Blog search results for Tag: materials

Materials

A little talked about element, with the atomic mass 140, plays a surprisingly important role in everyday life. It has not only lit many a path, but can be credited with improving and saving the lives of billions of people by enabling cleaner air.

In his talk '140Ce: White light & Clean Air' Andy Walker, Johnson Matthey’s Technical Marketing Director explained why the soft, ductile silvery-white metal Cerium, deserves more recognition.

Walker began by outlining the history of SCI, celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. As an employee of Johnson Matthey, Walker highlighted that George Matthey was among the pioneers of SCI. In addition Walker explained that his PhD research had involved looking at catalysts that included Cerium.

Cerium is a lanthanide and the 26th most abundant element on earth. Indeed it was the first lanthanide to be discovered, found as its ore cerium silicate, in 1803. Cerium makes up 66ppm of the earth’s crust, which is about 5 times as much as lead. It is the only one of the lanthanides able to take on the +4 oxidation state, making it very useful in some of its applications. It is mined in the US, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Australian and China, with annual global production of 24 000 tonnes.

However, this straightforward look at the history of Cerium conceals a much more interesting narrative about how this element shaped the life of a number of prominent chemists of the day. Indeed Cerium was found as early as 1751 at a mine in Vestmanland, Sweden by Axel Cronstedt, who also discovered Nickel. Believing it to be an ore of Tungsten, he sent it to Carl Wilhelm Scheele for analysis. However, Scheele was not able to identify it as a new element.

This turn of events for Scheele, perhaps unfairly, helped to seal his moniker as the ‘unlucky chemist’. Scheele, a prominent chemist and pharmacist, had a number of discoveries to his name. He isolated lactic acid, and discovered hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen sulphide.

But as Walker explained, his most notable discovery was oxygen, some three years before Joseph Priestley. Sadly for Scheele; it took him six years to publish his findings, by which time Priestley had already presented his data. Putting a contemporary slant on Scheele’s misfortune, Walker added that the cautionary tale here was that getting things out into the public domain as soon as possible can be important to ensure credit goes to the right people.

Further work by Scheele led to the discovery of a number of elements including barium and chlorine, but sadly he did not receive any recognition because he didn’t manage to isolate them and identify them correctly. The chemist Sir Humphrey Davy did so, some years later, getting the credit for their discovery and isolation.

So it was in 1803 that chemists Wilhelm Hisinger and Jons Jacob Bezelius proved that Cerium was indeed a new element, naming it Cerium after an asteroid/dwarf planet which had been called Ceres. The successful isolation of Cerium took place in 1875, carried out by American chemists William Hillebrand and Thomas Norton, by passing an electric current through molten cerium chloride.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - 140 Ce: White light & Clean Air - image of Cerium

99.95% fine cerium isolated on white background

Once isolated, the earliest application of Cerium was in incandescent gas mantles. Developed by Carl Auer von Welsbach, in 1891, he perfected a mixture of 99% thorium oxide and 1% ceria, which gave a soft white light. Introducing his new mantle commercially in 1892, von Welsbach was able to monetise his development selling his product throughout Europe.

Gas mantles have been replaced, but Cerium’s importance in producing white light remains. As Walker explained, most white LEDs use a blue gallium nitride LED covered by a yellowish phosphor coating made of cerium-doped Yttrium Aluminium Garnet crystals.

In the medical arena, Cerium was used by Sir James Young Simpson, Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at Edinburgh who did a lot of work in the area of anaesthetics. Simpson found that cerium nitrate suppressed vomiting, particularly that associated with morning sickness, and well into the last century, medication containing Cerium could be bought over the counter. In addition Cerium has been the basis of treatments for burns.

Other applications for this versatile element are self cleaning ovens and mischmetal alloy, used in flints for cigarette lighters. Walker shared that the chemist and author Primo Levi, while imprisoned in Auschwitz, was able to steal cerium-iron rods from the laboratory he was forced to work in. Making them into cigarette lighter flints, he was able to barter for bread. Cerium is used to harden surfaces; it is a good polishing agent. Cerium sulphide has been used to replace the pigment cadmium red as a non-toxic alternative and Cerium is widely used across the chemical industry as a catalyst to produce a host of chemicals.

Catalysis is probably where Cerium has impacted most people as the element is the basis for the catalytic converters that have provided cleaner air for billions of people. Walker explained that the driver for the development came during the 1950s when photochemical smog was a problem in the Los Angeles Basin. Measurements at the time indicated that vehicles were responsible for the majority of the hydrocarbon and NOx emissions that led to the polluted air.

This turn of events led researchers to develop systems that could mitigate the emissions. Johnson Matthey was among those doing the early work on catalytic converters. Meanwhile, the automotive industry was pushing back on their introduction, concerned about the costs, durability and effectiveness. Working with Ricardo Engineering, Johnson Matthey carried out durability tests over 25 000 miles which also showed that the catalysts could pass US emissions tests.

The catalysts had to operate in three ways, at the same time, oxidising carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) while reducing NOx. Early catalysts, circa 1975, were based on Palladium and Platinum and focused on oxidising the CO and HC. Around 1978 a second catalyst was introduced to reduce NOx.

However, the introduction of Cerium then made it possible to develop a single catalyst that was able to carry out the functions that the researchers had wanted to achieve. Hence, 1981 saw the introduction of the three way catalytic converter with all three reactions enabled over a single catalyst. More recently ceria-zirconia oxide based catalysts have been developed with much higher oxygen storage capacity than ceria.

The impact of these developments has allowed the implementation of much more stringent air quality and emissions standards. Indeed Johnson Matthey estimates that its Cerium-based catalysts are responsible for removing around 40 tonnes of pollutants every minute of every day.

A single element has indeed impacted many lives.

Materials

We always hear about athletes eking out that competitive edge through subtle changes in diet or equipment. Well, when it comes to making our buildings more energy-efficient, dozens of different technologies could make a difference. Every one may not be earth juddering on its own, but each could help decarbonise our homes by degrees.

Phase-changing materials (PCMs) may have a role to play in reducing our reliance on power-hungry cooling and heating systems in the home. At Texas A&M University, researchers have developed PCMs to passively regulate temperatures inside buildings.

They believe their 3D-printed phase-change materials - compounds that can change from a solid to liquid when absorbing heat, or from liquid to solid when releasing heat - could be incorporated into our homes in paint or other interior effects to regulate interior temperatures.

New phase-change material composites

New phase-change material composites can regulate ambient temperatures inside buildings | Image credit: Texas A&M University College of Engineering

Their partial substitute to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that predominate in many of our buildings is a light-sensitive liquid resin with a phase-changing paraffin wax powder.

According to the researchers, their 3D printable ink composite improves upon existing PCMs in that it doesn’t require a separate shell around each PCM particle. When the PCM is mixed with liquid resin, the resin acts as both the shell and building material, enabling thermal energy management without any leakage. They use an ultraviolet light to solidify their 3D printable paste and make it suitable for use in our buildings.

“The ability to integrate phase-change materials into building materials using a scalable method opens opportunities to produce more passive temperature regulation in both new builds and already existing structures,” said Dr. Emily Pentzer, associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Chemistry.

To date, the researchers have only tested their materials on a small scale in a house-shaped model. Nevertheless, after placing their 3D printed model inside an oven, the results were encouraging. The model’s temperature was 40% different to outside temperatures compared to models made using traditional materials.

Illustration of an energy efficient house

From solar panels and insulation to heat pumps and phase change materials, much has been done to make our homes more energy-efficient

“We’re excited about the potential of our material to keep buildings comfortable while reducing energy consumption,” said Dr. Peiran Wei, research scientist in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Soft Matter Facility. “We can combine multiple PCMs with different melting temperatures and precisely distribute them into various areas of a single printed object to function throughout all four seasons and across the globe.”

Perhaps we won’t see PCMs in widespread use in our buildings any time soon, but it’s always heartening to see the use of passive heating and cooling systems in our buildings. Anything that contributes to the decarbonisation mix is certainly worth investigating further.

Sustainability & Environment

What do grape stalks, pineapple leaves, corn cobs, rice husks, sheep’s wool, and straw have in common? Apart from being natural materials, they have all been used to insulate homes. Increasingly, people are turning towards natural, sustainable materials as climate change and waste have become bigger problems.

Existing building insulation materials such as synthetic rock wool are excellent at keeping our homes warm in winter, but the conversation has moved beyond thermal performance. Energy use, re-usability, toxicity, and material disposal are all live considerations now, especially with regulations and emissions targets tightening. So, rock wool might perform better than straw bale insulation but straw is biodegradable, reusable, easy to disassemble, and doesn’t require large amounts of energy to process.

Sheep’s wool and hemp insulation have also become attractive to homeowners and housebuilders alike, but an even more encouraging prospect is the use of waste materials to create next generation insulation. In this spirit, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, have taken waste cooking oil, wool offcuts, and sulphur to process a novel housing insulation material.

SCIblog 18 March 2021 - image of recycled paper

Recycled paper is one of many waste materials that has found its way into domestic insulation.

To make this composite, they followed several stages. In the first stage of the synthesis, the researchers used inverse vulcanisation to create a polysulphide polymer from canola oil triglyceride and sulphur. They then mixed this powdered polymer with wool and coated the fibres through electrostatic attraction. This mixture was compressed through mild heating to provoke S−S metathesis in the polymer and bind the wool. The wool bolsters the tensile strength of the material, makes it less flammable, and provides excellent insulation. The result is a sustainable building material that fulfils its function without damaging the environment.

For Associate Professor Justin Chalker, the lead author of this study, this work provides an ideal jumping-off point. “The promising mechanical and insulation properties of this composite bodes well for further exploration in energy saving insulation in our built environment,” he said.

Sustainable transformation

It is clear that ventures like the one in Adelaide will continue to sprout all over the world. After all, necessity dictates that we change the way we build our homes and treat materials.

A recent report from Emergen Research predicts that the global insulation materials market will be worth US $82.96 billion (£59.78 billion) by 2027. The same report was also at pains to mention that the increasing demand for reduced energy consumption in buildings will be a significant factor in influencing industry growth.

“Market revenue growth is high and expected to incline rapidly going ahead due to rising demand for insulation materials... to reduce energy consumption in buildings,” it said. One of the main reasons given for this increased green building demand was stricter environmental regulations.

And Emergen isn’t the only organisation feeling the ground moving. Online roofing merchant Roofing Megastore, which sells more than 30,000 roofing materials, has detected a shift towards environmentally friendly materials, with many homeowners sourcing these products themselves.

SCIblog 18 March 2021 - image of a rock wool insulation panel

Rock wool insulation panels have come under greater scrutiny in recent times.

Having analysed two years of Google search data on sustainable building materials, the company found that synthetic roof tiles are generating the most interest from the public. Like the Flinders insulation, these roof tiles make use of waste materials, in this case recycled limestone and plastic. And you don’t need to look far down the list to find sustainable insulation materials, with sheep’s wool insulation in 9th place, wood fibre insulation in 10th, and hemp insulation in 12th.

Over time, the logic of the progression towards natural, less energy-intensive building materials will become harder to ignore. “Traditional materials such as synthetic glass mineral wool offer high levels of performance but require large amounts of energy to produce and must be handled with care while wearing PPE,” the company noted. “Natural materials such as hemp or sheep’s wool, however, require very little energy to create and can be installed easily without equipment.”

So, the next time you look down at your nutshells, spent cooking oil, or tattered woollen sweater, think of their potential. In a few years, these materials could be sandwiched between your walls, keeping you warm all winter.

Insulating composites made from sulphur, canola oil, and wool (2021): https://chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cssc.202100187?af=R

Sustainability & Environment

In an era of glass and steel construction, wood may seem old-school. But researchers are currently saying its time to give timber a makeover and bring to use a material that is able to store and release heat.

Transparent wood could be the construction material of choice for eco-friendly houses of the future, after researchers have now created an even more energy efficient version that not only transmits light but also absorbs and releases heat, potentially saving on energy bills.

 open window gif

Originally posted by dinsintegration

Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reported in 2019 that they would add polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to the formulation to stabilise the wood.

PEG can go really deep into the wood cells and store and release heat. Known as a phase change material, PEG is a solid that melts at 80°F – storing energy in the process. This process reverses at night when the PEG re-solidifies, turning the window glass opaque and releasing heat to maintain a constant temperature in the house.

Transparent wood for windows and green architecture. Video: Wise Wanderer

In principle, a whole house could be made from the wooden window glass, which is due to the property of PEG. The windows could be adapted for different climates by simply tailoring the molecular weight of the PEG, to raise or lower its melting temperature depending on the location.



Science & Innovation

Researchers have created a new extremely light and durable ceramic aerogel. The material could be useful for applications like insulating spacecraft because it can withstand intense heat and severe temperature changes. 

rocket taking off

The aerogel could be used to coat spacecrafts due to its resilience to certain conditions.

The aerogel comprises a network of tiny air pockets, with each pocket separated by two atomically thin layers of hexagonal boron nitride. It’s at least 99% space. To build the aerogel, Duan’s team used a graphene template coated with borazine, which forms crystalline boron nitride when heated. When the graphene template oxidises, this leaves a ‘double-pane’ boron nitride structure.

 aerogel

The basis of the newly developed aerogel is the 2D structure of graphene.

‘The key to the durability of our new ceramic aerogel is its unique architecture,’ says study co-author Xiangfeng Duan of the University of California, US. 

‘The “double-pane” ceramic barrier makes it difficult for heat to transfer from one air bubble to another, or to spread through the material by traveling along the hexagonal boron nitride layers themselves, because that would require following long, circuitous routes.’

How does Aerogel technology work? Video: Outdoor Research

Unlike other ceramic aerogels, the material doesn’t become brittle under extreme conditions. The new aerogel withstood 500 cycles of rapid heating and cooling from -198°C to 900°C, as well as 1400°C for one week. A piece of the insulator shielded a flower held over a 500°C flame.

 

Science & Innovation

Robotic technology has a large part in the UK’s chemical industry in reducing individual’s exposure to ionising radiation, from nuclear decommissioning to synthesis of radiopharmaceuticals.

robotic technology

Improvements in robots and robotic technologies has fuelled huge advancements across many industries in recent years. The UK Industrial Strategy has several Sector Deals in which robotic innovations play a role, particularly in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Life Sciences and Nuclear.

cartoon gif

Originally posted by various-cartoon-awesomeness

Innovative robotics have a place in all industries to improve efficiency and processes, however, in industries where radioactive materials are commonly used, using robots can help to manage risk. This could be by limiting exposure of employees to radioactive substances or preventing potential accidents.

In the UK, legislation exists as to how much exposure to ionising radiation employees may have each year – an adult employee is classified, and therefore must be monitored, if they receive an effective dose of greater than 6mSv per year. The average adult in the UK receives 2.7 mSv of radiation per year.

Snake-like robot is used to dismantle nuclear facilities. Video: Tech Insider

Through using robots, very few professionals in the chemical industry come close to this limit, and are subsequently safe from long-term health effects, such as skin burns, radiation sickness and cancer.


Materials

Researchers have developed a method to produce super-thin quantum materials with extraordinary electronic behaviour from semiconductors.

Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, US, have designed a method in which semiconducting materials have been turned into quantum machines. 

This work could revolutionise the field, and lead to new efficient electronic systems and exciting physics.

 quantum

Quantum machines are generally made from two-dimensional (2D) materials – often graphene. These materials are one atom thick and can be stacked. When the materials form a repeating pattern, this can generate unique properties.

Studies with graphene have resulted in large advancements in the field of 2D materials. A new study has found a way to use two semiconducting materials – tungsten disulphide and tungsten diselenide – to develop a material with highly interacting electrons. 

The researchers determined that the ‘twist angle’ – the angle between the two layers – provides the key to turning a 2D system into a quantum material.

Dr Gary Harris talks about radio technology to quantum materials. Source: TEDx Talks

‘This is an amazing discovery because we didn’t think of these semiconducting materials as strongly interacting,’ said Feng Wang, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley. ‘Now this work has brought these seemingly ordinary semiconductors into the quantum materials space.’


Sustainability & Environment

At the SCI HQ in Belgrave Square, London, we have curated a beautiful garden filled with plants that represent our technical and regional interest groups. Each of these plants has a scientific significance. On World Wildlife Day, we take a look at how some of our plants are doing in March.

 Cyclamen hederifolium

Cyclamen hederifolium - the ivy-leaved cyclamen. Image: SCI

Cyclamen hederifolium is included in the SCIence garden to represent the horticulture group. This beautiful pink flower has a mutualistic relationship with ants, in which the ants carry the seeds far away, ensuring no competition between young plants and the original. 

 Dichroa febrifuga

Dichroa febrifuga - a hydrangea with anti-malarial properties. Image: SCI

Not yet flowering, D. febrifuga is a traditional Chinese herbal medicine that is used for treatment of malaria. It contains the alkaloids febrifugine and isofebrifugine which are thought to be responsible for it’s anti-malaria properties.

 Fatsia japonica

Fatsia japonica - the paper plant. Image: SCI

F. japonica is also known as the glossy-leaved paper plant and is native to Japan, southern Korea and Taiwan. This plant represents our materials group.

 Rosmarinus officinalis

Rosmarinus officinalis aka rosemary - a herb with many uses from culinary to chemical. Image: SCI

Rosemary is a common herb that originates in the Mediterranean. It has many uses, including as a herb for cooking and fragrance. One of it’s more scientific uses is as a supply of lucrative useful phytochemicals such as camphor and rosemarinic acid.

 Prunus mume

Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’ - a Chinese ornamental flower. Image: SCI

The Prunus mume tree is a beautiful ornamental tree that has significance in East Asian culture. It has a wide variety of applications, from medicinal to beverages, and can been seen in many pieces of art. This plant is in the SCIence garden to represent our Chinese Group UK.

 Pieris japonica

Pieris japonica - the Dwarf-Lilly-of-the-Valley-Shrub. Image: SCI

The Pieris japonica ree has Asian origins, and represents our Agrisciences group. The leaves contain diterpenoids which inhibit the activity of feeding pests, such as insects.

 Pulmonaria

Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ - lungwort. Image: SCI

The lungwort has been used since the Middle Ages as a medicinal herb to treat chest or lung diseases. It is an example of the use of the doctrine of signatures - where doctors believed that if a plant resembled a body, it could be used to treat illness in that body part.

 Euphorbia amygdaloides

Euphorbia amygdaloides - the wood spruce. Image:SCI

Euphorbia amygdaloides is planted to represent our Materials Chemistry group. It has a waxy feel, and has potential to be used as an alternative to latex.

 Erysimum

Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ - a flowering plant in the cabbage family. Image: SCI

The Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ is a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae). This plant was used to make the first synthetic dye, Mauvine, when SCI founding member William Perkin discovered in in 1858.

 

Sustainability & Environment

Over 1.5bn smartphones will be manufactured globally in 2019, each one filled with valuable minerals and metals such as gold, platinum and silver. On average, they will be kept for just 21 months before being replaced. Over 60% of them will end up in landfills. And even when recycled, some 30% of material will still be lost, because smartphone design, and contemporary recycling systems render its recovery inefficient.

 ewaste

The predicted mass of the global e-waste mountain by 2021 is > 52m t/year, according to the UN. 

Smartphones represent a fraction of global electronic waste. Discarded electronics are one of the fastest growing waste streams, with the UN predicting that the global e-waste mountain will reach over 52m t/year by 2021. Meantime, we are gradually running out of valuable minerals, such as neodymium, terbium and iridium, that are crucial in manufacturing electronics.

 smart phones ewaste

More than 60% of smartphones end up in landfills. Even if recycled, some 30% of material will still be lost. Image: Pixabay

As the scale of the problem is becoming clear, there has recently been a surge in efforts to understand what goes into electronic products, and how it can be recovered, says Susanne Baker from techUK, the association for companies in the digital economy. ‘We are seeing a lot of academic proposals looking at better understanding the flow of products and waste within the economy,’ says Baker, who heads the trade body’s environment and compliance programme.

Recycling e-waste into art. Source: Great Big Story

 

Science & Innovation

North Carolina State University researchers have created a new 3D printing ink which generates soft and flexible structures. These structures can be controlled with a magnetic field while floating on water and have the potential to be used in a variety of applications in the future.

3D printing technology is becoming increasingly common in research and industry, but its use is limited due to lack of availability of specialist inks that can be used to generate novel structures. In this study, scientists first made an ink from silicone microbeads, bound in liquid silicone and water. This mixture has a paste-like consistency, similar to household toothpaste, where it can be easily manipulated, but retains its shape and does not drip.

What is 3D Printing and how does it work? Video: Funk-e Studios

The ink was then fed into a 3D printer and used to create mesh patterns. The final structures are cured in an oven and contain embedded iron carbonyl particles, which allow the researchers to use magnetic fields to manipulate it.

Sustainability & Environment

Researchers have detected high levels of sunscreen chemicals in the waters of Shenzhen, China. These include beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and even tap water. In tests on zebrafish, the team showed that several of these UV filters are being transmitted through the food chain, and can have adverse effects on developing offspring.

Organic UV filters found in sunscreens, skin lotions and make-up, as well as textiles, plastics, and paints, are endocrine disruptors.

 The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen

The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen, China. Image: Wikimedia Commons 

Risk assessments for single compounds have concluded that current levels of organic UV filters pose low risk, but they don’t account for interactions of mixtures and how these interactions develop over time.

Kelvin Sze-Yin Leung’s team at Hong Kong Baptist University analysed nine common organic UV filters in surface waters of Shenzhen, a city with more than 20 popular beaches. They found seven of the nine chemicals, including benzophenone derivatives BP-3, BP-8, and BP-1, as well as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (EHMC), at public beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and in tap water.

Which sunscreen should you use? Video: Ted-Ed

Total concentrations of UV filters were relatively high at three popular public beaches – ranging from 192 to 645ngL-1 – in the summer as expected. Shenzhen Reservoir showed UV filter pollution in both seasons, while tap water was contaminated by BP-3.

If inefficient water treatment processes are to blame, then research is needed into other ways to remove these filters to protect human health, says Sze-Yin Leung.


Materials

 An Assistant Professor at the Technical Unitversity of Denmark (DTU) has described his team’s recent synthesis of an organic-inorganic hybrid material as ‘the door to a new world of more advanced 2D materials opening up’.

2d materials

2D materials have a thickness of just one molecule, which makes them especially promising for use in quantum computing, as electrons are restricted by movement across two dimensions, as the wavelength of the electron is longer than the thickness of the material.

The most well known of these new materials is graphene – a single layer or carbon – which since its Nobel prize-winning synthesis in 2004 has been posited as a game-changer in applications ranging from tissue engineering and water filtration to energy generation and organic electronics.

 2d materials 2

Now, an international team at DTU led by Assistant Professor Kasper Steen Pedersen has synthesised a novel nanomaterial with electrical and magnetic properties that the researchers claim make it suitable for future quantum computers and other applications in electronics.

Since graphene’s discovery, hundreds of new 2D materials have been synthesised, but the new material, published in Nature Chemistry, is based on a different concept. While the other 2D material candidates are all inorganic, chromium-chloride-pyrazine (chemical formula CrCl2(pyrazine)2) is an organic-inorganic hybrid material.


Materials

 An Assistant Professor at the Technical Unitversity of Denmark (DTU) has described his team’s recent synthesis of an organic-inorganic hybrid material as ‘the door to a new world of more advanced 2D materials opening up’.

2d materials

2D materials have a thickness of just one molecule, which makes them especially promising for use in quantum computing, as electrons are restricted by movement across two dimensions, as the wavelength of the electron is longer than the thickness of the material.

The most well known of these new materials is graphene – a single layer or carbon – which since its Nobel prize-winning synthesis in 2004 has been posited as a game-changer in applications ranging from tissue engineering and water filtration to energy generation and organic electronics.

 2d materials 2

Now, an international team at DTU led by Assistant Professor Kasper Steen Pedersen has synthesised a novel nanomaterial with electrical and magnetic properties that the researchers claim make it suitable for future quantum computers and other applications in electronics.

Since graphene’s discovery, hundreds of new 2D materials have been synthesised, but the new material, published in Nature Chemistry, is based on a different concept. While the other 2D material candidates are all inorganic, chromium-chloride-pyrazine (chemical formula CrCl2(pyrazine)2) is an organic-inorganic hybrid material.


Materials

 An Assistant Professor at the Technical Unitversity of Denmark (DTU) has described his team’s recent synthesis of an organic-inorganic hybrid material as ‘the door to a new world of more advanced 2D materials opening up’.

2d materials

2D materials have a thickness of just one molecule, which makes them especially promising for use in quantum computing, as electrons are restricted by movement across two dimensions, as the wavelength of the electron is longer than the thickness of the material.

The most well known of these new materials is graphene – a single layer or carbon – which since its Nobel prize-winning synthesis in 2004 has been posited as a game-changer in applications ranging from tissue engineering and water filtration to energy generation and organic electronics.

 2d materials 2

Now, an international team at DTU led by Assistant Professor Kasper Steen Pedersen has synthesised a novel nanomaterial with electrical and magnetic properties that the researchers claim make it suitable for future quantum computers and other applications in electronics.

Since graphene’s discovery, hundreds of new 2D materials have been synthesised, but the new material, published in Nature Chemistry, is based on a different concept. While the other 2D material candidates are all inorganic, chromium-chloride-pyrazine (chemical formula CrCl2(pyrazine)2) is an organic-inorganic hybrid material.


Materials

From monitoring our heart rate and generating renewable energy to keeping astronauts safe in space, a number of novel applications for carbon nanotubes have emerged in recent months. 

Academic and industrial interest around carbon nanotubes (CNTs) continues to  increase, owing to their exceptional strength, stiffness and electronic properties.  

Over the years, this interest has mainly focused on creating products that are both stronger and lighter, for example, in the sporting goods sector, but recently many ‘quirkier’ applications are beginning to appear.

 tennis player

Carbon nanotubes are already used in sporting goods such as tennis racquets. Image: Steven Pisano/Flickr

At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, for example, researchers are currently working with NASA on new types of nano sensors to keep astronauts safer in space. 

The Embry-Riddle team – along with colleagues at LUNA Innovations, a fibre-optics sensing company based in  Virginia, US – have focused on developing and refining smart material sensors that can be used to detect stress or damage in critical structures using a particular class of CNT called ‘buckypaper’.

The next step in nanotechnology | George Tulevski. Video: TED

With buckypaper, layers of nanotubes can be loosely bonded to form a paper-like thin sheet, effectively creating a layer of thousands of tiny sensors. These sensor sheets could improve the safety of future space travel via NASA’s  inflatable space habitats’ – pressurised structures capable of supporting life in  outer space – by detecting potentially damaging micrometeroroids and orbital debris (MMOD). 

CNTs coated on a large flexible membrane on an inflatable habitat, for instance, could accurately monitor strain and pinpoint impact from nearby MMODs.

 

Sustainability & Environment

In May 2018, the EU proposed a single-use plastics ban intended to protect the environment, save consumers money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the new laws, the EU aims for all plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025, and non-recyclable single-use items such as straws, cutlery, and cotton buds to be banned.

An ambitious step – and arguably necessary – but there is no denying that plastics are extremely useful, versatile and important materials, playing a role in countless applications.

The World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep: How To Reduce Our Impact. Video: TIME

The challenge to science, industry and society is to keep developing, producing and using materials with the essential properties offered by the ubiquitous oil-based plastics of today – but improving the feedstocks and end-of-life solutions, and ensuring that consumers use and dispose of products responsibly.

A number of innovative solutions have been proposed to help plastics move towards a more sustainable future.


A sweet solution

 Deothymidine

Deothymidine is one of four nucleosides that make up the structure of DNA. Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr

‘Chemists have 100 years’ experience with using petrochemicals as a raw material, so we need to start again using renewable feedstocks like sugars as a base for synthetic but sustainable materials,’ said Dr Antoine Buchard, a Whorrod Research Fellow at the University of Bath, UK.

Dr Buchard leads a group at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the University of Bath that are searching for a sustainable solution for single-use plastics. Using nature as their inspiration, the team have developed a plastic derived from thymidine – the sugar found in DNA – and CO2.


Health & Wellbeing

Traditional electronics are made from rigid and brittle materials. However, a new ‘self-healing’ electronic material allows a soft robot to recover its circuits after it is punctured, torn or even slashed with a razor blade.

Made from liquid metal droplets suspended in a flexible silicone elastomer, it is softer than skin and can stretch about twice its length before springing back to its original size.

Soft Robotics & Biologically Inspired Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Video: Mouser Electronics 

‘The material around the damaged area automatically creates new conductive pathways, which bypass the damage and restore connectivity in the circuit,’ explains first author Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The rubbery material could be used for wearable computing, electronic textiles, soft field robots or inflatable extra-terrestrial housing.

‘There is a sweet spot for the size of the droplets,’ says Majidi. ‘We had to get the size not so small that they never rupture and form electronic connections, but not so big they would rupture even under light pressure.’

Materials

Researchers claim to be ‘on the cusp’ of creating a new generation of devices that could vastly expand the practical applications for 3D and 4D printing. At the ACS meeting in New Orleans in March, H. Jerry Qi at Georgia Institute of Technology reported the development of a prototype printer that not only simplifies and speeds up traditional 3D printing processes, but also greatly expands the range of materials that can be printed.

‘Our prototype printer integrates many features that appear to simplify and expedite the processes used in traditional 3D printing,’ said Qi. ’As a result, we can use a variety of materials to create hard and soft components at the same time, incorporate conductive wiring directly into shape-changing structures, and ultimately set the stage for the development of a host of 4D products that could reshape our world.

4D printing would allow 3D printed components to change their shape over time after exposure to environmental triggers such as heat, light and humidity. In 2017, for example, Qi’s group, in collaboration with scientists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, used a composite made from an acrylic and an epoxy along with a commercial heat source to create 4D objects, such as a flower that can close its petals or a star that morphs into a dome. These objects transformed 90% faster than previously possible because the team incorporated the mechanical programming steps directly into the 3D printing process.

 H Jerry Qi right with Glaucio Paulino

H Jerry Qi (right) with Glaucio Paulino, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, hold 3D printed objects that use tensegrity – a structural system of floating rods in compression and cables in continuous tension. Image: Rob Felt

‘As a result, the 3D printed component can rapidly change its shape upon heating,’ the researchers reported. ‘This second shape largely remains stable in later variations in temperature such as cooling back to room temperature. Furthermore, a third shape can be programmed by thermomechanical loading, and the material will always recover back to the permanent (second) stable shape upon heating.’

In their latest work, the group sought to create an ‘all-in-one’ printer that combines four different printing techniques: aerosol, inkjet, direct ink write and fused deposition modelling. The resulting machine can handle a range of materials such as hydrogels, silver nanoparticle-based conductive inks, liquid crystal elastomers and shape memory polymers (SMPs). 

 

It can even create electrical wiring that can be printed directly onto an antenna, sensor or other electrical device. The process uses a direct-ink-write method to produce a line of silver nanoparticle ink, which is dried using a photonic cure unit – whereupon the nanparticles coalesce to form conductive wire. Lastly, the wires are encased in plastic coating via the printer’s inkjet component.

The researchers can also use the printer to create higher quality SMPs capable of making more intricate shape changes than in the past. And to also make materials comprising both harder and softer or more bendable regions, Qi explained. Here, the printer projects a range of white, grey or black shades of light to trigger a polymer crosslinking reaction dependent on the greyscale of shade shone on the component part. Brighter light shades create harder component parts than darker shades.

In terms of applications, Qi’s own particular interest is in developing ‘soft robots’ with sensory properties more akin to human skin than the traditional metallic or rigid robots with which we are probably more familiar. Sensory robots, Qi says, will play a big role in future safety for human workers working alongside robots. As a first step in that direction, his group is currently working with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to investigate whether the new technology could make prosthetic hands for children born with malformed arms – a condition not covered by most medical insurance policies. The idea would be to combine multiple different sensors to create a functional replacement hand.

In future, new 3D and 4D printers will ultimately be capable of printing whatever we might want to make, Qi says. He points, for example, to work by Jennifer Lewis at the University of Harvard to 3D print a Li-ion battery – an essential component of mobile phones and computer laptops. However, Qi notes that 3D printing does not always make economic or practical sense for all items. Instead, a big consideration will be ‘pick and place’ technology that mixes and matches printed and non-printed components to assemble the desired objects.

 

Science & Innovation

 Concorde

The Concorde was the first commercial supersonic aircraft to have been built. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, a chance encounter under the wings of Concorde at Duxford Air Museum, Cambridge, with Trinity College Dublin Professor Johnny Coleman, would set in motion a series of events that would lead, six years later, to the development of a 20t/year graphene manufacturing plant.

As soon as we got talking, I was impressed by Johnny’s practical, non-nonsense approach to solving the scalability issue with graphene production.

Coleman is a physicist, not a chemist, and believed that the solution lay in mechanical techniques. Following the conference, Thomas Swan agreed to fund his group for four years to develop a scalable process for the manufacture of graphene.

 graphene

Just a nanometer thick, graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms joined in a hexagonal lattice. Image: Pixabay

Coleman and his team initially considered sonication – when sound waves are applied to a sample to agitate its particles – but quickly ruled it out due to its lack of scalability. He then sent one of his researchers out to the shops to buy a kitchen blender. They threw together some graphite, water, and a squirt of washing-up liquid into the blender, switched it on, and went for a cup of coffee.

When they later analysed the ‘grey soup’ they had created, they found they had successfully made few-layer graphene platelets. The group then spent months optimising the technique and worked closely with Thomas Swan scientists to transfer the process back to Thomas Swan’s manufacturing HQ in Consett, Ireland.

spongebob gif

Originally posted by spongebob-squarepants-is-my-hero

Graphene is 300 times stronger than steel.

The plant can make up to 20t/year of high quality graphene. It uses a high sheer continuous process to exfoliate graphite flakes into few-layer graphene platelets in an aqueous dispersion.

The dispersion is stabilised by adding various surfactants before separating out the graphene using continuous cross-flow filtration devices developed with the support of the UK’s Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – a government initiative focused on fostering innovation and economic growth in specific research areas.

 sticky tape

 

Using sticky tape, scientists pulled off graphene sheets from a block of graphite. Image: Pixabay

This de-risking of process development using a Catapult is a classic example of effective government intervention to support innovative SMEs. CPI not only showed us it worked, but also optimised the technique for us.

The company quickly realised that selling graphene in a powder form with no application data was not going to work. Instead, we developed a range of performance data to assist the sales team by highlighting what graphene can do if adopted into a range of applications.

 

The potential of graphene can be commercialised using composites. Video: The University of Manchester – The home of graphene

We also moved to make the product available in ‘industry friendly’ forms such as epoxy resin dispersions or polymer masterbatches. This move, slightly downstream from the raw material, has recently led to Thomas Swan announcing its intention to expand its range of formulated graphene materials, with a prototype product focusing on the manufacture of a carbon fibre composite.

Our application data shows that graphene has significant benefits as an industrial additive. Presenting this data to composite-using downstream customers is starting to open doors and create supply chain partnerships to get a raw material all the way to a fully integrated application.

 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics

Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of graphene. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The move downstream, to develop useable forms of graphene, is common in the industry, with most graphene suppliers now making their products available as an ink, dispersion or masterbatch. Thomas Swan’s experience with single-wall carbon nanotubes has made us aware of the need to take more control of graphene application development to ensure rapid market adoption.

Graphene applications drawing most interest include composites, conductive inks, battery materials, and resistive heating panels, although much of this demand is to satisfy commercial R&D rather than full commercial production.

Graphene science | Mikael Fogelström | TEDxGöteborg. Video: TEDx Talks

Thanks to innovations like our continuous high sheer manufacturing process, Thomas Swan believes that graphene is about to become very easy to make. Before it can be considered a commodity, however, it will also need to deliver real value in downstream applications. Therefore, the company is also increasing its efforts to understand market driven demand and application development.

As the initial hype over the ‘wonder’ material graphene starts to wane, progress is being made to develop scalable manufacturing techniques and to ensure graphene delivers some much-promised benefits to downstream applications.

Sustainability & Environment

Images of turtles trapped in plastic packaging or a fish nibbling on microfibres pull on the heartstrings, yet many scientists studying plastics in the oceans remain open-minded on the long-term effects.

While plastics shouldn’t be in our oceans, they say there is still insufficient evidence to determine whether microplastics – the very tiniest plastic particles, usually defined as being less than 1mm in diameter – are actually harmful.

 turtles

It is estimated that over 1,000 turtles die each year from plastic waste. Image: NOAA Marine Debris Program

On top of this, there is debate over how much plastic is actually in the sea and why so much of it remains hidden from view. Much of the research carried out to date is in its early stages – and has so far produced no definitive answers.

‘My concern is that we have to provide the authorities with good data, so they can make good decisions,’ says Torkel Gissel Nielsen, Technical University of Denmark (DTU). ‘We need strong data – not just emotions.’


Searching the sea

 Plastic shopping bags

Plastic shopping bags can be degraded into microplastics that litter the oceans. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gissel Nielsen leads a team of researchers who discovered that levels of microplastics in the Baltic Sea have remained constant over the past three decades, despite rising levels of plastics production and use.

The study – by researchers at DTU Aqua, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Geomar, Germany – analysed levels of microplastics in fish and water samples from the Baltic Sea, taken between 1987 and 2015.

‘The result is surprising,’ says Nielsen. ‘There is the same amount of plastic in both the water and the fish when you go back 30 years.’ He claims that previous studies of microplastics levels were ‘snapshots’, while this is the first time levels have been studied over a longer period.

 microbeads

The UK introduced a ban in January this year of the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads. Image: MPCA Photos 

‘The study raises a number of questions, such as where the plastic has gone,’ he says. ‘Does it sink to the bottom, are there organisms that break it down, or is it carried away by currents? Some is in the sediment, some is in the fish, but we need to find out exactly how much plastic is there.’

In the study, more than 800 historical samples of fish were dissected and researchers found microplastics in around 20% of them. This laborious process involved diluting the stomach contents in order to remove ‘organic’ materials, then checking the filtered contents under a microscope to determine the size and concentration of plastics. It illustrates the difficulty of quantifying plastics in any sample, says Gissel Nielsen.

‘You must remove the biology to get a clear view of the plastics,’ he says.


River transport

canoe gif

Originally posted by flyngdream

Just as rivers supply the sea with water, they also act as a source of pollution. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, found that 10 large rivers are responsible for transporting 90% of plastic waste into the sea.

The team collected pre-published data on plastics in rivers and collated it with upstream sites of ‘mismanaged’ plastics waste – municipal waste that is uncollected.

‘The more mismanaged plastic waste there was, the more you found in the river,’ says Christian Schmidt, UFZ. ‘There was an empirical relationship between the two.’

 The Yangtze river

The Yangtze river (pictured in Shanghai, China) is the main polluter of plastic in the ocean in the world. Image: Pedro Szekely/Flickr

Eight of these 10 rivers are in Asia, while the other two are in Africa. All of them flow through areas of high population.

‘Countries like India and China have seen huge economic growth – and now use large amounts of plastic food packaging and bottles – but have limited waste collection systems,’ he says. The data include both microplastic and ‘macro’ plastics – but microplastics data dominate ‘because scientists are more interested in that’, says Schmidt.

Plastic Ocean. Video: United Nations

While it is important to measure how much plastic is in the environment, Schmidt believes that the next step of his research will be more important – understanding the journey the plastics make from the river to the sea.

For all the uncertainty and debate over how much plastic is in the sea – and what harm it can do – one thing is clear. Future research is likely to focus more on the plastics that we can’t see, rather than the items we can.

 

Health & Wellbeing

Antibiotics are often given to hospital patients, even following the most routine operations, to counter the risk of bacterial infections and viruses.

Now, materials scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a ‘durable and washable, concrete-link’ composite material that boasts antibacterial properties, with the aim of binding the material to doctors’, nurses’ and healthcare professionals’ uniforms.

Bacterial infection is a major issue in hospitals across the UK, and is known to spread via surfaces and clothing. E. coli infections alone killed more than 5,500 NHS patients in 2015, and the UK government estimates the cost of such infections to the NHS at £2.3 billion this year alone.

But doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals could soon be wearing uniforms brushed with tiny copper nanoparticles to reduce the spread of bacterial infections and viruses. Working in collaboration with universities in China, the Manchester team created the composite material using antibacterial copper nanoparticles.

They have also developed a way to bind the composite to wearable materials such as cotton and polyester - a stumbling block for scientists in the past.

Precious metals, such as gold and silver, have excellent antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, but their commercial use in textiles is prohibitive due to extremely high costs. That means copper is the material of choice for researchers, as it has very similar antibacterial properties to gold and silver but is much cheaper.

image

Using a process called polymer surface grafting, the research team tethered copper nanoparticles to cotton and polyester using a polymer brush, creating a strong chemical bond. The researchers claim this bond creates excellent washable properties and , and could see copper-covered uniforms and textiles commercialised in the future.

'Now that our composite materials present excellent antibacterial properties and durability, it has huge potential for modern medical and healthcare applications,’ Lead author, Dr Xuqing Liu, said.

The researchers tested their copper nanoparticles on cotton as it is used more widely than any other natural fibre and polyester as it is a typical polymeric, manmade material. Each material was brushed with the tiny copper nanoparticles, which measure between 1-100 nanometres (nm). 100nm is the equivalent to just 0.0001 millimetres (mm) - a human hair is approximately 90,000nm wide.

The team found their cotton and polyester coated-copper fabrics showed excellent antibacterial resistance against Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) and E. coli, even after being washed 30 times.

Materials

With an ever-increasing demand for data storage, the race is on to develop new materials that offer greater storage density. Researchers have identified a host of exotic materials that use new ways to pack ‘1’s and ‘0’s into ever-smaller spaces.

And, while many of them are still lab curiosities, they offer the potential to improve data storage density by 100 times or more.


Having a moment

 floppy disks

Data storage technology has moved quickly away from floppy disks (pictured) and CD-DOMs. Image: Pexels

The principle behind many storage media is to use magnetic ‘read’ and ‘write’ heads, an idea also exploited by many of these new technologies – albeit on a much smaller scale.

A good example is recent work from Manchester University, UK, where researchers have raised the temperature at which ‘single molecule magnets’ can be magnetised. Single-molecule magnets could have 100 times the data storage density of existing memory devices.

In theory, any molecular entity can be used to store data as reversing its polarity can switch it from a ‘1’ to a ‘0’. In this case, instead of reading and writing areas of a magnetic disk, the researchers have created single molecules that exhibit magnetic ‘hysteresis’ – a prerequisite for data storage.

 

Researchers discuss the circuit boards in development that negotiate Moore’s Law. Video: Chemistry at The University of Manchester

‘You need a molecule that has its magnetic moment in two directions,’ says Nick Chilton, Ramsay Memorial research fellow in the school of chemistry. ‘To realise this in a single molecule, you need very specific conditions.’

In addition to having a strong magnetic moment, the molecule needs a slow relaxation time – that is, the time it takes for the molecule to ‘flip’ naturally from a ‘1’ to a ‘0’.  ‘If this time is effectively indefinite, it would be useful for data storage,’ he says.

The key is that the molecule itself must have a magnetic moment. So, while a bulk substance such as iron oxide is ‘magnetic’, individual iron oxide particles are not.

 binary digit

A binary digit, or bit, is the smallest unit of data in computing. The system is used in nearly all modern computers and technology. Image: Pixabay

Chilton and his colleagues have identified and synthesised a single-molecule magnet – a dysprosium atom, sandwiched between two cyclopentadienyl rings – that can be magnetised at 60K. This is 46K higher than any previous single-molecule magnet – and only 17K below the temperature of liquid nitrogen.

Being able to work with liquid nitrogen – rather than liquid helium – would bring the cost of a storage device down dramatically, says Chilton. To do this, the researchers must now model and make new structures that will work at 77K or higher.


Bit player

Skyrmions may sound like a new adversary for Doctor Who, but they are actually another swirl-like magnetic entity that could be used to represent a bit of digital data.

doctor who gif

Originally posted by doctorwho247

Scientists at the Max Born Institute (MBI), Germany – in collaboration with colleagues from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US – have devised a way to generate skyrmions in a controllable way, by building a ‘racetrack’ nanowire memory device that might in future be incorporated into a conventional memory chip.

‘Skyrmions can be conceived as particles – because that’s how they act,’ says Bastian Pfau, a postdoctoral researcher at MBI, as they are generated using a current pulse.

‘Earlier research put a lot of current pulses through a racetrack and created a skyrmion randomly,’ he says. ‘We’ve created them in a controlled and integrated way: they’re created on the racetrack exactly where you want them.’

 Max Born Institute

This racetrack memory device could be incorporated into standard memory chips, say researchers at the Max Born Institute. Credit: Grafix 

In fact, skyrmions can be both created and moved using current pulses – but the pulse for creating them is slightly stronger than the one that moves them. The advantage of using a current pulse is that it requires no moving parts.

The resulting racetrack is a three-layer nanowire about 20nm thick – a structure that will hold around 100 skyrmions along a one-micron length of wire.

While the current research is done ‘in the plane’ with the nanowires held horizontally, Pfau says that in the future, wires could be stacked vertically in an array to boost storage capacity. ‘This would increase the storage density by 100. But this is in the future and nobody has made a strip line that’s vertical yet.’

Could magnetic skyrmions hold the answer to better data storage? Video: Durham University

‘The whole function depends on how you create the multi-layer,’ he says. To stand any chance of being commercialised, which might take six or eight years, Pfau says that new materials will be needed.

However, he is confident this will happen – and that the technology can be merged with ‘conventional’ electronic devices.

Energy

Determining the efficacy of organic solar cell mixtures is a time-consuming and tired practice, relying on post-manufacturing analysis to find the most effective combination of materials.

Now, an international group of researchers – from North Carolina State University in the US and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – have developed a new quantitative approach that can identify effective mixtures quickly and before the cell goes through production.

 thinfilm solar cell

Development of a thin-film solar cell. Image: science photo/Shutterstock

By using the solubility limit of a system as a parameter, the group looked to find the processing temperature providing the optimum performance and largest processing window for the system, said Harald Ade, co-corresponding author and Professor of Physics at NC State.

‘Forces between molecules within a solar cell’s layers govern how much they will mix – if they are very interactive they will mix but if they are repulsive they won’t,’ he said. ‘Efficient solar cells are a delicate balance. If the domains mix too much or too little, the charges can’t separate or be harvested effectively.’

tea gif

Originally posted by itadakimasu-letmeeat

‘We know that attraction and repulsion depend on temperature, much like sugar dissolving in coffee – the saturation, or maximum mixing of the sugar with the coffee, improves as the temperature increases. We figured out the saturation level of the ‘sugar in the coffee’ as a function of temperature,’ he said.

Organic solar cells are a type of photovoltaic –  which convert energy from the sun into electrons – that uses organic electronics to generate electricity. This type of cell can be produced cheaply, and is both lightweight and flexible, making it a popular option for use in solar panels.

 Photovoltaic systems

Photovoltaic systems are made up of organic solar cells that convert sunlight into energy. Image: Pxhere

However, difficulties in the production process, including an effective process to determine efficiency of potential material combinations, is stalling its development.

‘In the past, people mainly studied this parameter in systems at room temperature using crude approximations,’ said Long Ye, first author and postdoctoral researcher at NC State. ‘They couldn’t measure it with precision and at temperatures corresponding to processing conditions, which are much hotter.’

Faces of Chemistry: Organic solar cells at BASF. Video: Royal Society of Chemistry

‘The ability to measure and model this parameter will also offer valuable lessons about processing and not just material pairs.’

But the process still needs refinement, said Ade. ‘Our ultimate goal is to form a framework and experimental basis on which chemical structural variation might be evaluated by simulations on the computer before laborious synthesis is attempted,’ he said.

Energy

 Tesla

Tesla is at the forefront of industrial battery technology research. 

Electric cars are accelerating commercially. General Motors has already sold 12,000 models of its Chevrolet Bolt and Daimler announced in September 2017 that it is to invest $1bn to produce electric cars in the US, with Investment bank ING, meanwhile, predicts that European cars will go fully electric by 2035.

‘Batteries are a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars, but over the next 10 to 20 years it will probably grow to many hundreds of billions per year,’ says Gregory Offer, battery researcher at Imperial College London. ‘There is an opportunity now to invest in an industry, so that when it grows exponentially you can capture value and create economic growth.’

The big opportunity for technology disruption lies in extending battery lifetime, says Offer, whose team at Imperial takes market-ready or prototype battery devices into their lab to model the physics and chemistry going on inside, and then figures out how to improve them.

Lithium batteries, the battery technology of choice, are built from layers, each connected to a current connector and theoretically generating equivalent power, which flows out through the terminals. However, improvements in design of packs can lead to better performance and slower degradation.

 Lithium batteries

Lithium batteries need to be adapted for electric vehicle use. Image: Public Domain Pictures

For many electric vehicles, cooling plates are placed on each side of the battery cell, but the middle layers get hotter and fatigue faster. Offer’s group cooled the cell terminals instead, because they are connected to every layer. ‘You want the battery operating warmish, not too hot and not too cold,’ he says.

‘Keeping the temperature like that, we could get more energy out and extend the lifetime three-fold.’ If the expensive Li ion batteries in electric cars can outlive the car, he says their resale value will go up and dramatically alter the economic calculation when purchasing the car. ‘If we can get costs down, we will see more electric vehicles, and reduced emissions and improved air quality,’ Offer says.


Alternatives to lithium ion

Battery systems management and thermal regulation will allow current lithium batteries to be continually improved, but there are fundamental limits to this technology. ‘Lithium ion has a good ten years of improvements ahead,’ Offer predicts. ‘At that point we will hit a plateau and we are going to need technologies like lithium (Li) sulfur.’

 

Will Batteries Power The World? | The Limits Of Lithium-ion. Video:  minutephysics

Li sulfur has a theoretical energy density five times higher than Li ion. In September 2017, US space agency NASA said it will work with Oxis Energy in Oxford, UK, to evaluate its Li sulfur cells for applications where weight is crucial, such as drones, high-altitude aircraft and planetary missions.

However, Li sulfur is not the only challenger to Li ion. Toyota is working to develop solid-state batteries, which use solids like ceramics as the electrolyte. ‘They are based around a class of material that can conduct ions at room temperature as a solid,’ Offer explains. ‘The advantage is that you can then use metallic lithium as the anode. This means there is less parasitic mass, increasing energy density.’


Futuristic chemistries

 BMWs electric cars

The carbon-fiber structure and Li ion battery motor of one of BMW’s electric cars. Image: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

For electric cars, the ultimate technology in terms of energy density is rechargeable metal-air batteries. These work by oxidising metals such as lithium, zinc or aluminium with oxygen from the air. ‘Making a rechargeable air breathing electrode is really hard,’ warns Offer. ‘To get the metal to give up the oxygen over and over again, it’s difficult.’ 

Development in the area looks promising, with the UK nurturing battery-focused SMEs and forward-thinking research groups in universities. The latest investment plan envisages support that links across research, innovation and scale-up, as championed by Mark Walport, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor.

The Faraday Challenge – part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Video: Innovate UK  

Introducing a programme to directly tackle this challenge ‘would drive improved efficiency of translation of UK science excellence into desirable economic outcomes; would leverage significant industrial investment in the form of a “deal” with industry; and would send a strong investment signal globally,’ says Walport.

Sustainability & Environment

Scientists have developed a new process to manufacture ‘green’ plastic that could significantly reduce costs and provide a cleaner alternative to current materials.

Using fructose and gamma-Valerolactone (GVL) – a plant-derived solvent – researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,US, have found a way to produce furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) that is both cost-effective and high-yielding, meaning a large amount of the product can be made. FDCA is a precursor to the renewable plastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF).

 furandicarboxylic acid

A crystal of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) a plastic precursor created with biomass instead of petroleum. Image: Ali Hussain Motagamwala and James Runde for UW-Madison

‘Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,’ says co-author Ali Hussain Motagamwala. ‘You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.’

Currently, the plastics market relies heavily on the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from petroleum, to meet increasing demand for plastic products.

How is FDCA made in industry? Video: Avantium

The team, alongside Motagamwala, have been able to convert fructose to FDCA in a two-step process using a solvent system of one-part GVL and one-part water.

According to Motagamwala, using GVL as a solvent is the key to reducing the high expenses that FDCA production incurs. ‘Sugars and FDCA are both highly soluble in [GVL], you get high yields, and you can easily separate and recycle the solvent,’ he says.

 Fructose

Fructose is a plant-based sugar found in most fruits. Image: Pexels

The team’s study also includes an extensive techno-economic analysis of the ‘green’ process, suggesting that FDCA could be produced for around £1,000 a tonne – reduced further if the reaction time and cost of feedstock could be lowered through further research.

A more cost-effective alternative to PET could have a significant impact on the plastics market, which produces an estimated 1.5m tonnes a year.

coke gif

Originally posted by peteneems

Major companies – from Coca-Cola to Procter & Gamble – are committing to 100% use of PEF in their plastic products, providing a huge market need for its precursor FDCA.

‘We think this is the streamlined and inexpensive approach to making FDCA that many people in the plastics industry has been waiting for,’ says James Dumesic, team-leader and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the university.

 plastic waste

Introducing cost-competitive renewable plastics to the market could significantly reduce plastic waste. Image: Pixabay

‘Our hope is that this research opens the door even further to cost-competitive renewable plastics.’

Process development is an essential area of research that underpins advances in a huge range of industries. 

Sustainability & Environment

In May 2018, the first full-scale mobile marine plastics collection system, developed by The Ocean Cleanup, will leave San Francisco, California, bound for the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ also known as the Pacific trash vortex. The plan, ultimately, is to use 60 of these $5m systems to clean up half of the debris in the Pacific Garbage Patch within five years, according to Boyan Slat, CEO of Netherlands foundation The Ocean Cleanup, speaking at the Cefic Chemical Congress held in Vienna, Austria, at the end of October 2017.

Each collection system comprises a 1km U-shaped barrier, which floats on the surface of the ocean and supports a 4m deep screen to channel floating plastic debris to a central collection point, for future recycling. A 100m prototype system has already been tested in the North Sea.

 San Francisco

The system will leave from the San Francisco bay area. Image: Giuseppe Milo

The environmental cost of the Pacific’s plastic waste currently stands at roughly $13bn/year, while an estimated 600 wildlife species are threatened with extinction partly as a result of ingesting it. Plastic microbeads and particles only represent 5% of the plastics in the oceans, ‘but the remaining 95% will break down into small particles and chemicals that are already in the tuna we eat,’ Slat said. The larger plastics debris are all found in the top 4m of the oceans, the same depth as the system’s screens.

 Plastic debris

Plastic debris can end up in the food we eat. Image: Pixabay

Also speaking in Vienna, Emily Woglom, executive VP, Ocean Conservancy, said that 8m t/year of plastics goes into the oceans – ‘one city dump truck every minute’; between 2010 and 2025 the amount in the oceans will double. As much as ‘30% of fish on sale have plastics in them,’ she said. Most of the plastics now come from the developing economies, mainly in Asia, she added, noting that the Trash Free Seas Alliance, founded by the Ocean Conservancy and supported by the American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical, P&G and the World Plastics Council as well as several big-name food and beverage companies have recently adopted the goal of launching a $150m fund for waste management in South East Asia.

How we roll. Video: The Ocean Cleanup 

Meanwhile, Slat says that the mobile collection systems can also be used to trap plastic pollution closer to the source, for example in rivers and estuaries. Researchers at The Ocean Cleanup estimate that rivers transport between 115 and 241 m t/years of plastic waste into the oceans, with two-thirds coming from just 20 rivers, mostly in Asia.

The Pacific trash vortex forms as a result of circular ocean currents created by wind patterns and the forces created by the Earth’s rotation. Similar gyres are found in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and North and South Atlantic.

Agrifood

Russian researchers have developed new fertilisers based on nanopowders of transition metals. In field trials on agricultural crops, harvests increased by more than a quarter, compared with conventional fertilisers.

Iron, cobalt and copper affect a plant’s level of resistance to pests and diseases. These microelements are typically introduced into the soil as soluble salts, but rain and irrigation can wash them away, requiring further applications. They also have potential to disrupt local ecosystems as they pass into the groundwater.

 irrigation system

An irrigation system in Idaho, US. Image: Jeroen Komen@Wikimedia Commons

The team, led by the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Moscow, has developed a group of fertilisers that are applied as a powder to plant seeds, without losses to the soil or water systems. In this way, ‘the future plant is provided with a supply of necessary microelements at the stage of seeding,’ reports Alexander Gusev, head of the project at NUST’s Department of Functional Nanosystems. 

‘[It’s] a one-seed treatment by a product containing the essential microelements in nanoform. These particles of transition metals – iron, copper, cobalt – have a powerful stimulating effect on plant growth in the initial growth phase.’

Gusev reports improved field germination and increased yields of 20-25%.

image

Originally posted by magical-girl-stims

The main difficulty was to produce a powder from the nanoparticles, which tended to quickly stick together as aggregates, says Gusev – a problem they solved by using organic stabilisers and then subjecting the colloidal solutions to ultrasonic processing.

Gusev now wants to discvover how the new fertiliser acts in different soils, and in relation to different plant cultures. Its environmental safety also needs to be evaluated before widespread use, he adds.

But Steve McGrath, head of sustainable agricultural sciences at Rothamsted Research, is sceptical. Plants are adapted to take up ionic forms of these microelements, not nanoparticles, he says. ‘Also, seeds do not take up much micronutrients. Roots do that, and depending on the crop and specific nutrient, most uptake is near to the growing ends of the root, and throughout the growing season, when the seed and nearby roots are long gone.’

 fertiliser2

Critics are skeptical of the efficacy of the new kind of fertiliser. Image: Pexels

If there is an effect on crop yield, he thinks it is more likely to be due to the early antifungal and antibacterial effects of nanoparticles. ‘They have a large and highly reactive surface area and if they are next to membranes of pathogens when they react they generate free radicals that disrupt those membranes. So, in a soil that is particularly disease-infected, there may be some protection at the early seedling stage.’

Energy

A huge challenge faced in the pursuit of a mission to Mars is space radiation, which is known to cause several damaging diseases – from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer.

And soon, these problems will not just be exclusive to astronauts. Speculation over whether space tourism is viable is becoming a reality, with Virgin Galactic and SpaceX flights already planned for the near future. The former reportedly sold tickets for US$250,000.

But could questions over the health risks posed hinder these plans?

rocket gif

Originally posted by blazepress


What is space radiation?

In space, particle radiation includes all the elements on the periodic table, each travelling at the speed of light, leading to a high impact and violent collisions with the nuclei of human tissues.

The type of radiation you would endure in space is also is different to that you would experience terrestrially. On Earth, radiation from the sun and space is absorbed by the atmosphere, but there is no similar protection for astronauts in orbit. In fact, the most common form of radiation here is electrochemical – think of the X-rays used in hospitals.

 The sun

The sun is just one source of radiation astronauts face in space. Image: Pixabay

On the space station – situated within the Earth’s magnetic field ­– astronauts experience ten times the radiation that naturally occurs on Earth. The station’s position in the protective atmosphere means that astronauts are in far less danger compared with those travelling to the Moon, or even Mars.

Currently, NASA’s Human Research Program is looking at the consequences of an astronaut’s exposure to space radiation, as data on the effects is limited by the few subjects over a short timeline of travel.

Radiation poses one of the biggest problems for space exploration. Video: NASA

However, lining the spacecraft with heavy materials to reduce the amount of radiation reaching the body isn’t as easy as a solution as it is seems.

‘NASA doesn’t want to use heavy materials like lead for shielding spacecraft because the incoming space radiation will suffer many nuclear collisions with the shielding, leading to the production of additional secondary radiation,’ says Tony Slaba, a research physicist at NASA. ‘The combination of the incoming space radiation and secondary radiation can make the exposure worse for astronauts.’


Finding solutions

As heavy materials cannot hamper the effects of radiation, researchers have turned to a more light-weight solution: plastics. One element – hydrogen – is well recognised for its ability to block radiation, and is present in polyethylene, the most common type of plastic.

 the Dark Rift

A thick dust cloud called the Dark Rift blocks the view of the Milky Way. Image: NASA

Engineers have developed plastic-filled tiles, that can be made using astronauts rubbish, to create an extra layer of radiation protection. Water, which is already an essential for space flight, can be stored alongside these tiles to create a ‘radiation storm shelter’ in the spacecraft.

But research is still required. Plastic is not a strong material and cannot be used as a building component of spacecrafts.

Health & Wellbeing

Large-scale industrial mining of asbestos began towards the end of the 19th Century; predominantly in Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Brazil. 

This relatively cheap material with excellent fire and heat resistance, good electrical insulating properties, and high-tensile strength was used widely in the construction industry and in many other products, including brake pads, hair dryers, and industrial filters for wine, beer and pharmaceuticals. Worldwide, an estimated two million tons of asbestos is used annually.


Health risks

But asbestos exposure can be deadly. Anyone who handles the material or breathes in its fibres puts themselves at risk of lung diseases, such as asbestosis or cancer. The World Health Organization estimates that in a single year over 100,000 deaths are due to asbestos-related diseases.

 Lung asbestos

Lung asbestos bodies after chemical digestion of lung tissue. Image: Wikimedia Commons

‘The truth is that it is a nasty, hazardous, toxic, carcinogenic material that has made millions and millions of people sick,’ says Arthur Frank, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University, Philadelphia, US. Frank is a longtime advocate for banning the mineral.

To date, around 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos, including the UK. Russia, India, and China, however, still use asbestos in a range of products. The US is the last among developed countries not to ban asbestos entirely. More significant for Western countries are the millions of tonnes of asbestos left in buildings – asbestos becomes a problem if disturbed, especially if the fibres go undetected.

 construction workers

Asbestos is a health risk to construction workers. Image: Pixabay

Traditionally, those who work in the building trade are most at risk, though workers can bring home fibres on their clothes, which poses a risk to anyone they come into contact with.

‘There is a significant amount of data that points to as little as one day of exposure being sufficient to give rise to malignancy in humans and animals,’ says Frank. It’s unclear precisely the cellular mechanism, he says, but health experts agree that asbestos poses a severe public health risk. In the UK, asbestos is responsible for half of work-related cancer deaths.

 The European Parliament

The European Parliament was one of the first to ban all future asbestos use. Image: European Parliament@Flickr

The European Parliament has pushed for the removal of asbestos from all public buildings by 2028. The asbestos industry, however, argues that it is wrong to say that any exposure to asbestos can kill and believes there is a permissible level of exposure.


Rising litigation

In the US, asbestos-related litigation is increasingly common. ‘The companies put up a fight in most cases, delaying settlement until practically the eve of trial and disputing everything they can as to medical diagnosis and causation, and evidence of the plaintiffs’ exposure histories,’ says Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant who has spent 40 years working on asbestos as a public health problem.

However, man-made substitutes for asbestos-based construction materials are available. For over 50 years, asbestos was combined with cement in Europe because its fibres are mechanically strong and durable, says Eshmaeil Ganjian, Professor of Civil Engineering Materials at Coventry University, UK.

 PVA

PVA is also widely used in glue. Image: Pixabay

These boards were used for internal and external walls as well as for roofs. Europe now uses polyvinyl alcohol – widely known as PVA - in its cement boards, Ganjian says, but this is more expensive than asbestos, which has come down in price over the past 20 years.  


Waste not, want not

Ganjian is currently working on a project aimed at replacing asbestos in cement boards in Iran with waste plant fibres, such as Kraft pulp, and polymeric fibres such as acrylic and polypropylene fibres. ‘The idea is to use locally available fibres, so we use cheap acrylic fibres available from petrochemical companies in the region. The strength of cellulose fibres is lower than asbestos fibres, but when we add polypropylene or acrylic or other synthetic fibres then this increases the mechanical strength,’ he explains.

 Shiraz Iran

Shiraz, Iran. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Iranian government subsequently stopped importing asbestos from Russia and banned its use in cement board factories, switching to local alternatives. ‘This was a win-win situation. It saves lives and uses a waste material,’ says Ganjian.  

Science & Innovation

 Concrete

Concrete is a common fixture in the building blocks of everyday life. Image: US Navy@Wikimedia Commons

Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world, with use dating back to Ancient Egypt. 

Predictably, our needs concerning construction and the environment have changed since then, but the abundance of concrete and its uses have not. We still use concrete to build infrastructure, but building standards have changed dramatically.

 Dubai city landscape

Dubai city landscape. Concrete is predominantly used in residential buildings and infrastructure. Image: Pixabay

Its immense use, from house foundations to roads, means that problems cannot easily be fixed through removal of the old and replacement with the new. Such constraints have seen researchers focus on unique ways to solve the problems that widespread use of concrete can create for industry.


Self-healing concrete

In the UK, four universities have created ‘self-healing’ concrete as part of a collaborative project, known as Resilient Materials 4 Life (RM4L), to produce materials that can repair themselves. Currently, monitoring and fixing building materials costs the UK construction industry £40 billion a year.

construction gif

Originally posted by dddribbble

Microcapsules are mixed through the cement which then break apart when tiny cracks begin to appear. The group have also tested shape-memory polymers that can close the cracks together closely and prevent further damage. These techniques have shown success in long-term trials and in scaled-up structural elements, said Prof Bob Lark, speaking to Materials World magazine. Lark is lead investigator for RM4L at Cardiff University.

RM4L already has 20 industry partners and there is hope that, in the future, technologies can be transferred to other materials, although it has not yet reached the commercialisation stage.

Lark said: ‘What we have to do now is improve the reliability and reduce the cost of the techniques that we have developed so far, but we also need to find other, more efficient and perhaps more tailored approaches that can ensure we address the full range of damage scenarios that structures can experience.’


Making concrete eco-friendly

The abundance of concrete globally comes with an equally large carbon footprint, with concrete production equating to 5% of the annual CO2 produced by humans. For every tonne of concrete made, we contribute one tonne of CO2 to our surroundings. It is primarily due to the vast quantity produced each year that leads to this high level of environmental damage, as concrete is otherwise a ‘low impact’ material.

This inherent characteristic has led some scientists to develop stronger types of concrete. Here, the building features and low environmental impact of the material remain the same, but because less is needed of the stronger concrete to perform the same job, carbon emissions are reduced significantly.

Carbon Upcycling: Turning Carbon Dioxide into CO2NCRETE from UCLA Luskin on Vimeo.

Another method aimed at tackling emissions is the ‘upcycling’ of concrete. At UCLA, researchers have created a closed-loop process by using carbon capture from power plants that would be used to create a 3D-printed CO2NCRETE.

‘It could be a game-changer for climate policy,’ said Prof JR DeShazo, Director at the Luskin Centre for innovation, UCLA. ‘It takes what was a problem and turns it into a benefit in products and services that are going to be very much needed and valued in places like India and China.’