety. They have established that some free-floating nanoparticles effect a change in proteins, but— apart from the pollution we have been exposed to since automobiles  with carbon black tires first started driving on pavement— how often are we exposed to free-floating nanoparticles or deliberately manufactured nanoparticles like carbon nanotubes?

For me this raises the more vexing concern of when we’ll eventually see more research on how long it would take for the carbon nanotubes to be released from the material matrix of a “nanotechnology product”—like a carbon fiber bicycle—so that they could cause the kind of hazard the researchers from Trinity College have described.

While a carbon nanotube or some other nanoparticles “facilitating post-translational citrullination of proteins” is no doubt a serious concern, it sort of pales in comparison to say hydrofluoric acid, which on its own can kill you depending on your exposure but as an ingredient among others can formulate the drug Prozac. Go figure.  Again, what we need to start seeing more of in nanoparticle toxicology research is how dangerous those particles are when they are part of a larger material matrix.

Increasingly research is showing what the Royal Society warned about nearly 10 years ago in their report “Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties”: Workers making products out of nanoparticles are in more danger than those who buy and use the products made from the nanoparticles. But lifecycle risks from these products  have to be more aggressively pursued so that we can take appropriate precautions  while still enjoying all the benefits these nanoparticles can impart.

NNI Founder Urges International Collaboration in Nanotech Research


Mihail Roco is a sometimes-polarizing figure in the development story of nanotechnology. On the one hand, he gave shape and purpose to what became the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and led it through its early formative years, but on the other—especially among those who support a vision of nanotechnology involving molecular manufacturing (MNT)—he was at least one of the agents behind moving US funding away from MNT and towards material science.  A sin some still have not forgiven him for. 

Whichever side of the fence you may be on that characterization, it’s hard to deny that Roco has been one of the most influential figures in nanotechnology, not just for the US but for the world. Roco was the man behind turning a scattering of papers in condensed matter/solid state physics or chemistry into a national initiative. In doing so, he unwittingly—or not—launched an international nanotechnology arms race, which has seen at least 35 countries jump on to the bandwagon since the NNI was started.

Make no mistake, this “race” is no joke. There are billions of dollars at stake and national reputations seem to be built up on success in crossing the vague finish line before some other country. 

Beyond mere reputation or pride, countries—including the US—believe that by pumping money into nanotechnology (which up to this point has largely gone to building new research facilities)  they will create for themselves an economic zone, a Silicon Valley of nanotech. There’s no sense in trying to explain that Silicon Valley was a complicated recipe that is probably nearly impossible to duplicate; governments are giving the money away so why not build a new microscopy lab in the middle of nowhere.

On top of everything, this past week we witnessed what may be the height of the nanotech arms race with the arrest and indictment of a nanotechnology scientist from Sandia National Labs, who is accused of sharing research information with the Chinese. 

So after unleashing this billion-dollar nanotech arms race, Roco now is urging collaboration in nanotech to provide the push the field needs to progress. 

“International collaboration in nanoscale science and engineering is essential at this moment because the field is growing rapidly with different focuses and multidisciplinary breakthroughs in different countries, and the synergism of such contributions determines faster and more efficient development,” said Roco in an interview with Korea Herald when he was attending the 9th Korea-US Nano Forum held at Hanyang University in Seoul.

Well, yes, of course, and it’s about time somebody said it. It probably couldn’t have come from a better source either. Many have said that it took the virulent anti-communist Richard Nixon to open detente with China. Perhaps it will take the man who created national nanotechnology initiatives to urge that nanotechnology research is better served when national borders come secondary to scientific inquiry.

Nanosys Gets 3M to Bring Its Quantum Dot Technology to LCDs


It appears that Nanosys Inc. has found a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) manufacturer to bring its quantum dot material to market. Nanosys will be supplying its Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF) technology to the Optical Systems Division of 3M Company to produce an LCD capable of displaying 50 percent more color.

“We are working together to improve an area of display performance that has been largely neglected for the last decade,” said Jason Hartlove, President and CEO of Nanosys in a company press release announcing the agreement. “Improving color performance for LCDs with drop-in solutions will bring a stunning new visual experience to the consumer and a competitive advantage to the LCD manufacturer against new display technologies such as OLED.  Working together with 3M and utilizing their outstanding design and supply chain capabilities will allow our QDEF technology to be widely deployed across all product segments and will ensure availability to all customers.”

While Nanosys seems to have found an avenue for its technology in the LCD market, what became of its attempts to break into the Light Emitting Diode (LED) biz? Back in 2010 I covered the company's use of quantum dots for use in LEDs and was provided a primer on the technology from its Vice President of Worldwide Sales & Marketing at the time, Victor Hsia:

“Nanosys synthesizes quantum dot phosphor material which is subsequently packaged in a form called a Quantum Rail. For LED backlit displays, our Quantum Rail is inserted between an illuminating strip of blue LEDs and the input edge of the display's lightguide panel. Current LED backlights use conventional white LEDs (which are BLUE LEDs with YAG phosphor) that cannot produce saturated GREEN or RED colors. In contrast Nanosys' Quantum Rail produces a pure white light by using a BLUE LED with Green and Red Quantum Dot phosphors, which results in a tuned white light source that enables over 100 percent NTSC color gamut using the same high volume LCD display manufacturing flow that exists today.”

So, what happened? I have looked for some more information on how the Nanosys technology is being used in LEDs but haven’t turned up much.

Getting back to this recent announcement, it’s an interesting approach that both 3M and Nanosys are taking. They spruce up good old LCD technology so that it can better compete with Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLED) technology performance. The big question will be whether it can actually deliver on that promise of equal performance at a fraction of the cost and better energy efficiency. We’ll see when a product comes to market.

Konarka Goes Belly-Up, But Irrational Exuberance is Alive and Well


Oddly it seems that you can’t convince people of the rule that technology-push is never as promising as market-pull. We have to add another example to the long litany of companies that have crashed against the rocks of this simple rule: Konarka—a developer of thin-film solar panels—filed bankruptcy last week under chapter 7 of the Federal bankruptcy laws.

Konarka was launched with great fanfare back in 2001 with Nobel Prize winner Dr. Alan Heeger as one of its founders and despite never quite getting a product to market by 2007 had managed to raise over US $100 million.

It appears that the political press is already making hay with this announcement dubbing the Massachusetts-based Konarka “Romney’s Solyndra” based on the fact that when Mitt Romney was governor, Massachusetts lent $1.5 million to Konarka.

Beyond the issue of political gamesmanship, the area of nanotech in alternative energy solutions remains fertile soil for attracting investors and delivering little in terms of returns

When you have Nobel Laureates in economics saying that the reason solar power is not our main energy source is because of some conspiracy among oil producers, there are plenty of excuses for pursuing technologies that at present just don’t measure up to the fossil fuel variety. 

The lesson to be learned from the cautionary tale of Konarka should not be that investments in new energy sources should be avoided, but instead that we may need an entirely new apparatus for developing emerging technologies. Unfortunately before such a new method is adopted, it seems that other companies will likely follow Konarka into bankruptcy while they beguile investors with stories of their remarkable technologies—which nobody seems to want to buy

Rational Design of Nanomaterials Takes a Step Forward

Measuring, characterizing, and manipulating at the nanoscale are foundational elements of nanotechnology. And this week we’ve seen in news from IBM just how important improving microscopy is to all that.

Now researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have used transmission electron microscopy and advanced liquid cell handling to see if they could gather evidence to support the controversial theory that nanoparticles act as artificial atoms during the growth of crystals.

“We observed that as nanoparticles become attached they initially form winding polycrystalline chains,” says Haimei Zheng, a staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division in a press release. “These chains eventually align and attach end-to-end to form nanowires that straighten and stretch into single crystal nanorods with length-to-thickness ratios up to 40:1. This nanocrystal growth process, whereby nanoparticle chains as well as nanoparticles serve as the fundamental building blocks for nanorods, is both smart and efficient.”

You can see this process quite clearly in the video:

The research, which was published last week in the journal Science, observed the nanoparticles “undergo continuous rotation and interaction until they find a perfect lattice match. A sudden jump to contact then occurs over less than 1 nanometer, followed by lateral atom-by-atom addition initiated at the contact point.”

This observation and understanding of how nanoparticles make up crystal growth will likely provide important insight into the design of nanomaterials.

“From what we observed only single nanoparticles exist at the beginning of crystal growth, but, as growth proceeds, small chains of nanoparticles become dominant until, ultimately, only long chains of nanoparticles can be seen,” Zheng says. “Our observations provide a link between the world of single molecules and hierarchical nanostructures, paving the way for the rational design of nanomaterials with controlled properties.”

Carbon Nanotubes Go Back Inside Fuel Cells

Researchers have tried to apply carbon nanotubes to fuel cells for some time now. At first there was hope that carbon nanotubes would help fuel cells better store hydrogen. That dream was dashed and then later resurrected. There has also been the idea that carbon nanotubes could be used as a cheaper alternative to expensive catalysts within fuel cells

I suppose those are worthy areas of pursuit, but the two main issues that have prevented fuel cells from gaining wider adoption—at least in the area of powering automobiles—are the costs of isolating hydrogen and building an infrastructure that would deliver that hydrogen to the automobiles. The issue of isolating hydrogen has taken precedence of late in nanotech/fuel cell research both at the commercial level and at research labs

But now researchers from Stanford University are again looking at how carbon nanotubes could replace more expensive catalysts used in oxidizing the hydrogen at the anode within the fuel cell.

Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford and co-author of the study, believes that a cheaper oxidizing catalyst will facilitate wider adoption of fuel cells.

"Platinum is very expensive and thus impractical for large-scale commercialization," says Dai in the Stanford press release covering the research. "Developing a low-cost alternative has been a major research goal for several decades."

Well, if you could develop a catalyst for this purpose that was essentially free, it still wouldn’t usher in a hydrogen economy any time soon. But I suppose it couldn’t hurt.

The research, which was published in the May 27th online edition of the journal Nature Nanotechnology, showed that when the outer walls of a multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWNT) were shredded—and the inner walls left intact—the catalytic ability of the MWNTs were enhanced while maintaining good electrical conductivity.

What I find most intriguing about the research is the potential to use these imperfect MWNTs for metal-air batteries. The researchers hint at this, though they have yet to fully explore the possibilities.

"Lithium-air batteries are exciting because of their ultra-high theoretical energy density, which is more than 10 times higher than today's best lithium ion technology," Dai says in the Stanford press release. "But one of the stumbling blocks to development has been the lack of a high-performance, low-cost catalyst. Carbon nanotubes could be an excellent alternative to the platinum, palladium and other precious-metal catalysts now in use."

I think it's all together possible that researchers at IBM and the US national labs who have been working on metal-air batteries for years now might be somewhat more interested in this line of research than fuel-cell manufacturers.

IBM Pushes Atomic Force Microscopy to Its Limits

Back in 2009 IBM pushed the boundaries of surface microscopy when they developed a technique for noncontact atomic force microscopy (AFM) that enabled the resolving of single atoms in molecules.  Since then IBM has been working on this foundational work to develop a Kelvin probe force microscopy (KPFM) technique that enabled the first imaging of the charge distribution within a molecule

Now the team, based in Zurich, that have been at the forefront of this research have just completed some collaborative research with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the University of Warwick in which they have imaged the synthetic molecule Olympicene (named after its resemblance to the five-ring design of the Olympic symbol) to the point where they could not only image individual hydrogen atoms but also manipulate them. Here's a video describing the research:

While IBM’s noncontact AFM had shown the ability to image hydrogen atoms previously, this latest research made that capability more concrete, according to Leo Gross, Scientist, at IBM Research Zurich.

A unique feature of the IBM-developed AFM technique is that it can image individual molecules whereas other techniques require that the molecules be collected into an aggregate crystal form. But perhaps even more importantly, what this line of research has demonstrated rather clearly is that they can use the tip of the AFM to induce reactions, such as forming a bond or extracting an atom.

This can be seen most clearly in the images the researchers created of the Olympicene molecule. In one you can see the bonds between the links of the molecule is much brighter. This is where there are two hydrogen atoms attach to the olympicene molecule.  In another image you can see that same site is no longer as bright because they have removed one of the hydrogen atoms, creating what they dubbed the Olympicene radical.

While Gross believes that the imaging and manipulation of hydrogen atoms marks the limits in scale for this technique, there are still things at this size they would like to investigate.  “We would like to look at things such as the adsorption, bonding and bonding angles, position, distances,” says Gross.

In addition to this line of research, Gross sees a great deal of potential is the KPFM technique. “We want to use this ability to image charge distribution and charge separation to study molecules for organic solar cells where charge separation is very important, and also for molecular electronics, such as single-molecule devices, which have a functionality depending on single electrons. The combined techniques of AFM and KPFM give us a very good tool to study these single-electron devices.”

Solid-State Dye-Sensitized Solar Cell Matches Performance of Grätzel Cell

In the past, I have tried to dispel the myth that nanotechnology could be waved over alternative energy applications to make them suddenly much more economically viable than they have been. In these efforts, I have even gone so far as to question the reasoning of Nobel Laureates in Economics on why we are not further along in the development of photovoltaics. 

This is not to say that nanotechnology is not improving various alternative energy solutions, in particular photovoltaics. But the process of bringing these technologies to market is much slower than many people seem willing to tolerate and their announcements should be taken with a grain of salt...and patience.

So, it is with some cautious optimism I alert you to research coming out of Northwestern University in which the researchers claim to have developed a new type of solar cell that has all the benefits of the Grätzel cell (or dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC)) without the short life expectancy.

“The Grätzel cell is like having the concept for the light bulb but not having the tungsten wire or carbon material,” explains one of the researchers, Mercouri Kanatzidis, in the university’s press release covering the development. “We created a robust novel material that makes the Grätzel cell concept work better. Our material is solid, not liquid, so it should not leak or corrode.”

This is not the first time that researchers have attempted to find a replacement for the organic liquid that makes up the electrolyte in DSSCs. But previous attempts have resulted in solar cells with poor energy conversion efficiency. To overcome this Kanatzidis and his colleague Robert P.H. Chang used a thin-film compound made up of cesium, tin and iodine, which serves as a p-type direct bandgap semiconductor. Details of the new material can be found in their recently published article in Nature. The result is the Northwestern solar cell reached a conversion efficiency of 10.2 percent, in the neighborhood of the 11 to 12 percent reached by the best performing Grätzel cell.

“This is the first demonstration of an all solid-state dye-sensitized solar cell system that promises to exceed the performance of the Grätzel cell,” Chang is quoted as saying in the same university press release. “Our work opens up the possibility of these materials becoming state of the art with much higher efficiencies than we’ve seen so far.”

While the university press release quotes Chang as saying that their solar cell is “inexpensive,” there were no accompanying cost calculations to back up the claim. Last year, when I spoke to Michael Grätzel, the discoverer of the DSSC, we talked not of lifecycle costs, but about boosting the conversion efficiency of the DSSC. But perhaps more important than conversion efficiency, the key metric for Grätzel was the kWh price.

From my discussion with Grätzel in Budapest last May:

When it came to the question of conversion efficiency, Dr. Grätzel seemed resigned to the percentage game that seems to exist, but believed that kilowatt hour (kWh) to price was a more significant metric.

“We have to play the game. We have to go and have our efficiencies validated by an accredited PV calibration laboratory. We cannot create a different world where we just say we are the best,” he said. “We are living exactly with the standards that silicon has set in terms of efficiency and stability.

“But, on the other hand, it is true that when it comes to the advantages we should also play those up as well,” he said. He added that under certain outdoor exposures DSSC will already out perform silicon in the key metric of kWh price

“In the end, what we would really like to see is kWh price used as a metric in addition to peak watt price. The peak watt price is a good standard but when it comes to outdoor applications it often does not reflect reality such as the performance under cloudy conditions and the drop of conversion efficiency with temperature encountered by silicon solar cells,” he said.

It may be that the Northwestern researchers have developed a solar cell that when you calculate life cycle costs (presumably since they last longer they don't have to be replaced as often) has a better kWh cost than any other solar cells on the market, including the Grätzel cell. But I would like to see those calculations before I pronounce this as the replacement for any solar cell.



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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