The following article was originally published in the winter 2017 issue of Interface.

Winter 2017 InterfaceBy: Johna Leddy, ECS President

“It is all about power. If you have power, you have water. If you have water, you have food. If you have food, you can go to school. If you go to school, you have tools to think. If you have access and tools to think, you can learn those next door are not so different. You can work together to mitigate energy disparates and so reduce conflict. It is all about power.”

-ECS satellite OpenCon, October 2017

ECS looks to its future as a forum for research and a conduit for access and communication. Tenets of the scientific method are invariant, but practice of communication and access change. Change is driven by gradients. Without gradients, energy is minimized and the system dies, but if gradients are too steep, the system becomes unstable. History maps conflicts over energy and power. Early wars were over land for food energy. Distribution of natural resources and oil sustain conflicts for thermal energy. Gradients in energy distribution drive change and conflict. Going forward, access to critical materials and information, coupled with the skills and imagination to develop advanced technologies, will mitigate steep gradients in energy distribution.

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Fuel CellNitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes or modified graphene nanoribbons could be effective, less costly replacements for expensive platinum in fuel cells, according to a new study.

In fuel cells, platinum is used for fast oxygen reduction, the key reaction that transforms chemical energy into electricity.

The findings come from computer simulations scientists created to see how carbon nanomaterials could be improved for fuel-cell cathodes. Their study reveals the atom-level mechanisms by which doped nanomaterials catalyze oxygen reduction reactions (ORR).

Doping with nitrogen

Boris Yakobson, a professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry at Rice University, and his colleagues are among many researchers looking for a way to speed up ORR for fuel cells, which were discovered in the 19th century but not widely used until the latter part of the 20th. Fuel cells have since powered transportation modes ranging from cars and buses to spacecraft.

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Many areas of the United States are at risk for nitrate and nitrite contamination of drinking water due to overuse of agricultural fertilizers. Click to enlarge.
Image: USGS

Researchers have found a catalyst that can clean toxic nitrates from drinking water by converting them into air and water.

“Nitrates come mainly from agricultural runoff, which affects farming communities all over the world,” says lead study scientist Michael Wong, a chemical engineer at Rice University.

“Nitrates are both an environmental problem and health problem because they’re toxic. There are ion-exchange filters that can remove them from water, but these need to be flushed every few months to reuse them, and when that happens, the flushed water just returns a concentrated dose of nitrates right back into the water supply,” he explains.

Wong’s lab specializes in developing nanoparticle-based catalysts, submicroscopic bits of metal that speed up chemical reactions. In 2013, his group showed that tiny gold spheres dotted with specks of palladium could break apart nitrites, the more toxic chemical cousins of nitrates.

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SemiconductorObjects with “negative mass” react to the application of force in exactly the opposite way from what you would expect.

Researchers have created particles with negative mass in an atomically thin semiconductor, by causing it to interact with confined light in an optical microcavity.

This alone is “interesting and exciting from a physics perspective,” says Nick Vamivakas, an associate professor of quantum optics and quantum physics at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics. “But it also turns out the device we’ve created presents a way to generate laser light with an incrementally small amount of power.”

The device, described in Nature Physics, consists of two mirrors that create an optical microcavity, which confines light at different colors of the spectrum depending on the spacing of the mirrors.

Researchers in Vamivakas’ lab, including co-lead authors Sajal Dhara (now with the Indian Institute of Technology) and PhD student Chitraleema Chakraborty, embedded an atomically thin molybdenum diselenide semiconductor in the microcavity.

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By: Richard Gunderman, Indiana University

Nikola TeslaMatch the following figures – Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel and Nikola Tesla – with these biographical facts:

1. Spoke eight languages

2. Produced the first motor that ran on AC current

3. Developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances

4. Held approximately 300 patents

5. Claimed to have developed a “superweapon” that would end all war

The match for each, of course, is Tesla. Surprised? Most people have heard his name, but few know much about his place in modern science and technology.

The 75th anniversary of Tesla’s death on Jan. 7 provides a timely opportunity to review the life of a man who came from nowhere yet became world famous; claimed to be devoted solely to discovery but relished the role of a showman; attracted the attention of many women but never married; and generated ideas that transformed daily life and created multiple fortunes but died nearly penniless.

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PlantSensors on tape that attach to plants yield new kinds of data about water use for researchers and farmers.

“With a tool like this, we can begin to breed plants that are more efficient in using water,” says Patrick Schnable, plant scientist at Iowa State University. “That’s exciting. We couldn’t do this before. But, once we can measure something, we can begin to understand it.”

The tool making these water measurements possible is a tiny graphene sensor that can be taped to plants—researchers call it a “plant tattoo sensor.” Graphene is an atom-thick carbon honeycomb. It’s great at conducting electricity and heat, and is strong and stable. The graphene-on-tape technology in this study has also gone into wearable strain and pressure sensors, including sensors for a “smart glove” that measures hand movements.

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Tech Highlights

ECS journalsThis article was originally published in the winter 2017 issue of Interface.

Tech Highlights was prepared by David Enos and Mike Kelly of Sandia National Laboratories, Colm Glynn and David McNulty of University College Cork, Ireland, Zenghe Liu of Verily Life Science, and Donald Pile of Rolled-Ribbon Battery Company. Each article highlighted here is available free online.

Mechanical Pre-Lithiation of Silicon Anodes for Lithium Ion Batteries

Low Initial Coulombic Efficiency (ICE) continues to be a significant issue for the practical use of alloying materials, such as Si and Ge, as anodes and particularly for their implementation in full Li-ion cells. It is imperative to develop methods to improve ICE to mitigate issues associated with the consumption of electrolyte and the loss of Li during initial cycling. Several methods
to improve ICE have been examined, including studying the effects of active material particle size and the use of various electrolyte additives such as vinylene carbonate. The prelithiation of anode materials has also been investigated using two different approaches—electrochemical and mechanical prelithiation. Researchers from the University of Tottori have reported on the formation of a crystalline Li-Si alloy phase via a mechanical alloying (MA) method. Read the full article.

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By: Jalees Rehman, University of Illinois at Chicago

ResearchIn a recent survey of over 1,500 scientists, more than 70 percent of them reported having been unable to reproduce other scientists’ findings at least once. Roughly half of the surveyed scientists ran into problems trying to reproduce their own results. No wonder people are talking about a “reproducibility crisis” in scientific research – an epidemic of studies that don’t hold up when run a second time.

Reproducibility of findings is a core foundation of science. If scientific results only hold true in some labs but not in others, then how can researchers feel confident about their discoveries? How can society put evidence-based policies into place if the evidence is unreliable?

Recognition of this “crisis” has prompted calls for reform. Researchers are feeling their way, experimenting with different practices meant to help distinguish solid science from irreproducible results. Some people are even starting to reevaluate how choices are made about what research actually gets tackled. Breaking innovative new ground is flashier than revisiting already published research. Does prioritizing novelty naturally lead to this point?

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By: Jack Barkenbus, Vanderbilt University

Autonomous driverless carEvery day about 100 people die in car crashes on U.S. roads. That death toll is a major reason why both Congress and the Trump administration are backing automotive efforts to develop and deploy self-driving cars as quickly as possible.

However, officials’ eagerness far exceeds the degree to which the public views this as a serious concern, and overestimates the public’s willingness to see its driving patterns radically altered. As those of us involved in studies of technology and society have come to understand, foisting a technical fix on a skeptical public can lead to a backlash that sets back the cause indefinitely. The backlash over nuclear power and genetically modified organisms are exemplary of the problems that arise from rushing technology in the face of public fears. Public safety on the roads is too important to chance consumer backlash.

I recommend industry, government and consumers take a more measured and incremental approach to full autonomy. Initially emphasizing technologies that can assist human drivers – rather than the abilities of cars to drive themselves – will somewhat delay the day all those lives are saved on U.S. roads. But it will start saving some lives right away, and is more likely to avoid mass rejection of the new technology.

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Journal of The Electrochemical SocietyOver 1,840 articles were published in ECS journals in 2017, ranging from battery technology to materials science. Among those articles, “The Development and Future of Lithium Ion Batteries” by ECS member of 48 years, George E. Blomgren, stood out as the most downloaded paper of the year, with over 25,000 downloads in total.

The open access paper was published in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society (JES) and has held the number one top download spot for the majority of the year. In November 2017 alone, it hit a record-setting 4,080 downloads. Blomgren credited the paper’s outstanding success to the continued surging interest in lithium-ion batteries, a technology that has made its profound mark on consumer electronics such as cellphones and computers, and continues to be applied to emerging innovations ranging from large scale energy storage to electric vehicles.

The paper, which highlights the past, present, and future of battery science and technology, was published as part of the JES Focus Issue of Selected Papers from IMLB 2016 with Invited Papers Celebrating 25 Years of Lithium Ion Batteries. The focus issue contains contributions from veteran scientists considered by many to be founding fathers in lithium battery science, including Emanuel Peled, Tetsuya Osaka, Zempachi Ogumi, Jeff Dahn, Robert Huggins, and of course, Blomgren.

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