Nanoclast iconNanoclast

A Treasure Trove of Nanotechnology-Related Videos

Almost from the time YouTube launched there have been at least a scattering of videos related to nanotechnology to be found on it. Some have been good and some less so, but certainly the number of videos has expanded over the years.

With this increase, there have been those who have uploaded and collected nano-based videos and I recently came across a fairly new aggregator of these nanotechnology-related videos on YouTube called the NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education) Network, or at least new to me

I haven’t really looked at a wide variety of videos that NISE has collected, but the ones that come from a DVD NISE Network produced called “Talking Nano” contains some real gems. In particular, I enjoyed a seminar George Whitesides gave educators and journalists back in 2007 at the Museum of Science in Boston on what they should know and consider important when relating the subject of nanotechnology either to their students or their audience.

Whitesides, of course, is a renowned scientist at Harvard University, and someone who I’ve come to appreciate for his unique perspectives on how nanotechnology will develop.

I really recommend watching all four parts of the video below, but this one alone, the first in the series, has so many pearls of wisdom at least watch this one. For instance, he believes that nanotechnology will have its biggest impact in an area he terms “commodity infrastructure”, which to Whitesides includes things like energy, water and environmental maintenance. 

Okay, this is a presentation for lay people with long explanations about the scale of nanotechnology, but even the engineers and scientists who read Spectrum will enjoy it. 

You Can't Coat a Nanosphere Like You Can a Macro One

Imagine you were given the task of coating a spherical object, and you were handed a tennis ball, a can of paint and a paintbrush. After thinking for a minute, you figured you could dispense with the paintbrush and just dip the tennis ball in the paint and  not only make a much quicker job of it but also probably cover the tennis ball in paint more completely.

In that circumstance you would be very clever and be given a pat on your back for your ingenuity. However, if you tried that on the nanoscale you might discover that the coating wasn’t covering your sphere.

Researchers Matthew Lane and Gary Grest at Sandia National Laboratories have determined through the use of computer simulations that when attempting to coat a nanoparticle the coating drops off the sphere, leaving what is described as “louvres” and a not a complete protective coating.

This would appear to be a problem. To prevent nanoparticles from aggregating in an undesired way, the method used has been covering them in a coating so they don’t stick together. It seems this research shows that those coatings may very well have the opposite effect.

In the article cited above, Carlos Gutierrez, manager of Sandia’s Surfaces and Interface Sciences Department, said, “It’s well-known that aggregation of nanoparticles in suspension is presently an obstacle to their commercial and industrial use. The simulations show that even coatings fully and uniformly applied to spherical nanoparticles are significantly distorted at the water-vapor interface.”

The research, which was originally published back in June in the journal Physical Review Letters, demonstrated through simulations that with nanoparticles because the diameter of the sphere is smaller than the thickness of the coating the curvature of the sphere causes the coating to drop off leaving the louvre-like surface.

While this phenomenon may soothe those chemical engineers who had been pulling their hair out trying to get nanoparticles to fully disperse in a solution, they may be worse off than where they started from, now lacking the simple tool of coating the nanoparticles to prevent aggregation.

But the good news is that the characteristics of the patchy coatings are particular to each nanoparticle. As the article describes it, “Though each particle is coated asymmetrically, the asymmetry is consistent for any given set. Said another way, all coated nanoscopic sets are asymmetric in their own way.”

The article goes on to argue that by having predictable variations for each member of a nanoset there is a possibility for new applications.

Unfortunately, what those applications might be is not provided. Instead we get a summation of what this simulation has given us, “What we’ve done here is to put up a large ‘dead end’ sign to prevent researchers from wasting time going down the wrong path,” Lane said. “Increasing surface density of the coating or its molecular chain length isn’t going to improve patchy coatings, as it would for larger particles.” And then a small bit of encouragement, “But there are numerous other possible paths to new outcomes when you can control the shape of the aggregation.”

Nanotechnology Sweeps Nobel Prizes

Okay, maybe nanotechnology didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, but one could argue that the manipulation of matter at the nanoscale did have a good showing in Physics and Chemistry.

For chemistry the Nobel Prize Committee selected Richard F. Heck, University of Delaware, Ei-ichi Negishi, Purdue University, and Akira Suzuki, Hokkaido University for their development of palladium-catalyzed cross coupling. This technique is widely used now both in the pharmaceutical and electronics industry for building complex carbon molecules that require working with the rather non-reactive carbon atom when in the presence of one of their own.

And the other winner: Graphene. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, now both at the University of Manchester, won for their research into single atom-thick sheets of carbon, called graphene back in 2004.

This was just a matter of time really considering all the excitement over the last few years with the material. A list of some of the research being done with graphene that has been covered here on the pages of IEEE Spectrum is compiled in this article.


One article that was missing from the lists was an interview I did with Phaedon Avouris at IBM’s IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, about IBM’s breakthrough in developing a new method for creating a band gap with graphene.

Discovering new materials and material phenomenon are sometimes revolutionary. But personally I am always impressed by the scientists who make these discoveries into something useful not unlike the way Stuart Parkin at IBM did with giant magnetoresistance (GMR)  (which also won a Nobel Prized for its discoverers) or Phaedon Avouris in creating a band gap that could lead to graphene to be used in electronics.

Anyway, these prizes are a good showing for the much-maligned field of science and technology that works on the nanoscale, let’s call it nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology Pushing Solar Power beyond the Shockley-Queisser Limit

Let’s face it. Solar power at this point seems to attract users from those who are affluent enough to have their social conscience trump their pocketbook.

In this excellent first-hand account here on the pages of Spectrum one engineer grappled with the decision to go solar, and the question for a long time for him was, “I figured solar would at most save me about $1000 per year in electricity, so how could I justify installing a $40 000 system?” Indeed.

As I’ve noted previously here the technology for photovoltaics has to bring us to a third generation solar cell that is both cheap to produce and highly efficient for it to start making financial sense. And when I am talking about efficiency I mean exceeding the 32% Shockley-Queisser Limit.

As I’ve noted the nanomaterials that seems to promise the best hope for achieving this breakthrough are quantum dots. Quantum dots look to be able to do this through either electron multiplication or creating so-called “hot carrier” cells.

Electron multiplication involves making multiple electron-hole pairs for each incoming photon while with hot carrier cells the extra energy supplied by a photon that is usually lost as heat is exploited to make in higher-energy electrons which in turn leads to a higher voltage.

In July this year, researchers at the University of Minnesota and Texas were able to achieve this capturing of heat energy for solar cells using quantum dots.

Now researchers at the University of Wyoming are pursuing a variation on electron multiplication by harnessing highly energetic photons (possessing more than twice the energy needed to free an electron) to free two electrons rather than one and thereby doubling the current generated.

The nanomaterial used once again was quantum dots. In this case the researchers coated a titanium dioxide electrode with a single layer of quantum dots. When the researchers shined light from the blue end of the spectrum on the material, they collected twice as many electrons as the number of absorbed photons. Leading them to conclude that each photon was generating two electrons.

Still the efficiency is not very high, and the researchers expect that if they can get to a 12 to 15% efficient solar cell that is produced at the cost of newsprint, they have something with commercial potential.

I still think that we should be looking at exceeding the Shockley-Queisser Limit and be able to do it with extremely cheap production techniques and then maybe we can break the stranglehold fossil fuels have on our energy solutions.

Better Mobile Phone Batteries, Please

I have expressed my dismay in the past with the odd fascination that Nokia and Cambridge University have with flexible mobile phones, and in particular their much publicized Morph phone concept.

This past week a number of news outlets have picked up on the annual update we get on the progress of this research. I particularly like this one because of the number of video interviews provided.

There is one video in particular that caught my eye and that is the one on a flexible supercapacitor. See below.

What took me a bit by surprise was the speaker, Piers Andrew, highlighting the idea that this supercapacitor would be excellent for enabling much more powerful flashes in flash photography. I certainly understand that supercapacitors are ideal for short bursts of energy like a camera flash, and that the field of making flexible supercapacitors is a fairly new one, so the pride of the Cambridge researchers is no doubt deserved.

But again I ask, is there anyone at the research team who uses a mobile phone? The issue that makes me want to throw mine against the wall is that the battery seems to have the life span of a nanosecond. I don’t want my phone to wrap around my wrist or take better flash photography at night from greater distances, I want mine to have enough power to go a month without having to recharge. Will anyone listen?

Nanotech Does Have an Impact on Formula 1

A few weeks back I commented on a conference that at the time was soon to take place and would address the topic of how nanotechnology could be, or is, applied to Formula 1.

I wondered what were the applications for nanotech in the highly regulated world of Formula 1 racing and whether a conference that had topics on its agenda like “Low Carbon Vehicle Initiative and Funding Opportunities” would really be able to address my curiosity.

We now have a first-hand account of the conference and a little insight into the applications of nanotech in Formula 1 that apparently weren’t addressed within the conference.

As to the accounting of the conference, no real surprises. It was put together by a UK-based metrology group and focused primarily on…metrology.

However, TNTLog in following up on the issue of applications in Formula 1 came across an interesting application that the conference organizers neglected. It seems that last year McLaren used the rather high-profile A123 battery technology on its cars.

TNTLog notes: “As far as I know, nanotechnology was used in the 2009 season, with McLarens KERS system using A123s nano phosphate lithium ion batteries as a result of their combination of weight and charge/discharge capacity.”

It would also seem that the more strict and specific Formula 1 attempts to makes its rules on the use of nanomaterials, the more ripe it is for loopholes. When one considers the money difference a sponsor is willing to pay for a pole-position car and that of one on the back row, we are likely to see more and more ingenious uses of nanotech.

IBM's Breakthrough in STM Imaging Promises Big Changes in Nanotechnology Research

Nanotech news is buzzing this week with the announcement that researchers at IBM’s Almaden Research Center have significantly advanced the speed at which a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) can image an atom.

It is now possible to take images of an atom at nanosecond speeds as opposed to mere millisecond speeds. To give you a sense of how big a difference in time this is, think of a millisecond as equivalent to 30 years while a nanosecond would be just one second.

The researchers, who initially published their work in the September 24th edition of Science, were able to achieve this enormous increase in speed by employing a “pump probe” measurement technique, in which the time difference between a fast voltage pulse exciting the atom and then a weaker voltage pulse measuring the magnetism of the atom after the excitation creates a time frame for each measurement. The STM taking images at the rate of 100 million frames per second creates a sort of moving picture of the magnetic motion of the atom.

Some see this as a step towards bringing Moore’s law to its inevitable conclusion, i.e. storing information on an individual atom. And, indeed, the researchers’ demonstration of their imaging technique indicated that various manipulations of an atom can dramatically change their ability to store information.

Previously it had been determined that an iron atom could hold data for only a nanosecond. With this technique, the researchers were able to manipulate the iron atom by placing it near non-magnetic copper atoms and found the iron atom could then hold the data for 200 nanoseconds. If they didn’t have this technique they may not have been able to properly observe that phenomenon.

I have to give credit to the IBM researchers for putting this into some perspective. This is a significant advancement in conducting nanoscale research but nobody should be expecting commercial products anytime soon and the IBM researchers try to nip that idea in the bud in published reports.

According to Andreas Heinrich, IBM Research staff member and group leader of nanoscale science at the Almaden Lab, who was interviewed for the eWeek article cited above, “it is far too early to tell if or how this will result in productized technologies. It will probably take another two to five years to determine whether atoms can be manipulated to store data for hours or days, rather than nanoseconds, and even longer—15 years or more—to determine whether any of this research will result in products.”

While this is certainly the circumspect approach to news of this breakthrough, one can understand the enthusiastic reactions to its announcement from some peers. In the same eWeek article, Michael Crommie, professor of physics at the University of California Berkeley and a faculty researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, said in a statement. "I am particularly excited by the possibility of generalizing it to other systems, such as photovoltaics, where a combination of high spatial and time resolution will help us to better understand various nanoscale processes important for solar energy, including light absorption and separation of charge."

Now if someone can come up with a microscopy tool that excites the biologists as much as the physicists, then we might have universal joy among nanotechnology researchers.

Piezoelectric Nanowires Enable Energy Generation through Sound

Over at Nanowerk they have spotlighted research coming out Korea that has demonstrated the ability to use piezoelectric nanowires that can turn 100 decibel into enough energy to power very small electronic devices “self-powered sensors, e-papers, or body-implantable tiny devices” with the aim of powering larger devices when new nanomaterials are developed.

According to Dr. Jong Min Kim, Director of Frontier Research Lab, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT) and Sang-Woo Kim, a professor in the School of Advanced Materials Science & Engineering at Sungkyunkwan University, it is very difficult to use mechanical energy from sound in order to generate electrical energy using a conventional PZT-based bulk or thin film piezoelectric energy harvester.

The researchers overcame this obstacle by employing zinc oxide nanowires to serve as piezoelectric material sensitive enough to respond to sound energy. The nanogenerator device they made was able to transform 100 dB into an AC output voltage of 50mV.

The research was originally published in August 30, 2010, online issue of Advanced Materials.

The clearest application for this technology would be in cellular phones where one’s conversations could be used to power the device. However, since our speaking voice is around 60-70 dB and the device currently is not effective in generating power from sound less than 100 dB, it’s clear that more work has to be done.

The researchers believe the biggest obstacle they need to overcome is the limitations of zinc oxide, which they believe will help them design a device that will have improved piezoelectric performance.

Protein-based Nanotubes Pass Electrical Signals Between Cells

A few years back, scientists led by Hans-Hermann Gerdes at the University of Bergen noticed that there were nanoscale tubes connecting cells sometimes over significant distances. This discovery launched a field known somewhat by the term in the biological community as the “nanotube field.”

Microbiologists remained somewhat skeptical on what this phenomenon was and weren’t entirely pleased with some explanations offered because they seemed to fall outside “existing biological concepts.”

However, now Gerdes and his team have offered up an explanation that seems to be pleasing the skeptics.

In a recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the Norway-based researchers have shown that electrical signals can be passed through the nanotubes and that “gap junctions” are involved in the transmission process.

It is this gap junction bit that seems to be satisfying the skeptics. Gap junctions are proteins that create pores between two adjacent cells and create a direct link between the cells. But the key word in the definition is “adjacent” with these “tunneling nanotubes” or “membrane nanotubes” as they are alternately called, cells can communicate without being adjacent.

"The authors of this paper have identified an exciting way that cells can communicate at a distance. That means you can no longer just think of cells touching each other to coordinate movement," says Michael Levin of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts in the Nature article cited above. "Understanding what physiological information these nanotubes pass on will now be a key question for the future."

Among other biological systems that this may help us to better understand is the development of an embryo in which there is massive coordinated cell migration to form the various organs of the body.

Another key biological question it helps address--or complicate, as the case may be--is the complexity of the human brain. This research makes the brain drastically more complex than originally thought, according to Gerdes.

This could tangentially complicate Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity concepts at least in so far as duplicating the human brain, if current skepticism wasn't damaging enough.

Nanotechnology as a Tool for Economic Recovery

After the near-total collapse of the US economy two years ago, the economy has recovered to the point at least that it has crawled its way out of recession, albeit with little being done for unemployment. Now we get a pretty regular stream of advice on how the US can improve this situation and avoid a second recession and perhaps a deflationary spiral.

Along those lines, I came upon this recent article over at MarketWatch that urges a huge government investment in 21st Century technologies, including nanotechnology, that will fundamentally restructure the US economy and will reindustrialize, if you will, the US economy.

I do get the argument and I am a sympathetic with much of it. We do need to look to new technologies, including nantechnology, for creating new sources of wealth in the US economy.

However, I think the real problem is that governments have so conditioned businesses, industry and the investment community to expect government to do all the heavy lifting in the funding of research, they have neglected even their own interests in actual wealth generating activities and have preferred to sit back and enjoy the high yields from derivatives or profits from products that they had little hand in actually developing.

At some point in the innovation processes, private capital instead of public funding has to pick up the torch and bring technologies to market. Sadly, we have seen less and less of that recently and in the last two years practically none at all despite banks and other similar institutions experiencing enormous growth in their wealth.

As a result, we have seen a real lag in the government strategy types realizing that industry is not government’s partner anymore but instead just their fatted-up dependant, greedily waiting for their next gift. This lack of recognition means that government strategists still think they can pick technologies off a tree and apply them to the world’s problems. They can’t. It won’t work.

As things currently stand, we will continue to see new advancements in nanotechnology for attractive applications like solar energy, which seem to promise real commercial success, languish in the in-between world of a government grant and commercial products. The answer is not for the government to apply more funding but for there to be some new structure to the innovation process in which private industry and financing takes on some of the risk of bringing a new technology to market.

It’s time for some arm-twisting and a reading of the riot act to the overly dependent and apathetic private investors that makes it clear that the current state of affairs is not sustainable, and not even in their long-term interests. But getting the investment community to look beyond a three-month horizon, never mind a seven to ten year one, has become nearly impossible. Fixing that may be the real restructuring that the US economy needs.

Most Commented Posts


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
Load More