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With $31.5 Million in New Funds, Nantero Keeps Up the Good Fight

The long and twisting road for Nantero in its efforts to bring a radically new memory device to market serves as a kind of lesson in perseverance and a microcosm of nanotechnology’s commercial development. The latest news for Nantero is that it has received $31.5 million to continue its now seemingly quixotic quest to bring its carbon nanotube-based non-volatile random access memory device (NRAM) to market.

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Graphene Coating Could Save Millions in Power Plant Energy Costs

Earlier this week, we covered a company, Xefro, that was applying graphene to a home heating system, producing energy savings over traditional systems.

Now research out of MIT is showing that coating power plant condensers with graphene could make them more energy efficient. 

In research published in the journal Nano Letters, the MIT team addressed one of the basic elements of steam-generated electricity: heat transfer in water condensation. In a steam-powered power plant, water is heated up to create steam that turns a turbine. The turning of the turbine produces electricity. In this process, the steam is condensed back into water and the whole process begins again.

The MIT team looked at these condensers and found that by layering their surfaces with graphene they can improve the rate of heat transfer by a factor of four.

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Graphene Heating System Dramatically Reduces Home Energy Costs

Breakthroughs in energy generation using nanomaterials—like their enabling of better supercapacitors or photovoltaics—often grab the headlines. But it is in the unheralded area of energy savings that nanomaterials are perhaps making the biggest inroads.

A startup in the UK called Xefro is bridging this divide between energy generation and energy savings through its development of a heating system that the company claims marks the first time that the “wonder material” graphene has been used as a heating element. Depending on the kind of heating system currently used in a home, the company estimates that this graphene-based heating system can reduce energy costs by anywhere from 25 to 70 percent.

Xefro uses graphene-based ink that can be printed on a variety of materials and into just about any configuration. The system takes advantage of graphene's minimal thermal mass so the heat can be turned on and off quickly, and leverages graphene’s large surface area so that energy isn’t wasted in heating up the heater itself.

“The innovation is all about getting useable heat where it is needed,” explained Tim Harper, a founder of Xefro and co-inventor of the graphene heating element, in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum (full disclosure: I used to work for Harper at a nanotech consultancy called Cientifica Plc). “While it is true that electrical resistive heating is almost 100-percent efficient in converting electricity into heat, it is what happens to that generated heat that is critical.”

Traditional heating systems are very inefficient in that they require heat to be transferred to multiple materials: for example, heating up water to heat up a radiator which heats up air and then finally heats up objects in a room, according to Harper.

He added: “Our initial question was ‘How can we get the heat directly to where it needed?’ and that led us to evaluate a wide range of heating materials and systems before we finally arrived at graphene.”

To meet the company’s criteria that the material should be usable in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, Harper and his collaborators turned to graphene inks. “This is especially important for water heating, where we wrap the flexible graphene element around a hot water tank,” says Harper. “By varying the ink formulation, we can change the resistivity of the heating element and its thickness depending on the required application.”

Once Xefro made the decision to use graphene, it wanted to avoid the mistake made by the producers of other infrared heating products now available on the market: placing the heating element inside a metal box that reflects back most of the infrared energy, creating an electrical convection heater rather than a true radiant heater. 

“By selecting the right materials and understanding enough about the physics of heat transfer, we’ve been able to tune the heater to emit infrared in the part of the spectrum that gives the most efficient heating effect,” explained Harper. “Further, by selecting the right materials for the construction of the heater, we can reduce absorption of infrared to the minimum and ensure that most of the heat is emitted [out into the room] rather than simply heating up the wall behind the heater.”

While graphene does offer some attractive properties for reducing wasted energy, it is the combination of the graphene-based heating element with an electronic control system that provides the real cost savings.

“Because graphene gives us an instant on/off response, this allows a number of smart switching algorithms to be used,” says Harper. “The energy savings come when the heaters are deployed as a system throughout a building. The heaters are linked with the control system via Wi-Fi, allowing the system to learn your behavior as well as the optimum heating required to maintain a comfortable temperature.”

Harper says the systems will be available in July 2015 through Xefro’s distributors in the UK. It will also be expanding into other markets, with partners and distributors making them available later in the year.

Editor’s note: A disclosure statement was added on June 3, 2015.

NanoMRI Gets Real

Many of us are acquainted with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), but you may not have heard of nanoMRI a technology that can image viruses and cells for in-depth analysis.

Up until now, nanoMRI has been a long and laborious process, in which a single scan can take up to two weeks to complete. Now researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) have dramatically reduced this scanning time to a couple of days by developing a system that can perform in parallel the measurements that used to have to be done sequentially—a process known as multiplexing.

"As a loose analogy, think of how your eyes register green, red, and blue information at the same time using different receptors—you're measuring different colors in parallel," Alexander Eichler, a postdoctoral researcher in the physics department at ETH Zurich said in a press release.

Fundamentally, MRI exploits the fact that particular atoms have nuclei that are like tiny magnets. When these atoms come under the influence of a magnetic field, they start to rotate around the axis of that magnetic field.

This rotation is called precession.  The precession generates its own frequency of electromagnetic radiation known as the Larmor frequency. The Larmor frequency depends on the type of atoms and the strength of the magnetic field. So an MRI determines the positions of the atoms based on frequencies of their precession.

This standard MRI process works pretty well until you get down to nanoscale objects like cells where the strength of around 1000 atoms is not robust enough to be detected.

"Clinical MRI is only possible because a single 3-D pixel—a ‘voxel’—contains about 1018 atoms," Eichler explained in the press release. "With nanoMRI, we want to detect voxels with only a thousand atoms or less, meaning that we need a sensitivity at least a quadrillion [1015, or a million billion] times better."

In the research published in the journal Applied Physics Letters, the ETH Zurich team developed their technique around a magnetic resonance force microscopy (MRFM) apparatus, which has been the standard piece of equipment for previous nanoMRI methods.

With the MRFM apparatus, the nuclei of the atoms are exposed to a small magnetic force that is transferred to a micro-scale cantilever. The force on the cantilever causes it to vibrate, and that vibration can then be measured in a way that forms an image.

This process used to have to be done one measurement at a time but the ETH researchers have developed a technique to do make these measurements in parallel across six data points. This parallel measurement, known as multiplexing, involves encoding different bits of information in the detector using different phases.

"The term 'phase' refers to a lag in a periodic signal,” said Eichler. “The phase can be used to differentiate between periodic signals in a way similar to how color is used to differentiate between light signals in the eye."

Eichler added: “With commercial applications in mind, this time gain is crucial because it makes a huge difference to a pharmaceutical company if a virus can be characterized within three days rather than a month."

Supercapacitors Take Huge Leap in Performance

The Economist has published an article this week highlighting the work of Lu Wu at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea in which he and his colleagues have developed a process for producing graphene that could lead to better supercapacitors.

While The Economist article makes some pretty incredible claims, such as that the graphene-based supercapacitors produced by the Korean researchers can store more energy per kilogram than lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, the actual research paper in the Journal of Power Sciences offers a less-hyped but nonetheless impressive list of achievements from the research.

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Molecular Electronics Takes Large Stride Forward

Molecular electronics has long promised a day when individual molecules would serve as the basic building blocks for electronics.

That day has moved a bit closer thanks to research out of the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science. Researchers there have developed a new technique that makes it possible to produce a diode from a single molecule.

In research published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology,  the researchers claim that they have not only produced a single-molecule diode, but that it greatly outperforms all previous designs.

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Graphene Overcomes Achilles' Heel of Artificial Muscles

In the world of biomimetic robotics, so-called artificial muscles have promised everything from the ability to make fish-like fins for underwater vehicles to devices to help the disabled in their rehabilitation.

These ionic polymer composites are attractive for their sheer simplicity. You just put two electrodes on the polymer and when you switch on the voltage, the ions migrate, deforming the polymer.

However, there was a problem with the metal electrodes. After being exposed to air and current, the electrodes would begin to crack, leaking ions and diminishing the muscle’s performance.

Scientists at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have come up with a solution to that problem, and it involves graphene.

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Graphene Composites Go Big

Graphene is a wonder material — flexible, transparent, light, strong, and electrically and thermally conductive, qualities that have led to research worldwide into weaving these atom-thick layers of carbon into advanced devices. Now scientists have demonstrated what they say is the first large-scale fabrication of a graphene composite—a material that combines graphene with another substance to form something with new properties.

Until now, labs could only incorporate tiny flakes of graphene or graphene-like materials into composites. The mechanical and electrical capabilities of these composites were never as good as scientists would have liked because of weak links between the flakes, and the flakes often clumped together, leading to irregularities across the composites.

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New Memristors Could Usher in Bionic Brains

Last month we saw researchers in the US push the envelope of non-volatile memory devices based on resistance switching to the point where they are now capable of mimicking the neurons in the human brain.

Now researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia have built on their previous work developing ultra-fast nano-scale memories. They used a functional oxide ultra-thin film to create one of the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cells. The researchers claim that the memristive devices they have developed mimic the brain’s ability to simultaneously process and store multiple strands of information.

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Plasmonic Nanostructures Could Change the Landscape of Optoelectronics

Scientists have high hopes that the emerging field of plasmonics can improve technologies such as photovoltaicsLEDs, and other optoelectronics. It’s a natural fit: Plasmonics exploits the oscillations in the density of electrons that are generated when photons hit a metal surface.

However, it’s been studied in a bit too much isolation. Scientists have only looked at the phenomenon in isloated metal nanostructures and not the metal adhesion layer that glued the nanostructures to a metal substrate.

Now researchers at Rice University have expanded the understanding of plasmonics beyond just the nanostructure itself and down into the metal substrate. They expect that their increased ability to characterize and manipulate the plasmonic effect could make plasmonic devices viable alternatives for highly complex optoelectronic devices like optomechnical oscillators, which couple photons into mechanical resonators and are used in photonic and wireless communications applications.

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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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