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Iran Trumpets Its Nanotechnology Behind a Veil

This week Iran will be hosting its fourth annual international nanotechnology festival, Iran Nano 2011, and the PR materials have been churned out fast and furious leading up to the event.

Just about everything that has been announced is simultaneously intriguing and baffling. For example, earlier this week I read that the Secretary of Iran's Nanotechnology Initiative Council, Saeed Sarkar, was claiming that Iran was ranked 12th in the world for production of nanoscience.

Now I have no reason not to believe that claim, mainly because I am not sure I could name off the top of my head who is ranked 1 through 11, but more important, I am not sure what it means.

Could it be the production of scientific papers with reference to nanotechnology? We now know that the pursuit of this metric is often on a slippery slope. Or could it be funding? Hard to say on that one; Iran’s expenditures on nanotechnology are not as well known as some other countries. And translating funding into actual impact is probably more critical than just the amount allocated.

The main problem in ranking Iran’s place in the nanotechnology hierarchy is that of transparency: We just don’t know that much.

One of the few people I know who has visited Iran with the purpose of working on nanotechnology is Tim Harper, who offered this about Iran during an interview with Frogheart back in July:

“Iran is a different case, and it’s a place I have visited several times to discuss nanotechnologies. While the world may have some issues with the Iranian government, the scientists and business people I deal with are just like the rest of us. Iran has some great science going on, and the U.S. embargo has meant that they have had to be quite ingenious to get access to even basic instrumentation such as electron microscopes. However, there’s a large domestic market, and the Iranians are manufacturing everything from scientific instruments to nanomaterials. When the political issues are solved, I think a few people will be surprised by the level of sophistication of Iranian nanoscience.”

I suppose Harper’s view is all I really have to prevent me from considering with skepticism recent claims that researchers in Iran have developed a form of the cancer drug doxorubicin that has eliminated many of the drug’s side effects. The new formulation may be a great breakthrough, but I am not sure whether its presentation as a “cure for cancer” is just your typical run-of-the-mill hype or state-sponsored propaganda.

In either case, I wish the Iranians would avoid that kind of announcement, especially when their entire nanotechnology enterprise remains a mystery for many. Sanctions or no, science needs transparency to progress, both within and outside Iran.

Can a Polymer Membrane Be the Next Big Thing in Battery Technology?

At the end of last week, news came out of National University of Singapore's Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Initiative (NUSNNI) that an energy-storage membrane had been developed that was more cost-effective at storing energy than either rechargeable batteries or supercapacitors.

From the NUSNNI press release:

"The research team, led by Principal Investigator Dr Xie Xian Ning, used a polystyrene-based polymer to deposit the soft, foldable membrane converted from organic waste which, when sandwiched between and charged by two graphite plates, can store charge at 0.2 farads per square centimetre. This capability was well above the typical upper limit of 1 microfarad per square centimetre for a standard capacitor. The cost involved in energy storage is also drastically reduced with this invention, from about US$7 to store each farad using existing technologies based on liquid electrolytes to about US$0.62 per farad."

This is pretty amazing news, with publications including Energy & Environmental Science and Nature having already published articles this summer covering the research.

It’s also been so groundbreaking that there have been many calls to exercise caution about overoptimism. But one can’t help but hope for something to replace Li-ion battery technology, nano-enabled or not.

The application areas proposed for the membrane hit on all the favorites, like energy storage for hybrid vehicles and solar power systems.

Besides my usual caveat on these things—don’t expect much for the next few years—I am also a bit concerned that the researchers are seeking out venture capitalists to get this work into commercialization. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past 10 years, it’s the VC model just doesn’t get it done in nanotech. 

NY Natives Getting Restless with Nanotech Promises

The State of New York has been aggressively pursuing the promise of an economic boom brought on by nanotechnology for a decade now. There’s even a Web site called New York Loves Nanotech, on which the more than US $13 billion that has been invested in nanotech within the state is glorified.

Despite the love affair the state has with nanotech, it has learned that nanotech businesses can be fickle lovers, prodding jealous inquiries into the allegiances of at least one of the corporate interests the state has been trying to seduce.

So, while the announcement this week that Intel, IBM, GLOBALFOUNDRIES, TSMC, and Samsung will be investing $4.4 billion over the next five years in the state, creating thousands of jobs, has at least the local media hopeful, they remain skeptical.

The quid pro quo, if you will, in this deal, is that New York State needs to invest “$400 million in the SUNY College for Nanoscale and Science Engineering (CNSE) in Albany, including $100 million for energy efficiency and low cost energy allowances” over the next five years. The promise of nearly 7000 jobs makes it seem like a good deal for New York. Here is how the high-tech jobs will break down:

  • 800 at CNSE Albany NanoTech Complex
  • 950 at IBM-Yorktown Heights and IBM-East Fishkill
  • 450 at SUNY Institute of Technology (SUNYIT) in Utica
  • 300 at CNSE's Smart System Technology & Commercialization Center in Canandaigua

Now I don’t know how government types look at the prospect of 7000 new jobs in their state, whether they concern themselves over how many of those jobs will actually go to currently unemployed residents of the state, but perhaps in the long run it’s not as important as having 7000 people (current residents or not) with new, high-tech jobs buying things at the local retail stores.

Anyway, I hope it all works out for the parties concerned, or else I am afraid the locals are going to progress from skeptical to bitter.

Graphene Propped Up Vertically on a Substrate Could Sustain Moore's Law

Let’s be clear from the beginning, recent research at Rice University with graphene is based on calculations, not physical manipulation of the material.

According to the physics, it should be possible to get graphene to stand up vertically on a substrate, like a wall, with the aid of diamonds, but I imagine there will be some hair pulling in the labs before they can physically duplicate the process. So while it all sounds quite intriguing, I am not suggesting by highlighting it in this blog that what we have here is anything beyond a model.

That said, I think I should note that my coverage of graphene, carbon nanotubes, and other nanomaterials in electronic applications is not a implication that these materials will be a replacement for silicon any time soon—as I discovered at least one reader felt I was suggesting in a blog post on graphene earlier this year.

However, the pressures of Moore’s Law require that these materials be looked at intensely to keep pace with the unrelenting doubling of transistors on an IC every two years—band gap or not.

In fact, one of the authors of the article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Boris Yakobson, Rice's Karl F. Hasselmann Chair in Engineering and a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering and of chemistry, makes a point of discussing Gordon Moore in the coverage of the research.

“We met in Montréal, when nano was a new kid on the block, and had a good conversation," said Yakobson. "Moore liked to talk about silicon wafers in terms of real estate. Following his metaphor, an upright architecture would increase the density of circuits on a chip—like going from ranch-style houses in Texas to skyscraper condos in Hong Kong.

"This kind of strategy may help sustain Moore's Law for an extra decade," he said.

It will be interesting to see if anyone takes on these calculations and attempts to duplicate the results with physical experiments. But with the “theoretical potential of putting 100 trillion graphene wall field-effect transistors (FETs) on a square-centimeter chip” it would seem to be worth the try.

Metrics for Nanotechnology's Development Are Just Pieces of the Puzzle

I am the type who can easily fall prey to “told-you-so” syndrome. Today is just such an instance.

Last month, I covered research that seemed to indicate that because China was producing so many research papers, they had a kind of lead in nanotech research.

At the time, I cautioned that just because Chinese researchers were publishing lots of research did not necessarily mean much if the research was not being cited by other researchers. I said, “I think it is altogether possible that papers published in journals outside of the top publications might rack up a lot query hits but mean little in terms of actual scientific impact.”

Bingo. I expected sooner or later some kind of evidence or other form of research would validate my point, but I didn’t expect it to come from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

According to the CAS article, a “publication bubble” in China is threatening to derail the country’s scientific advances. China has experienced a 14 percent increase in scientific publications from 2005 to 2009. Impressive, but as the article points out:

“But these impressive numbers mask an uncomfortable fact: most of these papers are of low quality or have little impact. Citation per article (CPA) measures the quality and impact of papers. China's CPA is 1.47, the lowest figure among the top 20 publishing countries, according to Elsevier's Scopus citation database.”

To me it’s all a bit of unnecessary worry either way. Whatever metric you want to choose—number of patents, research papers, government investment, etc.—it’s only going to give you part of the picture, a piece of the puzzle, if you will.

It really comes down to how you can put the puzzle together for anyone to make sense of it all. Ultimately, it is a qualitative question, not a quantitative one, as I’ve said before. But people's instinct is to trust a number rather than an expert opinion, often for good reason. Until that changes, we'll continue to see a steady stream of numbers for quantifying the development of nanotech.

What is the Role of the Public in Nanotechnology's Development?

I was very pleased this week to receive an e-mail from Chris Toumey, who, in addition to working at the University of South Carolina NanoCenter, contributes four commentaries per year to Nature Nanotechnology 

It seems Toumey had read one of my pieces (from the description I assume it to be this one) and had sent along a piece he had written for Nature Nanotechnology back in 2008 entitled “Questions and Answers” (subscription required).

The piece describes Toumey’s valiant effort to go through all the basic introductions to nanotechnology and determine which one actually best accomplished what it set out to do.

I won’t go further in describing this piece since you all may not be able to gain access to it, but instead direct you to a more recent piece of Toumey’s, which is more or less on the topic of how science engages the public. It's called “Science in the service of citizens and consumers.”

Science, to my mind, always seemed to be an inquiry on how the world around us operates. If it serves anything, it might be our curiosity, but I am wondering if we might be confusing science with technology when we see it as providing some kind of service to citizens and consumers.

Anyway, the main point of the piece seems to be that we should focus on what the public actually wants to know instead of what scientists believe they should know.  

It makes sense, of course, but the problem is that typically, what the public really wants to know is whether Britney Spears will remarry. People's sometimes ugly confusion that derives from this fundamental urge includes all sorts of misapprehensions about the world around them, as I have indicated in the past.

On the issue of citizens, consumers, or whatever other term you would like to use to identify the public, and their role in science, I put myself squarely in the “cynic” category. I am hard pressed to imagine how science can best be guided by an uninformed public, or, worse, one informed by scare mongers and half-truths. 

But I am no social scientist, and determining a toxicology paradigm for nanoparticles may actually benefit from the input of someone who can tell you the comings and goings of the latest Hollywood starlet. Who knows?

Colloidal Quantum Dot Solar Cells Improve Energy Conversion Efficiency

Back at the end of June this year, I covered work that Edward H. Sargent and his research team at the University of Toronto conducted in making solar cells from colloidal quantum dots (CQDs) more efficient.

At that time, the solar power conversion efficiency for the device they described in their Nature Photonics article was 4.2 percent.

Now the Sargent team, along with researchers from King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) and Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), has bumped that number up to 6 percent, creating what is claimed to be “the most efficient colloidal quantum dot (CQD) solar cell ever.”

This time, the research was published in the journal Nature Materials and showed that quantum dots could be more densely populated on a surface by using inorganic ligands in the place of organic molecules, allowing the quantum dots to be closer together.

“We wrapped a single layer of atoms around each particle. This allowed us to pack well-passivated quantum dots into a dense solid,” explained Dr. Jiang Tang, the first author of the paper, who conducted the research while a post-doctoral fellow in the Edward S. Rogers Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at U of T.

As I mentioned in my initial piece on this line of research back in June, the Saudi Arabian government has been financing Sargent’s work in this area to the tune of US $10 million since 2008.

In this latest phase of the research, it appears KAUST was involved in the research by contributing the microscopy and visualization aspects. In addition, it seems that the licensing deal on this research is going to be shared by the University of Toronto and KAUST.

“The world—and the marketplace—need solar innovations that break the existing compromise between performance and cost. Through the partnership between U of T, MaRS Innovations, and KAUST, we are poised to translate exciting research into tangible innovations that can be commercialized,” said Sargent. 

If Sargent’s previous prediction proves correct, that these CQD materials in photovoltaics will be in building materials, mobile devices, and automobile parts in the next five years, there may some time yet before the licensing agreement will mean much. Meanwhile, inexpensive alternatives, namely dye-sensitized solar cells, are reaching 10 percent conversion efficiency now and appear poised to enter new markets. 

Memristors Go Biological

It seems that ever since the riddle of the elusive memristor was solved, it has been on a track for commercial development. This probably is in no small part due to the fact that research was done at HP and not at the University of Wherever.

As a result, we seem to have been on a commercialization watch ever since.  

It’s been just three years since the memristor was identified, so if statistical norms of commercialization are in place we can expect another four years of waiting before we see this material in our Smartphones. In fact, this timeline is pretty close to HP’s expectations of 2014 as a target date for incorporation into electronic devices.

During this time, researchers have not been and will not be sitting on their hands while engineers work out scalability and yields. One of the issues that researchers have been investigating is whether biomaterials like proteins will exhibit the same memristive phenomena found in materials such as metal oxides, chalcogenides, amorphous silicon, carbon, and polymer-nanoparticle composites.

In a Spotlight piece over at Nanowerk: “Researchers in Singapore have now demonstrated that proteins indeed can be used to fabricate bipolar memristive nanodevices. This work provides direct proof that natural biomaterials, especially redox proteins, could be used to fabricate solid-state devices with transport junctions and can be the core component in the development of bioelectronic devices.”

"Previous work on memristors were based on man-made inorganic/organic materials, so we asked the question whether it is possible to demonstrate memristors based on natural materials," Xiaodong Chen, an assistant professor in the School of Materials Science & Engineering at Nanyang University, tells Nanowerk in the article cited above. "Many activities in life exhibit memory behavior, and substantial research has focused on biomolecules serving as computing elements, hence, natural biomaterials may have potential to be exploited as electronic memristors."

The research, which was published in the Wiley journal Small, used the protein ferritin in combination on-wire lithography to fashion memristors.

"The programmable resistive switches were due to the electrochemical processes in the active centre of ferritin" explains Chen. "In addition, we demonstrated that such ferritin-based nanodevices with reversible resistance can be used for nonvolatile memory based on write-read-erase cycle tests."

Gold Nanoparticles Self Assemble into Very Large 2D Superlattice

One could argue that the industry that has driven nanotechnology’s development most over the past 20 years has been the semiconductor industry.

So when researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute discovered a method for creating a 2D layer of gold nanoparticles that self assembled themselves into a superlattice, they obviously thought of semiconductors.

“Thinking about semiconductors, this discovery could offer new solutions for scaling down the features of today's most advanced 32-nm computer chips to have features in the range of less than 20 nm, or even less than 10 nm," says Sang-Kee Eah, assistant professor in the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy at Rensselaer.

The research, which was published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry, discovered that when the gold nanoparticles were infused with liquid toluene a monolayer of gold would form on the surface of the liquid where it met the air. They moved the layer onto a silicon wafer and evaporated the water.

The video below provides some nice visuals on the monolayer.

Carbon Nanotubes Braided into Macroscale Wires Challenge Copper

Just last week I covered research that seemed to have put the final kibosh on the possibility of replacing copper in logic or memory devices with carbon nanotubes (CNTs).

While the NIST researchers responsible for that report still maintained that carbon nanotubes could be useful in for “interconnects for flexible electronic displays or photovoltaics,” it didn’t sound particularly encouraging for using CNTs in place of copper.

But this week I came across research that demonstrated that CNTs look to be a promising replacement for copper in wires for conducting electricity, such as in power transmission cables.  

Researchers at Rice University published their work in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. While they concede that making “electrically conducting cables from macroscopic aggregates of carbon nanotubes, to replace metallic wires, is still a dream”, it seems “the conductivity variation as a function of temperature for the cables is five times smaller than that for copper.” 

The reason for replacing metal wires with CNT-based wires centers primarily around weight factors that may be important in weight-sensitive applications, such as airplanes and automobiles. Also, “the conductivity-to-weight ratio (called specific conductivity) beats metals, including copper and silver, and is second only to the metal with highest specific conductivity, sodium.”

Impressive, but what about reliability issues that were brought to the fore in recent NIST research? Apparently, the CNT-based wires did not show any signs of degradation during the demonstration in which the wire powered a light bulb for days on end. 

Interesting research, especially since it showed the reliability of CNT wires braided into the macroscale, but it’s not entirely clear at this point where this research is headed as far as applications are concerned. A “dream” is still where we are with this one.





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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