System Bits: Jan. 30

Lab-in-the-cloud; better plastic electronics; brain-inspired computing.


Although Internet-connected smart devices have penetrated numerous industries and private homes, the technological phenomenon has left the research lab largely untouched, according to MIT researchers. Spreadsheets, individual software programs, and even pens and paper remain standard tools for recording and sharing data in academic and industry labs — until now.

TetraScience, co-founded by Siping Wang, a graduate of electrical engineering and computer science, has developed a data-integration platform that connects disparate types of lab equipment and software systems, in-house and at outsourced drug developers and manufacturers. It then unites the data from all these sources in the cloud for speedier and more accurate research, cost savings, and other benefits.

TetraScience co-founder, Siping “Spin” Wang, a graduate of electrical engineering and computer science
Source: MIT

“Software and hardware systems [in labs] cannot communicate with each other in a consistent way,” said Wang, who co-founded the startup with former Harvard University postdocs Salvatore Savo and Alok Tayi. “Data flows through systems in a very fragmented manner and there are a lot of siloed data sets [created] in the life sciences. Humans must manually copy and paste information or write it down on paper, [which] is a lengthy manual process that’s error prone.”

TetraScience has developed an Internet of Things (IoT) hub that plugs into most lab equipment, including freezers, ovens, incubators, scales, pH meters, syringe pumps, and autoclaves. The hub can also continuously collect relevant data — such as humidity, temperature, gas concentration and oxygen levels, vibration, light intensity, and mass air flow — and shoot it to TetraScience’s centralized data-integration platform in the cloud. TetraScience also has custom integration methods for more complicated instruments and software.

In the cloud dashboard, researchers can monitor equipment in real time and set alerts if any equipment deviates from ideal conditions. Data appears as charts, graphs, percentages, and numbers — somewhat resembling the easily readable Google Analytics dashboard. Equipment can be tracked for usage and efficiency over time to determine if, say, a freezer is slowly warming and compromising samples. Researchers can also comb through scores of archived data, all located in one place.

“Our technology is establishing a ‘data highway’ system between different entities, software and hardware, within life sciences labs. We make facilitating data seamless, faster, more accurate, and more efficient,” Wang said, who was named to this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 list of innovators for his work with TetraScience.

Shape-shifting organic crystals improve plastic electronics

With the potential to open the door to advancements in low-power electronics, medical electronics devices and multifunctional shape-memory materials, University of Illinois researchers have identified a mechanism that triggers shape-memory phenomena in organic crystals used in plastic electronics. The shape-shifting structural materials are made with metal alloys, but the new generation of economical printable plastic electronics should be able to benefit from this phenomenon too.

Illinois chemistry and biomolecular engineering professor Ying Diao, right, and graduate student Hyunjoong Chung are part of a team that has identified a mechanism that triggers shape-memory in organic crystals used in plastic electronics.
Source: University of Illinois

According to the team, the shape-memory phenomenon occurs in two organic semiconductors materials.

Devices that use shape-memory technology include expandable stents that open and unblock clogged human blood vessels whereby heat, light and electrical signals, or mechanic forces pass information through the devices telling them to expand, contract, bend and morph back into their original form – and can do so repeatedly, like a snake constricting to swallow its dinner. This effect works well with metals, but remains elusive in synthetic organic materials because of the complexity of the molecules used to create them, the researchers noted.

“The shape-memory phenomenon is common in nature, but we are not really sure about nature’s design rules at the molecular level,” said professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and co-author of the study, Ying Diao. “Nature uses organic compounds that are very different from the metal alloys used in shape-memory materials on the market today. In naturally occurring shape-memory materials, the molecules transform cooperatively, meaning that they all move together during shape change. Otherwise, these materials would shatter and the shape change would not be reversible and ultrafast.”

Today’s electronics are dependent on transistors to switch on and off, which is a very energy-intensive process. The team figured if they could use the shape-memory effect in plastic semiconductors to modulate electronic properties in a cooperative manner, it would require very low energy input, potentially contributing to advancements in low-power and more efficient electronics.

They are currently using heat to demonstrate the shape-memory effect, but are experimenting with light waves, electrical fields and mechanical force for future demonstrations. They are also exploring the molecular origin of the shape-memory mechanism by tweaking the molecular structure of their materials, and have already found that changing just one atom in a molecule can significantly alter the phenomenon.

Brain-inspired computing
One of the big challenges in computer architecture is integrating storage, memory and processing in one unit, which would make computers faster and more energy efficient, and now, University of Groningen researchers have taken a step towards this goal by combining a niobium doped strontium titanate (SrTiO3) semiconductor with ferromagnetic cobalt which creates a spin-memristor with storage abilities at the interface, and paving the way for neuromorphic computing architectures.

The device combines the memristor effect of semiconductors with a spin-based phenomenon called tunneling anisotropic magnetoresistance (TAMR) and works at room temperature. The SrTiO3 semiconductor has a non-volatile variable resistance when interfaced with cobalt: an electric field can be used to change it from low to high resistance and back. This is known as the electroresistance effect.

Professor of Spintronics of Functional Materials Tamalika Banerjee
Source: University of Groningen

Further, when a magnetic field was applied across the same interface, in and out of the plane of the cobalt, this showed a tunablity of the TAMR spin voltage by 1.2 mV. This coexistence of both a large change in the value of TAMR and electroresistance across the same device at room temperature has not previously been demonstrated in other material systems.

“This means we can store additional information in a non-volatile way in the memristor, thus creating a very simple and elegant integrated spin-memristor device that operates at room temperature,” explained Professor of Spintronics of Functional Materials Tamalika Banerjee, who works at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials at the University of Groningen.

TAMR and electroresistance in aniobium doped strontium titanate (SrTiO3) semiconductor with ferromagnetic cobalt Top left: a simple device of Co on Nb doped SrTiO3 oxide semiconductor and the four-probe measurement scheme. Top right: a large TAMR value is obtained at room temperature due to a change in the junction tunnel conductance when the magnetization is rotated in respect to the direction of the current flow. Bottom left: the same device geometry is used to study the electroresistance state of the same junction (bottom right).
Source: University of Groningen

So far, attempts to combine spin-based storage, memory and computing have been hampered by a complex architecture in addition to other factors.

The key to the success of the Banerjee group device is the interface between cobalt and the semiconductor. “We have shown that a one-nanometre thick insulating layer of aluminium oxide makes the TAMR effect disappear. It took quite some work to engineer the interface. We did so by adjusting the niobium doping of the semiconductor and thus the potential landscape at the interface. The same coexistence can’t be realized with silicon as a semiconductor: You need the heavy atoms in SrTiO3 for the spin orbit coupling at the interface that is responsible for the large TAMR effect at room temperature,” she said.

The researchers believe these devices could be used in a brain-like computer architecture to act like the synapses that connect the neurons. The synapse responds to an external stimulus, but this response also depends on the synapse’s memory of previous stimuli.

The team is now considering how to create a bio-inspired computer architecture based on this, and such a system would move away from the classical Von Neumann architecture. The big advantage is that it is expected to use less energy and thus produce less heat. This will be useful for the “Internet of Things”, where connecting different devices and networks generates unsustainable amounts of heat.

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