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On an insulating polymide tape, the deposited patterned crystal violet spots

Mass Spectrometry Gets a New Power Source and a New Life

Mass spectrometry is a chemical analysis and detection tool that has been around for 130 years. In that time there have been so many tweaks and improvements that observers have become a bit blasé about the next big leap in its development.

But the latest improvement out of the Georgia Institute of Technology may be the biggest yet for the venerable old analytical tool. In research described in Nature Nanotechnology, the Georgia Tech researchers have managed to make mass spectrometry more sensitive than ever before, more portable, cheaper, and even safer. All of these advancements were accomplished by replacing the direct current power source typically used as a power source with triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs). You can see a demonstration of the technology at work in the video below.

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Self-assembled structure of PTCDA on heterogeneous borophene/Ag substrates

Borophene Takes Big Step Towards Electronic Devices

Just three years ago, we were reporting on the first tentative steps in producing a two-dimensional (2D) form of boron that came to be known as borophene. Since then most of the work with borophene has been aimed at synthesis as well as characterization of the material’s properties.

Now researchers at Northwestern University—led by Mark Hersam, a Northwestern professor at the forefront of investigating the potential of a variety of 2D materials—have taken a significant step beyond merely characterizing borophene and have started to move towards making nanoelectronic devices from it.

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A MEMS-based atomic force microscope developed by engineers at UT Dallas is about 1 square centimeter in size

New Paradigm in Microscopy: Atomic Force Microscope on a Chip

Ever since the 1980s, when Gerd Binnig of IBM first heard that “beautiful noise” made by the tip of the first scanning tunneling microscope (STM) dragging across the surface of an atom and later developed the atomic force microscope (AFM), these microscopy tools have been the bedrock of nanotechnology research and development.

AFMs have continued to evolve over the years, and at one time, IBM even looked into using them as the basis of a memory technology in the company’s Millipede project. Despite all this development, AFMs have remained bulky and expensive devices, costing as much as US $50,000.

Now, researchers at the University of Texas (UT) Dallas have turned this paradigm on its ear by developing an AFM that uses microelectromechanical (MEMS) technology. The upshot: The entire AFM fits onto a computer chip about one square centimeter in size.

In research described in the journal IEEE Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, the scientists connected the MEMS-based AFM to a small printed circuit board containing all the circuitry, sensors, and other miniaturized components that control the device’s movements.

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Rendering of the ultra-flexible probe in neural tissue

Flexibility Gives Nanothread Brain Probes Long-Term Durability

For over two decades, electrodes implanted in the brain have made it possible to electrically measure the activity of individual neurons. While the technology has continued to progress over the years, the implanted probes have continued to suffer from poor recording ability brought on by biocompatibility issues, limiting their efficacy over the long term.

It turns out that size matters: In this case, the smaller the better. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed neural probes made from a flexible nanoelectronic thread (NET). These probes are so thin and tiny that when they are implanted, they don’t trigger the human body to create scar tissue, which limits their recording efficacy. Without that hindrance, the threadlike probes can work effectively for months, making it possible to follow the long-term progression of such neurovascular and neurodegenerative diagnoses as strokes and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

In research described in the journal Science Advances, UT researchers fabricated the multilayered nanoprobes out of five to seven nanometer-scale functional layers with a total thickness of around 1 micrometer.

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A nanoelectrode array and its CMOS control chip sit at the bottom of a shallow well where a network of cells will grow.

Nanoelectrode Array Sees Signals From Inside a Network of Cells

Researchers at Harvard University have developed a nanoelectrode array capable of imaging the electrical signals within the living cells. While other technologies have been able to measure these signals, this new complimentary metal oxide semiconductor nanoelectrode array (called a CNEA) can measure these signal across an entire network of cells.

“It’s similar to an imager combining the light signal from each detector in a pixel array to form a picture; the CNEA combines the electrical signals from within each cell to map the network level electrical activities of the entire cell culture,” explained Donhee Ham, a professor at Harvard involved in the research, in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum.

This network-level intracellular recording capability can be used, for example, to examine the effect of pharmaceuticals on a network of heart muscle tissue, enabling tissue-based screening of drug candidates. It could also help better understand how cells communicate with each other across a network.

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A laser stylus writes on a small array of multifunction pixels made by dual-function LEDs than can both emit and respond to light.

Nanorods Emit and Detect Light, Could Lead to Displays That Communicate via Li-Fi

Ever since the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, quantum dots have been in a market struggle to displace light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as a backlight source for liquid crystal displays (LCDs).

Now an advance by a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute in South Korea, and Dow Chemical may turn the display market on its head by eliminating the need for backlights in LCD devices. They have produced a LED pixel out of nanorods capable of both emitting and detecting light.

In the video below, you can get a further description of how the nanorods manage to both detect and emit light as well as some pretty attractive future applications, like mobile phones that can “see” without the need of a camera lens or communicate with each other using Light Fidelity (Li-Fi) technology.

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Top view of the experimental set-up used in the paper.

Scientists Measure Single Quantum of Heat

IBM researchers have established experimental proof of a previously difficult-to-prove law of physics, and in so doing may have pointed to a way to overcome many of the heat management issues faced in today’s electronics. Researchers at IBM Zurich have been able to take measurements of the thermal conductance of metallic quantum point contacts made of gold. No big deal, you say? They conducted measurements at the single-atom level, at room temperature—the first time that’s ever been done.

The first measurement of a quantum of thermal conductance was achieved back in 1999 by researchers at the California Institute of Technology. This latest research differs in that it was able to make measurements at room temperature as opposed to very low temperatures.

These latest measurements provide further confirmation of the Wiedemann–Franz law, which predicts that the smallest amount of heat that can be carried across a metallic junction—a single quantum of heat—is directly proportional to the quantum of electrical conductance through the same junction. By experimentally confirming this law, it can now be used with confidence to predict and to explore nanoscale thermal and electrical phenomena affecting materials down to the size of few atoms or a single molecule.

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image of a device with lateral pads patterned as electrically connected finger-like structures

Graphene Infrared Eye Needs No Signal Amplification

An international team of researchers under the umbrella of the EU-funded Graphene Flagship have taken a significant step in thermal infrared (IR) photodetctors with the development of the most sensitive uncooled graphene-based thermal detector yet fabricated.  These new photodetectors, known as bolometers, are so sensitive that they can register the presence of a scant few nanowatts of radiation. That level of radiation is about a thousandth of what would be given off by a hand waving in front of the detector.

In the research described in the journal Nature Communications, scientists from the University of Cambridge, UK; the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO), Spain; the University of Ioannina, Greece; and from Nokia and Emberion found that the combination of graphene and pyroelectric materials—which generate a voltage when they are heated or cooled—yields a unique synergy that boosts the performance of thermal photodetectors.

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water-based two-dimensional crystal inks

Biocompatible Inks for Printed Medical Devices Just Got Easier to Make

Researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK have built photosensors and programmable logic memory devices with inkjet printers using biocompatible, water-based 2D crystal inks that are highly concentrated for improved electrical performance.

The Manchester research, described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology,  represents a significant development over current ink formulations that are typically toxic and difficult to process. While this new formulation is easier to produce, biocompatibility may be its most attractive feature, opening up potential applications in medical devices.

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Smoltek's chip packaging process

Nanomaterials Enable Smaller Chip Packaging

Overwhelmingly, the focus for applying nanomaterials to electronics has been to meet the demands of Moore’s Law by continuing the seemingly inexorable shrinking of transistor dimensions.

While there have been some remarkable achievements in that regard—among them, getting dimensions down as low as 1 nanometer in the laboratory—the drive towards putting systems on chips (SoC) and systems in packages (SiP) is causing a shift in focus from smaller transistors to smaller packaging. This shift appears to be opening up a new use for nanomaterials that could expand the focus of nanomaterials in chip manufacturing.

The Swedish company Smoltek AB, a spinout from Chalmers University, sees chip packaging as the new frontier in nanoelectronics. It has been positioning itself at the forefront of this new movement over the last five years with its development of a variation on chemical vapor deposition (CVD) technology it has dubbed SMOLTEK TigerTM.

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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
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