Different OLED Variants

In a market where consumers demand innovation and novelty products with each passing quarter, some ideas flop while others soar to unimaginable amounts of profit. The technology industry is commanded by the need to satisfy the ever changing needs of the techno-savvy community. Right now, exploration into OLED’s has taken the big name corporations by storm, as they consider the plethora of different paths they can take with such an applicable concept. Whether it be in the lighting, cellular phone, or television, OLED’s are sure to make it into the homes of Americans soon. Yes, OLEDS are the next big thing.

AMOLED

Although not prominently advertised as OLED displays, there are multiple variants of OLEDs that have been in the market for many years. One of those is AMOLED, the active-matrix organic light emitting diode, often seen specifically in the smartphones that several Americans have today.  It is also present in televisions and its market is perfect for affordable and efficient devices.

The AMOLED holds the active matrix, which generates the light the thin-film transistor (TFT) array is electrically activated.  In an AMOLED, the TFT serves as a series of switches that controls the current flowing to each pixel.  As its name suggests, TFT is a field-effect transistor that deposits thin films on an active semiconductive layer onto a substrate usually made of glass. Commonly made from silicon, the characteristics of a silicon-TFT are dependent on the crystal structure of the silicon.  As previously mentioned the TFT layer can be composed of indium tin dioxide to create a transparent semiconductor for use in displays such as OLED and AMOLED.  The TFT array plays a significant role in AMOLED function due to its duality.  The continuous current to a pixel is controlled simultaneously by two TFTs.  One TFT starts the charging of the storage capacitor while the other provides a voltage that maintains a constant current.  This process allows for a lower required current to run, making the AMOLED more ideal in smartphone use.

The integration of TFTs is fundamental to the function of AMOLED displays.  The two main TFT technologies in commercial use are polycrystalline silicon (poly-Si) and amorphous silicon (a-Si).  Amorphous silicon does not contain the normal long range order of a tetrahedrally bounded silicon atom.  Thus, it can be passivated by hydrogen which allows a-Si to be deposited in low temperatures.  On the other hand, polycrystalline silicon is composed of a homogenous crystalline framework.  The entire layer is continuous and deposited easily onto a semiconductor wafer.  In the end, both methods allow the active-matrix backplanes to be fabricated in low temperatures for flexible AMOLED displays.  Further information on TFT displays can be found here.

Figure 1: Different variants of TFT layers used for various applications

 

AMOLED displays and phones were most commonly developed by Samsung and Motorola.  Like all technologies, there are various variations within the AMOLED family as well.  Samsung has incorporated the AMOLED displays into their Galaxy S range quite extensively, as the powerful Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was fitted with a Super AMOLED screen.  The Super AMOLED Plus was later introduced with the Samsung Galaxy S II.  It is an improvement from the Super AMOLED screen by replacing the PenTile 2 subpixel RGBG matrix with the three subpixel RGB RGB matrix. Upgrading from a two subpixel RGBG matrix with the three subpixel RGB RGB matrix allows for a crisper image, and cleaner, smoother looking text.  This replacement made the screen much brighter and energy efficient than its predecessor while giving a clearer picture due to the increase in subpixels.  The HD Super AMOLED would then follow in the Samsung Galaxy Note.  Although the Galaxy S III uses a 2 subpixel RGBG matrix HD Super AMOLED, the screen was upgraded for the Galaxy Note II by using a 3 subpixel RBG matrix.  The Samsung Galaxy Round also uses the AMOLED screen, as a part of the curved phone fad that has started to hit the market.  This screen, the Super Flexible AMOLED capacitive touchscreen is paramount curved handsets, since it is able to be made transparent and flexible, which is required for a phone that wants to achieve wider viewing angles through bending screens.

Figure 2: Samsung Galaxy phones using an AMOLED display

 

PMOLED

       OLEDs can also be made using passive-matrix addressing schemes.  PMOLEDs are fundamentally the opposite from an AMOLED.  They were used in early displays and are not commonly seen anymore.  They function by controlling each line of pixels sequentially without the use of a capacitor.  The lack of a capacitor makes PMOLEDs different from AMOLEDs in that they do not use a TFT layer to keep the pixels constantly on.  This results in most of the pixels being off for the majority of the time.  To adjust for this, more voltage is required for brightness.  Although this principle makes PMOLEDs easy to manufacture, the quality and lifetime of PMOLEDs are severely lower than AMOLEDs.  The fact that they require more voltage for each line of pixels also restricts the size of PMOLED displays.

 

Figure 3: Transparent TDK PMOLED screens

Conclusion

       Although PMOLED displays were a good foray for many companies when the OLED market was still in its infancy, it is now clear that they are less desirable than AMOLED displays.  By using the technology similar to old CRT displays, PMOLED pixels were controlled by switching on a row and a column.  The intersection of the row and column was then lit up.  Although they were easy to build, the restrictions in size severely limited PMOLED applications.  They also consumed power at a higher rate.  On the other hand, AMOLEDs used a unique principle where each pixel is controlled individually.  This allows for larger displays and power efficiency at the cost of ease of production.  Thus, as the full capabilities of PMOLED and AMOLEDs were discovered, each fit into their own niche market.  PMOLEDs are now integrated more in small MP3 players while AMOLEDs dominate the smartphone market.

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Evonik’s ULTRASIL Tires increase fuel efficiency

Company Profile:

Evonik Industries is one the world’s lead specialty chemical companies. One of the main goals of the company is to provide product that solve problems and provide a maximum benefit to customers and society. Recently, they have developed a more fuel efficient tire that does not compromise on performance through the implementation of a silica-silane system, known as ULTRASIL.

ULTRASIL:

The greenhouse effect is a natural process in which radiant heat from the sun is captured in the lower half of the atmosphere, directly resulting in higher temperatures and thus global warming. In order to reduce this greenhouse effect, most companies are working towards minimizing carbon dioxide emissions from transportation. Carbon emissions from combustion of energy fuels has accounted for 81.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions over the last several years, and global warming is quickly becoming a major problem throughout the world. Transportation contributes to this on a large scale, and it is responsible for 31% of the CO2 emissions from the United States. However, Evonik’s silica-silane system (ULTRASIL) is a unique approach to this problem. ULTRASIL is created in several different forms and is applicable in many different situations, however its primary purpose is to serve as a coating for tires. This advanced tire technology can reduce the rolling resistance of tires, increase traction in wet conditions, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In general, tires have been targeted as quick way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, as simple changes in size and shape can increase fuel efficiency by up to 15%.

ULTRASIL is able to reduce rolling resistance between tires and wet or icy road conditions due to the presence of intermolecular forces (IMFs), which can determine whether a solid will be hydrophobic (resists water) or hydrophilic (attracts water). This is an important concept to the concept of ULTRASIL because it is produced with hydrophobicity in mind. Being hydrophobic, water will adhere to the ULTRASIL coated tires, resulting in increased traction between the tires and the road. The major types of intermolecular forces that impact hydrophobicity include dipole-dipole forces, hydrogen bonding, ionic interactions, and London dispersion forces.

Dipole-dipole forces, hydrogen bonding, and ionic interactions are all known to be hydrophilic interactions. The larger presence of these forces in a molecule, the more the solid will attract water molecules. Dipole moments in a molecule are dictated by the polarity of a molecule. Polarity is the sum of all of the bond polarities in a molecule, resulting in dipole moments. The dipole moment is measured in a vector as the sum of the individual vector movements. For example, CO2, a linear and non-polar molecule, has no dipole moment. Hydrogen bonds are the interactions of a hydrogen atom with a nitrogen, oxygen, or fluorine atom. They are a much more powerful force than dipole-dipole forces, resulting in a larger increase on the hydrophilicity of the molecule. Similarly, the presence of ionic bonds (interactions between positive and negative ions) can have the same effect.

London dispersion forces, the weakest of the intermolecular forces, are the sole forces that can raise the hydrophobicity of a molecule. This force, also called an induced dipole-dipole force, is a temporary attractive force that results when the electrons in two adjacent positions occupy positions that make the atoms form temporary dipoles. These forces occur in all molecules. In the production of ULTRASIL, Evonik has created a silica-silane system, where the hydrophobic regions of the molecule dominate, causing adhesive forces to arise and increase the tension between tires and wet/icy road conditions. More information about intermolecular forces can be found here, or

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Also, the chemical structures of the silica helps contribute to its unique properties. Silicon dioxide can exhibit one of the largest varieties of crystal structures among the compounds commonly available and used. These many different crystalline forms allow silica to be used in a broad range of applications, including ULTRASIL. Precipitated silica, which is key to this product’s functionality, is a specially prepared form that has an amorphous structure, similar to silica gel or glass, both of which are predominantly silicon dioxide, or silica. As already discussed, adding these silicon dioxide granules to the surface of rubber tires has many beneficial effects on vehicle performance, but binding this hydrophilic molecular solid to the long, continuous, and hydrophobic polymer chains that make up vulcanized rubber can be difficult. It is up to sulfur, linking the polymers of vulcanized rubber to make it more resistant to temperature extremes, to act as a coupling agent for silica, since the hydrocarbon polymers will not bond to it by themselves.

From what we know, however, ULTRASIL production takes a rather different approach to solving the problem of coupling silica to rubber: the silica-silane system. By treating the original rubber  material with various organosilanes, a surface that silica particles can easily bond to is created, making it possible to form the desired composite with more cross-links to the silica granules and a higher overall thermal stability than without the treatment. Organosilanes usually have both a nonpolar and polar end and can not only bond with vulcanized rubber, but also with the silicon dioxide particles, through dehydration synthesis of their hydroxyl groups with the hydroxyl groups that cover the surface of the silica particles.

While many of the specific details of the ULTRASIL manufacturing process are trade secrets of Evonik, the company does share the basic concept of how it obtains the very pure amorphous silica needed for its products: precipitation from solution. Precipitated silica is widely used in industrial processes around the world, and Evonik Industries is its largest producer. Just like in ULTRASIL, these fine silica grains are often used in rubber products like tires and shoe soles for benefits similar to those of Evonik’s products. Generally, an aqueous silicate salt is reacted with an inorganic acid (like H2SO4) to form insoluble silica in the following reaction:

Na2SiO3(aq) + H2SO4(aq) → SiO2(s) + Na2SO4(aq) + H2O(l)

    After the silica precipitate has been dried, it still contains no more than 88% silicon dioxide according to Evonik, with most of the rest being water. The ensuing treatment to purify the product varies depending on the desired size and quality of the particles obtained, but eventually a fine powder consisting of 99% silica can be obtained. The precipitated silica used in the ULTRASIL product line consists of miniscule, porous granules often of nanoparticle size to allow a high surface area to volume ratio, with the 7000 GR variant having a surface area of 170 m2 per gram. It is this kind of fine silica that allows for the reinforced rubber of the emerging “Green Tire” that advances in silica rubber have created.

Further Reading:

If you are interested in the chemistry behind Evonik’s ULTASIL, there is a lot of in depth reading available in scientific journals. A thorough account of this technology and the chemistry that drives it can be found

  • In this study by Brinke, Debnath, Reuvkamp, and Noordermeer
  • And this article by Park and Cho

Problems Arise: Balloons are Inflating the Helium Shortage

 

              It sounds ridiculous to think that something used everyday in birthday parties is in a serious shortage, but helium, an element used in applications ranging from balloons to MRI scanners, is now getting very difficult to find.  That means that very soon, your cousin may have a very disappointing birthday party. Yet that is the least of our problems.

              The most surprising thing about this shortage is that helium is the second most abundant element in our universe.  However, most of this helium is, practically speaking, way out of our reach.  Let’s embark on an exploration of helium to see why it is so hard to find, what Helium does for us, and what we can do in the future to make the search for it a little easier.

              The main trouble that arises when trying to obtain helium is that it’s less dense than air. This means that any helium trapped under the Earth’s surface eventually diffuses into the atmosphere. Once it’s in the air, it’s out of reach; we have yet to create a feasible means of collecting all of this diffused helium.  Currently, a huge build-up of Helium-4 (He-4) is being released in Yellowstone and about 60 tons of helium are released every year.  Some of this helium is diluted into the atmosphere, but the rest of it escapes the atmosphere into space.  Although it seems like we are letting this helium go to waste, there is just simply no viable way to collect it.

                                                                   yellowstone He.jpg                                                                                                                                                   Yellowstone National Park

              Yet there are other factors that contribute to Helium’s shortage. For one, the production of Helium as a by-product of nuclear decay is not a heavily invested means of production. This is largely because it is not an economically viable option (along with capturing the diffused Helium in the air as mentioned before); however as we will see, the value of Helium just may be priceless.  Another factor contributing to the shortage is the fact that in the past few decades, the demand and use of Helium has skyrocketed, largely ascribed to our squandering ways. With a limited amount, prices of Helium have soared as well.

              So why exactly is helium important anyway?  Helium has a multitude of applications, but its main application is its use to cool superconducting magnets in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners. Superconducting magnets are magnets that can produce immense magnetic fields, which MRI scanners require to operate and use to construct images of the body. MRIs use superconducting magnets because below a certain temperature, known as a critical temperature, a metal loses its resistance (The reason this happens at low temperatures is because there are lower energy and less frequent atomic collisions). This temperature needed for superconductivity requires cryogenic temperatures.  That’s where helium comes in.  Liquid helium, due to its extremely low (4.2 K) boiling point and high thermal conductivity, is very efficient at capturing heat and is the only medium that can induce superconductivity in metal alloys. In MRI scanners, the wires are bathed in liquid helium at -269.1 °C to capture heat and remove it from the system. This effectively removes the wires’ resistance and allows them to become superconductors. However, a normal MRI scanner uses 1,700 liters of helium which periodically has to be changed. This is a huge amount of helium, especially with the impending shortage. A new method of superconductor cooling was recently developed by a company known as Cryogenic. This method uses a significantly lower amount of helium and may soon significantly reduce the amounts of helium that we waste.

                                                                 MRI.jpg

                                                                                 MRI Scanner

              Another important application of helium is its use in oxygen tanks for underwater diving.  Normally air is comprised of approximately 20% oxygen gas and 80% nitrogen gas. Nitrogen gas is a lot more soluble than Helium, and is especially soluble at high pressures – which essentially keeps the gases in solution. The difference in solubility between the two plays a key role in why Helium is used, and is due to their difference in size. In order to dissolve any substance into a solvent, the solute and solvent must have interactions with one another. For non-polar gases like N2 and He, it becomes difficult to create the interactions with polar water molecules. To actually bring one of these gases into solution, an induced dipole must be created in the gas. An induced dipole becomes increasingly easier as the molar mass of the substance increases. This is because there are then more electrons to shift between the atoms thereby creating a strong bond between the solute and solvent. Between N2 and He, nitrogen gas clearly dominates in molar mass and strength of LDF forces. So at these high pressures below the water, the nitrogen gas becomes highly soluble in the bloodstream inducing nitrogen narcosis, a state with similar effects to those of alcohol. Furthermore, as divers begin to rise from the water, the solubility of nitrogen decreases and begin to bubble out of solution (the blood). This is extremely dangerous as it can create bubbles in the bloodstream which wouldn’t be able to pass through fine capillaries in the body. The condition, called the Bends, is life threatening. To prevent this from happening, Helium is used. As stated previously, Helium is less soluble than Nitrogen, so less Helium would get into the bloodstream. Furthermore, Helium is an inert gas, so its narcotic properties are negligible and do not pose any problems of toxicity like Nitrogen does. Helium continues to be the most ideal gas for diving tanks, and the shortage poses a serious threat to the maritime industries.

              With such versatility it seems more likely that the United States will take on currently, non-viable means to produce Helium rather than drastically cut down on usage. There will likely be 3 primary sources that will serve the United States in the future as a source of Helium. As stated before the first source would be through nuclear reactions.  One reaction that results in a formation of a helium atom is plutonium decomposition (Pu-239).  A plutonium nucleus decays into an alpha particle and a uranium nucleus.  The alpha particle immediately captures 2 electrons from the nearby plutonium metal and becomes a helium atom in the midst of a plutonium lattice.  There are 2 main problems with this method of producing helium.  Firstly, this process has a half-life of 24,100 years.  Using the half-life formula for first-order reactions, one could calculate k to be (ln2)/t1/2 = (ln2)/24,100= 2.88 x 10-5.  Using the first-order integrated rate law, one could determine that in a year, 10,000 g of plutonium will decompose to 10,000 x e-2.88×10^-5 = 9,999.71 g.  Therefore, in a year, 10,000 g of plutonium will only decompose to 0.29 g of decay.  That’s a measly 0.0029% decay after an entire year.  This makes generating a profitable amount of helium unfeasible to say the least.  The second problem with this method is that once the helium is produced, it is stuck in the plutonium lattice.  This makes it become very difficult to isolate and extract

              The second source is actually through natural gas. Some natural gas contains amounts of Helium that can be extracted through a complicated process. The reason it is not widely used today is because the extraction process requires strict criteria and many samples of natural gas only contain about 0.3-1.9 percent Helium by volume. Furthermore, there are many economic considerations before uptaking such a project as the extraction process requires facilities. However, in essence there are 3 steps to the extraction process. The first step is to remove the impurities from the natural gas such as water, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide through means such as amine and glycol adsorption. The second step is to extract the high molecular-weight hydrocarbons. Finally, through cryogenic processing the remaining methane gas is extracted. This works because Helium has the lowest freezing point of any element. So as the temperature is sufficiently reduced, all other substances will freeze and can be filtered out. What’s left is crude Helium, containing approximately 50-70% Helium and the rest is Nitrogen gas and other traces of gases. To further purify the Helium to approximately 99.99% purity, Pressure-Swing Adsorption (PSA) is used. PSA separates different gases from each other based on the premise that each gas has a different affinity for different adsorbent materials, and have different vapor pressures. Due to the varying vapor pressures, one gas can be completely transformed into the gas phase at one temperature and pressure and then extracted, while the other gas would remain largely as a liquid.

                                        adsorption.png                                                                                                     Pressure Swing Absorption Process

              The final source will actually be where Helium is most abundant: outer space. Observations from lunar missions have concluded that there are about 22 grams of helium in every cubic meter of lunar soil. In the future, if Helium were to ever run dry on Earth, this alternative would likely create a madman’s dash to the Moon in search of this precious yet scarce gas.

              In essence, our lavish uses of Helium without a steady state of supply has caused a shortage that affects many scientific disciplines that rely on the unique characteristics of Helium. As a human race, we must either cut down on our uses of Helium in some shape or form, or begin taking measures to create more Helium for use in the future. Without Helium, many of the opportunities and technology today will float adrift tomorrow, just an arm’s length away from humanity’s struggling grasp for the resources we use so plentifully.

The Manufacturing Processes of OLEDs

At the recent CES convention in Las Vegas, many new products were unveiled and demonstrated.  Both the public and professional communities were captivated by the new OLED technologies.  However, as the prices were announced, it soon became clear to the techno-savvy consumers at home that it would be many years before OLEDs were a common sight in the average household.  Although the prices seemed daunting, the manufacturing methods used to produce these organic screens have been steadily improving.  As a revolutionary advance in display technology, OLED displays are expected to overtake the LCD market in the near future.  Thus, many researchers have worked tirelessly to develop a more efficient and quicker method in order to make OLEDs a more accessible technology.

Patternable OLEDs operate through a light or heat activated electroactive layer.  This is a polymer that exhibits a physical change when stimulated with an electric field.  A popular polymer for this layer is PEDOT-TMA, which becomes a highly efficiently hole injection layer.  It is a p-type conducting polymer and a modification of the PEDOT monomer, which is based off the EDOT monomer and can be seen below.  PEDOT-TMA is a popular material for this layer because it is noncorrosive and dispersible in organic solvents.  This is due to the methacrylate groups at both ends of the polymer chain.  These caps limit the length of the polymer, making it more soluble in organic solvents and ideal for usage in OLEDs.  These OLEDs are conventionally produced through the use of two main patterning technologies, organic vapor phase deposition (OVPD) and inkjet etching (IJE).

The PEDOT-TMA chain.  The two methacrylate caps at the end are clearly visible.

Organic Vapor Phase Deposition 

The organic vapor phase deposition manufacturing process works by transporting organic molecules to a cold substrate through the use of a hot inert carrier gas.  The final film product can be fine-tuned by altering the gas flow rate and source temperature.  Uniform films are produced by lessening the carrier gas pressure, which creates a larger velocity and mean free path of the gas.  This leads a decrease in the thickness of the boundary layer.  OVPD is also popular for OLED production because the process naturally prevents issues related to contaminants from the walls of the chamber.  This is because the walls are naturally warm, which prevents molecules from sticking to and producing a film.

However, maintaining a uniform film thickness and dopant concentrations over the large surface area needed for many applications is a demanding task in the context of vacuum evaporation, which is currently the most prevalent method of depositing organic molecular solids.   In addition, there is a relatively low yield with OVPD production, which explains the massive production costs.  As a remedy, low pressure organic vapor phase deposition has been proposed as a substitute technique.  This process has a notably improves command over doping and offers a potential method to rapid, particle-free, uniform deposition of organics on large-area substrates.  Further information detailing the uses and advantages of OVPD can be found here.

Inkjet Etching

The most basic method of producing OLEDs incorporates old technology originating from 1976, when the first inkjet printer was created.  Inkjet printing is a cheap and efficient alternative to traditional OLED production and is used by several start-up OLED companies such as Kateeva.

The Kateeva system for inkjet etching.

Kateeva’s system of inkjet printing involves a movable platform capable of holding screen substrates of up to 55” diagonal length.  The movable platform is able to transfer a selected substrate under various print heads, which are then able to spray droplets of organic material from different nozzles.  These drops of organic material are placed precisely (picoliter scale) on a selected substrate to form the pixels on the screen.  Additionally, the inkjet printing system is a versatile procedure, as it can be adapted from large television screens to small handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets.

This process is not as accurate or efficient without the use of a shadow mask on the substrate.

Shadow mask used for consistency and quality of the final display.

A shadow mask is a fine metal stencil drawn on the substrate that directs the material spray into its correct place, ensuring the consistency and quality of the final screen.  However usage of the shadow mask, while convenient and economical, also has its downfalls.  The shadow mask may lead to contamination of the organic materials of the OLED screen.  Because the OLED screen is composed of organic products, it is extremely sensitive to outside particles that may cause a drop in the vibrant image quality.  Nevertheless, inkjet printing is still a viable method for producing OLED displays and further improvements will reduce the risks of contamination.

New Developments in the OLED Industry

Recently, researchers have discovered that utilizing a molecule of a certain shape and structure allows anew type of OLED that has the potential to emit as much light as a commercial OLED, but without the need for costly rare metals normally demanded to make the OLEDs effective. Rare earth metals such as iridium or platinum are currently vital to OLED displays because it increases the efficiently of the display to commercial standards.  The removal of these expensive metals from the production of OLEDs has the potential to significantly reduce the costs of OLEDs.  This improvement in OLED structure is vital to advance the technology and reduce prices as the OLED industry of smartphones, televisions, and solid-state lighting continues to grow.

New developments regarding OLED production also includes metal oxide deposition systems.  These have potential to become leading production methods because they are more efficient and consistent in their output than the currently costly production methods.  For example, the AKT-55KS, a plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) system that handles 8.5-Gen substrates, is a good option to consider based on its defect-free nature and its ability to keep out unwanted gases.

AKS-55KS

Two systems that hold potential for widespread use is the new physical vapor deposition (PVD) deposition systems, which comes in 2 models: SKT PiVot 25K which controls Gen-6 substrates, and the SKT PiVot 55K which controls 8.5-gen substrates.  The advantages of these systems are derived from the utilization of tubular cathodes of donor material, where the cathodes rotate because of the process of deposition.

Conclusion

Constant innovation is a necessity of a demanding market, especially in an industry that is still attempting to establish itself as a viable consumer market.  The production of OLEDs is still in its infancy, as there are several obvious and monumental obstacles that present itself in the first phases of starting such a market.  The most pressing issue is the costly and inefficient manner in which these organic LED’s are created, which has prompted researchers to find ways to reduce these expenses. This had led to the introduction of the inkjet printer formatted specifically for the production of OLEds as well as the new deposition systems offer viable alternatives that hold promise for a market that contains endless possibilities. One can only speculate the boundless paths that the OLED industry can take, whether it be into solid-state lighting, a lucrative smartphone market, or both.  Consumers can only wait to see what the raw potential of this revolutionary technology can manifest into.

Newlight Technologies: Plastic from Thin Air

Company Profile: Newlight Technologies, LLC

Newlight Technologies, founded in 2003 has just recently brought its innovative, game changing products to market. Through a patented carbon-sequestration process using biocatalysts, Newlight technologies is able to extract carbon from greenhouse gasses in the air and convert them to AirCarbon, a high performance thermoplastic that serves as a highly viable substitute to oil-based plastics. AirCarbon plastics aren’t simply low carbon, or carbon neutral; requiring less carbon emissions to produce than used in production, AirCarbon is carbon-negative, having the net result of reducing greenhouse gas pollution. Amazingly, eco-friendly AirCarbon plastics are less expensive than oil-based alternatives. To this extent Newlight Technologies succeeds in creating a product that is eco-friendly, high performance, and commercially competitive; a recipe for success.

Check out this quick video from Newlight.

Thermodynamics

It is truely remarkable to consider the thermodynamic challenges to creating a product such as AirCarbon plastics. Qualitatively speaking, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and using it to produce plastics represents a huge decrease of entropy within the system. Gaseous carbon dioxide and methane mixed in the atmosphere have a great amount of positional entropy, with gaseous molecules flying around in the atmosphere near-evenly mixed with a **tail of gasses that compose Earth’s atmosphere. To contrast, consider the neatly arranged polymer chain of carbon molecules that make up AirCarbon, the end result of Newlight’s process. The latter has considerably less entropy.

While the highly significant change in entropy of the system (the carbon used to make the plastics) by no means makes the process of converting gaseous carbon to plastic impossible, it is important to consider the constraint that the whole process is carbon negative — they have to expend less carbon emissions to make the plastic than carbon they sequester and transform into plastic.

Consider Gibb’s free energy equation:

In order for the reaction converting gaseous carbon emissions into carbon polymers to occur in a forward direction, free energy (G) must be negative. Given a large negative entropy (S) characteristic of a conversion from a gas to a solid, there must be an even greater negative change in enthalpy (H). In basic terms, the system must give off a lot of energy, making the reaction highly exothermic.

 

Molecular Structure of AirCarbon

The end product is Newlight’s trademarked AirCarbon, a high performance thermoplastic that can serve as an affordable and effective substitute to polypropylene, polyethylene, ABS, polystyrene, and TPU. AirCarbon is a thermoplastic, it is a plastic polymer that becomes pliable when heated. This makes AirCarbon appropriate for a number of industrial applications and makes it versatile for producing many products in many different ways.

A polymer is a macromolecule composed of small repeating subunits, called monomers. Step 3 of Newlight’s GHG to Plastic process gives an example of a monomer. A polymer is made by covalently bonding many monomers together, which could theoretically be extended infinitely. Through polymerization, monomers can be used to build long polymer chains or three dimensional networks. The example below shows a polymer chain of polyethylene, showing how the individual ethylene molecules are connected to create a continuous chain. An important difference to consider between the individual monomers and the polymer chain in this example is how the double bonded carbons in the monomer units become single bonds in the polymer. For a good introduction to polymer chemistry watch this video.

Because polymer chains are only covalently bonded in long linear chains, there are other molecular forces to account for in three dimensional plastics, primarily Van der Waals forces. Illustrated by the dotted lines, Van der Waals forces are relatively weak attractive forces that occur due to partial charges in polar molecules. Van der Waals forces can hold together lengths of a polymer chain, allowing it to form three-dimensional solids.

This also provides a ready explanation for how thermoplastics can be malleable when heated and solid, or even brittle when cooled. At high temperatures the kinetic energy of the polymer chain is able to overcome the Van der Waal forces holding it in a particular arrangement, so it becomes malleable. Once the polymer is arranged into its desired shape it is allowed to cool, allowing the Van der Waal forces to take hold and set the polymer in its shape. At very cold temperatures, there is less and less kinetic energy in the molecule to oppose the Van der Waals forces making them play a very significant role. At these low temperatures the forces are relatively strong, and make the material brittle, explaining why plastics crack easily at cold temperatures.

So What?

The beauty of Newlight Technology is that it is truly sustainable and truly convenient. Newlight offers a cost effective solution to create eco-friendly plastics, completely turning the tables when it comes to environmental sustainability. Plastic, normally seen as an eco-unfriendly and destructive material can now be part of the solution to pollution and global warming. AirCarbon is biodegradable, making it eco-friendly cradle to grave. It gets extracted from the atmosphere in a carbon-negative process, gets turned into a useful material for human expenditure, and then when it is put to waste (as it inevitably will) it breaks down back to the earth and the atmosphere. What is particularly promising about Newlight is the fact that its products are less expensive than their oil based counterparts, again defying the expectation that eco-friendly means more expensive or less convenient.

The Chemistry of Hydrogen Fuel Cells

In cities like Beijing, citizens have to live every day with a suffocating layer of smog in the atmosphere. Fortunately for most Americans, this is not a very prominent issue. However, with the immense amount of pollution produced from the industries that continuously provide for the needs and luxuries of Americans, it could be.

Pollution has been a problem ever since global warming was coined as a term. There are so many ways to contribute to this problem that is growing at such a fast rate that there seems to be no significant way to stop it.

One small step towards solving this problem is the implementation of fuel cells in vehicles. Fuel cells, specifically hydrogen fuel cells, are one of the most environmentally friendly power sources available. The byproducts of their electricity-making process are solely water and heat! Although frequently compared to the battery, technically speaking, the fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device. It converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing energy in the form of electricity in the process. Now, how does energy enter into the equation?

This energy actually comes from the reverse of a relatively familiar process – electrolysis. Electrolysis uses electricity to separate a molecule into its original components. By sending an electric current into a solution through an electrolyte, which ionizes when dissolved in a solvent, the flow of ions is stimulated and allows for the non-spontaneous reaction (the break-up of the molecule) to occur. In 1839, a Welsh scientist named Sir William Robert Grove reversed this process and generated electricity and water from hydrogen. He called his creation a gas voltaic battery, now known today as a hydrogen fuel cell.

There are many types of fuel cells that serve different purposes, but they all have the same general setup. In a hydrogen fuel cell hydrogen atoms enter at the anode, where their electrons are stripped by an oxidation reaction: 2H2 –> 4H++ 4e-. As a result, the hydrogen atoms are ionized and carry a positive charge. The electrons then travel through a wire where they produce a direct electric current (DC) output. In some fuel cells, the positively charged hydrogen ions move through the electrolyte (represented by the proton exchange membrane pictured below) and join with oxygen molecules that enter from the cathode and the electrons returning from the wire. Other fuel cells have the oxygen molecules pick up the electrons first before moving through the electrolyte to the cathode, where the electrons combine with the hydrogen ions to form water, as can be seen in the reduction reaction O2 + 4H+ + 4e- –> 2H2O. In this process, water and heat are formed as a result, meaning that the reaction is exothermic. All these steps can be summarized in the net, or “redox” reaction: 2H2 + O2 => 2H2O + energy. Both products are released from the exhaust and are harmless in terms of pollution.

Graphic credit to Marc Marshall, Schatz Energy Research Center/

Not only are fuel cells eco-friendly, but, in comparison with batteries, they have the ability to last much longer. Unlike batteries, fuel cells can be used as long as there is access to hydrogen and oxygen. Batteries, on the other hand, can’t be refueled. The one exception is rechargeable batteries, but even these will eventually die. Additionally, since fuel cells create electricity chemically, they are not subject to the thermodynamic laws that greatly restrict efficiency. Fuel cells are, thus, more efficient than batteries.

There are six main types of fuel cells: polymer exchange membrane (PEMFC), solid oxide (SOFC), alkaline (AFC), molten-carbonate (MCFC), phosphoric acid (PAFC), and direct methanol (DMFC). They each have advantages and disadvantages and hold different futures in the ever-changing world of technology. For more specific information on each type, check out this link.

Let’s explore one of them. Utilizing the simplest reactions, PEMFC is one of the more promising of the fuel cell family and will most likely be used in homes and transportation. It consists of an anode, a cathode, an electrolyte, and a catalyst, and follows the aforementioned description of how a fuel cell works. Hydrogen gas enters the fuel cell on the anode side and is split into H+ ions and electrons once it comes into contact with the catalyst. The electrons move through the anode to the external electric circuit where they produce an electric current, then return to the cell on the cathode side, where oxygen gas is pumped through. Because of oxygen’s high electronegativity, it attracts and pulls the H+ ions through the exchange membrane and forms, along with the electrons that return to the cell, water molecules. This reaction will produce about 0.7 volts. To increase this voltage to a more useful level, several fuel cells are layered on top of each other and connected by bipolar plates, forming a fuel-cell stack. Try out the simulation here!

Now for how they work in cars! Fuel cell vehicles consist of five distinct components: the fuel cell stack, electric motor, high-output battery, hydrogen storage tank, and power control unit. The fuel cell stack converts the highly pressurized hydrogen gas (to increase driving range) stored in the hydrogen storage tank with the oxygen from the air into electricity, which powers the electric motor. Compared to a conventional internal combustion engine, the electric motor is much quieter, more efficient, and more smooth. The high-output battery stores energy that is generated from regenerative braking and provides supplemental power to the electric motor. Lastly, the power control unit controls and oversees the flow of electricity.

It is clear that hydrogen fuel cells have a bright future ahead, Of course, there are disadvantages to every new breakthrough in science, but with time, those are ensured to be addressed. Even now, these issues are being acknowledged and improved. Recently, an article from USA Today detailed Toyota’s advancement in fuel cell technology with an increase in range and shortening of the time it takes to refuel. With improvements already being seen, this technology is sure to make its way into the transportation and home infrastructure in no time. So keep your eyes peeled for any mention of fuel cells!

Chemistry of Cold Fusion

In our group’s previous post, we talked about nuclear fusion in the past but now its back to the future, with cold fusion, (and specifically the Pons-Fleishmann experiement)!

Cold fusion was a concept thought up by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann in 1989. These electrochemists claimed that they had been able to achieve nuclear fusion at room temperature, and dubbed this miracle cold fusion. Had these claims been true, nuclear fusion would have been significantly more feasible for more widespread use. However, when other scientists attempted to replicate this experiment, they were not able to obtain the same of level success, and cold fusion came to be regarded as a myth. Why were other scientists not able to get the same result, you ask? Well lets look at the experiment in detail.

Stanley Pons (University of Utah) and Martin Fleishmann (University of Southampton) hypothesized that nuclear fusion may occur if electrolysis was carried out with deuterium in palladium metal. Electrolysis is simply the process by which a chemical reaction is instigated using an electrical current. Pons and Fleishmann believed that electrolyzed deuterium would have a very high compression ratio and level of mobility, which would allow it to undergo nuclear fusion, and thus produce exorbitant amounts of energy. Palladium naturally experiences a chemical reaction on its surface which causes it to absorb large amounts of hydrogen into its metal. Fleishmann and Pons believed that if enough deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) atoms were absorbed at once, they may undergo nuclear fusion. To test this theory, they put a palladium cathode in a calorimeter with heavy water, or deuterium oxide (contains more of the deuterium isotope than regular water). Through electrolysis, the deuterium oxide broke down into its elemental components, and the deuterium was absorbed into the palladium. This electrical current was applied over several weeks, and the heat change was measured. For most of the experiment the temperature remained stable at around 30 degrees celsius, but then the temperature would suddenly rise to 50 degrees celsius for two or more days at a time, although the input energy would not change. Thus, during these phases the calculated output energy was significantly higher than the input energy

It is widely believed that the Pons-Fleishmann experiment was flawed, especially in its sources of experimental error. Based on how the experiment was just outlined, what do you think are the sources of experimental error? Check to see if you guessed correctly when we reveal the answer in our group’s next post!