News

Professor John Boland, lead PI at AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research, and the School of Chemistry at Trinity College, has secured a European Research Council (ERC) Proof of Concept grant worth €150,000.

This is a top-up for his ERC Advanced grant of €2.5M million awarded in 2013, and follows his Science Foundation Ireland Researcher of the Year Award in 2018.

Seventy-six Proof of Concept grants were awarded to ERC grant holders across Europe this year as top-up funding to explore the commercial or innovation potential of their ERC-funded research.

This Proof of Concept project, named TALNET, will examine the economic and technical feasibility of using nanowire enabled PET (a common transparent plastic) to create the next generation of light, transparent conductive surfaces with applications from smart devices to solar panels.

On receiving the award, Prof. Boland commented: “I am delighted to be awarded this ERC Proof of Concept grant which gives me the opportunity to take my previous discoveries to the prototype stage and to evaluate the commercial potential of the technology. Through my previous ERC Grants we have developed a method of producing seamless aluminium nanowire networks on plastics such as PET – offering real potential for highly efficient flexible devices”.

Transparent conductive devices are all around us, from display screens to touch screens in our phones, laptops or other devices. Prof. Boland’s research into aluminium nanowire networks, a cheap abundant metal, opens new avenues beyond the current market leading material: ITO (indium tin oxide). ITO, which is found in most touch screen devices, has drawbacks in terms of flexibility, being brittle, coupled with the scarcity of indium and the high cost of the ITO film deposition. Also, most display technologies use glass, which also has drawbacks in terms of weight and flexibility. In providing an alternative to these materials Prof. Boland sees great potential for industrial applications of his research:

“The process we have developed enables us to control the distribution of Al nanowires on PET, minimise any deficits in the nanowire network and maximise its efficiency as a transparent conductor on plastic. We can then tune this process according to the requirements of different applications from phone or tablet screens to solar panels. Aluminium is corrosion resistant and hence out-performs other approaches based on copper or silver. With my Proof of Concept grant we have the potential to push past current state of the art for these devices, reducing their cost of production, minimising environmental impact, and improving the overall function of these devices for the end user”.

Professor Michael Morris, Director of AMBER, commented on the announcement, saying: “The awarding of this Proof of Concept grant to Professor Boland acknowledges the significance of the research work he and his team are undertaking. This highly innovative area of research sits at the forefront of science globally with considerable potential for translation into economic and societal benefits to Ireland and beyond”.

Pictured: Prof. Boland receiving his 2018 SFI Researcher of the Year Award from Prof. Linda Doyle, Vice President for Research/Dean of Research, Trinity College Dublin.

Could the future of energy production be nano-enabled fuel cells?

Scientists at the School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin and AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research think so.

Unlike current fossil fuel based energy production systems fuel cells offer a clean and efficient way to generate electricity – with water and heat the only waste products. The drawback? Current fuel cell technology relies on high value and scarce metals such as platinum to act as a catalyst and speed up reactions in the fuel cell. If such metals can be removed from the process, the potential for fuel cells to form part of the solution to climate change and energy storage challenges are impressive, as they could provide power for large and small scale systems from power stations to laptop computers.

Scientists have long looked at the potential for carbon nanostructures to take the place of platinum, and other metals, in fuel cells, while maintaining performance. Today, in the journal SMALL a team from Trinity College and AMBER lead by Prof. Paula Colavita and Prof. Max García-Melchor have provided a roadmap for carbon material design to enable the next generation of metal-free fuel cell catalysts.

Speaking about the research, which features on the front cover of the SMALL, Prof. Colavita said: “Our findings offer a new vision of cooperativity among different properties of carbon materials that must be met to lower the cost of fuel cells. Together with Prof. Garcia-Melchor, we have identified important design principles for the next generation of smart carbons to enable an expansion of technologies based on renewables sources.”

Prof. García-Melchor added: “We believe these new insights may open up new avenues to leverage synergistic effects improving performance and allowing us to push the limits of carbon nanomaterials to outperform the state-of-the-art catalysts based on precious metals.”

The research was conducted by the School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin, in conjunction with School of Physics, Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Trinity College Dublin, and The Faculty of Physics, University of Bucharest, Romania.

James A. Behan, Eric Mates-Torres, Serban N. Stamatin, Carlota Domínguez, Alessandro Iannaci, Karsten Fleischer, Md. Khairul Hoque, Tatiana S. Perova, Max García-Melchor,* and Paula E. Colavita,* Untangling Cooperative Effects of Pyridinic and Graphitic Nitrogen Sites at Metal-Free N-Doped Carbon Electrocatalysts for the Oxygen Reduction Reaction, SMALL 15, 48, (2019).
DOI: 10.1002/smll.201902081

Nanocomposite Protects Against Intense Light, Holds Promise for Securing the Safety and Performance of Photonic Assets and Expanding High-Speed Optical Networking Capacity

An international team of researchers has reported a new way to safeguard drones, surveillance cameras and other equipment against laser attacks, which can disable or destroy the equipment. The capability is known as optical limiting.

The work, published in the journal Nature Communication, also describes a superior manner of telecom switching without the use of electronics; instead, they use an all-optical method that could improve the speed and capacity of internet communications. That could remove a roadblock in moving from 4GLTE to 5G networks.

The team reported that a material created using tellurium nanorods – produced by naturally occurring bacteria – is an effective nonlinear optical material, capable of protecting electronic devices against high-intensity bursts of light, including those emitted by inexpensive household lasers targeted at aircraft, drones or other critical systems. The researchers describe the material and its performance as a material of choice for next-generation optoelectronic and photonic devices.

Seamus Curran, a physics professor at the University of Houston and one of the paper’s authors, said while most optical materials are chemically synthesized, using a biologically-based nanomaterial proved less expensive and less toxic. “We found a cheaper, easier, simpler way to manufacture the material,” he said. “We let Mother Nature do it.”

The new findings grew out of earlier work by Curran and his team, working in collaboration with Werner J. Blau of Trinity College Dublin and Ron Oremland with the U.S. Geological Survey. Curran synthesized the nanocomposite used in the work. Collaboration with Prof Wener Blau, School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin and Prof. Hongzhou Zhang, Funded Investigator with AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Material and BioEngineering Research, the research made use of unique facilities available at the Advanced Microscopy Laboratory.

The researchers noted that using bacteria to create the nanocrystals suggests an environmentally friendly route of synthesis, while generating impressive results. “Nonlinear optical measurements of this material reveal the strong saturable absorption and nonlinear optical extinctions induced by Mie scattering overbroad temporal and wavelength ranges,” they wrote. “In both cases, Te [tellurium] particles exhibit superior optical nonlinearity compared to graphene.”

Light at very high intensity, such as that emitted by a laser, can have unpredictable polarizing effects on certain materials, Curran said, and physicists have been searching for suitable nonlinear materials that can withstand the effects. One goal, he said, is a material that can effectively reduce the light intensity, allowing for a device to be developed that could prevent damage by that light.

The researchers used the nanocomposite, made up of biologically generated elemental tellurium nanocrystals and a polymer to build an electro-optic switch – an electrical device used to modulate beams of light – that is immune to damage from a laser, he said.

Blau said the biologically generated tellurium nanorods are especially suitable for photonic device applications in the mid-infrared range. “This wavelength region is becoming a hot technological topic as it is useful for biomedical, environmental and security-related sensing, as well as laser processing and for opening up new windows for fiber optical and free-space communications.”

Oremland noted that the current work grew out of 30 years of basic research, stemming from their initial discovery of selenite-respiring bacteria and the fact that the bacteria form discrete packets of elemental selenium. “From there, it was a step down the Periodic Table to learn that the same could be done with tellurium oxyanions,” he said. “The fact that tellurium had potential application in the realm of nanophotonics came as a serendipitous surprise.”

Work will continue to expand the material’s potential for use in all-optical telecom switches, which Curran said is critical in expanding broadband capacity. “We need a massive investment in optical fiber,” he said. “We need greater bandwidth and switching speeds. We need all-optical switches to do that.”

In addition to Curran, Oremland and Blau, researchers involved with the project include Kang-Shyang Liao and Surendra Maharjan, both of UH; Kangpeng Wang, Xiaoyan Zhang, Ivan M. Kislyakov, Ningning Dong, Saifeng Zhang, Gaozhong Wang, Jintai Fan, Long Zhang, Jun Wang, Xiao Zou, Hongzhou Zhang, Juan Du, Yuxin Leng and Quanzhong Zhao, all with the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Kan Wu and Jianping Chen, both with Shanghai Jiao Tong University; and Shaun M. Baesman with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Kangpeng Wang has an additional affiliation with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Gaozhong Wang is also affiliated with Trinity College.

Discovery could enable longer lasting and better functioning of devices—including pacemakers, breast implants, biosensors, and drug delivery devices

Researchers with from the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway), Massachusetts Institute of Technology and AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research have today announced a significant breakthrough in soft robotics which could help patients requiring in-situ (implanted) medical devices such as breast implants, pacemakers, neural probes, glucose biosensors and drug and cell delivery devices.

The implantable medical devices market is currently estimated at approximately US$100 billion (2019) with significant growth potential into the future as new technologies for drug delivery and health monitoring are developed. These devices are not without problems, caused in part by the body’s own protection responses. These complex and unpredictable foreign body responses impair device function and drastically limit the long-term performance and therapeutic efficacy of these devices.

One such foreign body response is fibrosis, a process whereby a dense fibrous capsule surrounds the implanted device which can cause device failure or impede its function. Implantable medical devices have various failure rates that can be attributed to fibrosis ranging from 30% to 50% for implantable pacemakers or 30% for mammoplasty prosthetics. In the case of biosensors or drug/ cell delivery devices the dense fibrous capsule which can build up around the implanted device can seriously impede its function, with consequences for the patient and costs to the health care system.

A radical new vision for medical devices to address this problem was published today in the internationally respected journal, Science Robotics. The study was led by researchers from NUI Galway, MIT and the SFI research centre AMBER, among others. The research describes the use of soft robotics to modify the body’s response to implanted devices. Soft robots are flexible devices that can be implanted into the body.

The transatlantic partnership of scientists have created a tiny mechanically actuated soft robotic device known as a dynamic soft reservoir (DSR) that has been shown to significantly reduce the build-up of the fibrous capsule by manipulating the environment at the interface between the device and the body. The device uses mechanical oscillation to modulate how cells respond around the implant. In a bio-inspired design, the DSR can change its shape at a microscope scale through an actuating membrane.

Professor Ellen Roche, senior co-author of the study and Assistant Professor at MIT, and a former researcher at NUI Galway who won international acclaim in 2017 for her work in creating a soft robotic sleeve to help patients with heart failure, said: “This study demonstrates how mechanical perturbations of an implant can modulate the host foreign body response. This has vast potential for a range of clinical applications and will hopefully lead to many future collaborative studies between our teams.”

Professor Garry Duffy, Professor in Anatomy at NUI Galway and AMBER Principal Investigator, and a senior co-author of the study, added: “We feel the ideas described in this paper could transform future medical devices and how they interact with the body. We are very excited to develop this technology further and to partner with people interested in the potential of soft robotics to better integrate devices for longer use and superior patient outcomes. It’s fantastic to build and continue the collaboration with the Dolan and Roche labs, and to develop a trans-Atlantic network of soft roboticists.”

The first author of the study Dr Eimear Dolan, Lecturer of Biomedical Engineering at
NUI Galway and former researcher in the Roche and Duffy labs at MIT and NUI Galway, said: “We are very excited to publish this study as it describes an innovative approach to modulate the foreign body response using soft robotics. I recently received a Science Foundation Ireland Royal Society University Research Fellowship to bring this technology forward with a focus on Type 1 diabetes. It is a privilege to work with such a talented multi-disciplinary team and I look forward to continuing working together.”

To read the full study in Science Robotics, visit: http://robotics.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/scirobotics.aax7043