Biomimicry Design: From Russia, with Love
Editor’s note: Intellectual promiscuity is the most important value for “hard tech” investors and entrepreneurs. You have to look at the field all the time, and you have to chase ideas. How has every serious historical product engineering effort tried to solve this very problem? How far did they get? What did they prove? How did they fail? How can I learn from them? What about all active contemporary efforts?
You have to look at everything in your specific research area because at least 10 people around the world are thinking, researching and engineering in your exact area — and they all have designs on your precise application. If you are in the business of divining nature’s secrets, you are not alone. Everyone’s doing it. And some are much better resourced than you are. Science makes progress through what Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal call dynamic subordination, where “leadership is fluid and defined by conditions on the ground”.
Hard science contributions come from a lot of places around the world. Just in the ITO replacement market for making transparent conductive electrodes, Khasha Ghaffarzadeh and Raghu Das interviewed 47 different companies hoping to cash in on their alternatives to indium: silver nanowire, metal mesh, carbon nanotubes, and graphene. The duo has also performed a lot of research on electrochromic displays. Silicon Valley has a high concentration of Russian-speaking scientists and engineers in this area, including PARC’s Janos Veres and electrochemists like Sasha Gorer. Which brings us to Stanislav Khartov and his Intellectual Property.
This author came across Stanislav Khartov’s work while researching electrochromic windows and specifically iGlass/Wisp. iGlass/Wisp was founded by Nikita Kruglikov and is led today by FPI VC’s Aleksandr Timofeev, iGlass’s main investor to-date. Alexandr talks about the Stanislav’s innovation in his talk at Cleantech Forum’s January 25th, 2017 session, where he focuses on its potential for large-sized electrode production: big enough for large windows.
Stanislav looks like a character from T.V.’s “Big Bang Theory”. It seems fitting that he’s working on an ITO replacement, joining the ranks of Hereaus, C3 Nano, Eikos, Cambrios and Carestream Advanced Materials. But Stanislav is in the middle of Siberia — and his biomimicry ideas need a broader audience, so I’m offering an edited translation of his 2015 TECx Siberian Federal University talk. For non-Russian speakers, read the transcript. For Russian-speakers, when you listen to the accompanying video, you will see many liberties taken with this edited translation. For specific questions or clarifications, feel free to contact Stanislav Khartov at skhartov at f dash nano dot com or Luke Pustejovsky at luke at pustejovsky dot ventures.
Speaker: Stanislav Khartov, Ph.D. is a materials scientist and nanotech researcher based in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Recipient of the “Russian Federation Award for Young Scientists”, Stanislav’s work is inspired by biomimicry. He teaches theoretical physics and is the technical founder of FunNano, a licensor of transparent conductive electrode material IP.
Innovation Topic: Self-organizing nano-materials & ITO replacement
Speaker: Stanislav Khartov, Ph.D. — skhartov at f dash nano dot com
Transcript Length: 16 minutes, 6 seconds
Conference: TEDx SibFU (Siberian Federal University)
Date and Time: Edited on February 24th, 2017 (originally published on April 16th, 2015)
Related: Wisp/iGlass Technologies, Cambrios, Carestream, C3N
Key Words: Nano-materials, carbon nanotubes, smart windows, advanced coatings, self-organizing materials, biomimicry, transparent conductive coatings
Transcript — I’ll start my presentation with a story about a recent nature walk. I was walking along the banks of a Siberian river in Altai country. For those unfamiliar, Altai country is where the Mongolian semi-deserts, the Siberian taiga, and Kazakhstan meet in the center of Asia. So, symbolically, this place has a special resonance. It’s a place of confluence.
I remember that it was a hot summer day. There was an overwhelming smell of forest pine.
And I was walking along a stretch of cracked earth. That was the image. Cracked earth. When I stepped back from it, it looked like a unified structure. There were intelligent patterns. The sizes of the cracks seemed roughly the same. The lines and shapes weren’t arbitrary, and they weren’t uniform. As distinct as snowflakes, organized energetically. Of course, we look at our fingers and see the Fibonacci Sequence. We are used to consciously looking for lots of mathematical patterns.
I was thinking of cracked earth. I was thinking of water’s absences, and the patterns they create.
“How difficult would it be to create this structure? How would we do it?”
We could start with 90-degree angles and perfect linearity. We could take a flat river bed, and use a pointer to crisscross it with lines. We could make perfect horizontal and vertical lines. It wouldn’t be as efficient as an organic process. It would take forever. Because it isn’t what nature did, and nature has already discovered maximum efficiency.
This was the “ah ha!” moment in my walk. Basically, there are two ways engineers can create material objects. We can make a new material from a “bottom-to-top”, i.e., a more organic and self-organizing, process. Or we can make a new material from a “top-to-bottom” process, imposing precise order.
Based on my experience as a scientist and as an observer of the human condition, I thought that humans mainly do “top-to-bottom.”
How do we make modern silicon transistors?
We take a piece of silicon, we apply a certain mask to it, and we write rules about which parts of the piece will change its properties.
But what are the design possibilities for the other, more self-organizing approach? Come with me on a journey. So a “mol” in chemistry is the basic unit of measurement. It’s the amount of a substance expressed in grams containing as many atoms, molecules or ions as the number of atoms in 12 grams of carbon-12. We call it Avogadro’s number (6.022 x 10 to the 23rd).
We know it’s possible to synthesize, in 1 small reactor, 1 mol of molecular transistors, using the bottoms-up, self-organizing approach. The number of these transistors would exceed the number of all transistors made in the world to-date.
But if we attempted to use a “top-down” approach to recreate the forms and sizes of tree leaves in a forest, it would take all of eternity with all our current computing power. I mean, colloquially-speaking, all of eternity. A long, long time.
Back to that image of the cracked earth on the beach — and the patterns left by water’s absences.
Back in the lab in Siberia, our scientific and engineering team was deeply immersed in a grand project. Like a lot of other teams around the world, we were developing optically-transparent conductive coatings. We were hoping to make both contributions to global scientific intelligence and create a new — and foundational — approach to change many industries.
What is an optically-transparent, conductive coating? It’s exactly how it sounds. It’s transparent to the human eye: from the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is 390 to 700 nanometers. For a material to be “optically-transparent”, our human eye shouldn’t respond to it. It’s totally clear. What is an electrode? An electrode conducts electricity. It makes contact with a nonmetallic part of a circuit, like an electrolyte.
Transparent conductive coatings are used in millions of engineered products: displays, self-warming glass, as electrodes for solar glass, as diodes, and as electrodes in electrochromic devices. (Electrochromic film without an inexpensive, flexible, transparent conductive coating is not a mass-market product; EC compositions need this like wheels need tires).
“Invention breeds invention. No sooner is the electric telegraph devised than gutta-percha, the very material it requires, is found. The aeronaut is provided with gun-cotton, the very fuel he wants for his balloon.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Normally we have either transparent or conductive surfaces. You can either see through it, or it conducts electricity, but not both at the same time. Basically, if the object is conductive, it almost always has metallic glitter — which makes it not transparent.
Creating a transparent, conductive material is tricky.
The most common solution is based on Indium Tin Oxide, otherwise known as “ITO” in the scientific community. There’s an American company that creates a metal mesh on a transparent surface to create “windows” for the light to come through — and the ultra-thin wires create a conductive surface. They use a “top-down” method called photolithography.
This technique uses light to transfer a geometric pattern from a “photomask” to a light-sensitive chemical “photoresist” on the substrate. Essentially, a mask is applied in this design process — and this mask defines the precise place for every “tiny window” and every wire. The “system” doesn’t have a voice in this design process. There’s no extemporaneous speech, as it were.
But what’s the functional problem with photolithography? It’s too expensive. Way too expensive for many applications — like electrochromic windows, for instance. This is why everyone’s trying to develop an alternative.
So I’m back from the nature walk and back in the lab — and it’s the really hot summer holiday season in Krasnoyarsk. I’m at the Krasnoyarsk Scientific Center with my lab mates. And I’d like to apply this “bottoms-up”, self-organizing approach to create a transparent, conductive electrode. Because it’s going to change the world if we do this.
Within a few weeks, we were holding a sample of transparent film with conductive tracks. And when I say “track”, I mean something like a record track in English. These were micro-cracks, invisible to the naked eye, made without photolithography.
We had created a drastically less expensive way to produce large-sized transparent electrodes. We filed this piece of intellectual property. Feel free to read the details of our approach.
When you compare these illustrations (points to the visual below), you’ll see the regular pattern on the left and the very random forms in the sample on the right. But when you step away from these samples, you can’t see the irregular pattern with the naked eye — and you don’t care if the pattern is irregular. In fact, you might like it more because it is entirely unique. Regardless, these two samples have the same properties.
On the left, this track is created “top down”, with an exact size and shape — and it was really expensive to make. On the right, each track paved its own way (inside the given system) and realized its own unique form.
What did we do for the one on the right?
We set up the external conditions of the system — and we left it to manifest form autonomously, at room temperature and regular atmospheric pressure. And it self-clustered. Unlike the one on the left, which was put through complicated machinery, and exposed to ultraviolet radiation (to put on its mask) to form the prescribed structure. These two samples had very different trajectories, but the final result is functionally the same. But one is way, way too expensive for a lot of applications.
We’ve made “perfect the enemy of the good.” Especially when it’s too damn small to see anyway.
(Points to visual below) Now, we’re at the next level of sample performance. Here, you can see 3 different samples. This one on the right is a clean polymer. The middle one is our film (just a shade darker, but still transparent; the conductivity is very high — it starts at 1.5 Ohm per square meter). The one on the left is a standard ITO (Indium Tin Oxide), with lower conductivity and transparency.
“This is my point. Self-organization is a powerful tool. When we domesticate these self-organizing structures, we can solve a lot of problems.” — Stanislav Khartov
As far as our operation at FunNano (Khartov’s company), we are in the process of setting up pilot production and working with FPI VC and iGlass Technologies — and specifically Aleksandr Timofeev and Nikita Kruglikov — on the integration of our technology into an electrochromic film application.
But allow me to move out of the practical and wax more poetic and philosophical for a moment. Let’s think about a water molecule. No one can imagine a “different” water molecule, or a water molecule that’s less than ideal. All water molecules are ideal. Why? Because it’s an incredibly specific energy state, and each molecule is in the best possible balance. Any defect would be “energy-expensive”, and that’s why there are no variations. Now, when we burn hydrogen in oxygen, we synthesize water molecules and get a lot of heat as a side product. We’re creating water molecules using a self-organizing approach. Now, imagine that we’d like to create a mask for a water molecule — on a micro-level. We’d get similar forms of molecules, but with a gigantic number of close but different energy states.
What about a wooden table? We can’t create a wooden table with an oxidizing reaction. Why is it different than a water molecule? A wooden table has a great many variations in energy states, and it can’t be reproduced as easily as a water molecule. All this is very logical. Maybe an object has to be small and simple enough to be made through a “self-organization” process? But we know this isn’t true. What about trees? What about our bodies? Maybe our problem is that we’re really control freaks.
In the inorganic world, we can find examples of complicated self-organizing structures (points to slide). This is a fullerene, with 60 self-organized atoms of carbon. It’s a carbon nanotube. All 60 atoms need to find their position in this structure. With just a few atoms missing, the form is ‘energy unstable’ and can’t exist. From the perspective of probability theory, this is highly unlikely. But who taught those atoms to take their respective positions?
This is a bigger topic than the TED format permits. It has a lot of implications and these kinds of conversations start to get ‘deep’. Discoveries in physics are going to allow us to get closer to an understanding of consciousness itself. But back to the more prosaic. For material product manufacturers, insights about self-organizing systems are going to produce highly differentiated products that are cheaper or can do things that conventional products can’t do. Some of these differences will be 1 and 2 orders-of-magnitude difference.
There’s a lot we don’t know. As a further parenthetical, I was teaching theoretical physics and specifically quantum field theory and I was taking the train, very often, between Moscow and Krasnoyarsk. So I was meeting and speaking with a lot of fellow passengers on these long train trips. And here’s a pattern that was extremely clear: the less people remember about physics, the more certain they are about “today’s” level of knowledge. They think we already know all of the basics. Well, maybe the Newton days were the glory days, when our picture of the world was very mechanical and we had the luxury of thinking we had it all figured out. The paradox of greater knowledge around electricity, electro-magnetic fields, etc., is that the more one is aware of the problems in modern physics, the more he’s aware of his ignorance around even some basic natural laws. For instance, Newton’s contemporaries would be shocked to know that a closed system can accumulate energy, seemingly in spite of the Law of Energy Conservation. Imagine a microwave warming a slice of apple pie, accumulating heat. In the Middle Ages, this would be witchcraft.
Thanks for indulging some of the more philosophical musings. Back in the real world, our transparent, conductive metal mesh electrode product is more cost-effective to make than ITO because it follows self-organization principles. Here’s an example of how we plan to use it in an electrochromic device.