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With just a tablespoon of blood, researchers aim to transform cancer treatment

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Explaining why people do not have an immune response to food

A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School has looked into the question of why most people do not develop an immune response after consuming food. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the researchers attempted to answer the question by conducting experiments with mice. Read More …

The Rise and Precarious Reign of China’s Battery King

Headquarters For CATL

The rise and precarious reign of China’s battery king.

Zeng Yuqun is China’s most prolific battery billionaire. His ascent has major implications for a world increasingly reliant on electric vehicles.

The headquarters of battery giant CATL tower over the coastal Chinese city of Ningde. To the untrained eye, the building resembles a huge slide rising out of the urban sprawl. It is, in fact, a giant monument to the company’s raison d’être: the lithium-ion battery pack.

You may have never heard of CATL, but you’ve definitely heard of the brands that rely on its batteries. The company supplies more than 30 percent of the world’s EV batteries and counts Tesla, Kia and BMW amongst its clients.

Its founder and chairman, 54-year-old Zeng Yuqun, also known as Robin Zeng, has rapidly emerged as the industry’s kingmaker. Insiders describe Zeng as savvy, direct, and even abrasive. Under his leadership, CATL’s valuation has ballooned to 1.2 trillion Chinese yuan ($179 billion), more than General Motors and Ford combined. 

Part of that fortune is built on owning stakes in mining projects in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, giving CATL a tighter grip on an already strained global battery supply chain.

Such scale gives CATL huge influence—and allows the company to be picky with its contracts and push the rising prices of raw materials onto its clients

Mark Greeven, professor of innovation and strategy at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. 

“They’re pretty much dictating the terms.”

CATL pushes clients for long-term, five-year deals. and it’s reluctant to customize its batteries for different carmakers, he adds.

So far, these decisions have helped make Zeng rich—very rich. He ranks 29th on Forbes’ 2022 list of the world’s wealthiest people. On Bloomberg’s 2021 list of the world’s top green billionaires, he is second only to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Musk might make more headlines, but Zeng holds almost as much power.

But Zeng is not Musk. He dodges the limelight and rarely gives interviews. Insiders point out that Zeng is operating in an environment where notoriety could hinder, not help, his business. 

Bill Russo, former head of carmaker Chrysler’s northeast Asia business in Beijing who now runs the Shanghai-based advisory firm Automobility, said:

“In the West, the personality-cult style of leadership is something that’s valued, encouraged, and celebrated. In China, it’s dangerous.”

“You can’t be bigger than Beijing.” Carmakers are also becoming wary of how much power CATL has as they search elsewhere for batteries to power their vehicles.

Zeng’s arrival on the EV battery scene can be traced back to 2010—and a meeting with Herbert Diess, who was purchasing manager for BMW at the time. Diess, who is now CEO of Volkswagen, had embarked on an international mission to persuade companies making mobile phone batteries to pivot to electric cars. 

He tried European companies, including Germany’s Bosch. But he also approached Zeng, who at the time was running a subsidiary of the Japanese electronics company TDK. Retelling the story in an internal meeting in May 2022, Diess described Zeng’s initial reaction as dismissive—it was, Zeng said, impossible for him to build such big batteries.

But, so the story goes, Diess’ plea for batteries stuck. In 2011, Zeng led a group of Chinese investors to acquire a 85 percent stake in TDK’s EV battery business, which they called CATL. 

BMW was its first key account. 

Zeng Yuquntold Handelsblatt in 2020. 

“Diess brought our company into the car battery business.”

“I am grateful to him for that.”

Diess might have inspired CATL to enter the EV market, but over the years Zeng earned a reputation as a founder who could master batteries as well as business. 

When he bought a US patent for mobile phone batteries in the early 2000s, he worked to improve the battery design himself, according to Lei Xing, former editor of Beijing-based media outlet China Auto Review. 

When BMW agreed to use CATL as its battery supplier, it was Zeng who read the 800 pages of requirements line by line, according to Yunfei Feng, a research associate at IMD Business School.

The attention Zeng paid to the technical details was crucial. When CATL started making car batteries, another Chinese company, BYD, was considered the market leader. But, as it grew, CATL made its technical supremacy pay. 

At the time, BYD used lithium iron phosphate batteries, while CATL used a combination of nickel, manganese, and cobalt, or NMC. 

Lei Xing, former editor of Beijing-based media outlet China Auto Review, said:

NMC had longer ranges.

And when China rolled out EV subsidies in 2015, batteries with longer ranges received more support. “This benefited CATL tremendously,” Xing adds.

Subsidies were a crucial part of CATL’s success, and many analysts point to Beijing’s Made in China 2025 plan as key to the company’s evolution. The policy was designed to boost strategic high-tech sectors, including EVs. 

Between 2009 and 2021, around 100 billion yuan ($14.8 billion) in subsidies were handed to car buyers, according to an estimate by China Merchants Bank International. As a result, Chinese consumers received tax breaks for choosing EVs over combustion engines, but only if those EVs included batteries made with Chinese cells.

That drove demand for CATL batteries not just among Chinese EV makers but also among international firms trying to tap into the lucrative Chinese market.

Buoyed by the subsidy, Zeng worked to raise money so the company could invest in its supply chain and pour cash into research and development. 

Between 2015 and 2017, CATL raised over $2 billion in equity financing before going public in June 2018, according to Kevin Shang, research analyst at Wood Mackenzie’s global energy storage team. “They were able to invest in the whole supply chain, from mining to materials manufacturing to the battery cells making and even to recycling.”

And as CATL grows, the company is expanding beyond China. Its first plant outside its home country is expected to open in the central German state of Thuringia later this year. In anticipation, Zeng has made himself accessible to the German car industry. 

Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of Germany’s Center for Automotive Research, a research institute that produces reports for the country’s carmakers, said:

“If you write him an email, he will answer very fast.”

Dudenhöffer met Zeng at the Frankfurt Auto Show three years ago, where the CATL founder complained to him about the lack of government subsidies his firm was receiving in Germany. CATL decided to set up in Germany before EU subsidies for battery manufacturers had been finalized, meaning the company couldn’t apply for support, says Dudenhöffer. “He very quickly picked up on the problems.”

Germany, which produces more cars than any other European country, was quick to realize the importance of collaborating with Chinese firms, says Dudenhöffer.

“The industry knows China is very important,” he says. “If you don’t stay in contact, do business and joint research with Chinese companies, you will not be in a leading position.” But elsewhere, the automotive industry is growing wary of CATL’s influence.

The global shortage of semiconductors has made car firms hyper-aware of supply chain bottlenecks. That’s pushing them to strike deals with CATL’s competitors or to try to build out their own battery plants—a trend that is worrying Zeng’s investors. 

CATL’s stock dropped 7 percent after competitor BYD said it would supply batteries to Tesla “very soon.” General Motors, another CATL client, is planning a new US battery plant in partnership with South Korea’s LG Energy Solution. Toyota is planning to open its own battery plant in North Carolina, and Ford is building twin battery plants in Kentucky.

“The policy of the automotive industry for a long time has been that they never single-source, because that gives too much power in the relationship to the supplier,” Russo says. 

“What does that mean for the likes of CATL? It means you’re going to have more competition.” CATL’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude is also pushing carmakers to consider working with smaller companies, who might have less experience but are more willing to customize their products, Greeven adds.

But weaning the industry off its reliance on CATL won’t be easy. Carmakers will find it difficult to manufacture high-quality batteries at a low enough cost, especially without CATL’s scale and expertise, says Shang.

Squeezed by an industry concerned by its position of power, CATL has doubled the number of its R&D employees between 2020 and 2021 to more than 10,000 people. It has also been securing new lithium supplies, spending $130 million in April on a mine in southern China. 

At the same time, the company has created new products to address existing industry problems, announcing plans in July 2021 to start producing sodium-ion batteries. 

Such breakthroughs could be crucial—sodium is the sixth-most-common element on earth, and batteries that use it would ease the car industry’s reliance on lithium, which could face major shortages as early as this year.

But it might not be the global car industry that ends Zeng’s rise—but China itself. His ascent coincides with an uneasy time for Chinese billionaires, with last year’s tech crackdown wiping billions off some of the country’s most profitable companies. 

The Chinese government had accused the technology industry of fueling wider inequality in the country, and Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma became the face of the crackdown. 

The billionaire, who had his own TV show called Africa’s Business Heroes and starred in his own action movie, fell from grace after giving a speech that criticized Chinese regulators for stifling innovation. Alibaba’s IPO was swiftly canceled and it received a record $2.8 billion antitrust fine. 

Around $10 billion has been wiped off Ma’s wealth since this time last year, according to Bloomberg’s billionaire index, as his fortune tracks Alibaba’s slide in value since the crackdown.

The move against Ma can be partly attributed to China’s “common prosperity” drive—an effort to reduce the gap between rich and poor—which president Xi Jinping has described as one of the country’s most important goals over the next 15 years. 

Although the pressure on tech has eased since last year, the push for common prosperity has continued. In June, banks in China were told to rein in executive pay. Ma’s downfall points to how the Chinese Community Party’s pursuit of “common prosperity” could affect Chinese billionaires, who also represent an alternative power base to Beijing.

As the most successful of China’s growing cadre of EV billionaires, that puts Zeng at risk of becoming a target. “Zeng is richer than Jack Ma, but he is definitely not as noisy,” says Greeven.

Despite that, CATL has already faced a soft rebuke for its behavior. In November 2021, the Shenzhen Stock Exchange raised concerns about CATL financing “excessively.” A crackdown on the electric vehicle and battery industries in China could have a profound impact on an industry the whole world is relying on for the green transition. 

China produced 44 percent of the world’s EVs in the last decade and around 80 percent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries. In the short term, that share is projected to rise.

Concerns have been raised that Beijing would rather replace CATL and other battery giants with a network of small and medium-size businesses. But experts are divided on how much risk CATL is facing. 

“What Jack Ma does versus what Robin Zeng does, it’s completely different,” says Xing. But Russo believes CATL’s risk depends on whether Zeng can continue to balance his government relationships with his public persona.

CATL may have been crucial in helping China develop its EV supremacy, but the recent tech crackdown provides a warning that Beijing can abruptly reorganize its industries if they start to clash with wider political ambitions. 

There are already hints of how that might play out. In 2015, businesses controlled by a state-owned aerospace company and a district government cofounded CALB, a state-operated firm which also specializes in lithium-ion battery production. Such a move could pit CATL against the Chinese state itself.

The two firms have already clashed, with CATL accusing CALB of patent infringement and seeking damages of 518 million yuan ($77.4 million). And the legal dispute is intensifying just as CALB prepares to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange later this year.

In its IPO prospectus, CALB describes itself as China’s second-largest EV battery company and seventh in the world. But with a state-owned company now vying for control of China’s battery production industry, it’s no sure thing that will remain the case. 

“Too much dominance is a bottleneck,” says Russo. “And that’s something that neither industry nor government would want.”

READ the latest Batteries News shaping the battery market

Major Breakthrough Puts Dream of Unlimited, Clean Energy Within Reach

Nuclear fusion facility: JET interior with superimposed plasma. Nuclear fusion energy could be a pivotal sustainable energy source to complement renewables. Credit: UKAEA

The old joke is that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away. However, the dream of plentiful clean energy is no laughing matter as we meet an ITER researcher to catch up on progress at the reactor facility.

By creating light and heat through nuclear fusion, the Sun has fueled life on Earth for billions of years. Given that incredible power and longevity, it seems there can hardly be a better way to generate energy than by harnessing the same nuclear processes that occur in stars, including our own sun.

Nuclear fusion reactors aim to reproduce this process by fusing hydrogen atoms to create helium, which releases energy in the form of heat. Sustaining this at a large scale has the potential to produce a safe, clean, almost inexhaustible power supply.

The quest began decades ago, but could a long-running joke that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away soon start to look dated?

Some hope so, following a major breakthrough during a nuclear-fusion experiment in late 2021. This came at the Joint European Torus (JET) research facility in Oxfordshire, UK, in a giant, doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak.

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Inside, superheated gases called plasmas are generated in which the fusion reactions take place, containing charged particles that are held in place by powerful magnetic fields. Such plasmas can reach temperatures of 150 million degrees Celsius, an unfathomable 10 times hotter than the Sun’s core.

In a sustained five-second burst, researchers in the EUROfusion consortium released a record-breaking 59 megajoules (MJ) of fusion energy. This was almost triple the previous 21.7 MJ record set at the same facility in 1997, with the results touted as “the clearest demonstration in a quarter of a century of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy.” Follow the link to learn more about the successful nuclear fusion experiment at JET.

JET Experimental Fusion Reactor Plasma

View of JET experimental fusion reactor plasma. Credit: © EUROfusion consortium (2022)

The results provided a major boost ahead of the next phase of nuclear fusion’s development. A larger and more advanced version of JET known as ITER (meaning “The Way” in Latin) is under construction on a 180-hectare site in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, southern France.

ITER, which is being built as a collaboration between 35 nations, including those in the EU, is aimed at further firming up the concept of fusion. One of the most complicated machines ever to be created, it was scheduled to start generating its first plasma in 2025 before entering into high-power operation around 2035 – although researchers on the project expect some delays because of the pandemic.

Major milestone

The results at JET represent a major landmark, said Professor Tony Donné, program manager of the EUROfusion project, a major consortium of 4,800 experts, students, and facilities across Europe. “It’s a huge milestone – the biggest for a long time,” he said.

“It’s confirmed all the modeling, so it has really increased confidence that ITER will work and do what it’s meant to do.” While the energy generated at JET lasted just a few seconds, the aim is to ramp this up to a sustained reaction that produces energy.

The results were the culmination of years of preparation, with Prof Donné explaining that one of the key developments since 1997 involved changing the inner wall of the JET vessel.

“It’s a huge milestone in nuclear fusion – the biggest for a long time. It’s confirmed all the modelling.”

— Prof Tony Donné, EUROfusion

Previously, the wall was made of carbon, but this proved too reactive with the fuel mix of deuterium and tritium, two heavier isotopes – or variants – of hydrogen used in the fusion reaction. This resulted in the formation of hydrocarbons, locking up the tritium fuel in the wall.

In the rebuild, which involved 16 000 components and 4 000 tonnes of metal, the carbon was replaced with beryllium and tungsten to reduce tritium retention. Ultimately, the team was able to cut the amount of trapped fuel by a large multiple, contributing to the success of the recent fusion shot.

DEMO run

In preparation for the next stage of fusion’s epic journey, upgrades to JET ensured that its configuration aligns with the plans for ITER. Further in the future, the next step beyond ITER will be a demonstration power plant known as DEMO, designed to send electricity into the grid – leading on to fusion plants becoming a commercial and industrial reality.

“ITER is a device which will create 10 times more fusion energy than the energy used to heat the plasma,” said Prof Donné. “But as it is an experimental facility, it will not deliver electricity to the grid. For that, we need another device, which we call DEMO. This will really bring us to the foundations for the first generation of fusion power plants.”

Prof Donné added: “JET has shown now that fusion is plausible. ITER has to show that it’s further feasible, and DEMO will need to demonstrate that it really works.”

Planned to provide up to 500 megawatts (MW) to the grid, he thinks it is realistic for DEMO to come into operation around 2050. “We hope to build DEMO much faster than we built ITER, making (use of the) lessons learned,” he said.

Yet there are other key challenges to overcome on the way to getting nuclear fusion up and running. Not least is that while deuterium is abundant in seawater, tritium is extremely scarce and difficult to produce.

“If we get fusion up and running, then really we have a very safe and clean energy source which can give us energy for thousands of years.”

— Prof Tony Donné, EUROfusion

The researchers, therefore, plan to develop a way of generating it inside the tokamak, using a “breeding blanket” containing lithium. The idea is that high-energy neutrons from the fusion reactions will interact with the lithium to create tritium.

Essential energy

Prof Donné said nuclear fusion could prove a pivotal green and sustainable energy source for the future. “I would say it’s essential,” he said. “I’m not convinced that by 2050 we can make the carbon dioxide transition with only renewables, and we need other things.”

And although he says the current method of creating nuclear energy through fission is becoming safer and safer, fusion has key advantages. Proponents for ITER talk of benefits such as an absence of meltdown risk, adding that nuclear fusion does not produce long-lived radioactive waste and that reactor materials can be recycled or reused within 100 to 300 years.

“It’s definitely much safer,” said Prof Donné. Referencing the stigma carried by nuclear energy, he said, “What we see when we interact with the public is that people very often haven’t heard about nuclear fusion. But when we explain the pros and cons, then I think people get positive.”

Referring to Lev Artsimovich, dubbed the “father of the tokamak,” he said, “Artsimovich always said fusion will be there when society really needs it. If we get fusion up and running, then really we have a very safe and clean energy source which can give us energy for thousands of years.”

Research in this article was funded by the EU.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research & Innovation Magazine.

New Long Awaited ‘next generation wonder material’ “Graphyne”created in Bulk for first time at the U of Colorado Boulder

For over a decade, scientists have attempted to synthesize a new form of carbon called graphyne with limited success. That endeavor is now at an end, though, thanks to new research from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Graphyne has long been of interest to scientists because of its similarities to the “wonder material” graphene—another form of carbon that is highly valued by industry whose research was even awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. However, despite decades of work and theorizing, only a few fragments have ever been created before now.

This research, announced last week in Nature Synthesis, fills a longstanding gap in carbon material science, potentially opening brand-new possibilities for electronics, optics and semiconducting material research.

“The whole audience, the whole field, is really excited that this long-standing problem, or this imaginary material, is finally getting realized,” said Yiming Hu, lead author on the paper and 2022 doctoral graduate in chemistry.

Scientists have long been interested in the construction of new or novel carbon allotropes, or forms of carbon, because of carbon’s usefulness to industry, as well as its versatility.

There are different ways carbon allotropes can be constructed depending on how sp2, sp3 and sp hybridized carbon (or the different ways carbon atoms can bind to other elements), and their corresponding bonds, are utilized. The most well-known carbon allotropes are graphite (used in tools like pencils and batteries) and diamonds, which are created out of sp2 carbon and sp3 carbon, respectively.

Using traditional chemistry methods, scientists have successfully created various allotropes over the years, including fullerene (whose discovery won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996) and graphene.

However, these methods don’t allow for the different types of carbon to be synthesized together in any sort of large capacity, like what’s required for graphyne, which has left the theorized material—speculated to have unique electron conducting, mechanical and optical properties—to remain that: a theory.

But it was also that need for the nontraditional that led those in the field to reach out to Wei Zhang’s lab group.

Zhang, a professor of chemistry at CU Boulder, studies reversible chemistry, which is chemistry that allows bonds to self-correct, allowing for the creation of novel ordered structures, or lattices, such as synthetic DNA-like polymers.

After being approached, Zhang and his lab group decided to give it a try.

Creating graphyne is a “really old, long-standing question, but since the synthetic tools were limited, the interest went down,” Hu, who was a Ph.D. student in Zhang’s lab group, commented. “We brought out the problem again and used a new tool to solve an old problem that is really important.”

Using a process called alkyne metathesis—which is an organic reaction that entails the redistribution, or cutting and reforming, of alkyne chemical bonds (a type of hydrocarbon with at least one carbon-carbon triple covalent bond)—as well as thermodynamics and kinetic control, the group was able to successfully create what had never been created before: A material that could rival the conductivity of graphene but with control.

“There’s a pretty big difference (between graphene and graphyne) but in a good way,” said Zhang. “This could be the next generation wonder material. That’s why people are very excited.”

While the material has been successfully created, the team still wants to look into the particular details of it, including how to create the material on a large scale and how it can be manipulated.

“We are really trying to explore this novel material from multiple dimensions, both experimentally and theoretically, from atomic-level to real devices,” Zhang said of next steps.

Graphyne, sister material to graphene, created in bulk for the first time

These efforts, in turn, should aid in figuring out how the material’s electron-conducting and optical properties can be used for industry applications like lithium-ion batteries.

“We hope in the future we can lower the costs and simplify the reaction procedure, and then, hopefully, people can really benefit from our research,” said Hu.

For Zhang, this never could have been accomplished without the support of an interdisciplinary team, adding: “Without the support from the physics department, without some support from colleagues, this work probably couldn’t be done.”

Tesla battery research group unveils paper on new high-energy-density battery that could last 100 years

Tesla’s advanced battery research group in Canada in partnership with Dalhousie University has released a new paper on a new nickel-based battery that could last 100 years while still favorably comparing to LFP cells on charging and energy density.

Back in 2016, Tesla established its “Tesla Advanced Battery Research” in Canada through a partnership with Jeff Dahn’s battery lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

Dahn is considered a pioneer in Li-ion battery cells. He has been working on the Li-ion batteries pretty much since they were invented. He is credited for helping to increase the life cycle of the cells, which helped their commercialization.

His work now focuses mainly on a potential increase in energy density and durability, while also decreasing the cost.

The group has already produced quite a few patents and papers on batteries for Tesla. The automaker recently extended its contract with the group through 2026 as it added two new leaders to be mentored by Dahn.

One of those new leaders, Michael Metzger, along with Dahn himself, and a handful of PhDs in the program, are named as authors of a new research paper called “Li[Ni0.5Mn0.3Co0.2]O2 as a Superior Alternative to LiFePO4 for Long-Lived Low Voltage Li-Ion Cells” in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society.

The paper describes a nickel-based battery chemistry meant to compete with LFP battery cells on longevity while retaining the properties that people like in nickel-based batteries, like higher energy density, which enables longer range with fewer batteries for electric vehicles.

The group wrote in the paper’s abstract:

Single crystal Li[Ni0.5Mn0.3Co0.2]O2//graphite (NMC532) pouch cells with only sufficient graphite for operation to 3.80 V (rather than ≥4.2 V) were cycled with charging to either 3.65 V or 3.80 V to facilitate comparison with LiFePO4//graphite (LFP) pouch cells on the grounds of similar maximum charging potential and similar negative electrode utilization. The NMC532 cells, when constructed with only sufficient graphite to be charged to 3.80 V, have an energy density that exceeds that of the LFP cells and a cycle-life that greatly exceeds that of the LFP cells at 40 °C, 55 °C and 70 °C. Excellent lifetime at high temperature is demonstrated with electrolytes that contain lithium bis(fluorosulfonyl)imide (LiFSI) salt, well beyond those provided by conventional LiPF6 electrolytes. 

The cells showed an impressive capacity retention over a high number of cycles:

The research group even noted that the new cell described in the paper could last a 100 years if the temperature is controlled at 25C:

Ultra-high precision coulometry and electrochemical impedance spectroscopy are used to complement cycling results and investigate the reasons for the improved performance of the NMC cells. NMC cells, particularly those balanced and charged to 3.8 V, show better coulombic efficiency, less capacity fade and higher energy density compared to LFP cells and are projected to yield lifetimes approaching a century at 25 °C.

One of the keys appears to be using an electrolyte with LiFSI lithium salts, and the paper notes that the benefits could also apply to other nickel-based chemistries, including those with no or low cobalt.

** Contributed from Fred Lambert, at Electrek

From seawater to drinking water – With just a push of a button!

MIT Researchers build a portable desalination unit that generates clear, clean drinking water without the need for filters or high-pressure pumps.

MIT researchers have developed a portable desalination unit, weighing less than 10 kilograms, that can remove particles and salts to generate drinking water.

The suitcase-sized device, which requires less power to operate than a cell phone charger, can also be driven by a small, portable solar panel, which can be purchased online for around $50. It automatically generates drinking water that exceeds World Health Organization quality standards. The technology is packaged into a user-friendly device that runs with the push of one button.

Unlike other portable desalination units that require water to pass through filters, this device utilizes electrical power to remove particles from drinking water. Eliminating the need for replacement filters greatly reduces the long-term maintenance requirements.

This could enable the unit to be deployed in remote and severely resource-limited areas, such as communities on small islands or aboard seafaring cargo ships. It could also be used to aid refugees fleeing natural disasters or by soldiers carrying out long-term military operations.

“This is really the culmination of a 10-year journey that I and my group have been on. We worked for years on the physics behind individual desalination processes, but pushing all those advances into a box, building a system, and demonstrating it in the ocean, that was a really meaningful and rewarding experience for me,” says senior author Jongyoon Han, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering, and a member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE).

Joining Han on the paper are first author Junghyo Yoon, a research scientist in RLE; Hyukjin J. Kwon, a former postdoc; SungKu Kang, a postdoc at Northeastern University; and Eric Brack of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM). The research has been published online in Environmental Science and Technology.

Watch: YouTube Videp

Filter-free technology

Commercially available portable desalination units typically require high-pressure pumps to push water through filters, which are very difficult to miniaturize without compromising the energy-efficiency of the device, explains Yoon.

Instead, their unit relies on a technique called ion concentration polarization (ICP), which was pioneered by Han’s group more than 10 years ago. Rather than filtering water, the ICP process applies an electrical field to membranes placed above and below a channel of water. The membranes repel positively or negatively charged particles — including salt molecules, bacteria, and viruses — as they flow past. The charged particles are funneled into a second stream of water that is eventually discharged.

The process removes both dissolved and suspended solids, allowing clean water to pass through the channel. Since it only requires a low-pressure pump, ICP uses less energy than other techniques.

But ICP does not always remove all the salts floating in the middle of the channel. So the researchers incorporated a second process, known as electrodialysis, to remove remaining salt ions.

Yoon and Kang used machine learning to find the ideal combination of ICP and electrodialysis modules. The optimal setup includes a two-stage ICP process, with water flowing through six modules in the first stage then through three in the second stage, followed by a single electrodialysis process. This minimized energy usage while ensuring the process remains self-cleaning.

“While it is true that some charged particles could be captured on the ion exchange membrane, if they get trapped, we just reverse the polarity of the electric field and the charged particles can be easily removed,” Yoon explains.

They shrunk and stacked the ICP and electrodialysis modules to improve their energy efficiency and enable them to fit inside a portable device. The researchers designed the device for nonexperts, with just one button to launch the automatic desalination and purification process. Once the salinity level and the number of particles decrease to specific thresholds, the device notifies the user that the water is drinkable.

The researchers also created a smartphone app that can control the unit wirelessly and report real-time data on power consumption and water salinity.

Beach tests

After running lab experiments using water with different salinity and turbidity (cloudiness) levels, they field-tested the device at Boston’s Carson Beach.

Yoon and Kwon set the box near the shore and tossed the feed tube into the water. In about half an hour, the device had filled a plastic drinking cup with clear, drinkable water.

“It was successful even in its first run, which was quite exciting and surprising. But I think the main reason we were successful is the accumulation of all these little advances that we made along the way,” Han says.

The resulting water exceeded World Health Organization quality guidelines, and the unit reduced the amount of suspended solids by at least a factor of 10. Their prototype generates drinking water at a rate of 0.3 liters per hour, and requires only 20 watts of power per liter.

“Right now, we are pushing our research to scale up that production rate,” Yoon says.

One of the biggest challenges of designing the portable system was engineering an intuitive device that could be used by anyone, Han says.

Yoon hopes to make the device more user-friendly and improve its energy efficiency and production rate through a startup he plans to launch to commercialize the technology.

In the lab, Han wants to apply the lessons he’s learned over the past decade to water-quality issues that go beyond desalination, such as rapidly detecting contaminants in drinking water.

“This is definitely an exciting project, and I am proud of the progress we have made so far, but there is still a lot of work to do,” he says.

For example, while “development of portable systems using electro-membrane processes is an original and exciting direction in off-grid, small-scale desalination,” the effects of fouling, especially if the water has high turbidity, could significantly increase maintenance requirements and energy costs, notes Nidal Hilal, professor of engineering and director of the New York University Abu Dhabi Water research center, who was not involved with this research.

“Another limitation is the use of expensive materials,” he adds. “It would be interesting to see similar systems with low-cost materials in place.”

The research was funded, in part, by the DEVCOM Soldier Center, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), the Experimental AI Postdoc Fellowship Program of Northeastern University, and the Roux AI Institute.

Battery Science 101

What is a battery?


Batteries power our lives by transforming energy from one type to another.

Whether a traditional disposable battery (e.g. AA) or a rechargeable lithium-ion battery (used in cell phones, laptops and cars), a battery stores chemical energy and releases electrical energy.

There are four key parts in a battery — the cathode (positive side of the battery), the anode (negative side of the battery), a separator that prevents contact between the cathode and anode and a chemical solution known as an electrolyte that allows the flow of electrical charge between the cathode and anode.

Lithium-ion batteries that power cell phones, for example, typically consist of a cathode made of cobalt, manganese, and nickel oxides and an anode made out of graphite, the same material found in many pencils. The cathode and anode store the lithium.

When a lithium-ion battery is turned on, positively charged particles of lithium (ions) move through the electrolyte from the anode to cathode. Chemical reactions occur that generate electrons and convert stored chemical energy in the battery to electrical current.

When you plug in your cell phone to charge the lithium-ion battery, the chemical reactions go in reverse: the lithium ions move back from the cathode to the anode.

As long as lithium ions shuttle back and forth between the anode and cathode, there is a constant flow of electrons. This provides the energy to keep your devices running. Since this cycle can be repeated hundreds of times, this type of battery is rechargeable.

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Lithium-based batteries power our daily lives, from consumer electronics to national defense


A lithium-ion battery is a type of rechargeable battery. It has four key parts:

  • 1The cathode (the positive side), typically a combination of nickel, manganese and cobalt oxides.
  • 2The anode (the negative side), commonly made out of graphite, the same material found in many pencils.
  • 3separator that prevents contact between the anode and cathode.
  • 4A chemical solution known as an electrolyte that moves lithium ions between the cathode and anode. The anode and cathode store lithium.

When the battery is in use, positively charged particles of lithium (ions) move through the electrolyte from the anode to cathode. Chemical reactions occur that generate electrons and convert stored chemical energy in the battery to electrical current.

When the battery is charging, the chemical reactions go
in reverse: the lithium ions move back from the cathode to the anode.

How does an X-ray light source work?
Batteries and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne is recognized as a global leader in battery science and technology. Over the past sixty years, the lab’s pivotal discoveries have strengthened the U.S. battery manufacturing industry, aided the transition of the U.S. automotive fleet toward plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, and enabled greater use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.

The lab’s research spans every aspect of battery development, from the breakthrough fundamental science of the Argonne-led Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, to the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science, a cross-lab collective of scientists and engineers that solves complex battery problems through multidisciplinary research.

Argonne researchers are also exploring how to accelerate the recycling of lithium-ion batteries through the DOE’s ReCell Center, a collaboration led by Argonne that includes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, University of California at San Diego and Michigan Technological University.

For another take on “Batteries 101,” check out DOE Explains.

Building Artificial Neurons with Mathematics

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain by Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

EPFL’s Blue Brain Project has found a way to use only mathematics to automatically draw neurons in 3D, meaning we are getting closer to being able to build digital twins of brains.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish physician from the turn of the 19th century, is considered by most to be the father of modern neuroscience. He stared down a microscope day and night for years, fascinated by chemically stained neurons he found in slices of human brain tissue.

By hand, he painstakingly drew virtually every new type of neuron he came across using nothing more than pen and paper. As the Charles Darwin for the brain, he mapped every detail of the forest of neurons that make up the brain, calling them the “butterflies of the brain.”

Today, 200 years later, Blue Brain has found a way to dispense with the human eye, pen and paper, and use only mathematics to automatically draw neurons in 3D as digital twins. Math can now be used to capture all the “butterflies of the brain,” which allows us to use computers to build any and all the billons of neurons that make up the brain. And that means we are getting closer to being able to build digital twins of brains.

These billions of neurons form trillions of synapses—where neurons communicate with each other. Such complexity needs comprehensive neuron models and accurately reconstructed detailed brain networks in order to replicate the healthy and disease states of the brain. Efforts to build such models and networks have historically been hampered by the lack of experimental data available.

But now, scientists at the EPFL Blue Brain Project using algebraic topology, a field of Math, have created an algorithm that requires only a few examples to generate large numbers of unique cells. Using this algorithm—the Topological Neuronal Synthesis (TNS), they can efficiently synthesize millions of unique neuronal morphologies.

The TNS algorithm is of huge importance for the rapidly growing field of computational neuroscience, which increasingly relies on biologically-realistic models from the single cell level to large-scale neuronal networks. Accurate neuronal morphologies, in particular, lie at the heart of these efforts as they are essential for defining cell types, discerning their functional roles, investigating structural alterations associated with diseased brain states and, identifying what conditions make brain networks sufficiently robust to support the complex cortical processes that are fundamental for a healthy brain.

Therefore, it is essential to accurately reconstruct detailed brain networks in order to replicate the healthy and disease states of the brain.

In a paper published in Cell Reports, a team led by Lida Kanari has applied the Topological Morphology Descriptor (TMD) introduced in Kanari et al. 2018, which reliably categorizes dendritic morphologies, to digitally synthesize dendritic morphologies from all layers and morphological types of the rodent cortex. The advantages of this topology-driven approach are multiple, as the new TNS algorithm, is generalizable to new types of cells, needs little input data and does not require fine tuning because it captures feature correlations.

Enabling the rapid digital reconstruction of entire brain regions from relatively few reference cells

The TNS algorithm driven by the topological architecture of dendrites generates realistic morphologies for a large number of distinct cortical neuronal cell types with realistic morphological and electrical properties. This has enabled the rapid digital reconstruction of entire brain regions from relatively few reference cells, thereby allowing the investigation of links between neuronal morphologies and brain function across different spatio-temporal scales and addressing the challenge of insufficient biological reconstructions.

A multi-stage validation documented in the paper ensures that the synthesized cells reproduce the shapes of reconstructed neurons with respect to three modalities: 1. Their morphological characteristics, 2. The electrical activity of single cells and, 3. The connectivity of the network they form.

Lida Kanari explains that “the findings are already enabling Blue Brain to build biologically detailed reconstructions and simulations of the mouse brain, by computationally reconstructing brain regions for simulations which replicate the anatomical properties of neuronal morphologies and include region specific anatomy. We address one of the fundamental problems for neuroscience—the scarcity of experimental neuronal reconstructions since the topological synthesis requires only a few examples to generate large numbers of unique cells. Using the TNS algorithm, we can efficiently synthesize millions of unique neuronal morphologies (10 million cells in a few hours),” she concludes.

Facilitating medical applications

“Comprehensive neuron models are essential for defining cell types, discerning their functional roles and investigating structural alterations associated with diseased brain states,” affirms Blue Brain Founder and Director, Prof. Henry Markram. “The researchers synthesized cortical networks based on structural alterations of dendrites associated with medical conditions and revealed principles linking branching properties to the structure of large-scale networks.”

“As the TNS algorithm is implemented in an open source software, this will allow the modeling of brain diseases in terms of single cells and networks, as it provides a tool to directly investigate the link between local morphological properties and the connectivity of the neuronal network they form. This approach is of particular interest for medical applications as it enables the investigation of diseases in terms of the emergence of global network pathology from local structural changes in neuron morphologies,” he concludes.

+ Explore further

More information: Lida Kanari et al, Computational synthesis of cortical dendritic morphologies, Cell Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2022.110586

Topological Neuron Synthesis Algorithm: … al-neuron-synthesis/

Innovations in Dentistry: Navigational Surgery, Robotics, and Nanotechnology


** Note to Readers: With more than a few ‘dental people connections’ in the family, please indulge us this ‘nano-departure’ from our normal Posts on Renewable Energy (Green Hydrogen, Nano-Enhanced Battery Materials & Storage), Nano-Bio Medicine (Nano-Enhanced Cancer Research & Treatment) and Water Treatment (Nano-Enhanced Membranes and Nanoparticles). We hope you can “sink your teeth” into these amazing advances in Technology making our lives a little better. – Team GNT

A Dental Story

Reggie falls and loses two of his teeth. He soon finds it difficult to chew correctly and realizes he might visit the dentist for implants. Coincidentally, his grandmother had to get implants years ago. He remembers how they had to take multiple visits to the dentist and how long it took to fix her smile. Ultimately, Reggie gets discouraged and postpones his visit to the dentist.

This story typically depicts one of the drawbacks of traditional dental procedures, which has been corrected by technological advancements in dentistry over the years. Most dental experts today, like the dentist Steven Shapiro, DMD attests to the benefits of advanced technology such as nanotechnology and robotics in dental surgeries and procedures.

It has also been established that, because of these innovations, there is higher accuracy in surgeries, reducing the risk of complications which is a big win for the dental industry today. This is not to mention the increased convenience for the patient. So, Reggie might not have to wait that long to get his dental implants anymore.

Here are some of the technology innovations that have rocked the world of dentistry over the years.

Navigational dentistry

Navigation surgery in dental procedures is associated with better accuracy, improved reliability, and convenience. These techniques are often linked with imaging systems like cone-beam computed tomography. This ensures better safety as compared with conventional dental procedures. There’s also a generally reduced failure rate, especially for dental implants, since less invasive methods are used. Therefore, there’s an increased success rate of such surgeries and fewer major complications.

Robotics-assisted dental surgeries

Advanced artificial intelligence in robotics is now used in navigational surgery for many dental procedures such as implant treatment periodontics, orthodontics, endodontics, and so much more. Increased precision and better dental care are made available using robotics over traditional freehand techniques. Dental clinicians can also use artificial intelligence to create new methods of diagnosing and treatment.

Complications of traditional implant surgery vs use of robotics

Several things could go wrong during implant surgery. These include:

  • Injuries are caused by incision or perforation of the lingual plate, inferior border, inferior alveolar canal, and so on;
  • Tissue necrosis or death;
  • Implant Dehiscence defect; and
  • Damage to a nerve.

The above kinds of injury can cause complications and severe infections. Other factors can lead to complications such as lack of adequate dental expertise, patient-related or underlying conditions, and implant location.

A surgical guide should help the dentist navigate during traditional dental surgeries, but there could be specific errors, such as fitting and angulation. With robotics, the clinician can change direction during the implant procedure, unlike surgical guides, which don’t allow any adjustments. Other benefits of using robotics in surgical implant treatment are:

  • Imaging during the preoperative phase to enable the dentist properly views the anatomical features.
  • It hands over control to the dentist after its job is done.
  • It makes use of sensory feedback for correct angulation and positioning.
  • It provides navigational guidance to the dental clinician.
  • It is more convenient for the patient.

Use of microrobots

Microrobots can be used in endodontic therapy. In this procedure, the microrobot is placed on the tooth. It carries out the root canal procedure, including cleaning and drilling, to reduce errors and improve the reliability of the process.


Nanotechnology is simply the branch of engineering and technology concerned with building and designing nanobots. These nanobots are tiny machines that can interact with specific cells in the body. This interaction can lead to changes in treatment delivery and overall therapeutic effect.

Nano dentistry is the application of nanotechnology in the field of dentistry. Due to its small size(nanometers), it is used at the cellular or molecular level to manage all complicated cases and reduce the failure rate of dental procedures. Nanotech is used in restorative surgeries, periodontics, bone replacement, and drug delivery.

More beneficial than conventional methods

In summary, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are more beneficial than conventional methods but are slowly used in dentistry compared to other areas of medicine. Dentists must play a massive role in adopting these techniques and increasing their knowledge about these technological advancements.

Since the goal of patient care is optimum treatment, tech advancements have been proven to provide a better quality of treatment and are worth giving a shot. Conventional dental procedures are time-consuming and are also largely inconvenient.

Still, technology can take all these disadvantages away by saving time, improving precision and accuracy, improving reliability, reduce complications and failure rates for dental procedures.

Studying Nanoparticle Impact on Crops Informs Safe Agriculture – Nanomaterials to Enhance Crop Yield – Blessing or Curse?

Corn Field 040322

Study: Nanoparticle-based toxicity in perishable vegetable crops: Molecular insights, impact on human health and mitigation strategies for sustainable cultivation. Image Credit: funnyangel/

Nanomaterials to Enhance Crop Yield – Blessing or Curse?

Nanotechnology is agriculture’s most advanced transdisciplinary tool, with great potential to impact the growth and development of plants.

The employment of nanoparticles (NPs) as well as nanomaterials (NMs) in agriculture, notably the production of perishable vegetable crops, has expanded dramatically as a result of advances in nanotechnology. Plant development and growth, postharvest handling of fruits and vegetables, plant stress management and seed germination are all influenced by NPs and NMs.

Several aspects of vegetable agriculture have benefited through the application of NPs, including the growth and development of plants, biotic and abiotic stress control, as well as postharvest handling of vegetable crops.

Nevertheless, the hazardous impact of nanoparticles on plants has also been studied, with several studies concluding that greater NP concentrations have a detrimental impact on plants, including genotoxic, chemical, physiological as well as morphological alterations. Excessive reactive oxygen and oxidative stress species formation caused by these NPs can induce toxicity in plants, affecting cellular macromolecules and resulting in unbalanced metabolic and biological processes.

The Importance of Understanding NP Toxicity

As a result of nanoparticle-induced toxicity, the knowledge of the mechanisms underpinning NP-plant interactions is essential for understanding plant biochemical and physiological responses, assessing phytotoxicity, and designing mitigation methods for vegetable crop management. The study conducted by the researchers discusses current biochemical, physical, and molecular findings on nanotoxicity in vegetable crops to address this.

Mechanism of Toxicity Propagation

Once crops are exposed to nanoparticles, free radicals and cellular redox state alterations like hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), superoxide anion (O2), hydroxyl (OH), and oxygen singlet are produced, disrupting cell stability as well as functions by negatively impacting biomolecules like membrane lipids, DNA, protein, and carbohydrates.

Aggregation size, concentration, surface modification and shape are all factors that influence the amount of NP-based phytotoxicity. NPs have been shown to cause plant organ specificity, stress reliance and species-specific toxicity in the form of germination and seedling development. Studying the biochemical and physiological reactions exerted by plants, along with assessing phytotoxicity in vegetable crops, necessitates elucidating the mechanism of interactions with NPs.

Influences Differ by the Types of Nanoparticles

NMs are categorized in a variety of ways, but the most common ones are determined by the chemical composition as well as the number of dimensions of the composite. These materials can be classified as zero-dimensional, one-dimensional, two-dimensional or three-dimensional (one dimension on the nanoscale level). NPs are classified as organic, inorganic, or carbon-based based on their chemical structure.

Both the type of nanoparticle and plant species contribute to phototoxicity and are thus key factors to consider. Cucumber root development was shown to have slowed by the retention of aluminum oxide nanoparticles, whereas radish root growth was enhanced.

Titanium oxide nanoparticles were shown to limit cucumber root development while promoting the growth of spinach. In lettuce, the carbon nanotube suspension lowered seedling length, germination rate, as well as biomass; nevertheless, the same parameters were determined to be raised in tomatoes and onions.

Different NPs had different impacts on root development, which varied according to the plant species, with lettuce being the most vulnerable to phytotoxicity. The toxicity of plants has also been shown to be affected by surface alteration spurred by nanomaterials.

Remedies and Future of Nano Agriculture

While significant progress has been achieved in nanotechnology and agriculture, especially when nanoparticles are now widely employed in a variety of commercial settings, the use of nanoparticles in agricultural businesses lacks a well-defined assessment framework and risk governance across domains.

As a result, advancements in this subject are required not just for sustainable agriculture, as well as for regulation, risk evaluation, and management, as well as risk assessment and analysis. Agriculture and health sectors might benefit from omics technology, technological advancements, and multidisciplinary methods for environmental expansion and legislative implementation.


Sharma, S., Shree, B., Aditika, Sharma, A., Irfan, M., and Kumar, P. (2022). Nanoparticle-based toxicity in perishable vegetable crops: Molecular insights, impact on human health and mitigation strategies for sustainable cultivation. Environmental Research. Available at: