Controlled by a synthetic gene circuit, self-assembling bacteria build working electronic sensors

Bacteria create a functioning 3D pressure-sensor device. A gene circuit (left) triggers the production of an engineered protein that enables pattern-forming bacteria on growth membranes (center) to assemble gold nanoparticles into a hybrid organic-inorganic dome structure whose size and shape can be controlled by altering the growth environment. In this proof-of-concept demonstration, the gold structure serves as a functioning pressure switch (right) that responds to touch. (credit: Yangxiaolu Cao et al./Nature Biotechnology)

Using a synthetic gene circuit, Duke University researchers have programmed self-assembling bacteria to build useful electronic devices — a first.

Other experiments have successfully grown materials using bacterial processes (for example, MIT engineers have coaxed bacterial cells to produce biofilms that can incorporate nonliving materials, such as gold nanoparticles and quantum dots). However, they have relied entirely on external control over where the bacteria grow and they have been limited to two dimensions.

In the new study, the researchers demonstrated the production of a composite structure by programming the cells themselves and controlling their access to nutrients, but still leaving the bacteria free to grow in three dimensions.*

As a demonstration, the bacteria were programmed to assemble into a finger-pressure sensor.

To create the pressure sensor, two identical arrays of domes were grown on a membrane (left) on two substrate surfaces. The two substrates were then sandwiched together (center) so that each dome was positioned directly above its counterpart on the other substrate. A battery was connected to the domes by copper wiring. When pressure was applied (right) to the sandwich, the domes pressed into one another, causing a deformation, resulting in an increase in conductivity, with resulting increased current (as shown the arrow in the ammeter). (credit: Yangxiaolu Cao et al./Nature Biotechnology)

Inspired by nature, but going beyond it

“This technology allows us to grow a functional device from a single cell,” said Lingchong You, the Paul Ruffin Scarborough Associate Professor of Engineering at Duke. “Fundamentally, it is no different from programming a cell to grow an entire tree.”

Nature is full of examples of life combining organic and inorganic compounds to make better materials. Mollusks grow shells consisting of calcium carbonate interlaced with a small amount of organic components, resulting in a microstructure three times tougher than calcium carbonate alone. Our own bones are a mix of organic collagen and inorganic minerals made up of various salts.

Harnessing such construction abilities in bacteria would have many advantages over current manufacturing processes. In nature, biological fabrication uses raw materials and energy very efficiently. In this synthetic system, for example, tweaking growth instructions to create different shapes and patterns could theoretically be much cheaper and faster than casting the new dies or molds needed for traditional manufacturing.

“Nature is a master of fabricating structured materials consisting of living and non-living components,” said You. “But it is extraordinarily difficult to program nature to create self-organized patterns. This work, however, is a proof-of-principle that it is not impossible.”

Self-healing materials

According to the researchers, in addition to creating circuits from bacteria, if the bacteria are kept alive, it may be possible to create materials that could heal themselves and respond to environmental changes.

“Another aspect we’re interested in pursuing is how to generate much more complex patterns,” said You. “Bacteria can create complex branching patterns, we just don’t know how to make them do that ourselves — yet.”

It’s a “very exciting work,” Timothy Lu, a synthetic biologist at MIT, who was not involved in the research, told The Register. “I think this represents a major step forward in the field of living materials.” Lu believes self-assembling materials “could create new manufacturing processes that may use less energy or be better for the environment than the ones today,” the article said. “But ‘the design rules for enabling bottoms-up assembly of novel materials are still not well understood,’ he cautioned.”

The study appeared online on October 9, 2107 in Nature Biotechnology. This study was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, the National Institutes of Health, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and a David and Lucile Packard Fellowship.

* The gene circuit is like a biological package of instructions that researchers embed into a bacterium’s DNA. The directions first tell the bacteria to produce a protein called T7 RNA polymerase (T7RNAP), which then activates its own expression in a positive feedback loop. It also produces a small molecule called AHL that can diffuse into the environment like a messenger. As the cells multiply and grow outward, the concentration of the small messenger molecule hits a critical concentration threshold, triggering the production of two more proteins called T7 lysozyme and curli. The former inhibits the production of T7RNAP while the latter acts as sort of biological Velcro, which grabs onto gold nanoparticles supplied by the researchers, forming a dome shell (the structure of the sensor). The researchers were able to alter the size and shape of the dome by controlling the properties of the porous membrane it grows on. For example, changing the size of the pores or how much the membrane repels water affects how many nutrients are passed to the cells, altering their growth pattern.


Abstract of Programmed assembly of pressure sensors using pattern-forming bacteria

Conventional methods for material fabrication often require harsh reaction conditions, have low energy efficiency, and can cause a negative impact on the environment and human health. In contrast, structured materials with well-defined physical and chemical properties emerge spontaneously in diverse biological systems. However, these natural processes are not readily programmable. By taking a synthetic-biology approach, we demonstrate here the programmable, three-dimensional (3D) material fabrication using pattern-forming bacteria growing on top of permeable membranes as the structural scaffold. We equip the bacteria with an engineered protein that enables the assembly of gold nanoparticles into a hybrid organic-inorganic dome structure. The resulting hybrid structure functions as a pressure sensor that responds to touch. We show that the response dynamics are determined by the geometry of the structure, which is programmable by the membrane properties and the extent of circuit activation. Taking advantage of this property, we demonstrate signal sensing and processing using one or multiple bacterially assembled structures. Our work provides the first demonstration of using engineered cells to generate functional hybrid materials with programmable architecture.

Fast-moving spinning magnetized nanoparticles could lead to ultra-high-speed, high-density data storage

Artist’s impression of skyrmion data storage (credit: Moritz Eisebitt)

An international team led by MIT associate professor of materials science and engineering Geoffrey Beach has demonstrated a practical way to use “skyrmions” to create a radical new high-speed, high-density data-storage method that could one day replace disk drives — and even replace high-speed RAM memory.

Rather than reading and writing data one bit at a time by changing the orientation of magnetized nanoparticles on a surface, Skyrmions could store data using only a tiny area of a magnetic surface — perhaps just a few atoms across — and for long periods of time, without the need for further energy input (unlike disk drives and RAM).

Beach and associates conceive skyrmions as little sub-nanosecond spin-generating eddies of magnetism controlled by electric fields — replacing the magnetic-disk system of reading and writing data one bit at a time. In experiments, skyrmions have been generated on a thin metallic film sandwiched with non-magnetic heavy metals and transition-metal ferromagnetic layers — exploiting a defect, such as a constriction in the magnetic track.*

Skyrmions are also highly stable to external magnetic and mechanical perturbations, unlike the individual magnetic poles in a conventional magnetic storage device — allowing for vastly more data to be written onto a surface of a given size.

A practical data-storage system

Google data center (credit: Google Inc.)

Beach has recently collaborated with researchers at MIT and others in Germany** to demonstrate experimentally for the first time that it’s possible to create skyrmions in specific locations, which is needed for a data-storage system. The new findings were reported October 2, 2017 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Conventional magnetic systems are now reaching speed and density limits set by the basic physics of their existing materials. The new system, once perfected, could provide a way to continue that progress toward ever-denser data storage, Beach says.

However, the researchers note that to create a commercialized system will require an efficient, reliable way to create skyrmions when and where they were needed, along with a way to read out the data (which now requires sophisticated, expensive X-ray magnetic spectroscopy). The team is now pursuing possible strategies to accomplish that.***

* The system focuses on the boundary region between atoms whose magnetic poles are pointing in one direction and those with poles pointing the other way. This boundary region can move back and forth within the magnetic material, Beach says. What he and his team found four years ago was that these boundary regions could be controlled by placing a second sheet of nonmagnetic heavy metal very close to the magnetic layer. The nonmagnetic layer can then influence the magnetic one, with electric fields in the nonmagnetic layer pushing around the magnetic domains in the magnetic layer. Skyrmions are little swirls of magnetic orientation within these layers. The key to being able to create skyrmions at will in particular locations lays in material defects. By introducing a particular kind of defect in the magnetic layer, the skyrmions become pinned to specific locations on the surface, the team found. Those surfaces with intentional defects can then be used as a controllable writing surface for data encoded in the skyrmions.

** The team also includes researchers at the Max Born Institute and the Institute of Optics and Atomic Physics, both in Berlin; the Institute for Laser Technologies in Medicine and Metrology at the University of Ulm, in Germany; and the Deutches Elektroniken-Syncrotron (DESY), in Hamburg. The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the German Science Foundation.

*** The researchers believe an alternative way of reading the data is possible, using an additional metal layer added to the other layers. By creating a particular texture on this added layer, it may be possible to detect differences in the layer’s electrical resistance depending on whether a skyrmion is present or not in the adjacent layer.


Abstract of Field-free deterministic ultrafast creation of magnetic skyrmions by spin–orbit torques

Magnetic skyrmions are stabilized by a combination of external magnetic fields, stray field energies, higher-order exchange interactions and the Dzyaloshinskii–Moriya interaction (DMI). The last favours homochiral skyrmions, whose motion is driven by spin–orbit torques and is deterministic, which makes systems with a large DMI relevant for applications. Asymmetric multilayers of non-magnetic heavy metals with strong spin–orbit interactions and transition-metal ferromagnetic layers provide a large and tunable DMI. Also, the non-magnetic heavy metal layer can inject a vertical spin current with transverse spin polarization into the ferromagnetic layer via the spin Hall effect. This leads to torques that can be used to switch the magnetization completely in out-of-plane magnetized ferromagnetic elements, but the switching is deterministic only in the presence of a symmetry-breaking in-plane field. Although spin–orbit torques led to domain nucleation in continuous films and to stochastic nucleation of skyrmions in magnetic tracks, no practical means to create individual skyrmions controllably in an integrated device design at a selected position has been reported yet. Here we demonstrate that sub-nanosecond spin–orbit torque pulses can generate single skyrmions at custom-defined positions in a magnetic racetrack deterministically using the same current path as used for the shifting operation. The effect of the DMI implies that no external in-plane magnetic fields are needed for this aim. This implementation exploits a defect, such as a constriction in the magnetic track, that can serve as a skyrmion generator. The concept is applicable to any track geometry, including three-dimensional designs.

New transistor design enables flexible, high-performance wearable/mobile electronics

Advanced flexible transistor developed at UW-Madison (photo credit: Jung-Hun Seo/University at Buffalo, State University of New York)

A team of University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison) engineers has created “the most functional flexible transistor in the world,” along with a fast, simple, inexpensive fabrication process that’s easily scalable to the commercial level.

The development promises to allow manufacturers to add advanced, smart-wireless capabilities to wearable and mobile devices that curve, bend, stretch and move.*

The UW–Madison group’s advance is based on a BiCMOS (bipolar complementary metal oxide semiconductor) thin-film transistor, combining speed, high current, and low power dissipation (heat and wasted energy) on just one surface (a silicon nanomembrane, or “Si NM”).**

BiCMOS transistors are the chip of choice for “mixed-signal” devices (combining analog and digital capabilities), which include many of today’s portable electronic devices such as cellphones. “The [BiCMOS] industry standard is very good,” says Zhenqiang (Jack) Ma, the Lynn H. Matthias Professor and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in electrical and computer engineering at UW–Madison. “Now we can do the same things with our transistor — but it can bend.”

The research was described in the inaugural issue of Nature Publishing Group’s open-access journal Flexible Electronics, published Sept. 27, 2017.***

Making traditional BiCMOS flexible electronics is difficult, in part because the process takes several months and requires a multitude of delicate, high-temperature steps. Even a minor variation in temperature at any point could ruin all of the previous steps.

Ma and his collaborators fabricated their flexible electronics on a single-crystal silicon nanomembrane on a single bendable piece of plastic. The secret to their success is their unique process, which eliminates many steps and slashes both the time and cost of fabricating the transistors.

“In industry, they need to finish these in three months,” he says. “We finished it in a week.”

He says his group’s much simpler, high-temperature process can scale to industry-level production right away.

“The key is that parameters are important,” he says. “One high-temperature step fixes everything — like glue. Now, we have more powerful mixed-signal tools. Basically, the idea is for [the flexible electronics platform] to expand with this.”

* Some companies (such as Samsung) have developed flexible displays, but not other flexible electronic components in their devices, Ma explained to KurzweilAI.

** “Flexible electronics have mainly focused on their form factors such as bendability, lightweight, and large area with low-cost processability…. To date, all the [silicon, or Si]-based thin-film transistors (TFTs) have been realized with CMOS technology because of their simple structure and process. However, as more functions are required in future flexible electronic applications (i.e., advanced bioelectronic systems or flexible wireless power applications), an integration of functional devices in one flexible substrate is needed to handle complex signals and/or various power levels.” — Jung Hun Seo et al./Flexible Electronics. The n-channel, p-channel metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors (N-MOSFETs & P-MOSFETs), and NPN bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) were realized together on a 340-nm thick Si NM layer. 

*** Co-authors included researchers at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and the University of Texas at Arlington. This work was supported by the Air Force Office Of Scientific Research.


Abstract of High-performance flexible BiCMOS electronics based on single-crystal Si nanomembrane

In this work, we have demonstrated for the first time integrated flexible bipolar-complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (BiCMOS) thin-film transistors (TFTs) based on a transferable single crystalline Si nanomembrane (Si NM) on a single piece of bendable plastic substrate. The n-channel, p-channel metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors (N-MOSFETs & P-MOSFETs), and NPN bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) were realized together on a 340-nm thick Si NM layer with minimized processing complexity at low cost for advanced flexible electronic applications. The fabrication process was simplified by thoughtfully arranging the sequence of necessary ion implantation steps with carefully selected energies, doses and anneal conditions, and by wisely combining some costly processing steps that are otherwise separately needed for all three types of transistors. All types of TFTs demonstrated excellent DC and radio-frequency (RF) characteristics and exhibited stable transconductance and current gain under bending conditions. Overall, Si NM-based flexible BiCMOS TFTs offer great promises for high-performance and multi-functional future flexible electronics applications and is expected to provide a much larger and more versatile platform to address a broader range of applications. Moreover, the flexible BiCMOS process proposed and demonstrated here is compatible with commercial microfabrication technology, making its adaptation to future commercial use straightforward.

Artificial ‘skin’ gives robotic hand a sense of touch

University of Houston researchers have reported a development in stretchable electronics that can serve as artificial skin for a robotic hand and biomedical devices (credit: University of Houston)

A team of researchers from the University of Houston has reported a development in stretchable electronics that can serve as an artificial skin, allowing a robotic hand to sense the difference between hot and cold, and also offering advantages for a wide range of biomedical devices.

The work, reported in the open-access journal Science Advances, describes a new mechanism for producing stretchable electronics, a process that relies upon readily available materials and could be scaled up for commercial production.

Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering and lead author of the paper, said the work is the first to create a semiconductor in a rubber composite format, designed to allow the electronic components to retain functionality even after the material is stretched by 50 percent.

He noted that traditional semiconductors are brittle and using them in otherwise stretchable materials has required a complicated system of mechanical accommodations. That’s both more complex and less stable than the new discovery, as well as more expensive, he said. “Our strategy has advantages for simple fabrication, scalable manufacturing, high-density integration, large strain tolerance, and low cost,” he said.

Photograph of a robotic hand with intrinsically stretchable rubbery sensors (credit: Hae-Jin Kim et al./Science Advances)

The team used the skin to demonstrate that a robotic hand could sense the temperature of hot and iced water in a cup. The skin also was able to interpret computer signals sent to the hand and reproduce the signals as American Sign Language.

Uses of the stretchable skin include soft wearable electronics such as health monitors, medical implants, and human-machine interfaces.

The stretchable composite semiconductor was prepared by using a silicon-based polymer known as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) and tiny nanowires to create a solution that was then hardened into a material that used the nanowires to transport electric current.


Abstract of Rubbery electronics and sensors from intrinsically stretchable elastomeric composites of semiconductors and conductors

A general strategy to impart mechanical stretchability to stretchable electronics involves engineering materials into special architectures to accommodate or eliminate the mechanical strain in nonstretchable electronic materials while stretched. We introduce an all solution–processed type of electronics and sensors that are rubbery and intrinsically stretchable as an outcome from all the elastomeric materials in percolated composite formats with P3HT-NFs [poly(3-hexylthiophene-2,5-diyl) nanofibrils] and AuNP-AgNW (Au nanoparticles with conformally coated silver nanowires) in PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane). The fabricated thin-film transistors retain their electrical performances by more than 55% upon 50% stretching and exhibit one of the highest P3HT-based field-effect mobilities of 1.4 cm2/V∙s, owing to crystallinity improvement. Rubbery sensors, which include strain, pressure, and temperature sensors, show reliable sensing capabilities and are exploited as smart skins that enable gesture translation for sign language alphabet and haptic sensing for robotics to illustrate one of the applications of the sensors.

A battery-free origami robot powered and controlled by external magnetic fields

Wirelessly powered and controlled magnetic folding robot arm can grasp and bend (credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

Harvard University researchers have created a battery-free, folding robot “arm” with multiple “joints,” gripper “hand,” and actuator “muscles” — all powered and controlled wirelessly by an external resonant magnetic field.

The design is inspired by the traditional Japanese art of origami (used to transform a simple sheet of paper into complex, three-dimensional shapes through a specific pattern of folds, creases, and crimps). The prototype device is capable of complex, repeatable movements at millimeter to centimeter scales.

The research, by scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), is reported in Science Robotics.

How it works

Design of small-scale-structure prototype of wirelessly controlled robotic arm (credit: Mustafa Boyvat et al./Science Robotics)

The researchers designed a 0.8-gram prototype small-scale-structure* prototype robotic “arm” capable of bending and opening or closing a gripper around an object. The “arm” is constructed with a special origami-like pattern that uses hinges (“joints”) to permit it to bend. There is also a “hand” (gripper — left panel in above image) that opens or closes.

To power the device, an external coil with its own power source (see video below) is used to generate a low-frequency magnetic field that induces an electrical current in three magnetic coils. The current heats the spiral-wire shape-memory-alloy actuator wires (coiled wire shown in inset above). That causes the actuator wires (“muscles”) to contract, making the attached nearby “joints” bend, and folding the robot body.

Mechanism of the origami gripper (for small-scale prototype design). (Left) The coil SMA actuator pushes the center link connected to both fingers and the gripper opens fingers, enabled by dynamic folding at the joints (left). The plate spring, which is a passive compression spring, pulls the link back as the gripper closes the fingers, again by rotations at folding joints (center). (Right) A photo of the gripper showing the SMA actuator wire attached at the center link. (credit: Mustafa Boyvat et al./Science Robotics)

By changing the resonant frequency of the external electromagnetic field, the two longer actuator wires (coiled wires shown in above illustration) are instead heated and stretched, opening the gripper (“hand”).

In both cases, when the external field-induced current stops, the actuators relax, springing back to their “memory” positions and causing the robot body to straighten out or the gripper’s outer triangles to close.

Minimally invasive medicine and surgery applications

As an example of a practical future application, instead of having an uncomfortable endoscope put down their throat to assist a doctor with surgery, a patient could just swallow a micro-robot that could move around and perform simple tasks, like holding tissue or filming, powered by a coil outside their body.

Using a much larger source coil — on the order of yards in diameter — could enable wireless, battery-free communication between multiple “smart” objects in a room or building.

“Medical devices today are commonly limited by the size of the batteries that power them, whereas these remotely powered origami robots can break through that size barrier and potentially offer entirely new, minimally invasive approaches for medicine and surgery in the future,” says Wyss Founding Director Donald Ingber, who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as a Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

* A large-scale-structure prototype version has minor differences, including 12-cm folding lines vs. 1.7-cm folding lines in the smaller version.

Wyss Institute | Battery-Free Folding Robots


Abstract of Addressable wireless actuation for multijoint folding robots and devices

“Printing” robots and other complex devices through a process of origami-like folding is an emerging and promising manufacturing method due to the inherent simplicity and low cost of folding-based assembly. Folding is used in this class of device to create both complex static structures and flexure-based compliant mechanisms. Dependency on batteries to power these folds with no external wires is a hurdle to giving small-scale folding robots and devices functionality. We demonstrate a battery-free wireless folding method for dynamic multijoint structures, achieving addressable folding motions—both individual and collective folding—using only basic passive electronic components on the device. The method is based on electromagnetic power transmission and resonance selectivity for actuation of resistive shape memory alloy actuators without the need for physical connection or line of sight. We demonstrate the utility of this approach using two folded devices at different sizes using different circuit approaches.

New system allows near-zero-power sensors to communicate data over long distances

This low-cost, flexible epidermal medical-data patch prototype successfully transmitted information at up to 37500 bits per second across a 3,300-square-feet atrium. (credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington)

University of Washington (UW) researchers have developed a low-cost, long-range data-communication system that could make it possible for medical sensors or billions of low-cost “internet of things” objects to connect via radio signals at long distances (up to 2.8 kilometers) and with 1000 times lower required power (9.25 microwatts in an experiment) compared to existing technologies.

“People have been talking about embedding connectivity into everyday objects … for years, but the problem is the cost and power consumption to achieve this,” said Vamsi Talla, chief technology officer of Jeeva Wireless, which plans to market the system within six months. “This is the first wireless system that can inject connectivity into any device with very minimal cost.”

The new system uses “backscatter,” which uses energy from ambient transmissions (from WiFi, for example) to power a passive sensor that encodes and scatter-reflects the signal. (This article explains how ambient backscatter, developed by UW, works.) Backscatter systems, used with RFID chips, are very low cost, but are limited in distance.

So the researchers combined backscatter with a “chirp spread spectrum” technique, used in LoRa (long-range) wireless data-communication systems.

This tiny off-the-shelf spread-spectrum receiver enables extremely-low-power cheap sensors to communicate over long distances. (credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington)

This new system has three components: a power source (which can be WiFi or other ambient transmission sources, or cheap flexible printed batteries, with an expected bulk cost of 10 to 20 cents each) for a radio signal; cheap sensors (less than 10 cents at scale) that modulate (encode) information (contained in scattered reflections of the signal), and an inexpensive, off-the-shelf spread-spectrum receiver, located as far away as 2.8 kilometers, that decodes the sensor information.

Applications could include, for example, medical monitoring devices that wirelessly transmit information about a heart patient’s condition to doctors; sensor arrays that monitor pollution, noise, or traffic in “smart” cities; and farmers looking to measure soil temperature or moisture, who could affordably blanket an entire field to determine how to efficiently plant seeds or water.

The research team built a contact lens prototype and a flexible epidermal patch that attaches to human skin, which successfully used long-range backscatter to transmit information across a 3300-square-foot building.

The research, which was partially funded by the National Science Foundation, is detailed in an open-access paper presented Sept. 13, 2017 at UbiComp 2017. More information: longrange@cs.washington.edu.


UW (University of Washington) | UW team shatters long-range communication barrier for devices that consume almost no power


Abstract of LoRa Backscatter: Enabling The Vision of Ubiquitous Connectivity

The vision of embedding connectivity into billions of everyday objects runs into the reality of existing communication technologies — there is no existing wireless technology that can provide reliable and long-range communication at tens of microwatts of power as well as cost less than a dime. While backscatter is low-power and low-cost, it is known to be limited to short ranges. This paper overturns this conventional wisdom about backscatter and presents the first wide-area backscatter system. Our design can successfully backscatter from any location between an RF source and receiver, separated by 475 m, while being compatible with commodity LoRa hardware. Further, when our backscatter device is co-located with the RF source, the receiver can be as far as 2.8 km away. We deploy our system in a 4,800 ft2 (446 m2) house spread across three floors, a 13,024 ft2 (1210 m2) office area covering 41 rooms, as well as a one-acre (4046 m2) vegetable farm and show that we can achieve reliable coverage, using only a single RF source and receiver. We also build a contact lens prototype as well as a flexible epidermal patch device attached to the human skin. We show that these devices can reliably backscatter data across a 3,328 ft2 (309 m2) room. Finally, we present a design sketch of a LoRa backscatter IC that shows that it costs less than a dime at scale and consumes only 9.25 &mgr;W of power, which is more than 1000x lower power than LoRa radio chipsets.

Miniature MRI simulator chip could help diagnose and treat diseases in the body at sub-millimeter precision

Illustration of an ATOMS microchip localized within the gastrointestinal tract (not to scale; a prototype measures just 0.7 cubic millimeters). The microchip contains a magnetic field sensor, integrated antennas, a wireless powering device, and a circuit that adjusts its radio frequency signal based on the magnetic field strength and wirelessly relays the chip’s precise location. (credit: Ella Marushchenko/Caltech)

Caltech researchers have developed a “Fantastic Voyage” style prototype microchip that could one day be used in “smart pills” to diagnose and treat diseases when inserted into the human body.

Called ATOMS (addressable transmitters operated as magnetic spins), the microchips could one day monitor a patient’s gastrointestinal tract, blood, or brain, measuring factors that indicate a patient’s health — such as pH, temperature, pressure, and sugar concentrations — with sub-millimeter localization and relay that information to doctors. Or the devices could even be instructed to release drugs at precise locations.

An open access paper describing the new device appears in the September issue of the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. The lead author is Manuel Monge, who now works at Elon Musk’s new Neuralink company.

The ATOMS microchips, proven to work in tests with mice, mimic the way nuclear spins in atoms in the body resonate to magnetic fields in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine and can be precisely identified and localized within the body. Similarly, the ATOMS devices resonate at different frequencies depending on where they are in a magnetic field. (credit: Manuel Monge et al./ Nature Biomedical Engineering)


Abstract of Localization of Microscale Devices In Vivo using Addressable Transmitters Operated as Magnetic Spins

The function of miniature wireless medical devices, such as capsule endoscopes, biosensors and drug-delivery systems, depends critically on their location inside the body. However, existing electromagnetic, acoustic and imaging-based methods for localizing and communicating with such devices suffer from limitations arising from physical tissue properties or from the performance of the imaging modality. Here, we embody the principles of nuclear magnetic resonance in a silicon integrated-circuit approach for microscale device localization. Analogous to the behaviour of nuclear spins, the engineered miniaturized radio frequency transmitters encode their location in space by shifting their output frequency in proportion to the local magnetic field; applied field gradients thus allow each device to be located precisely from its signal’s frequency. The devices are integrated in circuits smaller than 0.7 mm3 and manufactured through a standard complementary-metal-oxide-semiconductor process, and are capable of sub-millimetre localization in vitro and in vivo. The technology is inherently robust to tissue properties, scalable to multiple devices, and suitable for the development of microscale devices to monitor and treat disease.

A single-molecule room-temperature transistor made from 14 atoms

Columbia researchers wired a single molecule consisting of 14 atoms connected to two gold electrodes to show that it performs as a transistor at room temperature. (credit: Bonnie Choi/Columbia University)

Columbia Engineering researchers have taken a key step toward atomically precise, reproducible transistors made from single molecules and operating at room temperature — a major goal in the field of molecular electronics.

The team created a two-terminal transistor with a diameter of about 0.5 nanometers and core consisting of just 14 atoms. The device can reliably switch from insulator to conductor when charge is added or removed, one electron at a time (known as “current blockade”).*

The research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Controllable structure with atomic precision

“With these molecular clusters, we have complete control over their structure with atomic precision and can change the elemental composition and structure in a controllable manner to elicit certain electrical response,” says Latha Venkataraman, leader of the Columbia research team.

The researchers plan to design improved molecular cluster systems with better electrical performance (such as higher on/off current ratio and different accessible states) and increase the number of atoms in the cluster core, while maintaining the atomic precision and uniformity of the compound.

Other studies have created quantum dots to produce similar effects, but the dots are much larger and not uniform in size, and the results have not been reproducible. The ultimate size reduction would be single-atom transistors, but they require ultra-cold temperatures (minus 196 degrees Celsius in this case, for example).

The single molecule’s 14-atom core structure comprises cobalt (blue) and sulfur (yellow) atoms (left) and ethyl-4-(methylthio)phenyl phosphine atoms, used to wire the cluster into a junction (right). (credit: Bonnie Choi/Columbia University)

* The researchers used a scanning tunneling microscope technique that they pioneered to make junctions comprising a single cluster connected to the two gold electrodes, which enabled them to characterize its electrical response as they varied the applied bias voltage. The technique allows them to fabricate and measure thousands of junctions with reproducible transport characteristics. The team worked with small inorganic molecular clusters that were identical in shape and size, so they knew exactly — down to the atomic scale — what they were measuring. The team evaluated the performance of the diode by the on/off ratio — the ratio between the current flowing through the device when it is switched on and the residual current still present in its “off” state. At room temperature, they observed a high on/off ratio of about 600 in single-cluster junctions, higher than any other single-molecule devices measured to date.


Abstract of Room-temperature current blockade in atomically defined single-cluster junctions

Fabricating nanoscopic devices capable of manipulating and processing single units of charge is an essential step towards creating functional devices where quantum effects dominate transport characteristics. The archetypal single-electron transistor comprises a small conducting or semiconducting island separated from two metallic reservoirs by insulating barriers. By enabling the transfer of a well-defined number of charge carriers between the island and the reservoirs, such a device may enable discrete single-electron operations. Here, we describe a single-molecule junction comprising a redox-active, atomically precise cobalt chalcogenide cluster wired between two nanoscopic electrodes. We observe current blockade at room temperature in thousands of single-cluster junctions. Below a threshold voltage, charge transfer across the junction is suppressed. The device is turned on when the temporary occupation of the core states by a transiting carrier is energetically enabled, resulting in a sequential tunnelling process and an increase in current by a factor of ∼600. We perform in situ and ex situ cyclic voltammetry as well as density functional theory calculations to unveil a two-step process mediated by an orbital localized on the core of the cluster in which charge carriers reside before tunnelling to the collector reservoir. As the bias window of the junction is opened wide enough to include one of the cluster frontier orbitals, the current blockade is lifted and charge carriers can tunnel sequentially across the junction.

Astronomers detect 15 high-frequency ‘fast radio bursts’ from distant galaxy

Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia (credit: Geremia/CC)

Using the Green Bank radio telescope, astronomers at Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe, have detected 15 brief but powerful “fast radio bursts” (FRBs). These microwave radio pulses are from a mysterious source known as FRB 121102* in a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light years from Earth, transmitting at record high frequencies (4 to 8 GHz), according to the researchers

This sequence of 14 of the 15 detected fast radio bursts illustrates their dispersed spectrum and extreme variability. The streaks across the colored energy plot are the bursts appearing at different times and different energies because of dispersion caused by 3 billion years of travel through intergalactic space. In the top frequency spectrum, the dispersion has been removed to show the 300 microsecond pulse spike. (credit: Berkeley SETI Research Center)

Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and of the Breakthrough Listen program, and his team alerted the astronomical community to the high-frequency activity via an Astronomer’s Telegram on Monday evening, Aug. 28.

A schematic illustration of CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope in Australia receiving a fast radio burst signal in 2014 (credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions)

First detected in 2007, fast radio bursts are brief, bright pulses of radio emission detected from distant but largely unknown sources.

Breakthrough Starshot’s plan to use powerful laser pulses to propel nano-spacecraft to Proxima Centauri (credit: Breakthrough Initiatives)

Possible explanations for the repeating bursts range from outbursts from magnetars (rotating neutron stars with extremely strong magnetic fields) to directed energy sources — powerful bursts used by extraterrestrial civilizations to power exploratory spacecraft, akin to Breakthrough Starshot’s plan to use powerful laser pulses to propel nano-spacecraft to Earth’s nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

* FRB 121102 was discovered Nov 2, 2014 (hence its name) with the Arecibo radio telescope, and in 2015 it was the first fast radio burst seen to repeat. More than 150 high-energy bursts have been observed so far. (The repetition ruled out the possibility that FRBs were caused by catastrophic events.)


FRB 121102: Detection at 4 – 8 GHz band with Breakthrough Listen backend at Green Bank

On Saturday, August 26 at 13:51:44 UTC we initiated observations of the well-known repeating fast radio burst FRB 121102 [Spitler et al., Nature, 531, 7593 202-205, 2016] using the Breakthrough Listen Digital Backend with the C-band receiver at the Green Bank Telescope. We recorded baseband voltage data across 5.4375 GHz of bandwidth, completely covering the C-band receiver’s nominal 4-8 GHz band [MacMahon et al. arXiv:1707.06024v2]. Observations were conducted over ten 30-minute scans, as detailed in Table 1. Immediately after observations, the baseband data were reduced to form high time resolution (300 us integration) Stokes-I products using a GPU-accelerated spectroscopy suite. These reduced products were searched for dispersed pulses consistent with the known dispersion measure of FRB 121102 (557 pc cm^-3); baseband voltage data were preserved. We detected 15 bursts above our detection threshold of 10 sigma in the first two 30-minute scans, denoted 11A-L and 12A-B in Table 2. In Table 2, we include the detection signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of each burst, along with a very rough estimate of pulse energy density assuming a 12 Jy system equivalent flux density, 300 us pulse width, and uniform 3800 MHz bandwidth. We note the following phenomenological properties of the detected bursts: 1. Bursts show marked changes in spectral extent, with characteristic spectral structure in the 100 MHz – 1 GHz range. 2. Several bursts appear to peak in brightness at frequencies above 6 GHz.


Single-molecule-level data storage may achieve 100 times higher data density

(credit: iStock)

Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a data-storage method that could achieve 100 times higher data density than current technologies.*

The system would allow for data servers to operate at the (relatively high) temperature of -213 °C. That could make it possible in the future for data servers to be chilled by liquid nitrogen (-196 °C) — a cooling method that is relatively cheap compared to the far more expensive liquid helium (which requires -269 °C) currently used.

The research provides proof-of-concept that such technologies could be achievable in the near future “with judicious molecular design.”

Huge benefits for the environment

Molecular-level data storage could lead to much smaller hard drives that require less energy, meaning data centers across the globe could be smaller, lower-cost, and a lot more energy-efficient.

Google data centers (credit: Google)

For example, Google currently has 15 data centers around the world. They process an average of 40 million searches per second, resulting in 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year. To deal with all that data, Google had approximately 2.5 million servers in each data center, it was reported in 2016, and that number was likely to rise.

Some reports say the energy consumed at such centers could account for as much as 2 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This means any improvement in data storage and energy efficiency could also have huge benefits for the environment as well as vastly increasing the amount of information that can be stored.

The research, led by David Mills, PhD, and Nicholas Chilton, PhD, from the School of Chemistry, is published in the journal Nature. “Our aim is to achieve even higher operating temperatures in the future, ideally functioning above liquid nitrogen temperatures,” said Mills.

* The method uses single-molecule magnets, which display “hysteresis” — a magnetic memory effect that is a requirement of magnetic data storage, such as hard drives. Molecules containing lanthanide atoms have exhibited this phenomenon at the highest temperatures to date. Lanthanides are rare earth metals used in all forms of everyday electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. The team achieved their results using the lanthanide element dysprosium.


Abstract of Molecular magnetic hysteresis at 60 kelvin in dysprosocenium

Lanthanides have been investigated extensively for potential applications in quantum information processing and high-density data storage at the molecular and atomic scale. Experimental achievements include reading and manipulating single nuclear spins, exploiting atomic clock transitions for robust qubits and, most recently, magnetic data storage in single atoms. Single-molecule magnets exhibit magnetic hysteresis of molecular origin—a magnetic memory effect and a prerequisite of data storage—and so far, lanthanide examples have exhibited this phenomenon at the highest temperatures. However, in the nearly 25 years since the discovery of single-molecule magnets, hysteresis temperatures have increased from 4 kelvin to only about 14 kelvin using a consistent magnetic field sweep rate of about 20 oersted per second, although higher temperatures have been achieved by using very fast sweep rates (for example, 30 kelvin with 200 oersted per second). Here we report a hexa-tert-butyldysprosocenium complex—[Dy(Cpttt)2][B(C6F5)4], with Cpttt = {C5H2tBu3-1,2,4} and tBu = C(CH3)3—which exhibits magnetic hysteresis at temperatures of up to 60 kelvin at a sweep rate of 22 oersted per second. We observe a clear change in the relaxation dynamics at this temperature, which persists in magnetically diluted samples, suggesting that the origin of the hysteresis is the localized metal–ligand vibrational modes that are unique to dysprosocenium. Ab initio calculations of spin dynamics demonstrate that magnetic relaxation at high temperatures is due to local molecular vibrations. These results indicate that, with judicious molecular design, magnetic data storage in single molecules at temperatures above liquid nitrogen should be possible.