If you are looking for a last-minute Valentine’s Day gift for your sweetie, that says “Supercritical” like no other, then look no further than Aerogel Technologies’ pink silica aerogel hearts, then get out your credit card and click right over to a special website to place your order ($75 each).
This is no joke, and the makers claim the heart really does have a pink hue. According to a story by Tim Bailey—aka, GeekDad—at Wired.com, “The unique pink coloration is actually due to a special “optically active” material embedded at the nano level in the basic matrix of silica used to create the aerogel.” Okay, so that doesn’t really tell us anything about the pink, but I assume they have tinted it with erbium.
(If you are really curious about tinting aerogels, aerogel.org provides a DIY recipe. And, according to an unrelated patent filed just two weeks ago, tinting agents could include “azurite pigments, red earth pigments, yellow earth pigments, metal complex dyes, carbon black, synthetic iron oxide pigments, ultramarine pigments or other inorganic pigments” and depending on the composition of the aerogel, pigmentation could also be achieved with ” nonmetal-based pigments or organic pigments, including but not limited to vegetable dyes, acid dyes, basic dyes, azoic dyes, and sulphur dyes.”)
Finally, if you do give one of these hearts to your lover, make sure that he or she doesn’t squeeze it or handle it other than verrrry gently, or you will end up with an expensive and tiny pile of silica.
This has little to do with ceramics or glass—but everything to do with the biggest “What in the world…” moment I have had in a long, long time.” I will try to keep this brief, but its nearly impossible to convey the weird (not meant to be pejorative) materials work of Anna C. Balazs’s team at the University of Pittsburgh.
This all started last week when I breezily was scrolling through a list of new papers published in the recent issue of PNAS. Something in the abstract of “Reconfigurable Assemblies of Active, Autochemotactic Gels” caught my eye. Maybe it was the word “autochemotactic,” which I had to look up. Or, maybe it was these two spooky sentences in the abstract,
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the closest system to the ultimate self-recombining material, which can be divided into separated parts and the parts move autonomously to assemble into a structure resembling the original, uncut sample.… Our findings pave the way for creating reconfigurable materials from self-propelled elements, which autonomously communicate with neighboring units and thereby actively participate in constructing the final structure.”
“Hmm,” I thought. “Wasn’t this the big gimmick in the second Terminator movie?”
Liquid metal or no liquid metal, Balazs had me seriously hooked.
It turns out that Balazs works with Belousov–Zhabotinsky (BZ) gels that are relatively simple and, most importantly, have the fascinating ability to “quiver” for extended periods (but not forever) in predictable patterns by means of a self-regenerating internal redox reaction. Watching how the waves spread through these gels is pretty astounding, but this is no one-trick pony. Balazs and her researchers learned quite a bit about how to manipulate the gels and the oscillations, based on things like shape and composition.
They also learned how to use light on one part of material to stimulate the oscillations to move through the gel from one end towards the other, or use two or more lighted areas to create even more complex oscillations. It turns out that if they made the gel into a cylinder shape, a precise use of the light could actually make the worm slowly move. And, the moves could be complex, with lots of twists and turns in three dimensions, kind of like steering a real worm with sticks, but in this case the sticks are just light beams. But, is this just a good bar trick? Not if you are, say, DARPA, and are looking for a soft, synthetic robot that could climb walls and follow complex routes.
And, Balazs’s group was just warming up. It turns out they also figured out how to make microcapsules of these gels that could emit—in a controllable manner, using light—nanoparticles that create gradients that act in philic or phobic fashions to help propel and steer the capsules, and attract other ones. This is where the self-propulsion, self-recombination and “train” functions starts to come into play. Their models (once they understood the chemistry, most of the group’s work was done through modeling, so lots of video snippets are available) indicated that snake-like assemblies of these capsules could selectively “attract” or drop off other capsules as might be needed.
Okay—I know I am not doing this work justice. But please do me (and yourself) a favor and set a side about 15-30 minutes to watch the above video. The first part features a fairly recent lecture by Balazs (with lots of delightful animations and videos) at Harvard/Radcliffe. You can save yourself some time by starting at about the 2:10 mark.
Background image: Molten glass. Credit: Michael Germann; Dreamstime.com.
Peter and I thought it would be fun to share our five favorite posts from 2012. Finding that choosing only five was nigh impossible, I decided to sort my picks into three categories, which instantly grew my budget to 15 stories!
Advances in science and engineering are subject to forces beyond physics, chemistry, and mathematics, such as politics, culture, history, and more.
USPTO issues flurry of new rules to implement ‘America Invents Act’
Archaic US patent rules were thrown out with adoption of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act. New rules, though, mean changes in the strategy of innovation.
Data drives engineering of ceramics; workshop asks ‘how well?’
Computational approaches to materials engineering are only as good as the data they consume and digest. A DOD-sponsored workshop evaluated the state-of-affairs for electronic access to ceramic property data and the attendant challenges and opportunities.
Science research drives economic growth, but it’s expensive and slow
What role should governments take in investing in basic research, and how does a nation’s R&D investment impact GDP? There is nothing like an election year—in the US and abroad—to draw attention to what governments should spend money on versus what they do spend money on.
Video: Grand challenges in ceramic science—Preliminary findings from workshop
Researchers go bravely where others cannot or dare not. A group of the nation’s top ceramic science researchers convened to tease out the largest scientific challenges that can be addressed with ceramic materials.
Historic January 1987: YBCO superconductors discovered and Super Bowl XXI
This story about the discovery of high-temperature YBCO superconductors shows that research breakthroughs are often the progeny of systematic, well-executed fundamental research… and serendipity.
I’m an unabashed materials geek, and these were some of my favorite super-sciency stories—with the qualification that I mostly write about science that intrigues me, so this is a lot like choosing a favorite child.
Understanding the ‘between’ spaces: Interfacial phases and solid-state sintering
The formation and stability of interfacial phases in the solid state drives properties, so understanding how interfaces form and the thermodynamics driving them is of paramount importance.
Mullite-like mixed oxides may replace platinum for catalyzing diesel pollution
Manganese-oxide compounds with the mullite crystal structure may one day displace platinum as the catalyst agent in automobile catalytic converters.
High-alumina optical fibers get around Brillouin scattering limitations
Ever wonder how data gets to your smart phone or laptop so fast? A group of glass scientists is working on the next generation on optical fibers that will move more data, faster, and with more accuracy.
High critical current density doped pnictide superconductors
Harnessing the promise of high-temperature superconductivity requires a deep understanding of the physics of magnetism and the influences of composition and microstructure. Plus, what’s not to love about the word “pnictide?”
Heat transfer—two new studies look at effects of interface bonding, surface roughness
The digital age is generating some very sophisticated heat transfer challenges. How exactly does heat egress from a surface, and how can the mechanism be engineered?
Useful metrics for comparing new energy storage technologies
Measuring is an essential experimental activity. However, scientists and engineers must continually ask themselves the question, “Am I measuring something meaningful and useful?”
And this last group of five was just fun to write about.
Don’t wait in line for coffee: How to know where the business opportunity is
A reflection on business, opportunity, finding the way, and waiting in line.
Oldest known pottery dates back 20,000 years and may have changed the course of human history
The earliest ceramic engineers designed pots for cooking and brewing, proof that since time immemorial, engineers bring the life of the party. Literally.
Friday fun video—Gravity-defying Slinky
Adulthood does not mean toys become irrelevant. This video shows that scientists never stop learning the lessons that educational toys can teach.
Technical ceramics and art ceramics—only a brain apart
In the world of ceramics, is there a line between art and science? Yes, sort of—and no, not really. The American Ceramic Society serves the professional needs of engineers, scientists, studio artists, and hobbyists.
A castle vacation, poster session included
An October vacation to Germany included a conference at a Bavarian castle and the opportunity to talk shop with some of the best minds in the world working on biomineralization.
Were you counting? Me neither. Did you have a favorite story or topic that we covered? Let us know!
Best wishes for a Happy New Year!
Science, art or both? Winners of Cambridge University engineering department photography competition
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the beholder holds the power to find it. And, when it comes to finding beauty, few do it better than those who make images in the course of their daily work.
The folks at Carl Zeiss, well-known for their microscopy tools, agree, and for the past nine years have sponsored a photography competition at the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University in the UK.
The winners of the 2012 competition have just been announced, and the images are available for viewing. These are amazing. Here are a few materials science images that caught my eye.
There were plenty of macroscopic images submitted to the competition, too.
Have a look at what’s happening.
MTC reduced, reused, recycled and reorganized their way to an 8,000 square feet expansion of production capability without increasing the building’s footprint. Credit: MTC.
Morgan Thermal Ceramics’ Elkhart, Ind., manufacturing site found a way to expand its facility by 8,000 square feet to accommodate a planned doubling of its output, without hammering a single nail or spending a single dollar on disposal. The facility, which manufactures high temperature insulation and fire protection materials, reclaimed the valuable space by clearing out a huge production tooling storage area that had accumulated massive amounts of obsolete equipment over the last twenty years. A multi-departmental team conducted a careful review to ensure that useful equipment was retained, the contractor, who specializes specializes in salvaging, repairing and reselling older industrial equipment, staged a three day event, during which the material was sorted and cleared. Usable industrial equipment will be repaired and resold. Facility managers estimate that about 175 tons of waste was recycled, including metals, plastic, wood, and cardboard. The company estimates it saved about $10,500 in waste disposal costs and more than $3,000 in indirect labor savings. In addition, the site received a rebate of $5,500 for metals recycled during the event.
The Composites Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers recently named Creig Bowland, research associate for PPG Industries’ fiber glass business, as “Composites Person of the Year.” The award was presented during the 12th annual SPE Automotive Composites Conference & Exhibition in Troy, Mich. The award acknowledges individuals who have provided significant guidance and support to the Composites Division of the SPE and who have made important contributions to the composites industry as a whole. Bowland’s professional expertise is in application development and design of long fiber thermoplastic composites for structural automotive parts, and he has worked for more than 20 years in the composite industry. He designed and developed the long fiber compounding technology PPG offers to its customers.
DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory has developed a molten catalytic process for converting coal into a synthesis gas consisting of roughly 20% methane and 80% hydrogen using alkali hydroxides as both gasification catalysts and in situ CO2 and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) capture agents. This hydrogen- and methane-rich output from the gasifier could be sent to gas turbines or solid oxide fuel cells in order to generate electricity with CO2 emissions significantly less than 1.0 lbs of CO2 per kWh of electricity. A patent application on this topic has been submitted and a paper entitled “Molten Catalytic Coal Gasification With In Situ Carbon and Sulphur Capture” was published by the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Journal Energy & Environment Science.
In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, an international team of scientists led by researchers with DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has now proposed a method which could provide the basis for actually constructing such a space-time crystal. The scheme starts with an ion trap, an arrangement of electric and magnetic fields, which confines ultracold particles at their lowest energy state. The mutual Coulomb repulsion of the charged particles arranges them in a ring inside the trap, and if the ring were nudged into rotation, over time the constituent ions would periodically return to the same or equivalent positions. A space-time diagram would reveal that the ring-shaped crystal in space forms a spiral-cylinder crystal in time.
Purdue University is embarking on a program to increase its College of Engineering faculty by 30 percent over the next five years. The additional faculty will allow the college to grow enrollment and expand the breadth and depth of its research efforts. Leah Jamieson, the John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering, said faculty growth hasn’t kept up with other growth in the college. From fall 2006 to fall 2011, Purdue’s undergraduate enrollment grew by 17 percent, graduate student enrollment grew by 28 percent and the annual research expenditures grew by 79 percent. During that same time, faculty growth was six percent,according to the dean. The university developed a five-year plan for strategic growth that will add up to 107 faculty members, growing the faculty from the current 358 to 465, a 30 percent increase. With the additional faculty, undergraduate enrollment will grow by almost 10 percent to more than 7,750 and graduate enrollment will grow by 750 to 3,500.
Ten partnerships have been selected through the Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge. These public-private partnerships consist of small and large businesses, colleges, nonprofits and other local stakeholders that “cluster” in a particular area. The funds will help the winning clusters support local efforts to spur job creation through a variety of projects, including initiatives that connect innovative small suppliers with large companies, link research with the start-ups that can commercialize new ideas, and train workers with skills that firms need to capitalize on business opportunities. The Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge is a partnership between the US Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the US Department of Energy, the US Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the US Small Business Administration, and the National Science Foundation.