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Nanoparticles of Silicon and Water Makes Hydrogen Gas in an Instant

The history of nanotechnology-based solutions for making fuel cells less expensive or more efficient has not really been what you would call a huge success. But a decade ago it seemed the focus on applying nanomaterials to areas such as improved catalysts for fuel cells was driven more by exploiting what the nanomaterials were good at rather than by what fuel cells needed to be more commercially viable.

Lately that dynamic has changed and nanotechnology has been finding itself more useful when it comes to cheap ways to isolate hydrogen—the high cost of which has been a key obstacle in reaching the so-called “hydrogen economy” where we can drive around in hydrogen-powered automobiles and power our mobile devices with fuel cells.

Three years ago, Angela Belcher at MIT mimicked the process of photosynthesis by developing a man-made virus that could effectively split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Another team, at the University of California, also duplicated photosynthesis, but instead of exotic man-made viruses used a simpler nanowire-based material to cut the water molecules into its constituent parts.

The current state of the art for the artificial photosynthesis approach to isolating hydrogen may have been marked by HyperSolar Inc.’s announcement last year to commercialize a zero-carbon process for hydrogen gas production.

But now researchers at the University of Buffalo—in research published in the journal Nano Letters—have developed a new nanomaterial-based method for producing hydrogen that doesn’t require any light to activate the process. They have reduced silicon down to 10-nanometer particles so that when water is added the reaction produces hydrogen gas quickly and abundantly.

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Graphene and Boron Nitride Combined With Precision

The struggle for which material will be the de facto choice for two-dimensional (2-D) devices in future electronics has been ratcheting up over the last couple of years. In July of last year, IEEE Spectrum covered the development of the long-predicted single-layer thick structure of silicon, known as silicene.  2-D silicon is expected to have some of the same remarkable characteristics as graphene, but deliver them in a material that the semiconductor industry has been working with for decades.

Another material that has been pushing graphene for the throne of the 2-D material of the future has been molybdenum disulfide (MoS2).  Two years ago it seemed that at best MoS2 could achieve would to be simply a complimentary material to graphene in applications that required transparent semiconductors.  Over the last six months, it’s no longer clear that MoS2 shouldn't have it's own starring role.  

So it would seem that graphene needs to step up its game if it’s to stake its claim to the 2-D material of the future for electronics applications. Researchers at Rice University have taken up the challenge and developed a process that can be duplicated with lithography techniques to weave graphene (the conductor) with hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN) (the insulator) to create patterns at nanoscale dimensions.

The research, which was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology (“In-plane heterostructures of graphene and hexagonal boron nitride with controlled domain sizes”), is the latest evolution of a technique that was developed at Rice nearly three years ago. What distinguishes this new version is that the researchers were able to shrink the 2-D devices to even smaller dimensions.

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UK Attempts to Take a Leadership Role in the Commercialization of Graphene

Those associated with the UK government’s nanotechnology efforts have often pointed out that the country's first national nanotechnology initiative the UK Department of Trade and Industry’s National Initiative on Nanotechnology (NION) came into existence in 1986—a decade and a half before the United States formed its own National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2001. This historical reminder is seldom told as a matter of pride, but as a cautionary tale. After starting off as a world leader in the field, the UK has fallen farther behind the U.S., Germany, and Japan with each passing year.

Because of this belief that it let a treasure escape out of the front door, the UK government has been determined to not let history repeat itself with its handling of graphene research and commercialization. The British feel a kind of ownership of graphene ever since two Russian émigrés, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, created single-atom-thick sheets of carbon back in 2004 while at the University of Manchester. The UK government is determined to stake its claim in nanotechnology, with graphene as its quarry. To ensure that it gets the most commercialization bang for its development buck, the government began revealing plans last year aimed at making the UK a “graphene hub." And this time they were going to put their money where their mouth was, investing around US $71 million in a single research facility at the University of Manchester. In the past, the UK has been reluctant to invest in nanotechnology even if it meant some of their homegrown companies would move abroad.

Despite bold plans and investments, it was reported earlier this month that the UK had already fallen dramatically behind in graphene-related patents.


Number of Graphene Patent Publications

Chinese entities


US entities


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Solid Electrolyte Leads to Safer Energy-Dense Li-ion Batteries

The Boeing Dreamliner's problematic choice of a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery designed around a cobalt oxide (CoO2) chemistry is making everyone a little nervous about Li-ion batteries in general. It harkens back to the mid-2000s when electronics giants apologetically had to recall the Li-ion batteries used in their laptop computers.

The CoO2 chemistry used in Li-Co-O2 batteries offers more power for its weight than the Li-Ti-O variety, but is less stable. However, if a better electrolyte solvent could be developed, much of that instability could be mitigated. (A commenter astutely discussed this topic in a response to a recent blog post.)

Along these lines, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed a nanostructured solid electrolyte for more energy-dense Li-ion batteries. They expect that replacing liquid electrolytes in Li-ion batteries with solid ones should lead to safer batteries.

"To make a safer, lightweight battery, we need the design at the beginning to have safety in mind," said ORNL's leader researcher, Chengdu Liang, in a press release. "We started with a conventional material that is highly stable in a battery system—in particular one that is compatible with a lithium metal anode."

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Gold Nanoparticles Might Make a Non-Toxic Treatment for Lymphoma

Gold in nanoparticle form is perhaps more precious than the macroscale variety when it comes to treating diseases. While the usual application areas for nanotechnology, such as electronics, are finding uses for gold nanoparticles, it is perhaps in the area of drug delivery and the detection and treatments of diseases such as cancer where they are destined to have their biggest impact.

Along these lines, researchers at Northwestern University have used gold nanoparticles to treat a common form of cancer, known as B-cell lymphoma—the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

In research to be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, C. Shad Thaxton, M.D., and Leo I. Gordon, M.D. showed that they could trick B-cell lymphoma, which prefers to eat HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol—otherwise known as the “good cholesterol”—into eating gold nanoparticles instead of the HDL. Once the B-cell lymphoma cells start eating the gold nanoparticles (or artificial HDL particles), they get plugged up and can no longer feed on any more cholesterol. Deprived of their favorite food, the lymphoma cells essentially starve to death.

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When You Keep Nanotubes Short, They’re Not Like Asbestos

For at least the past five years, NGOs committed to seeing nanotechnology research stopped dead in its tracks have trotted out Ken Donaldson’s research at the University of Edinburgh to support their aims. Donaldson’s research indicated that multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs) that are longer than 20 μm have a similar pathogenic effect to asbestos.

The writing was on the wall right from the beginning for any concern this research might have generated. The common sense question was: What if you kept the MWNTs short?

Richard Jones essentially raised this question on his blog at the time of Donaldson publishing his research in Nature Nanotechnology: “Not all carbon nanotubes are equal when it comes to their toxicity. Long nanotubes produce an asbestos-like response, while short nanotubes, and particulate graphene-like materials don’t produce this response.”

Five years later and we have experimental confirmation that the way to reduce the pathogenic risk from MWNTs is to keep them short. In research published in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“Asbestos-like Pathogenicity of Long Carbon Nanotubes Alleviated by Chemical Functionalization”), Professor Kostas Kostarelos at the University College London’s School of Pharmacy found that if you chemically functionalized MWNTs so they become shorter, then they are a safe and risk-free material.

“The apparent structural similarity between carbon nanotubes and asbestos fibres has generated serious concerns about their safety profile and has resulted in many unreasonable proposals of a halt in the use of these materials even in well-controlled and strictly regulated applications, such as biomedical ones,” said Kostarelos in a university press release. “What we show for the first time is that in order to design risk-free carbon nanotubes both chemical treatment and shortening are needed.”

This certainly doesn’t put the issue to rest. Not for the reasons that NGOs will likely employ—which will  be to ignore this most recent research—but because how can we be assured that MWNTs used in a material matrix do not exceed 20 μm in length? Further, what about the safety of the workers who handle the MWNTs before they are chemically functionalized (shortened)?

Sound scientific research is still needed and it will in all likelihood be pursued. Whether this will satisfy those who are well-versed in how to leverage preliminary studies into scare screeds remains to be seen. When more in-depth research finds that those preliminary studies were not as well founded as they made others believe, the fear mongers typically remain defiant in part through dismissing the latest research.


Faster and Cheaper Process for Graphene in Li-ion Batteries

Over the last couple of years, research to improve lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have been turning to graphene, particularly after researchers at Northwestern University successfully sandwiched a layer of silicon between graphene sheets in the anodes of Li-ion batteries.

But most of the Li-ion battery work being done with graphene to date has depended on high-vacuum environments to create the layered material. Now Gurpreet Singh, a Kansas State University assistant professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, is leading a team that's looking at faster and cheaper ways of synthesizing the material.

"We are exploring new methods for quick and cost-effective synthesis of two-dimensional materials for rechargeable battery applications," Singh said in a university press release.

The two-dimensional materials to which Singh refers includes not only graphene but also tungsten disulfide nanosheets. In his work with graphene, which was published in the journal Applied Materials & Interfaces (“Synthesis of Graphene Films by Rapid Heating and Quenching at Ambient Pressures and Their Electrochemical Characterization”),Singh’s team was able to create the graphene outside of a vacuum.

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Graphene Could Help Prevent Another Lance Armstrong

After a professional cycling career in which he claimed repeatedly to have never given a positive drug test, Lance Armstrong has reportedly confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs in achieving his Tour de France victories.

While his confession will likely raise a lot of questions, surely one has to be how could the drug tests have failed in detecting the illicit drugs? Great advances have been made in drug testing since Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999. At that time, there was no test for EPO—the drug of choice of endurance athletes looking for an edge—but a test was developed in 2000. Nonetheless, Armstrong and many others who have recently confessed got away with it between 2000 and now despite the new tests.

Now drug testing may have a new ally in combating cheating in professional cycling and all professional sports. Researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK in cooperation with colleagues at Aix-Marseille University in France are reporting on an optical system—enabled by esoteric stuff such as metamaterials, plasmonics, and singular optics along with the wonder material graphene—to detect a single molecule of a drug in a few minutes.

The research, which is published in the journal Nature Materials (“Singular phase nano-optics in plasmonic metamaterials for label-free single-molecule detection”), is essentially a proof of concept for new sensing devices that exploit the field of singular optics, which operates on the phenomena of abrupt phase changes to light.

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Nanocoatings for Waterproofing Mobile Devices Continue to Make a Splash at CES

Last year’s edition of the Consumer Electronics Show saw the introduction of the waterproof mobile phone. This year’s iteration of CES marks waterproofed gadgets' sophomore year return, and for at least one company, the announcement of a new chemistry for the nanocoating that makes phones more waterproof than they were last year.

In a blog post last year, IEEE Spectrum editor Tekla Perry suggested that a patent battle might be brewing between HzO and Liquipel, makers of the coatings that keep water out. But that intellectual property fight doesn’t seem to have materialized. The patent concerns stemmed from both Liquipel’s and HzO’s relationship with a company called Zagg, which sells and markets protective casings for mobile devices. HzO approached Zagg to help it market its nanocoating product. Later, executives from Zagg left the company to form Liquipel, which raised some suspicions.

From my cynical perspective, I suspected that Liquipel’s recently announced new chemistry was motivated by these patent infringement concerns. But an industry insider informed me that Liquipel’s new chemistry was more likely to have been driven by improving product features than any concerns over patents.

Both Liquipel (Santa Ana, Ca.) and HzO (Draper, Utah) may have been driven to step their respective games up by two other rivals in the market: Neverwet, based in Leola, Pa., and P2i Ltd. of Abingdon, UK. (It should be noted that P2i also has a U.S. subsidiary in Savannah, Ga., P2i Inc.) Each of these four players is looking to grab market share by demonstrating to gadget makers that its nanocoating is better and that its waterproofing process costs less.

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Nanoparticle Enables World Record for Energy Storage in Batteries

With just one week under our belts in this New Year, we already have some world-record news in relation to lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries and nanoparticles. Researchers at Stanford University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have developed a Li-ion battery in which its sulfur cathode was capable of storing five times more energy than is possible with today’s commercially available batteries.

The research—not surprisingly—was led by Stanford’s Yi Cui. What may be somewhat surprising is that Cui has focused his attention in this research on the cathode rather than the anode of the battery. Much of Cui’s most recent work has been on improving the anodes of Li-ion batteries through the use of nanostructured silicon. In this latest research, he has not only shifted his attention to the cathode, but also developed an entirely new material to do it.

The new material, which is described in the Jan. 8 edition of Nature Communications (“Sulphur–TiO2 yolk–shell nanoarchitecture with internal void space for long-cycle lithium–sulphur batteries”),  is a nanoparticle that is made up of an inner core of sulfur surrounded by an outer layer of porous titanium-oxide. The nanoparticles architecture resembles that of the yolk and shell of an egg.

This nanoparticle’s new architecture has broken down an obstacle to using sulfur in the cathode of Li-ion batteries that has persisted for around 20 years.

While it has been known that sulfur could store more lithium ions than other cathode materials, the combination of sulfur atoms with lithium ions resulted in a compound—though necessary for the cathode to operate—that kept dissolving and limited the storage capacity of the battery. Also, when the lithium ions went into the cathode, it would expand the size of the cathode by 80 percent. Attempts to employ protective coatings to correct the first problem of the compound dissolving just resulted in them cracking as soon the lithium ions expanded the cathode.

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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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