Canada: University of B.C. – Minister Holder Announces Investment in Quantum Materials Research and Future Technologies


UBC britishcolumbia2The University of British Columbia awarded major grant from Canada First Research Excellence Fund competition

 VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA, Jul 30, 2015 (Marketwired via COMTEX) — Tri-Agency Institutional Programs

Canada could be propelled to the forefront of quantum materials research thanks to an investment by the government into a new research program at the University of British Columbia. The Quantum Matter Institute, which is already acknowledged as a global leader in its field, will use the funds to explore and develop high-tech quantum materials that could lead to pioneering technology in Canada in computing and electronic devices.

Today’s announcement follows an open and competitive selection process among Canadian universities and colleges, judged by a panel of Canadian and international experts.

Quick Facts

Launched in December 2014 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund will invest $1.5 billion over seven years to propel Canadian colleges and universities to excel globally in research areas that create long-term economic advantages for Canadians.

Today’s award is part of the Fund’s first $350 million competition. — The Fund is administered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) on behalf of the three granting agencies: the SSHRC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

As set out in Economic Action Plan 2015 and the renewed science, technology and innovation strategy, the Government is committed to supporting world-class research talent and infrastructure that is essential to advanced discoveries in both the public and private sectors.

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Quotes

“Our government is investing in research and innovation to create jobs, strengthen the economy and improve the quality of life of Canadians. UBC’s Quantum Matter Institute will push Canada to become a world leader in quantum research, develop new industries around this revolutionary field, and create new jobs and opportunities for Canadians.”

-Ed Holder, Minister of State (Science and Technology)

“The Canada First Research Excellence Fund has provided Canadian universities with an unparalleled opportunity to take their leading-edge research and make it the best in the world. This will set them on course to make groundbreaking discoveries that will enhance prosperity and change the lives of Canadians and millions around the world forever.”

-Ted Hewitt, President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; and Chair, Canada First Research Excellence Fund steering committee

“We are thrilled with the federal government’s vision to invest $66.5 million to help establish UBC as a global centre for high-tech quantum materials research. The groundbreaking scientific discoveries in this field have the potential to create practical applications that could spur new industries and employment here and abroad and provide significant public benefits in areas like health and the environment.”

-Arvind Gupta, President and Vice-chancellor, University of British Columbia:

“UBC’s quantum matter community is extremely excited about today’s funding announcement. Support from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund will propel our Quantum Matter Institute (QMI) to the forefront of the field internationally. By enabling us to fully exploit QMI’s state-of-the-art infrastructure and further strengthening our international partnerships, especially with the Max Planck Society of Germany, this Fund will advance Canada’s position as a global leader in quantum materials and future technologies.”

-Andrea Damascelli, Director, Quantum Matter Institute, University of British Columbia

MIT & University of British Columbia: Nano-Supercapacitors Tiny wires could Provide a Big Energy Boost


Yarn made of niobium nanowires, seen here in a scanning electron microscope image (background), can be used to make very efficient supercapacitors, MIT researchers have found. Adding a coating of a conductive polymer to the yarn (shown in pink, inset) further increases the capacitor’s charge capacity. Positive and negative ions in the material are depicted as blue and red spheres.

Yarns of niobium nanowire can make supercapacitors to provide a surge of energy when it’s needed

Wearable electronic devices for health and fitness monitoring are a rapidly growing area of consumer electronics; one of their biggest limitations is the capacity of their tiny batteries to deliver enough power to transmit data. Now, researchers at MIT and in Canada have found a promising new approach to delivering the short but intense bursts of power needed by such small devices.

The key is a new approach to making supercapacitors — devices that can store and release electrical power in such bursts, which are needed for brief transmissions of data from wearable devices such as heart-rate monitors, computers, or smartphones, the researchers say. They may also be useful for other applications where high power is needed in small volumes, such as autonomous microrobots.

The new approach uses yarns, made from nanowires of the element niobium, as the electrodes in tiny supercapacitors (which are essentially pairs of electrically conducting fibers with an insulator between). The concept is described in a paper in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Ian W. Hunter, doctoral student Seyed M. Mirvakili, and three others at the University of British Columbia.

Nanotechnology researchers have been working to increase the performance of supercapacitors for the past decade. Among nanomaterials, carbon-based nanoparticles — such as carbon nanotubes and graphene — have shown promising results, but they suffer from relatively low electrical conductivity, Mirvakili says.

In this new work, he and his colleagues have shown that desirable characteristics for such devices, such as high power density, are not unique to carbon-based nanoparticles, and that niobium nanowire yarn is a promising an alternative.

“Imagine you’ve got some kind of wearable health-monitoring system,” Hunter says, “and it needs to broadcast data, for example using Wi-Fi, over a long distance.” At the moment, the coin-sized batteries used in many small electronic devices have very limited ability to deliver a lot of power at once, which is what such data transmissions need.

“Long-distance Wi-Fi requires a fair amount of power,” says Hunter, the George N. Hatsopoulos Professor in Thermodynamics in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, “but it may not be needed for very long.” Small batteries are generally poorly suited for such power needs, he adds.

“We know it’s a problem experienced by a number of companies in the health-monitoring or exercise-monitoring space. So an alternative is to go to a combination of a battery and a capacitor,” Hunter says: the battery for long-term, low-power functions, and the capacitor for short bursts of high power. Such a combination should be able to either increase the range of the device, or — perhaps more important in the marketplace — to significantly reduce size requirements.

The new nanowire-based supercapacitor exceeds the performance of existing batteries, while occupying a very small volume. “If you’ve got an Apple Watch and I shave 30 percent off the mass, you may not even notice,” Hunter says. “But if you reduce the volume by 30 percent, that would be a big deal,” he says: Consumers are very sensitive to the size of wearable devices.

The innovation is especially significant for small devices, Hunter says, because other energy-storage technologies — such as fuel cells, batteries, and flywheels — tend to be less efficient, or simply too complex to be practical when reduced to very small sizes. “We are in a sweet spot,” he says, with a technology that can deliver big bursts of power from a very small device.

Ideally, Hunter says, it would be desirable to have a high volumetric power density (the amount of power stored in a given volume) and high volumetric energy density (the amount of energy in a given volume). “Nobody’s figured out how to do that,” he says. However, with the new device, “We have fairly high volumetric power density, medium energy density, and a low cost,” a combination that could be well suited for many applications.

Niobium is a fairly abundant and widely used material, Mirvakili says, so the whole system should be inexpensive and easy to produce. “The fabrication cost is cheap,” he says. Other groups have made similar supercapacitors using carbon nanotubes or other materials, but the niobium yarns are stronger and 100 times more conductive. Overall, niobium-based supercapacitors can store up to five times as much power in a given volume as carbon nanotube versions.

Niobium also has a very high melting point — nearly 2,500 degrees Celsius — so devices made from these nanowires could potentially be suitable for use in high-temperature applications.

In addition, the material is highly flexible and could be woven into fabrics, enabling wearable forms; individual niobium nanowires are just 140 nanometers in diameter — 140 billionths of a meter across, or about one-thousandth the width of a human hair.

So far, the material has been produced only in lab-scale devices. The next step, already under way, is to figure out how to design a practical, easily manufactured version, the researchers say.

“The work is very significant in the development of smart fabrics and future wearable technologies,” says Geoff Spinks, a professor of engineering at the University of Wollongong, in Australia, who was not associated with this research. This paper, he adds, “convincingly demonstrates the impressive performance of niobium-based fiber supercapacitors.”

The team also included PhD student Mehr Negar Mirvakili and professors Peter Englezos and John Madden, all from the University of British Columbia.