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Artificial Palladium Is a Big Story in the Midst of Japan's Rare Earth Squeeze

The story of Japanese researchers who were able to combine rhodium and silver in a way to make an artificial palladium alloy “with nanotechnology” has been making the rounds this week as a new wrinkle in the medieval practice of alchemy.

However, I see it a bit differently. It seems to me more like a brilliant stroke of geo-economic politics.

This past Summer there was a rather significant imbroglio between China and Japan in which it was reported that China was suspending delivery of rare earth minerals to Japan over a fishing boat incident. (The issue of China’s current stranglehold on rare earths I covered myself here last Spring.)

Whatever the true story is on this Japan/China incident, ever since Japan has been looking into finding new sources of rare earths. It’s not like these rare earth minerals don’t exist anywhere else, it’s just that the rest of the world has stopped mining for them. In fact, as recently as the 1980s, the US dominated production.

While palladium is not strictly speaking a rare earth mineral, but rather a chemical element and belongs to the platinum group of metals, it is quite rare and in high demand from the electronics industry. So being able to synthesize palladium from the elements of rhodium and silver could conceivably make Japan less dependent on its sources for this element.

Geo-economic politics aside, the claims of this research are quite impressive, although some circles are already expressing skepticism over the results.

While one of the charges is that Japanese academics are typically quick to patent anything, even if it has questionable commercial applications, I imagine the context of the rare earth squeeze made the sound of trumpeting a new way to make palladium too attractive to pass up.

Building 3D Batteries from the Bottom Up with Coated Nanowires

To continue on with the string of nanotechnology developments at the end of last year (here and here) that were aimed at improving the battery, I start this New Year with another such story this time coming from researchers at Rice University.

This news actually broke in December when it was originally published in the December 6th online edition of Nanoletters.

The research, which was led by Pulickel Ajayan, managed to find a way to coat nanowires with PMMA coating that provides good insulation from the counter electrode while still allowing ions to pass easily through.

This minimized separation between two electrodes manages to make the battery much more efficient.

"In a battery, you have two electrodes separated by a thick barrier," said Ajayan, professor in mechanical engineering and materials science and of chemistry. "The challenge is to bring everything into close proximity so this electrochemistry becomes much more efficient."

To achieve this, the Ajayan and his lead researchers Sanketh Gowda and Arava Leela Mohana Reddy took the concept of 3D batteries and coated millions of nanowires to create the 3D structure from the bottom up.

“We wanted to figure out how the proposed 3-D designs of batteries can be built from the nanoscale up," said Gowda, a graduate student in Ajayan's lab. "By increasing the height of the nanowires, we can increase the amount of energy stored while keeping the lithium ion diffusion distance constant."

As Gowda readily admits in the news release, 3D designs are nothing new. However, the achievement here was the process they developed for coating the nanowires in the PMMA without any break in the coating.

The process involves the growing of 10-micron-long nanowires through electrodisposition in the pores of an anoidized alumina template. They then drop-coated PMMA onto the nanowire array resulting in an even casing from top to bottom. 

The result of this work is ultimately expected to be batteries for scalable microdevices that possess a greater surface area than thin-film batteries.


The Premiere of the Nanoclast Awards

While I have been contributing to IEEE Spectrum Online’s blogosphere since June 2007, 2010 marks the first full year of writing a stand-alone blog.

To mark this occasion I am going to offer up for the first time the Nanoclast Awards that may, or may not, become an annual event.

With little deliberation on the matter, the awards will be broken into three categories. They are: Best Advancement in Microscopy, Best Advancement in Nanomaterials, and finally no Nanoclast award ceremony would be complete without the Most Annoying Nano-related Story of the Year.

Let’s proceed to the nominees.

For our first category, “Best Advancement in Microscopy” it has been a banner year with some groundbreaking research. Here are the nominees:

First, IBM's Breakthrough in STM Imaging that now makes it possible to take images of an atom at nanosecond speeds as opposed to mere millisecond speeds.

The second nominee are the researchers at Ohio State University and the University of Hamburg in Germany who developed a custom-made scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) that reportedly took the very first images of the spin of an electron.

Our third and final nominee in this category is again Ohio State University this time in cooperation with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in using every conceivable microscopy tool in their arsenal to determine the causes for the demise of rechargeable batteries.

And the winner is…IBM’s breakthrough in STM imaging. I have made this selection from such a strong group of nominees based on the researchers' willingness to put their work into some perspective. While the press were mentioning “molecular electronics” and “Moore’s Law” they were saying, “Wait a minute.”

Our second category, “Best Advancement in Nanomaterials” not only had strong candidates but a lot of them.

With little surprise, our first nominee is research into graphene. After being the new darling of the advanced material community for the past 6 years, this year its discovery got the Nobel Prize in Physics for Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov.

So, our first nominee goes to IBM again for developing a simpler approach for creating a band gap in graphene.

Our second nominee are the researchers at Oregon State University who developed a method for creating a metal-insulator-metal (MIM) diode architecture that in the past had proven difficult to produce with high yield and top-level performance.

And our third and final nominee for this truncated list of nominees is a bit of a change from the previous two and a bit more humble in its aims but still managed to generate a fair amount of interest here on this blog. That is the coating that could make an average (not stealth) plane invisible to radar.

And our winner is…IBM’s ability to create a band gap in graphene. Graphene may be a wonder material but its electronic applications are going to be severely limited if they can’t find a way of creating a band gap for it. IBM’s research here may be just the ticket.

Our third and final category, “Most Annoying Nano-related Story of the Year” will come from three areas. They are hype: exaggerating the potential of nanotechnology; fear mongering: turning nanotechnology into all the wicked things that have resulted from man’s history of industrialization; and finally just plain wrong headedness: just examples of such sloppy thinking you lose all patience.

In the area of hype, we have our first nominee, which represents the story template that starts off telling us that nanotechnology is nothing but hype and then sets about trying to hype up its potential applications. Really annoying.

Our second nominee is an example of fear mongering that has become quite popular and that is confusing economic systems like capitalism and political systems like totalitarianism with nanotechnology. Either sadly misguided or deliberately misguiding others.

Our third and final nominee is for an example of an over taxed journalist who just begins to lose their way in a story and loses you in the process. Just a sad display. 

And our winner is…none of the above but instead the story that managed to combine elements of all three. What happens when a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist decides he’s going to blow the lid off of nanotechnology? You get this annoying bit of slapstick.

I hope you enjoyed our premier of the Nanoclast Awards, and I am looking forward to see what 2011 will have to offer.

Nanostructured Paper Leads to Printable Ultracapacitors

Breakthroughs in creating printable ultracapacitors and batteries have been coming fast and furious in the last 18 months.

Perhaps the latest news on the pages of IEEE Spectrum that details how two companies are printing batteries and ultracapacitors is the most promising to date.

The spectrum article reports on a printed solid-state lithium battery developed by Planar Energy Devices that manages to replace the liquid electrolyte typically found in lithium-ion batteries with a ceramic electrolyte. The results are that it performs much better than traditional li-ion batteries, achieving 400 watt-hours of energy per kilogram and can last for tens of thousands recharge cycles.

While this is at least a factor of two better than traditional batteries, for electrical vehicles it still falls short of the 1000Wh/kg target that was suggested by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to be what is needed for a power source to replace fossil fuels in automobiles.

But if Tesla can make a buck selling sports cars with 6,831 lithium-ion batteries that weigh all together about 1500 lbs, surely a car company could do better with the lighter, cheaper to produce, greater energy density and longer life cycle of the batteries being offered by Planar.

The other company highlighted in the article is Paper Battery, which produces an ultracapacitor that uses a nanostructured paper as the separator between the electrodes in the ultraccapcitor. It looks as though initial applications will be in the areas of a medical diagnostic devices and thin film solar panels

If these two companies are any indication, we should expect things to start heating up in the printed battery and ultracapacitor space fairly soon.

Risk Assessment in Nanotechnology Is a Risky Business

In assessing the risks of nanomaterials to our environment, health and safety (EHS), regulators have faced what I consider the two main obstacles preventing them from sorting this out: how do you reevaluate risk assessment for the same material first in bulk and then in nanoscale form and how do you perform measurements when there is an acute lack of tools to test these materials in the environment and not just in some vacuum of a microscopy tool. 

It seems that regulators recognize these two main stumbling blocks as well as evidenced by a recent piece over at Nanowerk that analyzes a recent Nature Nanotechnology commentary piece (subscription required) authored by a number of international regulators that looks at the science policy considerations for responsible nanotechnology decisions.

As one might expect the government types urge industry to do more in sorting out not only the workplace risks of nanomaterials, but also the risks associated with the long-term life cycle of products that contain nanomaterials.

They can urge all they want, I suppose, but the companies making products are only going to determine whether the final product they sell to the public is dangerous.

If at some point in the future, computers make use of graphene or carbon nanotubes for their electronic components, manufacturers of that part of the computers will conduct the same life-cycle tests they did when using lead, barium and mercury in the computers.

Just so there is no mistake, I support every attempt to mitigate risks associated with any product that is sold to a generally uninformed consuming public. But I do wonder whether the turmoil over EHS concerns swirling around nanotechnology today—while we blithely go along with disposing “old-world” poisons into our environment—has more to do with highly sophisticated opposition groups digging their heels in earlier than with these other dangerous materials and less to do with the real risks of nanomaterials.

To give you a sense of where regulations can lead when led around by fear mongering I give you California. Nowhere in the US are the screeds of anti-industry taken more to heart than in California, and we already have a good indication of where those knee-jerk reactions are leading, such as California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) determination that “all nanomaterials will be considered hazardous.” 

With this kind of lazy regulating, let’s hope that John DiLoreto’s prediction is wrong that lacking national regulations statewide regulations will become the de facto law of the land.

Concept of Fuel Cells Powering Laptops Pops Up Again

Recently, I related the unceremonious disappearance of the fuel cell-powered laptop that was promised year after year at the beginning of this decade by NEC and just never materialized.

If my guess is right, I would say that NEC had little problems getting the thing to work, or else they wouldn’t have been so cavalier about announcing its introduction year after year, but they just could never sort out the market for the thing. And one look at a photo of the prototype gives you an indication of the problem.

Laptops were developed so people could travel with their computers. Traveling means going on airplanes. No one seemed to consider the problem of how you were supposed to get through airport security with a laptop computer that had a half-liter of methanol attached to it.

But this has not deterred researchers at Harvard University, who have continued perfecting a methane-powered laptop after determining the real problem with these fuel cell-powered laptops is reliability, temperature and cost. I did get a kick out of the headline for this one “Methane-powered laptops may be closer than you think.” Really? I am supposed to fall in line again on this one?

If I were the researchers, and I was really intent on seeing fuel cell-powered laptops on the market, I might contact someone at the Transportation Security Administration and ask them if the foresaw any difficulties getting through security with some methane in one’s laptop.

While you’re waiting for that answer, you could find ways of getting the things to operate at temperatures well below 500° Celsius and celebrate that you managed to develop electrodes for the fuel cells that don’t use platinum.

I welcome research in improving fuel cell technology, every breakthrough counts, but does that research need to be accompanied with application proposals that just don’t seem workable?

Nanochannels That Mimic the Channels of Transmembrane Proteins in Cells

Sometimes the aim of high technology is just to approximate what nature does. That certainly is the case with channels found in transmembrane proteins, which manage to allow the passage of ions or molecules but block larger objects. It has proven difficult to fabricate channels that duplicate the properties of these biological channels. That is until now.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a way to produce these channels that are only 2nm wide and do it with standard semiconductor manufacturing techniques. They also managed to ensure that the channels don’t collapse under the strong electrostatic forces of one of the semiconductor processes.

The two co-authors of the research Arun Majumdar, Director of DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy (ARPA-E), and Chuanhua Duan, a member of Majumdar's research group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, initially published their work in the journal Nature Nanotechnology (subscription required) under the title "Anomalous ion transport in 2-nm hydrophilic nanochannels."

To fabricate the channels Majumdar and Duan used a technique that involved ion etching combined with an anodic bonding process. As alluded to earlier, the researchers were able to overcome the strong electrostatic forces of the anodic bonding process by using a thick oxide layer (500nm) that they deposited on the glass.

"This deposition step and the following bonding step guaranteed successful channel sealing without collapsing," says Duan.

One of the things that the researchers observed that was quite remarkable was how differently the 2nm wide channels behaved to those that were 10nm wide.

“We observed a much higher rate of proton and ionic mobility in our confined hydrated channels -- up to a fourfold increase over that in larger nanochannels (10-to-100 nm),” explains Majumdar in the Science Daily piece. “This enhanced proton transport could explain the high throughput of protons in transmembrane channels."

What I like about this story is that the early applications for this technology look to be in the area of improved batteries, especially the lithium-ion variety and fuel cells.

The researchers believe that ion transport could be improved by these 2nm channels because because of their geometrical confinements and high-surface-charge densities. In terms of batteries, by using these nanostructures as a separator between the cathode and anode in batteries they could prevent physical contact between the electrodes while allowing free ionic transport. 

"Current separators are mostly microporous layers consisting of either a polymeric membrane or non-woven fabric mat," Duan says. "An inorganic membrane embedded with an array of 2-nm hydrophilic nanochannels could be used to replace current separators and improve practical power and energy density."



The BBC Loves to Cover Nanotechnology

I have below a clip from an upcoming documentary that will air on BBC One in the UK under the title "How Science Changed Our World"  and is narrated by Professor Robert Winston, who is a Lord to you and me and has a background in fertility studies.

In the clip he visits the London Centre for Nanotechnology, which as I have said before I had the good fortune of getting a tour of myself.

The BBC seems to have taken quite an interest over the years on the prospects of nanotechnology and with varied success and failure, if you ask my opinion. The terribly pointless and exaggerated expose on grey goo within its Jan Hendrik Schön documentary back in 2005 would represent the nadir of their coverage of the subject.

I am hoping that the BBC’s affection for the subject of nanotech is accompanied with a bit more circumspection in its narration than in that instance. But I do have to wonder what Professor Mr. Winston means when he says in the clip, “That miniaturization means that chips like viruses are getting closer to us than we could have possibly imagined.” It sounds lovely but I have no idea what it might mean.


Is There a Future for Nano-Enabled Lithium Ion Batteries in Electric Vehicles?

We have seen recently some new breakthroughs in improving the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery. These developments  combine the use of nanomaterials and nano-scale microscopy tools like the transmission electron microscope (TEM) to find ways of someday creating better Li-ion batteries.

Improvements to Li-ion batteries bodes well for powering small gadgets like our cell phones and MP3 players, but when it comes to powering electric cars the picture becomes a little different. By some accounts, Li-ion batteries’ energy density will only get about two times better than it is today, leaving one to ponder whether perfecting the Li-ion battery is time and money well spent in developing a way to power a vehicle that is competitive with the fossil-fuel-powered variety.

However, now it seems a lot of time and money is being invested in the hope that Li-ion battery technology will be the solution. According to Industry Week’s Nanopulse column last week, nano-enabled Li-ion batteries produced by companies like A123Systems are not only powering the electric vehicles of today but are also powering an economic recovery in the US as new plants are being built to capture back market share of Li-ion battery production from Asia.

Scott Rickert in his column provides some prices per kWh that show a dramatic drop in pricing fueled in large part by greater production than ever before. But price is really only one of the metrics that will determine whether Li-ion batteries can fuel an electric vehicle age. There is one other metric that I think supercedes all others and I like to describe it as the “will-it-work” metric.

According to that metric, barring any unforeseen development, Li-ion batteries are never going to get close to the 1000Wh/kg needed for batteries to compete with the internal combustion engine in powering vehicles. If they do improve to about twice that of where they are today, Li-ion battery will be maxed out at around 400Wh/kg.

Over at a publication called Alt Energy Stocks, they have a pretty alarming interpretation of a recent presentation given by Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun. According to the article, penned by John Petersen, it seemed as though Secretary Chu was suggesting, at least tacitly, that “that lithium-ion batteries are a dead-end electric drive technology”. 

Petersen comes to this interpretation after hearing the following remarks that come about 25 minutes into the video above.

"And what would it take to be competitive? It will take a battery, first that can last for 15 years of deep discharges. You need about five as a minimum, but really six- or seven-times higher storage capacity and you need to bring the price down by about a factor of three. And then all of a sudden you have a comparably performing car; let's say a mid-sized car which has a comparable acceleration and a comparable range."


Now, how soon will that be? Well, we don't know, but the Department of Energy is supporting a number of very innovative approaches to batteries and its not like its 10 years off in the future, in my opinion. It might be five years off in the future. It's soon. Meanwhile the batteries, the ones we have now, will drop by a factor of two within a couple of years and they're gonna get better. But if you get to this point, then it just becomes something that's automatic and I think the public will really go for that."

While Secretary Chu is saying this, there was a slide showing what a rechargeable battery will need to be able to do to compete with fossil fuels:

"A rechargeable battery that can last for 5,000 deep discharges, 6-7 x higher storage capacity (3.6 Mj/kg = 1,000 Wh) at 3x lower price will be competitive with internal combustion engines (400 - 500 mile range)."

The Li-ion battery just does not look to be the solution to these requirements. And I am simply not swayed by the examples of the Chevy Volt  that can only manage about 40 miles before it starts using its gas tank, and it seems that estimates that the Tesla can go 200 miles without a recharge seem to be exaggerated for anyone that has watch the UK show Top Gear.

The point here is that Li-ion battery may be the solution for powering hand-held gadgets but we may need to look somewhere else if we want to get serious about replacing the internal combustion engine in our vehicles.

World's Smallest Battery with Anodes Built from a Single Nanowire

If I have a crusade on this blog, it is to see nanotechnology bring the battery up to snuff with all the high-tech gadgets they need to power.

I have covered how micrcoscopy tools are enabling us to pinpoint the reason batteries begin to fail. Recently I blogged on batteries that used nanowires to reduce their size down to that of a grain of salt.

The latest item I’ve come across in the way that nanotechnology is tackling the issue of improving the battery combines elements from the two blog entries I cited. The research claims to have produced the world’s smallest battery, which will help lead to better batteries in the future.

Researchers from Sandia National Laboratory have reported in the December 10th edition of Science of creating a battery so small that its anode consists of a single nanowire.

The lithium-based battery was created inside a transmission electron microscope (TEM) so we are not likely to see this battery powering your iPhone in the near future, but it does allow the researchers to see at an atomic scale resolution how batteries function to better understand their fundamental properties.

“What motivated our work," is that lithium ion batteries [LIB] have very important applications, but the low energy and power densities of current LIBs cannot meet the demand,” says Jianyu Huang. “To improve performance, we wanted to understand LIBs from the bottom up, and we thought in-situ TEM could bring new insights to the problem."

While nanomaterials are used in battery anodes, they are used in bulk rather than individually, a difference that Huang suggests makes it as difficult to observe their atomic structure as it would be to examine an individual tree among a forest.

The actual dimensions and parts of the battery consist “of a single tine oxide nanowire 100 nanometers in diameter and 10 micrometers long, a bulk lithium cobalt oxide cathode three millimeters long, and an ionic liquid electrolyte.”

One of the first unexpected  phenomena the researchers observed was that the oxide nanowire nearly doubles in length in during charging, significantly more than its diameter increases. While this observation runs counter to the prevailing belief that diameter rather than length increases, it also could help avoid short circuits that may shorten battery life.

This observation could be significant but perhaps more significant was that the researchers found a way to use a liquid (the electrolyte) in the vacuum of a TEM.

“The methodology that we developed should stimulate extensive real-time studies of the microscopic processes in batteries and lead to a more complete understanding of the mechanisms governing battery performance and reliability," he said. "Our experiments also lay a foundation for in-situ studies of electrochemical reactions, and will have broad impact in energy storage, corrosion, electrodeposition and general chemical synthesis research field."



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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