Xcience Newsletter May 2017


The world’s largest floating photovoltaic (PV) facility (pictured) has been connected to the local power grid. Located in the city of Huainan in the Anhui province, the 40-megawatt facility was manufactured by Sungrow Power Supply Co. The floating grid has been constructed over a flooded former coal-mining region. This is the second such facility in the region following the opening in 2016 of a 10 sq. mile area 20MW facility, the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park. With the increase in PV manufacture, the cost of solar power is predicted to fall by one third by 2020, with price parity with coal predicted within a decade.


The craze to develop a flying car has been joined by Toyota, who are supporting ‘Cartivator’ a start-up developing a 2.9 metre long vehicle. The project is being undertaken by 30 young volunteers under the supervision of Masafumi Miwa from Tokushima University. The aim of the project is to have a prototype flying by 2018 and to commercialise in time to light the Olympic torch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. According to its Zenmono crowdfunding page, the car will be able to take off from any public road and fly at a speed of 62 mph, at a height of 10 metres above ground level.  


Rapid charging of batteries is a widely pursued goal by researchers. Work recently published by Prof John Cushman of Purdue University has developed a technique for replenishing the electrolyte in a cell with a charged liquid, a concept analogous to refueling with petrol. The science is based around redox reactions in immiscible fluids, the liquid being ‘charged up’ for example using a PV panel or wind farm. Prof Cushman has set up a company to exploit his invention - IFBattery LLC.


Magnetic materials are widely used in applications such as memory devices, where faster and smaller are always key targets. A team led by Prof Xiaodong Xu at the University of Washington and Prof Pablo Jarillo-Herrero at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has discovered magnetism in a monolayer of Chromium Triiodide. The work, publised in June 8th edition of Nature, used the technique of sticky tape to detach a single layer. The magnetic effect was seen in a monolayer and trilayer but not in a bilayer, indicating an anti-ferromagnetic ordering. Although the bulk CrI3 material is ferromagnetic, it does not always follow that a monolayer will show the same behaviour. Future work will examine the potential for exploiting heterogeneous layered materials.

Xcience Newsletter April 2017


image credit: BBC


A British inventor has caused quite a stir at the latest TED (Technology Entertainment & Design) conference in Vancouver, Canada. Taking a pragmatic approach, Richard Browning commented; ‘My approach to flight was why not augment the human mind and body, because they are amazing machines, so I just bolted on what was missing - thrust." So, attaching 6 small jet engines, he flew outside the Vancouver Conventional Center in front of a large audience. Apparently inspired by his father, (Iron Man?), his appropriately named ‘Daedalus suit’ allows him to take off vertically, and a helmet-integrated head-up display informs him of fuel use. The suit can fly for 10 minutes at a time, is capable of 200mph, and Mr Browning claims it is ‘safer than a motorbike’. 


More fancy flying, this time around Saturn, and it seems that NASA have signed up ‘Top Gun’ to drive the CASSINI space probe, because the spacecraft ‘dived through’ the gap between Saturn and its rings. The unmanned spacecraft’s progress can be monitored in real time on the NASA website [2], the velocity relative to Saturn being around 6500 mph as I write. The satellite is 6.7m high and 4m wide, weighing around 5700 kg. It is the fourth satellite to visit Saturn and the first to enter orbit. The Grand Finale dive happens on May 2nd, and the mission ends in September 2017.


US Congress recently passed a bill directing NASA to send a manned mission to Mars as soon as 2033. So, once you have bought your plot of land on Mars to build a house, the next problem is - where are you going to get the bricks? Fret no more, scientists at University of California, San Diego, have replicated the Martian soil collected by the Mars Rover. They report the good news that a brick can be produced simply by enclosing in a rubber sleeve and applying modest compression. Iron oxide, which gives Mars its characteristic red hue, binds the soil together. 


Back on earth, Manchester University have announced a technique to filter out salts using a graphene filter [3]. Graphene-oxide (GO) films have been previously been shown to exhibit an unusual behaviour in allowing water to permeate through. However, swelling of the graphene-oxide layers previously allowed salts to also permeate. The new work has modified the GO film to block the passage of common slats such as found in seawater. This promises a new way to desalinate seawater to potable drinking water, which would meet an urgent global need. For energy-efficient desalination compared to existing techniques. Professor Rahul Raveendran Nair, who led the work commented: ‘ Realisation of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward and will open new possibilities for improving the efficiency of desalination technology.’ 


Joint research between researchers from Trinity College Dublin and TU Delft have reported the manufacture of a 2-dimensional transistor [4]. Using a printed electronic approach sheets of graphene were used as electrodes and a layer of tungsten diselenide and boron nitride. The use of a low cost manufacturing method shows significant promise for future device fabrication.

On a lighter note, Prof Jonathan Coleman at Trinity College Dublin has been adding graphene to polysilicone to make what they term ‘G-putty’, based on the well-known ‘silly putty’ toy. The results have been surprising – producing a conductive material that is strain-sensitive. The resistance increases sharply under slight strain or impact, and the effect is reversible. Possibilities uses for medical sensors have been identified.


NANOSURFACES 2017   25th May, IOM3 London   Latest research and products for nano-enabled surface technology. Featuring a Keynote Presentation from Dr Stephen Coulson, CTO P2i on the success of their waterproofing technology for mobile phones.      www.iom3online.org/nest

“Commercialisation of Nanomaterials: Processes, Issues and Management” to be held at Burlington House in London 7th June   http://www.rsc.org/events/detail/25238/commercialisation-of-nanomaterials-process-issues-and-management


  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-39441825
  2. https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/saturn-tour/where-is-cassini-now/
  3. http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/graphene-sieve-turns-seawater-into-drinking-water/
  4. Adam G. Kelly, Toby Hallam, Claudia Backes, Andrew Harvey, Amir Sajad Esmaeily, Ian Godwin, João Coelho, Valeria Nicolosi, Jannika Lauth, Aditya Kulkarni, Sachin Kinge, Laurens D. A. Siebbeles, Georg S. Duesberg, Jonathan N. Coleman
Science  07 Apr 2017: Vol. 356, Issue 6333, pp. 69-73

Xcience Newsletter March 2017


Image Credit: GATEway/Oxbotica

 A Car With Brains

Control of robotic vehicles depends on the software and hardware ‘brain’. A spin-out from Oxford University, Oxbotica, has developed an autonomous control system called Selenium which can work on any vehicle, including forklifts and cargo pods [1]. The software takes inputs from lasers and cameras to calculate the optimum route, and the technology is running on Oxbotica’s fleet of vehicles, a delivery van, the ESA Mars Rover, and the £8 million GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) project in London. The GATEway project will run 8 driverless pods, which look very similar to those developed by Professor Martin Green at Bristol University, as used at Heathrow T5. The system computes three parameters: 1/ Where am I? - Using cameras and lasers to precisely locate without GPS; 2/ What’s around me? Using sensors and algorithms to identify and track pedestrians, cars and other obstacles in the environment; 3/ What do I do next? Calculates a safe and efficient route to drive to the destination. NB: Check out the ‘Rate My Driving’ sticker above.

Graphene Quantum Dots

QDs are the basis for many LED displays and lighting. Dotz Nano claim that their new graphene QDs overcome some of the shortcomings of conventional materials, such as reliably achieving blue light. Their initial target application is, surprisingly, optical brighteners for textiles. Fluorophores easily wash out and hence are relatively ineffective, whereas Dotz Nano are looking to incorporate GQDs onto the fibres. Anti-counterfeiting is one of the future potential application. The technology was spun out of Rice University in 2014 by Professor James Tour.



The headline of ‘London to Manchester in 18 minutes’ is quite an eye-catcher (NB: has anyone has calculated how many ‘G’ you pull accelerating and decelerating?). Of course, it is Elon Musk’s latest project, and those old enough to remember the capsules put into vacuum tubes that shops used to take cash from the tills to the cash office will guess how this works – by giant vacuum tubes. Arup have been doing a feasibility study for the UK, but a working demonstrator has yet to be built, so early days.


Glass Battery

Not many people realise that the inventor of the Lithium Ion battery was British scientist Professor John Goodenough, and at the age of 94, he is still inventing. His new battery uses a solid glass electrolyte which conducts ions rather than a liquid electrolyte. Now based at the University of Texas, he commented: "Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries". If his last invention was anything to go by, this battery should be worth watching.


Electronic Wind

This story, I admit, had me pondering for a while. Researchers at KTH have developed a system to create an electronic wind around heavy good vehicles to reduce wind resistance. The system uses plasma high voltage electrodes or ‘actuators’ to charge the air, which is accelerated forming an electronic ‘wind’. This causes vortices, which in conditions such as cross winds, allows control of the air flow and boundary layer around the truck resulting in reduced drag. The outcome is a 5% reduction in fuel consumption.

More info…

  1. http://www.oxbotica.com



Xcience Newsletter Feb 2017


Image Credit: NanoFlowCell

Reinventing the Wheel?

At the recent Geneva International Motor Show, Goodyear launched a new spherical tyre concept, aimed at autonomous vehicles. Named the Urban 360, it is produced by 3D printing, and can adapt to the surface it is travelling on. The ‘bionic skin’ contains sensors and a foam-like core which can expand and contract under the control of AI. The result is to produce a ‘dimpled’ surface for wet conditions, and smooth for dry surfaces.

Cool Film

Researchers at University of Colorado have published a paper in Science describing production of a glass/polymer hybrid metamaterial film. When applied to a building, it is claimed that the film has the combined effect of reflecting solar radiation, as well as allowing thermal radiation from the substrate, resulting in enhanced passive cooling of a building or structure.  

According to Xiaobo Yin, co-director of the research, ‘We feel that this low-cost manufacturing process will be transformative for real-world applications of this radiative cooling technology,’ said published in Science.

Gang Tan, an associate professor in the University of Wyoming's Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and a co-author of the paper commented: ‘Just 10 to 20 square meters of this material on the rooftop could nicely cool down a single-family house in summer,’

As well as cooling buildings and power plants, the material could also help improve the efficiency and lifetime of solar panels, which can overheat to temperatures that hamper their ability to convert solar rays into electricity. [1]

Human Drone

Sitting in a traffic jam on the M25 (other jams are available), we have all, I am sure, wished we could take off and fly. Well, that idea is nearer reality with the latest human-carrying drone vehicle from China, the eHang 184. Carrying a passenger up to 100kg, it can travel for 30 minutes at up to 100mph on a single battery charge. Already tested in Nevada, it is due to run regular operations in Dubai from July 2017. The ‘pilot’ uses a touchscreen to select a destination and the drone is operated by remote auto-pilot from a command centre [2].

Space News

If the above drone flight isn’t enough of an adrenalin rush for you, Blue Origin, run by Jeff Bezos, are progressing with their rocket to take fare-paying passengers into space. The ‘New Shepherd’ sub-orbital rocket has already been tested and work is now underway on the BE-4 propulsion unit being developed for the ‘New Glenn’ orbital rocket. Using four engines, the rocket will be powerful enough to take passengers into orbit around the earth.  


Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has launched the second Sentinel 2 earth observation satellite on board a Vega rocket. As part of the Copernicus programme to monitor the health of the earth, the satellite will become part of a cluster of Sentinel satellites. Currently, Sentinel 2A has been launched in opposite orbit, and provides an open resource of the earth which will be updated very 5 days [3].

Li-ion Battery Anodes

Bringing down the cost of manufacturing Li-ion batteries is an important target. Researchers at Tohoku University have used recycled waste silicon sawdust to produce lower-cost battery anodes. In silicon wafer production, 50% of Si is discarded as industrial waste in the final cutting process, producing about 90 thousand tons a year worldwide.

The team found that pulverising the Si sawdust into Si nanoflakes (~16 nm in thickness) and then coating in a layer of carbon was suitable for use in high capacity and LI-ion batteries. Results to date indicate that a test half-cell can achieve a constant capacity of 1200 mAh/g over 800 cycles. This capacity is 3.3 times as large as that of conventional graphite (ca. 360 mAh/g) [4]

New Properties of Graphene

A research initiative led by Dr Jason Robinson at the University of Cambridge has coupled graphene with a superconducting material - praseodymium cerium copper oxide (PCCO) and found that the graphene exhibited superconductivity. Superconductivity has been produced by other methods such as intercalation of elements such as calcium, but switching on the ‘intrinsic’ superconductivity which graphene should theoretically exhibit has not been previously achieved[5].

Other research at the Univeristy of Cambridge has developed a graphene-based pyroelectric bolometer that detects infrared (IR) radiation to measure temperature with an ultrahigh level of accuracy. The work, published in Nature Communications, demonstrates the highest reported temperature sensitivity for graphene-based uncooled thermal detectors, capable of resolving temperature changes down to a few tens of µK from a few nano-Watts of IR radiation power [6]. 

Cars Powered by Salt Water?

Flow cell energy storage technology has traditionally been limited to large, static installations. NanoFlowCell have developed a mobile electric drive unit which they have demonstrated in the Quantino sports car (see image). In contrast to conventional batteries, the nanoFlowcell® is provided with energy in the form of liquid electrolytes (bi-ION). The positively and negatively charged electrolyte liquids are stored separately in two tanks and are pumped through a converter cell in separate circuits. A permeable membrane allows ion exchange which generates a current. A novel feature is the low voltage of the system (48V). The used electrolyte is filtered to remove salts and expelled, with liquid refueling similar to a conventional IC engine, and the main emission is water.

More info…

  1. http://www.iom3.org/materials-world-magazine/news/2017/feb/13/glasspolymer-hybrid-cools-sun
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-38967235
  3. http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Missions/Sentinel-2
  4. http://www.nature.com/articles/srep42734
  5. http://www.graphene.cam.ac.uk/news/graphene2019s-sleeping-superconductivity-awakens
  6. http://www.graphene.cam.ac.uk/news/ultrahigh-sensitivity-graphene-infrared-detectors-for-imaging-and-spectroscopy-1
  7. https://www.nanoflowcell.com



Xcience Newsletter January 2017


 IMAGE: The structure of the largest gold nanoparticle to-date, Au246(SR)80, was resolved using x-ray crystallography. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Metallic Hydrogen

One of the recent scientific highlights which has caused a stir is the report that scientists at Harvard have produced metallic hydrogen. Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Isaac Silvera and postdoctoral fellow Ranga Dias used a diamond anvil to exert an extremely high pressure of 495 GPa – that’s about the pressure at the earths core, to produce a tiny sample of the material. They think that that the material could be superconducting at room temperature, but also comment that the amount of stored energy is so great, it could make the most powerful rocket propellant known to man! [1]


Detecting Proteins

Researchers at MIT have succeeded in developing a sensor based on a chemically modified carbon nanotube which they claim can detect secretion of a protein from a single cell. The technique utilises changes in fluorescence under laser light irradiance and Prof Michael Strano notes that the technique could be used for tracking vial infections, monitoring cell performance, food contamination, neurotransmitter function, and a phenomenon called quorum sensing, which allows bacteria to communicate with each other to coordinate their gene expression. [2]


Frog Spit

Now here’s a sticky problem. Scientists have been puzzling over how a frog copes with its sticky tongue, which it uses very effectively to strike and stick to an insect with a force of 5G to catch a meal. But how does it detach the prey when it retracts inside it’s mouth? Researchers at Georgia Tech have found that the frog’s saliva has reversible properties - a high viscosity when outside the mouth, but thin and watery when inside the mouth. In addition to this, the tongue tissue is incredibly soft – ten times softer than a human tongue, which helps it conform to the shape of the insect to maximise adhesion. Check out the video [3]


Breakthrough in Hi Res Holograms

Inspired by Star Wars, Lei Wang and Dr Sergey Kruk at Australia National University have developed a hologram system comprising millions of nanoscale silicon pillars, each up to 500 times thinner than a human hair. "By structuring materials at the nanoscale allows the device to achieve new optical properties that go beyond the properties of natural materials This new material is transparent, which means it loses minimal energy from the light, and it also does complex manipulations with light," said Dr Kruk from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering. The result is the highest resolution holograms ever seen [4]

Night Vision

Forget carrots – another development from ANU promises a new generation of night vision goggles, or even built into spectacles. ‘The nano crystals are so small they could be fitted as an ultra-thin film to normal eye glasses to enable night vision," said Professor Neshev from the Nonlinear Physics Centre within the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering [5]

Wire We Waiting?

Wireless charging is not new, and one wonders why it hasn’t become ubiquitous, but at least DELL are soon launching a new tablet, the 7285 notebook, which charges wirelessly. Charging is achieved by placing on a mat, developed by WiTricity, which is an optional extra [6].

 Large Nanoparticles

Creating large nanoparticles with a complexity similar to those found in nature has been a challenge for researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. However, they have announced the successful self assembly synthesis of Au246 which exhibits intricate patterns similar to those seen in structures such as DNA. The work by Rongchao Jin and Chenjie Zeng initially looked at Au133. During production, the Au133 particles self-assemble into three layers within each particle: the gold core, the surface molecules that protect it and the interface between the two. In the crystal structure, Zeng discovered that the gold core is in the shape of an icosahedron. At the interface between the core and the surface-protecting molecules is a layer of sulphur atoms that bind with the gold atoms. The sulphur-gold-sulphur combinations stack into ladder-like helical structures. Finally, attached to the sulphur molecules is an outer layer of surface-protecting molecules whose carbon tails self-assemble into fourfold swirls. “The helical features remind us of a DNA double helix and the rotating arrangement of the carbon tails is reminiscent of the way our galaxy is arranged. It’s really amazing,” Jin said [7]

Domain Name Scam

The Patent Office warns of being contacted by a bogus ‘Trade Marks Intellectual Property Office’ which is a scam aiming to trick you into ‘purchasing’ your own domain name [9]

EVENT: CALL FOR PAPERS: Nanosurfaces 2017, 25th May London

Nanosurfaces are being developed for functional applications in industry, and include thin (<100nm) nanocoatings, nanostructured coatings, and nanoparticle-enhanced coatings. With new processes being developed and scaled up, the field is gaining ground with applications including replacements for hexavalent chrome, wear resistance, corrosion protection, optical effects for glazing and solar cells, anti-microbial, electronic, aesthetic and sensing.

This new event will feature presentations from commercial nanocoatings companies, and latest research developments, primarily in a poster session.

Now calling for papers - deadline for abstract submission is Friday 24 February 2017


 More info…

  1. http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/01/a-breakthrough-in-high-pressure-physics/
  2. Markita Patricia Landry et al. Single-molecule detection of protein efflux from microorganisms using fluorescent single-walled carbon nanotube sensor arrays, Nature Nanotechnology (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nnano.2016.284
  3. http://www.news.gatech.edu/2017/01/31/reversible-saliva-allows-frogs-hang-next-meal
  4. Lei Wang et al. Grayscale transparent metasurface holograms, Optica (2016). DOI: 10.1364/OPTICA.3.001504
  5. http://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/anu-invention-to-inspire-new-night-vision-specs
  6. http://newatlas.com/dell-wireless-charging-laptop/47271/?li_source=LI&li_medium=default-widget
  7. http://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2015/april/gold-nanoparticles.html
  8. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/domain-name-scam