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Yet Another Nanomaterial Does a Good Job at Oil Spill Remediation

This blog has chronicled many nanomaterials suggested for cleaning up oil spills over the years, with the most recent being an aerogel developed in China that the researchers claim to be the lightest ever produced and capable of soaking up a rather astounding 900 times its own weight in oil. This compares favorably to the current mainstay for oil spill remediation, hay, which only absorbs 3 to 15 times its weight in oil.

Now researchers at Deakin University in Australia have developed a nanosheet made of a porous boron nitride that can soak up 33 times its own weight in oil. While this weight-to-oil-ratio figure doesn’t seem to stack up favorably to some other technologies, like the aerogel above, it does have some side benefits that are lacking in some of the other solutions.

Notable among them is that once the nanosheets have soaked up their share of oil, they can be cleaned and ready to be used again by merely letting them heat in ambient air for two hours. They also are hydrophobic, meaning they repel water, which allows them to float on the surface of the water and be available for easy retrieval during a clean up.

The nanosheets, which are fully described in the journal Nature Communications (“Porous boron nitride nanosheets for effective water cleaning”),  were fabricated by mixing boron oxide powder and guanidine hydrochloride with methane and then heated at 1100 C for several hours in nitrogen gas. In this process, the guanidine hydrochloride decomposes to release several gasses that tunnel out, which results in the formation of the holes in the nanosheets.

So it sounds like a solution to oil spills is at hand—in fact, the Deakin University nanosheets have attractive characteristics for not just oil spill remediation but water purification in general. In fact, there are a variety of nanomaterials for these applications—so many of them that there are catalogues to guide you through them.  But not so fast. As yet, no one is bothering to commercialize them so that they are available for the next oil spill.

Today is three years to the day since I first highlighted this critical point that the nanotechnologies exist but not the commercial interest in making them available for the next oil spill, not much has changed. Perhaps the only way to ensure that these superior technologies are available to clean up the next inevitable oil spill is to institute government regulations requiring them, as IEEE Spectrum editor, Steven Cherry, suggested on his podcast, also nearly three years ago. Sometimes you have to force markets to adopt technologies when doing so may not help the bottom line, but keeps our planet habitable.

Image: Weiwei Lei

IBM Makes Smallest Movie Ever

If there were a Nanoscale category in the Academy Awards, the 2013 winner would surely be a movie made by IBM Research that has carbon and oxygen atoms of carbon monoxide molecules being moved around on a copper surface with a scanning tunneling microscope. The 250-frame stop-motion film, entitled “A Boy and His Atom” (which you can see below), uses discrete atoms to draw a stick-figure-like boy that bounces on a trampoline and plays catch with an individual atom "ball."

The breakthrough here seems to be the use of a stop-motion film that has garnered IBM the Guinness Book of World Records for World’s Smallest Movie.

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Scientists Learn to Control the Twist of Carbon Nanotubes

Graphene has been holding the spotlight for so long in nanomaterial research now that we are beginning to forget that carbon nanotubes were once the rock star of nanomaterials for a post-silicon world.

Now researchers at Aalto University in Finland, the A.M. Prokhorov General Physics Institute RAS in Russia and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) have put single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) back center stage by devising a method to control their chirality in a chemical vapor deposition (CVD) growth process.  Since the chirality of carbon nanotubes (CNTs)—the angle its 2-D carbon lattice makes around its circumference—defines both their optical and electrical properties, gaining more control over it addresses an issue of primary concern in their practical application to electronics.

Along with the promise of CNTs—especially SWNTs—have come some pretty big obstacles. Researchers are still struggling to get the tangled rats nest of CNTs oriented and connected in electronic devices. Producing CNTs with some kind of predictability—either semiconducting or metallic—has nearly been abandoned in favor of just finding a way to separate them afterwards.

While many methods have been developed for separating CNTs, they don’t really lend themselves to the scalability of creating the type you want in first place. But the international team of researchers found that their process produced greater uniformity among the nanotubes.

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Nanosponges Soak Up Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria and Toxins

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have developed a nanoparticle that mimics a human blood cell so that it can circulate through our bloodstream soaking up bacterial infections and toxins. These so-called ‘nanosponges’ are expected to be particularly effective in treating bacterial infections that have developed an immunity to antibiotic treatments—and also for treating venoms from snake bites.

The nanosponges are made up of a biocompatible polymer core and covered by an outer layer of red blood cell membrane. With a diameter of 85 nanometers, the nanosponges are 3000 times smaller than a human blood cell, so in a single infusion of nanosponges into the blood stream they would easily outnumber the red blood cells, and thus intercept most of the attacking toxins before they damaged the actual blood cells.

A video containing a description of the nanoparticles, along with an animation of how the particles would circulate through our bloodstream soaking up toxins can be seen below.

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Researchers Discover New Structure Inside Nanowires

Nanowires made from III-V semiconductors like indium gallium arsenide are having a bit of run of late. Yesterday, I reported on a new method for growing them on graphene.

Now researchers at the University of Cincinnati have discovered that a newly developed architecture for semiconductor nanowires has a hidden nook in which to find electrons and holes. The discovery opens up a new understanding of the fundamental physics of nanowires.

The research, which was published in the journal Nano Letters (“Optical, Structural, and Numerical Investigations of GaAs/AlGaAs Core–Multishell Nanowire Quantum Well Tubes”), involved a host of characterization and measurement techniques.

University of Cincinnati physics professors Howard Jackson and Leigh Smith, who together led the research, believe that applications of this new structure could range from solar cells to environmental sensors.

“This kind of structure in the gallium arsenide/aluminum gallium arsenide system had not been achieved before,” Jackson said in a press release. “It’s new in terms of where you find the electrons and holes, and spatially it’s a new structure.”

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Nanowires Grow Better on Graphene

In an attempt to grow nanowires on a graphene substrate, researchers at the University of Illinois may have stumbled upon a new paradigm for epitaxy (the growth of crystals on a susbstrate).

Some believe that developing new manufacturing methods for nanoscale devices—like epitaxy—may be more crucial to meeting the demands of next generation chips than creating new materials, especially when feature sizes start falling below three nanometers. So, the Illinois researchers' development of a new method of epitaxy may ultimately be more significant than creating a new material.

The research, which was published in the journal Nano Letters (“InxGa1–xAs Nanowire Growth on Graphene: van der Waals Epitaxy Induced Phase Segregation”), produced nanowires made from III-V compound semiconductors. Generally, III-V semiconductors like gallium arsenide don't integrate well with silicon, but  recently  it was discovered that when these materials were brought down to the nanoscale that they were compatible.

Researchers have previously combined two of these semiconductors in gaseous form so that they deposit themselves on a graphene substrate (a process known as metalorganic chemical vapor deposition, or MOCVD) and self assemble into ordered crystalline form. However, the Illinois research marks the first time three of the semiconductors have been mixed together in this way.

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Nanosilver Not Harmful to Water Supply

Nanosilver is the nanoparticle that has worried people the most, when it comes to human health. Consequently, it's also been the one most scrutinized.

In fact, the seemingly endless parade of research studies examining the risk of nanosilver led two Danish researchers to publish an exasperated article in the prestigious journal Nature last year entitled “When Enough is Enough.”

One of the researchers, Steffen Foss Hansen, remarked back then in an interview with Nanowerk, “Most of these questions—and possibly all of them—have already been addressed by no less than 18 review articles in scientific journals, the oldest dating back to 2008, plus at least seven more reviews and reports commissioned and/or funded by governments and other organizations" he said. "Many of these reviews and reports go through the same literature, cover the same ground and identify many of the same data gaps and research needs."

Not only had a great deal of research gone into the toxicology of nanosilver, but there appeared to be an entire regulatory framework—at least in the US—that could control the use of nanosilver in products.  As I later pointed out, nanosilver algaecides have been regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) as a pesticide since 1954. FIFRA was originally administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but that task was transferred to EPA when it was founded by the Nixon Administration in 1970. So nanosilver has been regulated under FIFRA for nearly 60 years, and for around  forty of those years silver has been regulated under FIFRA by EPA.

Despite a large, thorough, and still-growing body of research addressing the toxicology issue, and a regulatory framework from which to control the substance, there has been lingering concern about the lifecycle of nanosilver in our water supply through wastewater.

Now researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) have looked at what happens to nanosilver when it goes down our drainpipe after it has been washed off products (primarily clothes, but also the washing machines) containing them. They followed it to wastewater treatment plants and then into the environment. It turns out there is barely any nanosilver by the time it returns to the water supply.

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New Nanorod Capacitor Has High Energy and High Power Density

Researchers at Michigan Technological University (MTU) believe they have developed a new approach that will give us the best of both worlds: the quick power bursts for which capacitors are known and the long run times we get from electrochemical batteries.

While nanotechnology has had a big impact on ultracapacitors (sometimes referred to as supercapacitors) for some time now, getting ultracapacitors to behave more like batteries has remained an important research focus. Ultracapacitors are still largely relegated to applications where quick bursts of energy are needed (this is often referred to as power density, or the ability to carry large amounts of current out of the capacitor). Applications that need long runtimes of continuous energy (often referred to as energy density) has continued to be the domain of electrochemical batteries.

The MTU researchers, led by Dennis Desheng Meng, were led to their new reduction-oxidation (redox) capacitor by reevaluating the long promising but often disappointing material, manganese dioxide. Manganese dioxide has been attractive in this application because it’s abundant and environmentally friendly. But it didn’t provide the power density of carbon-based physical capacitors.

Meng believed that if the manganese dioxide could be used in the form of nanorods then the material could possess the right attributes for it to compete with carbon.

Of course, he's not the first to try to use manganese dioxide nanorods for generating electricity. In one notable example, Yi Cui, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University, had some success in using manganese dioxide in nanorod form in a technique known as pressure-retarded osmosis in which the difference in salinity between freshwater and saltwater can be exploited to generate electricity.

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Another Two-Dimensional Replacement for Silicon

Researchers at Purdue University’s Birck Nanotechnology Center are turning toward two-dimensional materials as the future hope for meeting the demands of Moore’s Law.

The entire computer chip industry has long been engaged in a struggle to make sure that CMOS chips--which have been the cornerstone of computers for a generation--continue to perform well despite the challenges commensurate with the ever decreasing feature sizes demanded by Moore’s Law.

All the players are fighting against the “fundamental limits” of these chips, which is the point at which it becomes impossible to stop the flow of electrons between the source and the drain even when it is switched off.

Intel changed the game two years ago when it introduced its 3-D dimensional transistor, essentially moving the gate that separates the drain and source into a perpendicular position with respect to the transistor plane. Some believe that this will satisfy Moore's Law's demands for the near future. But what happens when this latest architecture is no longer able to do the job?

The Purdue researchers believe that the answer is new materials beyond silicon. 

"We are going to reach the fundamental limits of silicon-based CMOS technology very soon, and that means novel materials must be found in order to continue scaling," said Saptarshi Das, one of the Purdue researchers, in a press release. "I don't think silicon can be replaced by a single material, but probably different materials will co-exist in a hybrid technology."

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Graphene-based Li-ion Anodes Go Commercial

The big story for nanotechnology in lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries in the past year has been the demise of high-flying nanotech startups A123 Systems and Ener1.  Both of these companies had developed nanotech-based solutions for improving the Li-ion battery and both companies announced bankruptcies in the past year after having received millions of dollars in capital investment. That’s why much of the news of late surrounding nanotechnology and the Li-ion battery has been of the R&D variety.

In that vein, research into using graphene hybrids to replace graphite in Li-ion electrodes seems to have increased in the past year and there have been some significant breakthroughs to improve both manufacturability and performance.  But there have also been some commercial ventures in the past year that have licensed some of that research to make a go of using graphene in Li-ion batteries.

One such company is XG Sciences, Inc. based in Lansing, MI. It has launched its offering, which features a graphene-hybrid material for use in the anodes of Li-ion batteries. The company claims that the anodes will result in Li-ion batteries that have four times the capacity of today's conventional anode batteries.

The basis of the anodes is a material the company has dubbed xGnP. The material uses graphene platelets that stabilizes silicon particles into a nanostructured silicon.

Nanostructured silicon anodes have become an attractive alternative to graphite-based anodes, which have a relatively small charge capacity, and silicon, which by itself starts to crack and fall apart after just a few charge/discharge cycles.  Much of the work with nanomaterials in Li-ion anodes has been to develop a hybrid material that either combines various nanomaterials with silicon or manipulates the crystalline structure of silicon on the nanoscale.

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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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