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Charles Black

Members of the quantum materials team, from left, Gregory Doerk, Jerzy Sadowski, Kevin Yager, Young Jae Shin and Aaron Stein. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Henry Ford revolutionized the way people manufactured cars through automation, speeding up the process, reducing waste and cutting costs.

Similarly, at Brookhaven National Laboratory, researchers like the newly hired Young Jae Shin, who is a staff scientist at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, hopes to improve the process of automating the handling of thin flakes of material used in a next generation technology called quantum information science, or QIS.

Working with scientists at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shin is looking for ways to handle these flakes, which are one atom thick, of two-dimensional layers from different materials. Stacked together, these flakes can help create structures with specific electronic, magnetic or optical properties that can be used as sensors, in communication, or encryption.

Young Jae Shin at Harvard University, where he was a post doctoral researcher. Photo from Y. Shin

“Researchers are building these kinds of customized structures manually now,” explained Kevin Yager, leader of the CFN Electronic Nanomaterials Group, in an email. “QPress [Quantum Material Press] will allow us to automate this.” At this point, QPress is just starting, but, if it works, it will “absolutely allow us to accelerate the study of these materials, allowing researchers to find optimal materials quickly,” Yager continued.

Theoretically, quantum computers overcome the limitations of other systems, Shin explained.

The flakes come from the exfoliation of thin structures taken from a bulk material. This is akin to a collection of leaves that fall around trees. According to Yager, the structures scientists hope to make would be akin to a collection of leaves from different trees, put together to make a new structure or material with specific properties. “The idea is for the robot to sift through the flakes, and identify the ‘best’ ones and to stack these together into the right structure. The ‘stacking’ will involve combining flakes of different materials,” he said.

The less desirable flakes typically are the wrong size, have tears, ripples or other defects and have contaminants. Groups of scientists are predicting the kinds of layered designs that will have desired properties.

Shin suggested that the CFN supports the needs of the end user community, as CFN is a “user-based facility.”

Physicists at Harvard and MIT plan to use the QPress to study unusual forms of superconductivity. By tapping into materials that conduct electricity without losing energy at lower temperatures, researchers may make progress in quantum computing, which could exceed the ability of the current state-of-the-art supercomputers.

Stacking the flakes can create new materials whose properties not only depend on the individual layers, but also on the angle between the stacks. Scientists can change one of these new structures from having metallic to having insulating properties, just by altering the relative angle of the atoms. The challenge, however, is that putting these fine layers together by hand takes time and generates errors which, BNL hopes, an automated approach can help reduce.

“Ultimately, we would like to develop a robot that delivers a stacked structure based on the 2-D flake sequences and crystal orientations that scientists select through a web interface” to a machine, Charles Black, the head of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at BNL, explained in a recent BNL feature. “If successful, the QPress would enable scientists to spend their time and energy studying materials, rather than making them.”

Barring unforeseen delays, scientists anticipate that they will be able to build a machine that creates these flakes, catalogs them, stacks them and characterizes their properties within three years. These functions will be available online in stages, to allow the use of the QPress prior to its completion.

Each stage in the QPress process uses computer software to reduce the effort involved in generating and interpreting usable structures.

Minh Hoai Nguyen, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University and doctoral student Boyu Wang from the Computer Vision Lab at SBU are creating a flake cataloger, which will use image analysis software to scan and record the location of flakes and their properties.

“The flakes that scientists are interested in are thin and thus faint, so manual and visual inspection is a laborious and error-prone process,” Nguyen said in the BNL feature.

At BNL, Shin is one of three scientists the Upton-based facility is hiring as a part of this effort. They are also seeking robot or imaging process experts. Shin has “been in the CFN just a short while, but is already having an impact- — for instance, allowing us to handle classes of two-dimensional materials that we were not working with before,” Yager said.

The field of quantum information science is extremely competitive, with researchers from all over the world seeking ways to benefit from the properties of materials on such a small scale. The United States has been investing in this field to develop leadership science in this area.

The University of Tokyo has developed an automation system, but Shin explained that it is still not perfect.

Yager said that numerous unknown applications are “waiting to be discovered. Researchers are working hard on real quantum computers. Prototypes already exist but creating viable large-scale quantum computers is a major challenge.”

A resident of on-site housing at BNL, Shin was born in the United States and grew up in Korea. He is married to Hyo Jung Kim, who is studying violin at Boston University. 

As for the work Shin and others are doing, Yager suggested that the effort has generated considerable interest at the CFN.

“There is huge excitement at BNL about quantum research broadly and QPress in particular,” said Yager. Shin is “a big part of this — bringing new technical knowledge and new enthusiasm to this ambitious project.”

Staff from Brookhaven National Laboratory and Germany’s Centre for Advanced Materials during a recent meeting to discuss a future collaboration, from left, Oleg Gang, group leader for Soft and Bio Nanomaterials; Norbert Huber, the director of the ZHM; Charles Black, the director of the CFN; Patrick Huber, a principal investigator; Priscilla Antunez and Dario Stacchiola, group leader for the Interface Science and Catalysis team. Photo by Joseph Rubin/BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Priscilla Antunez is a scientist with some unusual expertise. No, she doesn’t run experiments using a rare or expensive piece of equipment; and no, she hasn’t developed a way to understand the properties of unimaginably small particles that assemble themselves and may one day help run future technology.

What Antunez brings to the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, or CFN, at Brookhaven National Laboratory is a background in business. That puts her in a position to help the scientists who run experiments at the CFN or the researchers at BNL, or elsewhere, who study the properties of catalysts or self-assembling small materials.

“This opportunity for me is a maximization of my impact on science,” said Antunez, who joined BNL from Illinois’ Argonne National Laboratory in December. If she were to run her own lab, she would be involved in a project or a handful of projects. “[At BNL] I have the opportunity to help many scientists with their work,” she said.

Priscilla Antunez Photo by Joseph Rubin/BNL

Her assistance will take numerous forms, from acknowledging and celebrating the science the 30 researchers at the CFN and the 600 scientists from around the world who visit the center perform, to developing broader and deeper partnerships with industry.

Her long-term goal is to build a strategy around specific projects and establish partnerships to advance the science and technology, which might include industry.

“We are trying to make [the information] widely available to everyone,” Antunez said. “We are proud of what they’re doing and proud of how we’re helping them accomplish their goals. We’re ultimately getting their science out there, helping them with viewership and readership.”

She is already writing the highlights of scientific papers, which she hopes to share widely.

In addition to sending research updates to the Department of Energy, which sponsors the BNL facility, Antunez will also try to broaden the audience for the research by sharing it on LinkedIn, posting it on the website, and, in some cases, sending out email updates. The LinkedIn page, for now, is by invitation only. Interested readers can request to join at https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8600642.

Antunez takes over for James Dickerson, who has become the first chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports, where he leads the technical and scientific aspects of all activities related to CR’s testing and research, including food and product safety programs. Antunez and Charles Black, the director of the CFN, decided to expand Antunez’s role as assistant director.

Her job is “to help the CFN develop its overall strategy for making partnerships and nurturing them to be successful and have impact,” Black explained in an email.

“For the CFN to thrive in its second 10 years of operations will require us to form deeper relationships with scientific partners, including CFN users, research groups around the world, industries and other national labs,” he said.

Indeed, Black, Oleg Gang, who is the group leader for Soft and Bio Nanomaterials, Dario Stacchiola, the group leader for the Interface Science and Catalysis team, and Antunez recently met with Norbert and Patrick Huber, from Hamburg’s Centre for Advanced Materials.

“We had group and individual discussions to explore complementary areas of research,” said Antunez.

After scientists from the centers meet again to develop research plans, she can “help as much and as early as the CFN scientists need.” She can also coordinate between the CFN and the Contracts Office if the center needs a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement.

The scientist encourages CFN scientists to visit whenever they believe they have an idea that might have an application. She’s had meetings with the Tech Transfer Office and CFN groups and is hoping to put more such gatherings on the calendar.

The CFN is continuing to grow and will be adding five or six new scientific staff positions, Black said. Antunez will “oversee a strategy that helps all CFN staff form deep, productive partnerships that produce new nanoscience breakthroughs.

Black explained that it was an “exciting, challenging, important job and we’re thrilled to have someone as talented and energetic as [Antunez] to take it on.”

Indeed, Antunez was such an effective researcher prior to venturing into the business world that the CFN had tried to hire her once before, to be a postdoctoral researcher in the area of self-assembly. At that time, Antunez had decided to move toward business and took a job at Argonne National Laboratory. “In the end it has worked out well for CFN, because [Antunez] gained valuable experience at Argonne that she has brought to BNL and is using every day,” said Black.

The CFN has divided the work into five groups, each of which has a team leader. Antunez is working on their current partnerships and recruiting needs. She meets with the group leaders during regular management meetings to discuss overall plans, work and safety and the required reports to the DOE.

Antunez lives in Mineola with her husband, Jordan S. Birnbaum, who is the chief behavioral economist at ADP. When she was in college at Universidad de Sonora, Antunez wanted to double major in science and contemporary dance. At the public university in Mexico at the time, she had to choose one or the other, despite an invitation from one of the founding professors of the school of dance to major in dance.

Nowadays, Antunez, who earned her doctorate in chemistry from the University of Southern California, goes to the gym and takes yoga and dance classes, but doesn’t study the art form anymore.

With her science background, Antunez anticipated becoming a teacher. Her current work allows her to share her expertise with scientists. She has also been able to work with some postdoctoral researchers at BNL.

As for her work, Antunez appreciates the opportunity to build connections between scientists and industry. “Most of our technologies are on the basic research side and so the partnerships are much more fluid, which gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of our strategic partners,” she said.

Huloin Xin. Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

By Daniel Dunaief

The unexpected appearance of Swiss cheese may be preferable to the predicted presence of a balloon. When it comes to the creation of catalysts for fuel-cell-powered vehicles, the formation of a structure that has miniature holes in it may reduce costs and improve energy efficiency.

Using a state-of-the-art facility where he also supports the work of other scientists around the world, Huolin Xin, an associate materials scientist at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory, recently made the discovery about the structure of a cheaper catalyst. Xin and his collaborators published their work in Nature Communications.

Huloin Xin. Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

The finding “goes against conventional wisdom,” Xin said. “If you have a precursor that’s nanometers in size that’s a metal and you heat it up in oxygen, normally, it would grow into a hollow structure, like a balloon.” Instead, Xin and his colleagues discovered that mixing nickel and cobalt produces a structure that has porosity but is more like spherical Swiss cheese than a balloon. The new architecture has more material crammed into a smaller region than the hollow balloon. It is also stronger, creating a broader range of potential applications.

Scientists at Brookhaven and at other institutions around the world are seeking ways to take advantage of the growing field of nanotechnology, in which physical, electrical or other types of interactions differ from the macromolecular world of hammers, nails and airplane wings. These nanomaterials take advantage of the high surface area to volume ratio, which offers promise for future technologies. What that means is that these materials contain numerous surfaces without taking up much space, like an intricate piece of origami, or, in Xin’s case, a sphere with higher packing density.

The potential new catalyst could be used as a part of an oxygen reduction reaction in an alkaline environment. In a car that uses hydrogen, the reaction would produce water with zero emissions, Xin said. To see the structure of this catalyst, Xin used environmental transmission electron microscopy and electron tomography. The TEM uses computed axial tomography. This is similar to the CAT scan in a hospital, except that the sample Xin studied was much smaller, about 100 nanometers in size, which is 100 times thinner than the width of a human hair.

In addition to determining and defining the structure of the final product, scientists are trying to understand the process that led to that configuration. They can use the environmental transmission electron microscope, which allows gas flowing to study the formation of the catalyst.

Charles Black, the director at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, said Xin is “off the charts talented” and is a “world leader” in figuring out ways to get more information from the electron microscope. Xin, Black said, has helped create a three-dimensional picture by tilting a two-dimensional sample at different angles in the microscope. “He had already made great strides in improving the speed with which this could be done,” Black said. “He’s also improved the process to the point where you don’t have to be a super expert to do it anymore.”

By slowing the reaction in the nickel-cobalt catalyst down and studying how it forms, Xin uncovered that the shell is not solid: It has pinholes. Once those small holes form, the oxygen infiltrates the pores. The process repeats itself, as shells form, then break up, then oxygen forms another shell, which breaks up, until the process leads to a spherically stacked collection of Swiss cheese structures. The process is ready for industrial-scale applications, Xin said, because the whole synthesis involves putting the elements into a furnace and baking it. While this could have applications in fuel cells, the catalyst still awaits a breakthrough technology with alkaline fuel cells.

The technological breakthrough Xin awaits is an alkaline membrane that can conduct a hydroxyl group. “We are definitely doing research for the future,” he said. “We’re still awaiting the essential element, which is the ionic conductive membrane, to become a technologically mature product.” Xin isn’t focused on creating that membrane, which is a task for organic chemists. Instead, his main focus is on inorganic materials.

As a member of the BNL staff at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, which is a facility that provides technical support to other scientists, Xin spends half of his time with other researchers on the TEM and half of his time on his own research. “We really have been fortunate to have found someone like [Xin] who wants to excel in both sides of his mission,” Black said “Someone as talented as [Xin], who is very smart with big ideas and increasingly ambitious in terms of what he wants to accomplish for himself … checks his ego at the door and he helps others accomplish their goals.” To improve his ability as a colleague, Xin reads about what the users of the TEM are doing and talks with them about their work.

Xin has been working at BNL for over three years. When he’s not in the lab, Xin enjoys traveling to snorkel in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including his favorite destination, St. John. A skier, Xin’s favorite winter recreational mountain is Lake Placid. Xin grew up in Beijing, where his father is a professor in a business school and his mother is an engineer. He appreciates the opportunity to engage in a broad universe of fields through the work he does at BNL and  appreciates the scientific partnerships he’s formed. “My primary focus is on creating novel microscope techniques that can advance the electron microscopy field,” he explained. “I apply them to a variety of materials projects.” Xin estimates that half of his materials application projects come from collaborators.