‘Artificial leaf’ concept inspires research into solar-powered fuel production: Rice University

A schematic and electron microscope cross-section show the structure of an integrated, solar-powered catalyst to split water into hydrogen fuel and oxygen. The module developed at Rice University can be immersed into water directly to produce fuel when exposed to sunlight. Credit: Jia Liang/Rice University

Rice University researchers have created an efficient, low-cost device that splits water to produce hydrogen fuel.

The platform developed by the Brown School of Engineering lab of Rice materials scientist Jun Lou integrates catalytic electrodes and  that, when triggered by sunlight, produce electricity. The current flows to the catalysts that turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, with a sunlight-to-hydrogen efficiency as high as 6.7%.

This sort of catalysis isn’t new, but the lab packaged a  layer and the electrodes into a single module that, when dropped into water and placed in sunlight, produces hydrogen with no further input.

The  introduced by Lou, lead author and Rice postdoctoral fellow Jia Liang and their colleagues in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano is a self-sustaining producer of  that, they say, should be simple to produce in bulk.

“The concept is broadly similar to an artificial leaf,” Lou said. “What we have is an integrated module that turns sunlight into electricity that drives an electrochemical reaction. It utilizes water and sunlight to get chemical fuels.”

Perovskites are crystals with cubelike lattices that are known to harvest light. The most efficient perovskite  produced so far achieve an efficiency above 25%, but the materials are expensive and tend to be stressed by light, humidity and heat.

“Jia has replaced the more expensive components, like platinum, in perovskite solar cells with alternatives like carbon,” Lou said. “That lowers the entry barrier for commercial adoption. Integrated devices like this are promising because they create a system that is sustainable. This does not require any external power to keep the module running.”

Liang said the key component may not be the perovskite but the polymer that encapsulates it, protecting the module and allowing to be immersed for long periods.

“Others have developed catalytic systems that connect the solar cell outside the water to immersed electrodes with a wire,” he said. “We simplify the system by encapsulating the perovskite layer with a Surlyn (polymer) film.”

The patterned film allows sunlight to reach the solar cell while protecting it and serves as an insulator between the cells and the electrodes, Liang said.

“With a clever system design, you can potentially make a self-sustaining loop,” Lou said. “Even when there’s no sunlight, you can use stored energy in the form of chemical fuel. You can put the hydrogen and oxygen products in separate tanks and incorporate another module like a fuel cell to turn those fuels back into electricity.”

The researchers said they will continue to improve the encapsulation technique as well as the solar themselves to raise the efficiency of the modules.

More information: Jia Liang et al, A Low-Cost and High-Efficiency Integrated Device toward Solar-Driven Water Splitting, ACS Nano (2020). DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.9b09053

Journal information: ACS Nano

Provided by Rice University

New Catalyst Recycles Greenhouse Gases into Fuel and Hydrogen Gas: KAIST and Rice University

greenhouse gas 1 ImageForNews_27007_15820400184564587

       The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST

Scientists have taken a major step toward a circular carbon economy by developing a long-lasting, economical catalyst that recycles greenhouse gases into ingredients that can be used in fuel, hydrogen gas, and other chemicals. The results could be revolutionary in the effort to reverse global warming, according to the researchers. The study was published on February 14 in Science.

“We set out to develop an effective catalyst that can convert large amounts of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane without failure,” said Cafer T. Yavuz, paper author and associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of chemistry at KAIST.

The catalyst, made from inexpensive and abundant nickel, magnesium, and molybdenum, initiates and speeds up the rate of reaction that converts carbon dioxide and methane into hydrogen gas. It can work efficiently for more than a month.

This conversion is called ‘dry reforming’, where harmful gases, such as carbon dioxide, are processed to produce more useful chemicals that could be refined for use in fuel, plastics, or even pharmaceuticals. It is an effective process, but it previously required rare and expensive metals such as platinum and rhodium to induce a brief and inefficient chemical reaction.

Other researchers had previously proposed nickel as a more economical solution, but carbon byproducts would build up and the surface nanoparticles would bind together on the cheaper metal, fundamentally changing the composition and geometry of the catalyst and rendering it useless.

“The difficulty arises from the lack of control on scores of active sites over the bulky catalysts surfaces because any refinement procedures attempted also change the nature of the catalyst itself,” Yavuz said.

The researchers produced nickel-molybdenum nanoparticles under a reductive environment in the presence of a single crystalline magnesium oxide. As the ingredients were heated under reactive gas, the nanoparticles moved on the pristine crystal surface seeking anchoring points. The resulting activated catalyst sealed its own high-energy active sites and permanently fixed the location of the nanoparticles — meaning that the nickel-based catalyst will not have a carbon build up, nor will the surface particles bind to one another. (Article continues below **)

Read More from Rice University: Rice reactor turns greenhouse gas into pure liquid fuel

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This schematic shows the electrolyzer developed at Rice to reduce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to valuable fuels. At left is a catalyst that selects for carbon dioxide and reduces it to a negatively charged formate, which is pulled through a gas diffusion layer (GDL) and the anion exchange membrane (AEM) into the central electrolyte. At the right, an oxygen evolution reaction (OER) catalyst generates positive protons from water and sends them through the cation exchange membrane (CEM). The ions recombine into formic acid or other products that are carried out of the system by deionized (DI) water and gas. Illustration by Chuan Xia and Demin Liu


Greenhouse Gas 20170327_pr4602_co2tocnt



(** New catalyst recycles greenhouse gases into fuel and hydrogen gas continues)

“It took us almost a year to understand the underlying mechanism,” said first author Youngdong Song, a graduate student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at KAIST. “Once we studied all the chemical events in detail, we were shocked.”

The researchers dubbed the catalyst Nanocatalysts on Single Crystal Edges (NOSCE). The magnesium-oxide nanopowder comes from a finely structured form of magnesium oxide, where the molecules bind continuously to the edge. There are no breaks or defects in the surface, allowing for uniform and predictable reactions.

“Our study solves a number of challenges the catalyst community faces,” Yavuz said. “We believe the NOSCE mechanism will improve other inefficient catalytic reactions and provide even further savings of greenhouse gas emissions.”

This work was supported, in part, by the Saudi-Aramco-KAIST CO2 Management Center and the National Research Foundation of Korea.

Other contributors include Ercan Ozdemir, Sreerangappa Ramesh, Aldiar Adishev, and Saravanan Subramanian, all of whom are affiliated with the Graduate School of Energy, Environment, Water and Sustainability at KAIST; Aadesh Harale, Mohammed Albuali, Bandar Abdullah Fadhel, and Aqil Jamal, all of whom are with the Research and Development Center in Saudi Arabia; and Dohyun Moon and Sun Hee Choi, both of whom are with the Pohang Accelerator Laboratory in Korea. Ozdemir is also affiliated with the Institute of Nanotechnology at the Gebze Technical University in Turkey; Fadhel and Jamal are also affiliated with the Saudi-Armco-KAIST CO2 Management Center in Korea.

Story Source:

Materials provided by The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Youngdong Song, Ercan Ozdemir, Sreerangappa Ramesh, Aldiar Adishev, Saravanan Subramanian, Aadesh Harale, Mohammed Albuali, Bandar Abdullah Fadhel, Aqil Jamal, Dohyun Moon, Sun Hee Choi, Cafer T. Yavuz. Dry reforming of methane by stable Ni–Mo nanocatalysts on single-crystalline MgOScience, 2020; 367 (6479): 777 DOI: 10.1126/science.aav2412

Unique Rice platform helps bioscientists learn how ectoderm cells begin to differentiate


During embryonic development, the entire nervous system, the skin and the sensory organs emerge from a single sheet of cells known as the ectoderm. While there have been extensive studies of how this sheet forms all these derivatives, it hasn’t been possible to study the process in humans – until now.

Rice bioscientist Aryeh Warmflash, graduate student George Britton and their colleagues have created a system in which all of the major cell types of ectoderm are formed in a culture dish in a pattern similar to that seen in embryos.This technique, based on controlling the geometry of stem cell colonies with microscale patterns, has helped them make the most comprehensive analysis yet of signaling pathways that drive patterning of human ectoderm.

“There are very few possible signals the embryo uses to generate the wide variety of cell types that arise,” Britton said. “We want to understand the timing of these signals and how the cells interpret them in time to generate this variety.”

It revealed that the balance between two signaling pathways, BMP and Wnt, are both critical, and even a bit adaptable as they orchestrate patterning in the ectoderm. The logic they employ ultimately drives ectodermal cells to their fates, but the research showed they can take more than one road to get there.

Britton said the micro-patterned plates and a better understanding of how the signaling pathways work let them manipulate stem cell colonies to form unusual patterns at the start, but ultimately they always seemed to converge at the same place. “We found different trajectories of the signals that arrived at the same pattern,” he said. That suggested the system by which stem cells become neurons, neural crest cells, neurogenic placodes and epidermis cells is pretty robust.

“A lot of people are interested in the transcription factor network that directs neural crest emergence, so this is a powerful system to dissect the signals that contribute to that logic,” Britton said. “That was one thing we feel we contributed to the field.

“There’s also the idea that cells that have the ability to interpret relative levels of BMP and Wnt to incorporate the appropriate fate decision,” he said. “In the embryo, cells are moving around quite a bit in a space where signals and the ligands they’re exposed to are also moving around. It might be that cells are reading the relative levels to determine a certain fate.”

The researchers observed that the relative activity of BMP and Wnt signaling determines cells’ decisions to become either neural crest or placodal cells, while BMP alone initiates and controls the size of the surface ectoderm, all within about the first four days.

“Four days is about right in the sense that cells are starting to make decisions: ‘I’m going to be a placodal cell, I’m going to be a neural crest cell, I’m going to be neural fate and I’m going to an epidermal fate,” Britton said.
Unique Rice platform helps bioscientists learn how ectoderm cells begin to differentiate
“We see that approximately a day or two after BMP treatment. But it’s hard to put a finger on whether these are the final patterns,” he said. “We’d have to do a more careful observation to make sure those placodal cells don’t change to neural crest cells, or vice versa. That will give us information on how these lineages and fates settle into a final pattern, maybe by day 6 or 7.”

He said future studies will further refine their understanding of how signaling patterns work, as well as how the development of all the germ layers collaborate.

“Until now, studies of human stem cells differentiating to ectodermal fates were mostly about how to get all the cells in your culture dish to become a particular cell type; for example, how to make a dish full of neurons,” Warmflash said. “We are interested in a different question: How do cells interact with each other to make patterns of different cell fates? The system we developed does this outside the embryo and is allowing us to begin to tackle this question.”

Rice University

Rice University: Li-Ion Components for High-Temperature Aerospace, Industrial Apps


A toothpaste-like composite with hexagonal boron nitride developed by researchers at Rice University is an effective electrolyte and separator in lithium-ion batteries intended for high-temperature applications in a number of industries, including aerospace and oil and gas. (Source: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

One major and dangerous problem with lithium-ion batteries is that they can catch fire when heated to high temperatures, an issue that has caused damage and even death when devices ignited without warning.

Now researchers at Rice University have come up with a solution to this very serious safety problem in the form of a combined electrolyte and separator for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that supplies energy at usable voltages and in high temperatures. The material is a toothpaste-like composite that is capable of performing well at and withstanding high temperatures without combusting.

The problem with most current lithium-battery chemistries is that they present safety concerns when heated beyond 50C (122F) due to the electrolyte/separator combination used in them, explained Marco-Tulio Rodrigues, a Rice graduate student and one of the authors of a paper on the research published in Advanced Materials Science.


“The separator is usually a thin polymer film and may deform at high temperatures, causing a short circuit,” Rodrigues told Design News. “The electrolytes are based on organic solvents, which tend to boil at high temperatures, increasing the internal pressure of the cell. Although commercial batteries implement some protection mechanisms to avoid these problems, any damages to the cell case may potentially lead to ignition, since the electrolyte is also highly flammable.”


The work of the Rice team addresses both the issue of developing a separator that will not cause a short circuit and an electrolyte that doesn’t have the tendency to catch fire, he said.

The batteries made with the components they developed functioned as intended in temperatures of 50C (122F) for more than a month without losing efficiency, according to researchers. Moreover, test batteries consistently operated from room temperature to 150C (302F), setting one of the widest temperature ranges ever reported for such devices, they said.

To solve the electrolyte problem, researchers used solutions based on ionic liquids in the electrolytes, which have largely been proposed as substitutes for organic solvents in the electrolyte of lithium-ion batteries because they present a much higher thermal stability, Rodrigues explained.

“These chemicals are basically special salts with a very low melting point, in such a way that they are liquid at room temperatures,” he said. “They are completely nonflammable and they do not evaporate at all until they decompose, which occurs beyond 350C (662F).”

With the electrolyte situation solved, researchers turned their attention to finding a new separator, which they addressed with a material called hexagonal boron nitride, also known as white graphene.

One-atom switch supercharges fluorescent dyes – Rice University

Rice lab discovers simple technique to make biocompatible ‘turn-on’ dyes

It only took the replacement of one atom for Rice University scientists to give new powers to biocompatible fluorescent molecules.

The Rice lab of chemist Han Xiao reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society it has developed a single-atom switch to turn fluorescent dyes used in biological imaging on and off at will. The technique will enable high-resolution imaging and dynamic tracking of biological processes in living cells, tissues and animals.

The Rice lab developed a minimally modified probe that can be triggered by a broad range of visible light. The patented process could replace existing photoactivatable fluorophores that may only be activated with ultraviolet light or require toxic chemicals to turn on the fluorescence, characteristics that limit their usefulness.

The researchers took advantage of a phenomenon known as photo-induced electron transfer (PET), which was already known to quench fluorescent signals.

Rice University chemist Han Xiao and his colleagues have discovered a simple method to turn fluorescent tags on and off with visible light by switching one atom. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Rice University chemist Han Xiao and his colleagues have discovered a simple method to turn fluorescent tags on and off with visible light by switching one atom. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

They put fluorophores in cages of thiocarbonyl, the moeity responsible for quenching. With one-step organic synthesis, they replaced an oxygen atom in the cage with one of sulfur. That enabled them to induce the PET effect to quench fluorescence.

Triggering the complex again with visible light near the fluorescent molecule’s preferred absorbance oxidized the cage in turn. That knocked out the sulfur and replaced it with an oxygen atom, restoring fluorescence.

“All it takes to make these is a little chemistry and one step,” said Xiao, who joined Rice in 2017 with funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas  (CPRIT). “We demonstrated in the paper that it works the same for a range of fluorescent dyes. Basically, one reaction solves a lot of problems.”

Researchers worldwide use fluorescent molecules to tag and track cells or elements within cells. Activating the tags with low-powered visible light rather than ultraviolet is much less damaging to the cells being studied, Xiao said, and makes the long exposures of living cells required by super-resolution imaging possible.

Super-resolution experiments by Theodore Wensel, the Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry at Baylor College of Medicine, and his team confirmed their abilities, he said.

“We feel this will be a really good probe for living-cell imaging,” Xiao said. “People also use photoactivatable dye to track the dynamics of proteins, to see where and how far and how fast they travel. Our work was to provide a simple, general way to generate this dye.”

At top, a sequence shows the design of thio-caged dyes designed at Rice University to be triggered by visible light. At bottom, confocal and super-resolution imaging of a lipid droplet in living adipocytes incubated with BODIPY (green), SNile Red (red) and Hoechst 33342 (blue), followed by photoactivation using a 561 nm laser. Scale bar: 10 µm. Scale bar for super-resolution image of lipid droplet labeled with SNile Red, bottom right: 1 µm. Courtesy of the Xiao Lab

At top, a sequence shows the design of thio-caged dyes designed at Rice University to be triggered by visible light. At bottom, confocal and super-resolution imaging of a lipid droplet in living adipocytes incubated with BODIPY (green), SNile Red (red) and Hoechst 33342 (blue), followed by photoactivation using a 561-nanometer laser. Scale bar: 10 µm. Scale bar for super-resolution image of lipid droplet labeled with SNile Red, bottom right: 1 µm. Courtesy of the Xiao Lab

The researchers found their technique worked on a wide range of common fluorescent tags and could even be mixed for multicolor imaging of targeted molecules in a single cell.

Rice postdoctoral researcher Juan Tang is lead author of the paper. Co-authors are Rice graduate students Kuan-Lin Wu and Jingqi Pei; postdoctoral fellow Michael Robichaux of Baylor; and graduate student Nhung Nguyen and Yubin Zhou, an assistant professor at the Center for Translational Cancer Research at Texas A&M University. Xiao is the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator and an assistant professor of chemistry, biosciences, and bioengineering.

CPRIT, the Robert A. Welch Foundation, a Hamill Innovation Award, a John S. Dunn Foundation Collaborative Research Award and the National Institutes of Health supported the research.

“Affairs of the Heart” – Texas Heart Institute & Rice University – Damaged hearts are rewired with Nanotube Fibers

Rice Nano Tube Hearts 7eae23_46bb535810c64757b54ee0fe3f4d8c8c_mv2
Researchers at Texas Heart Institute and Rice University have confirmed that flexible, conductive fibers made of carbon nanotubes can bridge damaged tissue to deliver electrical signals and keep hearts beating despite congestive heart failure or dilated cardiomyopathy or after a heart attack. @ Texas Heart Institute Thin, flexible fibers made of carbon nanotubes have now proven able to bridge damaged heart tissues and deliver the electrical signals needed to keep those hearts beating.

Scientists at Texas Heart Institute (THI) report they have used biocompatible fibers invented at Rice University in studies that showed sewing them directly into damaged tissue can restore electrical function to hearts.

“Instead of shocking and defibrillating, we are actually correcting diseased conduction of the largest major pumping chamber of the heart by creating a bridge to bypass and conduct over a scarred area of a damaged heart,” said Dr. Mehdi Razavi, a cardiologist and director of Electrophysiology Clinical Research and Innovations at THI, who co-led the study with Rice chemical and biomolecular engineer Matteo Pasquali.

“Today there is no technology that treats the underlying cause of the No. 1 cause of sudden death, ventricular arrhythmias,” Razavi said. “These arrhythmias are caused by the disorganized firing of impulses from the heart’s lower chambers and are challenging to treat in patients after a heart attack or with scarred heart tissue due to such other conditions as congestive heart failure or dilated cardiomyopathy.”

Results of the studies on preclinical models appear as an open-access Editor’s Pick in the American Heart Association’s Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology. The association helped fund the research with a 2015 grant.

The research springs from the pioneering 2013 invention by Pasquali’s lab of a method to make conductive fibers out of carbon nanotubes. The lab’s first threadlike fibers were a quarter of the width of a human hair, but contained tens of millions of microscopic nanotubes. The fibers are also being studied for electrical interfaces with the brain, for use in cochlear implants, as flexible antennas and for automotive and aerospace applications.

The experiments showed the nontoxic, polymer-coated fibers, with their ends stripped to serve as electrodes, were effective in restoring function during month-long tests in large preclinical models as well as rodents, whether the initial conduction was slowed, severed or blocked, according to the researchers. The fibers served their purpose with or without the presence of a pacemaker, they found.

In the rodents, they wrote, conduction disappeared when the fibers were removed.

“The reestablishment of cardiac conduction with carbon nanotube fibers has the potential to revolutionize therapy for cardiac electrical disturbances, one of the most common causes of death in the United States,” said co-lead author Mark McCauley, who carried out many of the experiments as a postdoctoral fellow at THI. He is now an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

“Our experiments provided the first scientific support for using a synthetic material-based treatment rather than a drug to treat the leading cause of sudden death in the U.S. and many developing countries around the world,” Razavi added.

Many questions remain before the procedure can move toward human testing, Pasquali said. The researchers must establish a way to sew the fibers in place using a minimally invasive catheter, and make sure the fibers are strong and flexible enough to serve a constantly beating heart over the long term. He said they must also determine how long and wide fibers should be, precisely how much electricity they need to carry and how they would perform in the growing hearts of young patients.

“Flexibility is important because the heart is continuously pulsating and moving, so anything that’s attached to the heart’s surface is going to be deformed and flexed,” said Pasquali, who has appointments at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering and Wiess School of Natural Sciences.

“Good interfacial contact is also critical to pick up and deliver the electrical signal,” he said. “In the past, multiple materials had to be combined to attain both electrical conductivity and effective contacts. These fibers have both properties built in by design, which greatly simplifies device construction and lowers risks of long-term failure due to delamination of multiple layers or coatings.”

Razavi noted that while there are many effective antiarrhythmic drugs available, they are often contraindicated in patients after a heart attack. “What is really needed therapeutically is to increase conduction,” he said. “Carbon nanotube fibers have the conductive properties of metal but are flexible enough to allow us to navigate and deliver energy to a very specific area of a delicate, damaged heart.”

In Vivo Restoration of Myocardial Conduction With Carbon Nanotube Fibers

Mark D. McCauley, Flavia Vitale, J. Stephen Yan, Colin C. Young, Brian Greet, Marco Orecchioni, Srikanth Perike, Abdelmotagaly Elgalad, Julia A. Coco, Mathews John, Doris A. Taylor, Luiz C. Sampaio, Lucia G. Delogu, Mehdi Razavi, Matteo Pasquali

Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology Vol. 12, No. 8

DOI: 10.1161/CIRCEP.119.007256

Contact information:

Matteo Pasquali

Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Rice University


Phone: 713-348-5830

Pasquali Research Group

Mehdi Razavi

Cardiologist, Associate Professor of Medicine-Cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine and Director of Electrophysiology Clinical Research and Innovations at THI


Rice University

Engineers at Rice University boost output of solar desalination system by 50%

Concentrating the sunlight on tiny spots on the heat-generating membrane exploits an inherent and previously unrecognized nonlinear relationship between photothermal heating and vapor pressure. Credit: Pratiksha Dongare/Rice University

Rice University’s solar-powered approach for purifying salt water with sunlight and nanoparticles is even more efficient than its creators first believed.

Researchers in Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) this week showed they could boost the efficiency of their solar-powered desalination system by more than 50% simply by adding inexpensive plastic lenses to concentrate sunlight into “hot spots.” The results are available online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The typical way to boost performance in solar-driven systems is to add solar concentrators and bring in more light,” said Pratiksha Dongare, a graduate student in applied physics at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering and co-lead author of the paper. “The big difference here is that we’re using the same amount of light. We’ve shown it’s possible to inexpensively redistribute that power and dramatically increase the rate of purified  production.”

In conventional membrane distillation, hot, salty water is flowed across one side of a sheetlike membrane while cool, filtered water flows across the other. The temperature difference creates a difference in  that drives water vapor from the heated side through the membrane toward the cooler, lower-pressure side. Scaling up the technology is difficult because the  across the membrane—and the resulting output of clean water—decreases as the size of the membrane increases. Rice’s “nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation” (NESMD) technology addresses this by using light-absorbing nanoparticles to turn the membrane itself into a solar-driven .

'Hot spots' increase efficiency of solar desalination

Rice University researchers (from left) Pratiksha Dongare, Alessandro Alabastri and Oara Neumann showed that Rice’s ‘nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation’ (NESMD) system was more efficient when the size of the device was scaled up and light was concentrated in ‘hot spots.’ Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Dongare and colleagues, including study co-lead author Alessandro Alabastri, coat the top layer of their membranes with low-cost, commercially available nanoparticles that are designed to convert more than 80% of sunlight energy into heat. The solar-driven nanoparticle heating reduces production costs, and Rice engineers are working to scale up the technology for applications in  that have no access to electricity.

The concept and particles used in NESMD were first demonstrated in 2012 by LANP director Naomi Halas and research scientist Oara Neumann, who are both co-authors on the new study. In this week’s study, Halas, Dongare, Alabastri, Neumann and LANP physicist Peter Nordlander found they could exploit an inherent and previously unrecognized nonlinear relationship between incident light intensity and vapor pressure.

Alabastri, a physicist and Texas Instruments Research Assistant Professor in Rice’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, used a simple mathematical example to describe the difference between a linear and nonlinear relationship. “If you take any two numbers that equal 10—seven and three, five and five, six and four—you will always get 10 if you add them together. But if the process is nonlinear, you might square them or even cube them before adding. So if we have nine and one, that would be nine squared, or 81, plus one squared, which equals 82. That is far better than 10, which is the best you can do with a linear relationship.”

In the case of NESMD, the nonlinear improvement comes from concentrating sunlight into tiny spots, much like a child might with a magnifying glass on a sunny day. Concentrating the light on a tiny spot on the membrane results in a linear increase in heat, but the heating, in turn, produces a nonlinear increase in vapor pressure. And the increased pressure forces more purified steam through the membrane in less time.

'Hot spots' increase efficiency of solar desalination
Researchers from Rice University’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics found they could boost the efficiency of their solar-powered desalination system by more than 50% by adding inexpensive plastic lenses to concentrate sunlight into “hot spots.” . Credit: Pratiksha Dongare/Rice University

“We showed that it’s always better to have more photons in a smaller area than to have a homogeneous distribution of photons across the entire ,” Alabastri said.

Halas, a chemist and engineer who’s spent more than 25 years pioneering the use of light-activated nanomaterials, said, “The efficiencies provided by this nonlinear optical process are important because water scarcity is a daily reality for about half of the world’s people, and efficient solar distillation could change that.

“Beyond water purification, this nonlinear optical effect also could improve technologies that use solar heating to drive chemical processes like photocatalysis,” Halas said.

For example, LANP is developing a copper-based nanoparticle for converting ammonia into hydrogen fuel at ambient pressure.

Halas is the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, director of Rice’s Smalley-Curl Institute and a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, physics and astronomy, and materials science and nanoengineering.

NESMD is in development at the Rice-based Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) and won research and development funding from the Department of Energy’s Solar Desalination program in 2018.

Explore further

Freshwater from salt water using only solar energy: Modular, off-grid desalination technology

More information: Pratiksha D. Dongare et al, Solar thermal desalination as a nonlinear optical process, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1905311116

Provided by Rice University

Chemists build a better cancer-killing drill: Rice University designs molecular motors with an upgrade for activation with near-infrared light

Houston, TX | Posted on May 29th, 2019

Researchers at Rice University, Durham (U.K.) University and North Carolina State University reported their success at activating the motors with precise two-photon excitation via near-infrared light. Unlike the ultraviolet light they first used to drive the motors, the new technique does not damage adjacent, healthy cells.

The team’s results appear in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano.

The research led by chemists James Tour of Rice, Robert Pal of Durham and Gufeng Wang of North Carolina may be best applied to skin, oral and gastrointestinal cancer cells that can be reached for treatment with a laser. 

In a 2017 Nature paper, the same team reported the development of molecular motors enhanced with small proteins that target specific cancer cells.

Once in place and activated with light, the paddlelike motors spin up to 3 million times a second, allowing the molecules to drill through the cells’ protective membranes and killing them in minutes.

Since then, researchers have worked on a way to eliminate the use of damaging ultraviolet light. In two-photon absorption, a phenomenon predicted in 1931 and confirmed 30 years later with the advent of lasers, the motors absorb photons in two frequencies and move to a higher energy state, triggering the paddles.

A video produced in 2017 explains the basic concept of cell death via molecular motors. Video produced by Brandon Martin/Rice University.

“Multiphoton activation is not only more biocompatible but also allows deeper tissue penetration and eliminates any unwanted side effects that may arise with the previously used UV light,” Pal said. 

The researchers tested their updated motors on skin, breast, cervical and prostate cancer cells in the lab. Once the motors found their targets, lasers activated them with a precision of about 200 nanometers.

In most cases, the cells were dead within three minutes, they reported. They believe the motors also drill through chromatin and other components of the diseased cells, which could help slow metastasis.

Because the motors target specific cells, Tour said work is underway to adapt them to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria as well.

“We continue to perfect the molecular motors, aiming toward ones that will work with visible light and provide even higher efficacies of kill toward the cellular targets,” he said.

Rice postdoctoral researcher Dongdong Liu is lead author of the paper. Co-authors are Rice alumni Victor Garcia-López, Lizanne Nilewski and Amir Aliyan, visiting research scientist Richard Gunasekera, and senior research scientist Lawrence Alemany and graduate student Tao Jin of North Carolina State.

Wang is an assistant professor of chemistry at North Carolina State. Pal is an assistant professor of chemistry at Durham. Tour is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice.

The Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Discovery Institute, the Pensmore Foundation and North Carolina State supported the research.

About Rice University
Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 2 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews.

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Rice University – Flexible insulator offers high strength and superior thermal conduction – Applications for Flexible Electronics and Energy Storage


flexible insulator offers high strength and superior thermal conduction
Rice University research scientist M.M. Rahman holds a flexible dielectric made of a polymer nanofiber layer and boron nitride. The new material stands up to high temperatures and could be ideal for flexible electronics, energy storage and electric devices where heat is a factor. Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A nanocomposite invented at Rice University’s Brown School of Engineering promises to be a superior high-temperature dielectric material for flexible electronics, energy storage and electric devices.

The nanocomposite combines one-dimensional  nanofibers and two-dimensional  nanosheets. The nanofibers reinforce the self-assembling material while the “white graphene” nanosheets provide a thermally conductive network that allows it to withstand the heat that breaks down common dielectrics, the polarized insulators in batteries and other devices that separate positive and negative electrodes.

The discovery by the lab of Rice  scientist Pulickel Ajayan is detailed in Advanced Functional Materials.

Research scientist M.M. Rahman and postdoctoral researcher Anand Puthirath of the Ajayan lab led the study to meet the challenge posed by next-generation electronics: Dielectrics must be thin, tough, flexible and able to withstand .

“Ceramic is a very good dielectric, but it is mechanically brittle,” Rahman said of the common material. “On the other hand, polymer is a good dielectric with good mechanical properties, but its thermal tolerance is very low.”

Boron  is an electrical insulator, but happily disperses heat, he said. “When we combined the polymer nanofiber with boron nitride, we got a material that’s mechanically exceptional, and thermally and chemically very stable,” Rahman said.

A lab video shows how quickly heat disperses from a composite of a polymer nanoscale fiber layer and boron nitride nanosheets. When exposed to light, both materials heat up, but the plain polymer nanofiber layer on the left retains the heat far longer than the composite at right. Credit: Ajayan Research Group/Rice University

The 12-to-15-micron-thick material acts as an effective heat sink up to 250 degrees Celsius (482 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the researchers. Tests showed the polymer nanofibers-boron nitride combination dispersed heat four times better than the polymer alone.

In its simplest form, a single layer of polyaramid nanofibers binds via van der Waals forces to a sprinkling of boron nitride flakes, 10% by weight of the final product. The flakes are just dense enough to form a heat-dissipating network that still allows the composite to retain its flexibility, and even foldability, while maintaining its robustness. Layering polyaramid and boron nitride can make the material thicker while still retaining flexibility, according to the researchers.

“The 1D polyaramid  has many interesting properties except thermal conductivity,” Rahman said. “And  nitride is a very interesting 2-D material right now. They both have different independent properties, but when they are together, they make something very unique.”

Rahman said the material is scalable and should be easy to incorporate into manufacturing.

Explore further

New material to pave the way for more efficient electronic devices

More information: Muhammad M. Rahman et al. Fiber Reinforced Layered Dielectric Nanocomposite, Advanced Functional Materials (2019). DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201900056

Journal information: Advanced Functional Materials
Provided by Rice University

MIT Review: Borophene (not graphene) is the new wonder material that’s got everyone excited

Stronger and more flexible than graphene, a single-atom layer of boron could revolutionize sensors, batteries, and catalytic chemistry.

Not so long ago, graphene was the great new wonder material. A super-strong, atom-thick sheet of carbon “chicken wire,” it can form tubes, balls, and other curious shapes.

And because it conducts electricity, materials scientists raised the prospect of a new era of graphene-based computer processing and a lucrative graphene chip industry to boot. The European Union invested €1 billion to kick-start a graphene industry.

This brave new graphene-based world has yet to materialize. But it has triggered an interest in other two-dimensional materials. And the most exciting of all is borophene: a single layer of boron atoms that form various crystalline structures.

The reason for the excitement is the extraordinary range of applications that borophene looks good for. Electrochemists think borophene could become the anode material in a new generation of more powerful lithium-ion batteries.

Read More: Borophene Discoveries at Rice University

Chemists are entranced by its catalytic capabilities. And physicists are testing its abilities as a sensor to detect numerous kinds of atoms and molecules.

Today, Zhi-Qiang Wang at Xiamen University in China and a number of colleagues review the remarkable properties of borophene and the applications they might lead to.

Borophene has a short history. Physicists first predicted its existence in the 1990s using computer simulations to show how boron atoms could form a monolayer.

But this exotic substance wasn’t synthesized until 2015, using chemical vapor deposition. This is a process in which a hot gas of boron atoms condenses onto a cool surface of pure silver.

The regular arrangement of silver atoms forces boron atoms into a similar pattern, each binding to as many as six other atoms to create a flat hexagonal structure. However, a significant proportion of boron atoms bind only with four or five other atoms, and this creates vacancies in the structure. The pattern of vacancies is what gives borophene crystals their unique properties.

Since borophene’s synthesis, chemists have been eagerly characterizing its properties. Borophene turns out to be stronger than graphene, and more flexible. It a good conductor of both electricity and heat, and it also superconducts. These properties vary depending on the material’s orientation and the arrangement of vacancies. This makes it “tunable,” at least in principle. That’s one reason chemists are so excited.

Borophene is also light and fairly reactive. That makes it a good candidate for storing metal ions in batteries. “Borophene is a promising anode material for Li, Na, and Mg ion batteries due to high theoretical specific capacities, excellent electronic conductivity and outstanding ion transport properties,” say Wang and co.

Hydrogen atoms also stick easily to borophene’s single-layer structure, and this adsorption property, combined with the huge surface area of atomic layers, makes borophene a promising material for hydrogen storage. Theoretical studies suggest borophene could store over 15% of its weight in hydrogen, significantly outperforming other materials.

Then there is borophene’s ability to catalyze the breakdown of molecular hydrogen into hydrogen ions, and water into hydrogen and oxygen ions.

“Outstanding catalytic performances of borophene have been found in hydrogen evolution reaction, oxygen reduction reaction, oxygen evolution reaction, and CO2 electroreduction reaction,” say the team. That could usher in a new era of water-based energy cycles.

Nevertheless, chemists have some work to do before borophene can be more widely used. For a start, they have yet to find a way to make borophene in large quantities.

And the material’s reactivity means it is vulnerable to oxidation, so it needs to be carefully protected. Both factors make borophene expensive to make and hard to handle. So there is work ahead.

But chemists have great faith. Borophene may just become the next wonder material to entrance the world.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1903.11304 : Review of borophene and its potential applications

From MIT Technology Review March 2019