Chemistry teachers with a flair for the dramatic sometimes throw pure sodium into a body of water, causing a reaction that blows the sodium back out of the water and blows their students’ minds. Engineer Wei Gao, at the University of California, San Diego, thinks smaller. He envisions a controlled version of that reaction so small it would fit on one side of a 20-micrometer particle.
For particles that size, ordinary water is as viscous as tar is to us (see the classic lecture “Life at Low Reynolds Number,” [PDF] by Edward Purcell). One way to push through it is to use the fluid itself as fuel. In 2011, Gao and his colleagues dropped microscopic zinc particles into hydrochloric acid. The results weren’t explosive, but the researchers clocked their zinc particles scooting at 1050 μm per second, or around 100 body lengths per second. To simulate that, a 2-meter-tall human would need to swim through four tar-filled Olympic swimming pools in 1 second.
Gao’s propulsion system is great for delivering tiny payloads to a place like the stomach, which is also very acidic, but it isn’t so useful elsewhere in the body, where conditions are more benign. Such an ability would be useful, as researchers are interested in developing microrobots that deliver medical payloads precisely to their targets (see “Magnetic Microbots to Fight Cancer,” IEEE Spectrum, October 2012). Future particle-bots could deliver drugs, perform small surgeries, or repair damaged tissue.
Read the rest of this news story in IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf]
I write brief summaries of peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. They appear on the journal’s website: here.
Lithium, the lightest metal, when paired with oxygen from the atmosphere, makes for a tantalizing partnership in a lightweight battery. In theory, this “lithium-air battery” offers several times the energy per kilogram of today’s lithium-ion batteries. But so far, in laboratory tests the lithium gets distracted by dead-end chemical reactions that prevent the batteries from recharging. A one-shot battery is fine for a wristwatch, but not for a next-generation electric vehicle.
Last month, researchers in Rome and Seoul, South Korea, reported designing a lithium-air battery that did not have the recharging problem, achieving approximately 100 charge and discharge cycles with little capacity loss. And this week, a research team led by chemist Peter Bruce of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, reports in the journal Science a differently designed lithium-air battery that reached 100 cycles, losing only 5 percent of its capacity in the process. Bruce says that these recent results show that lithium-air batteries can sustain “a truly reversible reaction.” The group measured the mix of chemicals involved, showing that the lithium was really being recycled through a reversible substance, lithium peroxide (Li2O2), during each charge and discharge. Continue reading Lithium-Air Batteries Get a Recharge
While scrubbers in smokestacks at coal plants can pull out toxic gases like sulfur dioxide, scientists haven’t yet developed a cost-effective technology to remove carbon dioxide from industrial exhaust. Now European researchers have tinkered with the chemical composition of limestone to produce a material that absorbs almost twice as much CO2 as the natural mineral can (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es2034697).
Continue reading Synthetic Stones Capture Carbon