Sunday, January 1, 2012

Research could improve laser-manufacturing technique

 Engineers have discovered details about the behavior of ultrafast laser pulses that may lead to new applications in manufacturing, diagnostics and other research.

Ultrafast laser pulses are used to create features and surface textures in metals, ceramics and other materials for applications including the manufacture of solar cells and biosensors. The lasers pulse at durations of 100 femtoseconds, or quadrillionths of a second, and cause electrons to reach temperatures greater than 60,000 degrees Celsius during the pulse duration. The pulses create precise patterns in a process called "cold ablation," which turns material into a plasma of charged particles.

Images taken with a high-speed camera show tiny mushroom clouds eerily similar in appearance to those created in a nuclear explosion. The clouds expand outward at speeds of 100 to 1,000 times the speed of sound within less than one nanosecond. However, new findings reveal that an earlier cloud forms immediately before the mushroom cloud, and this early plasma interferes with the laser pulses, hindering performance, said Yung Shin, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of Purdue University's Center for Laser-Based Manufacturing.

Finding a way to eliminate the interference caused by the early plasma could open up new applications in manufacturing, materials and chemical processing, machining and advanced sensors to monitor composition, and chemical and atomic reactions on an unprecedented scale, he said.

Researchers used experiments and simulations to study the phenomenon. Research papers about the work were published online Dec. 6 in Applied Physics Letters and in September in the journal Physics of Plasmas. The papers were written by doctoral student Wenqian Hu, Shin and mechanical engineering professor Galen King.

"We found the formation of early plasma has very significant bearing on the use of ultrashort pulse lasers because it partially blocks the laser beam," Shin said. "The early plasma changes the optical properties of air, but the mechanism is still largely unknown."

The researchers studied the early plasma by tracking the movement of millions of individual atoms in the plasma; observing how the laser beam travels in space and interacts with plasma; and using a "laser pump probe shadowgraph," a technique in which one laser ablates a material, producing the early plasma, and a second laser fired perpendicular to the first is used to study the cloud. A series of optical elements and mirrors is used in the shadowgraph technique.

The research has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Purdue University. The original article was written by Emil Venere.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

Wenqian Hu, Yung C. Shin, Galen King. Early-stage plasma dynamics with air ionization during ultrashort laser ablation of metal. Physics of Plasmas, 2011; 18 (9): 093302 DOI: 10.1063/1.3633067

Trillion-frame-per-second video: Researchers have created an imaging system that makes light look slow

MIT researchers have created a new imaging system that can acquire visual data at a rate of one trillion exposures per second. That's fast enough to produce a slow-motion video of a burst of light traveling the length of a one-liter bottle, bouncing off the cap and reflecting back to the bottle's bottom.

Media Lab postdoc Andreas Velten, one of the system's developers, calls it the "ultimate" in slow motion: "There's nothing in the universe that looks fast to this camera," he says.

The system relies on a recent technology called a streak camera, deployed in a totally unexpected way. The aperture of the streak camera is a narrow slit. Particles of light -- photons -- enter the camera through the slit and pass through an electric field that deflects them in a direction perpendicular to the slit. Because the electric field is changing very rapidly, it deflects late-arriving photons more than it does early-arriving ones.

The image produced by the camera is thus two-dimensional, but only one of the dimensions -- the one corresponding to the direction of the slit -- is spatial. The other dimension, corresponding to the degree of deflection, is time. The image thus represents the time of arrival of photons passing through a one-dimensional slice of space.

The camera was intended for use in experiments where light passes through or is emitted by a chemical sample. Since chemists are chiefly interested in the wavelengths of light that a sample absorbs, or in how the intensity of the emitted light changes over time, the fact that the camera registers only one spatial dimension is irrelevant.

But it's a serious drawback in a video camera. To produce their super-slow-mo videos, Velten, Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar and Moungi Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry, must perform the same experiment -- such as passing a light pulse through a bottle -- over and over, continually repositioning the streak camera to gradually build up a two-dimensional image. Synchronizing the camera and the laser that generates the pulse, so that the timing of every exposure is the same, requires a battery of sophisticated optical equipment and exquisite mechanical control. It takes only a nanosecond -- a billionth of a second -- for light to scatter through a bottle, but it takes about an hour to collect all the data necessary for the final video. For that reason, Raskar calls the new system "the world's slowest fastest camera."

Doing the math

After an hour, the researchers accumulate hundreds of thousands of data sets, each of which plots the one-dimensional positions of photons against their times of arrival. Raskar, Velten and other members of Raskar's Camera Culture group at the Media Lab developed algorithms that can stitch that raw data into a set of sequential two-dimensional images.

The streak camera and the laser that generates the light pulses -- both cutting-edge devices with a cumulative price tag of $250,000 -- were provided by Bawendi, a pioneer in research on quantum dots: tiny, light-emitting clusters of semiconductor particles that have potential applications in quantum computing, video-display technology, biological imaging, solar cells and a host of other areas.

The trillion-frame-per-second imaging system, which the researchers have presented both at the Optical Society's Computational Optical Sensing and Imaging conference and at Siggraph, is a spinoff of another Camera Culture project, a camera that can see around corners. That camera works by bouncing light off a reflective surface -- say, the wall opposite a doorway -- and measuring the time it takes different photons to return. But while both systems use ultrashort bursts of laser light and streak cameras, the arrangement of their other optical components and their reconstruction algorithms are tailored to their disparate tasks.

Because the ultrafast-imaging system requires multiple passes to produce its videos, it can't record events that aren't exactly repeatable. Any practical applications will probably involve cases where the way in which light scatters -- or bounces around as it strikes different surfaces -- is itself a source of useful information. Those cases may, however, include analyses of the physical structure of both manufactured materials and biological tissues -- "like ultrasound with light," as Raskar puts it.

As a longtime camera researcher, Raskar also sees a potential application in the development of better camera flashes. "An ultimate dream is, how do you create studio-like lighting from a compact flash? How can I take a portable camera that has a tiny flash and create the illusion that I have all these umbrellas, and sport lights, and so on?" asks Raskar, the NEC Career Development Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences. "With our ultrafast imaging, we can actually analyze how the photons are traveling through the world. And then we can recreate a new photo by creating the illusion that the photons started somewhere else."

"It's very interesting work. I am very impressed," says Nils Abramson, a professor of applied holography at Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology. In the late 1970s, Abramson pioneered a technique called light-in-flight holography, which ultimately proved able to capture images of light waves at a rate of 100 billion frames per second.

But as Abramson points out, his technique requires so-called coherent light, meaning that the troughs and crests of the light waves that produce the image have to line up with each other. "If you happen to destroy the coherence when the light is passing through different objects, then it doesn't work," Abramson says. "So I think it's much better if you can use ordinary light, which Ramesh does."

Indeed, Velten says, "As photons bounce around in the scene or inside objects, they lose coherence. Only an incoherent detection method like ours can see those photons." And those photons, Velten says, could let researchers "learn more about the material properties of the objects, about what is under their surface and about the layout of the scene. Because we can see those photons, we could use them to look inside objects -- for example, for medical imaging, or to identify materials."

"I'm surprised that the method I've been using has not been more popular," Abramson adds. "I've felt rather alone. I'm very glad that someone else is doing something similar. Because I think there are many interesting things to find when you can do this sort of study of the light itself."

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original article was written by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Boron nanoribbons reveal surprising thermal properties in bundles

 Size matters… but apparently so does shape -- when it comes to conducting heat in very small spaces.

Researchers looking at the thermal conductivity of boron nanoribbons have found that they have unusual heat-transfer properties when compared to other wire/tube-like nanomaterials. While past experiments have shown that bundles of non-metallic nanostructures are less effective in conducting heat energy than single nanostructures, a new study shows that bundling boron nanoribbons can have the opposite effect and "the thermal conductivity of a bundle of boron nanoribbons can be significantly higher than that of a single free-standing nanoribbon," according to a report in Nature Nanotechnology, published online on December 11.

The finding is the result of work by a multidisciplinary team headed by Ravi Prasher of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Terry Xu of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Deyu Li of Vanderbilt University (see a complete list of authors below).

Additionally, the researchers found that the unusual heat-transfer properties of boron nanoribbon bundles can be modified, allowing the higher thermal conductivity to be switched on and off through relatively simple physical manipulation. The study concludes that the ribbon structure of the nanomaterials is strongly related to the unusual thermal conductivity of the bundles.

Boron-based nanostructures are a promising class of high temperature thermoelectric materials -- substances that can convert waste heat to useful electricity -- and thermal conductivity is related to other thermoelectric properties. Physicists describe the transmission of heat energy in materials like boron as happening through the conduction of "phonons," quasi-wave-particles that carry energy through excitations of the material's atoms.

"What we found was largely unexpected," said Xu. "When two nanoribbons were put together, the thermal conductivity was found to rise significantly rather than staying the same or going down, as has been the case in previous measurements. It has been assumed that phonons were hampered by the interface between the individual nanostructures in similar materials.

"That seems to mean that the phonon can pass effectively through the interface between two boron nanoribbons," she said. "The question is whether or not this result is due to the weak van der Waals interactions between two nanostructures of ultra-flat geometry."

The team suspects that the reason for the enhanced thermal conductivity is due in large part to the flat surface structure of the nanoribbons, based on another experimental result that the group discovered by accident.

The nanoribbon bundles exhibiting the unexpectedly higher thermal conductivity were originally prepared in a solution of reagent alcohol and water, which was then allowed to evaporate, leaving some nanoribbons drawn together by van der Waals force (the weak attraction that non reactive and uncharged substances can have for each other). When other members of the team attempted to duplicate this result, however, the experiment failed and the bundles only had the lower thermal conductivity of single ribbons. The researchers then noted that a significant difference between the two attempts was that the second experiment had used isopropyl alcohol rather than reagent alcohol in the solution. Since isopropyl alcohol was known to leave minute residue following evaporation, the researchers suspected that a residue was forming on the ribbons surfaces -- a fact that microscopy confirmed -- and the residue apparently prevented tight contact between two nanoribbons. Further tests were made on the lower-conducting bundles, where the ribbon interfaces were washed with reagent alcohol to remove the isopropyl residue, and in this experiment the higher thermal conductivity was achieved.

The results point to the conclusion that boron nanoribbons form better heat-conducting bundles because the ribbons flat surfaces allow for tighter, more complete contact between the individual structures through van der Waals interaction and improved transmission of phonons overall.

"The result implies that achieving a tight van der Waals interface between the ribbons is important in thermal conductivity, something their geometry encourages," Xu said. "It is possible that this result may have implications for other materials with ribbon-based nanostructures."

Xu notes that there are potential engineering applications for the finding come not just from the improved thermal conductivity of boron nanoribbon bundles, but also from the reversible nature of the effect.

"This may lead to a simple way to switch the thermal conductivity of the bundle on and off," she said. "If you want more heat dissipated, but only in certain conditions, you can apply a solution to create a bundle structure with tight bonds and higher thermal conductivity. It could similarly be reversed by adding a residue between the nanoribbons and reducing the thermal conductivity to that of an individual ribbon."

The finding appears in a letter to Nature Nanotechnology. The authors are Juekuan Yang, Yang Yang, Scott Waltermire and Deyu Li from Vanderbilt University; Xiaoxia Wu, Haitao Zhang, Timothy Gutu, Youfei Jiang, and Terry Xu from UNC Charlotte; Yunfei Chen from Southwest University in Nanjing, China; Alfred Zinn from Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Ravi Prasher from the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US Department of Energy. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation and Lockheed Martin.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

Juekuan Yang, Yang Yang, Scott W. Waltermire, Xiaoxia Wu, Haitao Zhang, Timothy Gutu, Youfei Jiang, Yunfei Chen, Alfred A. Zinn, Ravi Prasher, Terry T. Xu, Deyu Li. Enhanced and switchable nanoscale thermal conduction due to van der Waals interfaces. Nature Nanotechnology, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nnano.2011.216

Computer assisted design (CAD) for RNA: Researchers develop CAD-type tools for engineering RNA control systems

 The computer assisted design (CAD) tools that made it possible to fabricate integrated circuits with millions of transistors may soon be coming to the biological sciences. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have developed CAD-type models and simulations for RNA molecules that make it possible to engineer biological components or "RNA devices" for controlling genetic expression in microbes. This holds enormous potential for microbial-based sustainable production of advanced biofuels, biodegradable plastics, therapeutic drugs and a host of other goods now derived from petrochemicals.

"Because biological systems exhibit functional complexity at multiple scales, a big question has been whether effective design tools can be created to increase the sizes and complexities of the microbial systems we engineer to meet specific needs," says Jay Keasling, director of JBEI and a world authority on synthetic biology and metabolic engineering. "Our work establishes a foundation for developing CAD platforms to engineer complex RNA-based control systems that can process cellular information and program the expression of very large numbers of genes. Perhaps even more importantly, we have provided a framework for studying RNA functions and demonstrated the potential of using biochemical and biophysical modeling to develop rigorous design-driven engineering strategies for biology."

Keasling, who also holds appointments with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkley, is the corresponding author of a paper in the journal Science that describes this work. The paper is titled "Model-driven engineering of RNA devices to quantitatively-program gene expression." Other co-authors are James Carothers, Jonathan Goler and Darmawi Juminaga.

Synthetic biology is an emerging scientific field in which novel biological devices, such as molecules, genetic circuits or cells, are designed and constructed, or existing biological systems, such as microbes, are re-designed and engineered. A major goal is to produce valuable chemical products from simple, inexpensive and renewable starting materials in a sustainable manner. As with other engineering disciplines, CAD tools for simulating and designing global functions based upon local component behaviors are essential for constructing complex biological devices and systems. However, until this work, CAD-type models and simulation tools for biology have been very limited.

Identifying the relevant design parameters and defining the domains over which expected component behaviors are exerted have been key steps in the development of CAD tools for other engineering disciplines," says Carothers, a bioengineer and lead author of the Science paper who is a member of Keasling's research groups with both JBEI and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. "We've applied generalizable engineering strategies for managing functional complexity to develop CAD-type simulation and modeling tools for designing RNA-based genetic control systems. Ultimately we'd like to develop CAD platforms for synthetic biology that rival the tools found in more established engineering disciplines, and we see this work as an important technical and conceptual step in that direction."

Keasling, Carothers and their co-authors focused their design-driven approach on RNA sequences that can fold into complicated three dimensional shapes, called ribozymes and aptazymes. Like proteins, ribozymes and aptazymes can bind metabolites, catalyze reactions and act to control gene expression in bacteria, yeast and mammalian cells. Using mechanistic models of biochemical function and kinetic biophysical simulations of RNA folding, ribozyme and aptazyme devices with quantitatively predictable functions were assembled from components that were characterized in vitro, in vivo and in silico. The models and design strategy were then verified by constructing 28 genetic expression devices for the Escherichia coli bacterium. When tested, these devices showed excellent agreement -- 94-percent correlation -- between predicted and measured gene expression levels.

"We needed to formulate models that would be sophisticated enough to capture the details required for simulating system functions, but simple enough to be framed in terms of measurable and tunable component characteristics or design variables," Carothers says. "We think of design variables as the parts of the system that can be predictably modified, in the same way that a chemical engineer might tune the operation of a chemical plant by turning knobs that control fluid flow through valves. In our case, knob-turns are represented by specific kinetic terms for RNA folding and ribozyme catalysis, and our models are needed to tell us how a combination of these knob-turns will affect overall system function."

JBEI researchers are now using their RNA CAD-type models and simulations as well as the ribozyme and aptazyme devices they constructed to help them engineer metabolic pathways that will increase microbial fuel production. JBEI is one of three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers established by DOE's Office of Science to advance the technology for the commercial production of clean, green and renewable biofuels. A key to JBEI's success will be the engineering of microbes that can digest lignocellulosic biomass and synthesize from the sugars transportation fuels that can replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuels in today's engines.

"In addition to advanced biofuels, we're also looking into engineering microbes to produce chemicals from renewable feedstocks that are difficult to produce cheaply and in high yield using traditional organic chemistry technology," Carothers says.

While the RNA models and simulations developed at JBEI to date fall short of being a full-fledged RNA CAD platform, Keasling, Carothers and their coauthors are moving towards that goal.

"We are also actively trying to make our models and simulations more accessible to researchers who may not want to become RNA control system experts but would nonetheless like to use our approach and RNA devices in their own work," Carothers says.

While the work at JBEI focused on E. coli and the microbial production of advanced biofuels, the authors of the Science paper believe that their concepts could also be used for programming function into mammalian systems and cells.

"We recently initiated a research project to investigate how we can use our approach to engineer RNA-based genetic control systems that will increase the safety and efficacy of regenerative medicine therapies that use cultured stem cells to treat diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's," Carothers says.

This research was supported in part by grants from the DOE Office of Science through JBEI, and the National Science Foundation through the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC).

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

James M. Carothers, Jonathan A. Goler, Darmawi Juminaga, Jay D. Keasling. Model-Driven Engineering of RNA Devices to Quantitatively Program Gene Expression. Science, December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6063 pp. 1716-1719 DOI: 10.1126/science.1212209